Donald Trump’s friendliness toward Russia has the potential to reshape global politics. The prospect of a closer US-Russia relationship should be taken seriously, though any hopes for a durable partnership could founder on the problem of values—both Vladimir Putin’s and our own.
It would be easy to dismiss Trump’s admiration of Putin as the mooning of a star-struck clown. Trump’s tough-guy style is mainly rhetorical. Putin really has inconvenient people killed. It would be easy, likewise, to dismiss Trump as a Russian stooge. It is widely suspected that Russian hackers breached the DNC and leaked emails that embarrassed the Clinton campaign.
But to dismiss Trump in this way would be a mistake. While some Trump advisors, such as retired General Michael Flynn, are worryingly close to Russia, others, such as Rex Tillerson and legendary Marine General James Mattis, are serious people. (Tillerson has relationships with Russia, but he comes recommended by widely-respected figures such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.) A more pro-Russia policy executed by this team would have more to recommend it than presidential admiration and gratitude.
While Trump goes out of his way to be rhetorically friendly to Russia, he treats China as a rival. China, with its 1.3 billion people and what will someday be the world’s largest economy, certainly seems a more formidable competitor for the US than does Russia. Russia may also have geostrategic reasons to fear China. Russia is an authoritarian country whose resource endowment is very large relative to its population. China is a neighboring authoritarian state whose resource endowment is small relative to its population. These mismatches create the potential for long-term conflict, and Russia may want some powerful allies.
If Trump can put aside concerns about Russia’s authoritarian internal governance, and Putin’s bullying of Russia’s European neighbors, one can imagine Russia and the US joining India and Japan as the key parts of an alliance to contain a rising and potentially aggressive China. If you just look at a map, it makes a certain kind of sense.
But life isn’t lived on maps. People’s values determine how potential conflicts play out. Barack Obama learned this lesson the hard way in the Middle East. Obama withdrew American forces in Iraq, in the hopes that Iran would become a responsible stakeholder in the regional order. America could get Iraqi stability on the cheap, because Iran would have the incentive to influence its Iraqi allies to be reasonable. After all, Iran didn’t want an unstable Iraq on it its border. All you had to do was look at a map.
The problem was that Iran’s government didn’t want what Obama thought it should want. Iran preferred to maximize the influence of its Shia Iraqi allies, even if that meant antagonizing Iraq’s Sunnis and opening the door to ISIS’s takeover of the Sunni areas of Iraq. Iran chose maximum influence over a shattered and violent Iraq rather than some influence over a more peaceful and united neighbor. Iran’s leadership didn’t share Obama’s values. It is unclear why he ever thought they might.
Likewise, Putin’s values might get in the way of a US-Russia relationship. A possible Chinese threat to Russia is long-term and speculative. Putin is sixty-four years old and has spent his political career with Russia in the shadow of the United States. He might prefer to respond to any US concessions with some rhetorical graciousness toward Trump and more provocations against his neighbors. He might prefer the certain, short-term, satisfactions of humiliating the US and terrifying the Poles, Latvians, and Swedes, to the long-term gain of an ally in containing China.
And Putin’s values might not be the only obstacle. Trump will have to contend with a segment of Republicans who despise (and seek to resist) aggressive authoritarianism regardless of the source. These Republicans, such as senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio, are likely to be deeply skeptical of any Russian tilt. Graham has already announced that he plans to oppose secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson if the oil executive does not come out for new sanctions against Russia.
These senators represent a stream of American values. They think the United States should stand up to Chinese bullying of its East Asian neighbors and Russian bullying of its European neighbors and Iranian support of terrorism and whatever other authoritarian threat is running wild—all at the same time, if necessary. These senators take seriously the sentiment of George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
This crusading politics might not be the biggest obstacle to a long-term US-Russia relationship. Trump ran for president as a kind of hard-nosed realist who cared more about America “winning” than about freedom outside our borders. His election is a sign that a politics of freedom-expansion is, for the moment, in decline.
Perhaps more disturbing is the possibility that Trump is an early symptom of an even greater change in America’s foreign-policy values. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly questioned the value of American alliances in Europe and East Asia. Previously, this would have been unthinkable for any but a fringe candidate. The public seems to have yawned. It seems possible that the American public is losing interest (has lost interest?) in maintaining the global role the US has played since World War II.
The US—at great expense and great risk—both maintains regional balances of powers and provides global public goods. US alliances (both explicit and implicit) deter general regional wars in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. The US Navy largely maintains the freedom of the seas that makes globalization possible.
What if the American public begins to entertain the possibility that the cost of what the US provides to the world is not worth it to us? What if Americans decide that the Germans should pay for Europe’s defense and the Japanese should take the lead in maintaining peace in East Asia? What if an America made energy-independent by the shale revolution decides that the US should no longer guarantee the safety of oil wells in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? What if Americans decide against paying to provide a freedom of the seas that protects the transportation of imported manufactured products that could (should?) be made in the USA?
Trump’s appointments reassure us that such a dismantling of the American-led global order is not likely in the short-term. But the lack of a popular backlash to Trump’s questioning of our alliance systems should be cause for worry about the depth of public support for America’s current global role. If America is to have a stable foreign policy, that policy will start not with looking at the map, but with understanding values (both those of foreign leaders and those of the American people) as they are, and not as we might like them to be.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.
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