How Donald Trump has played Vladimir Putin’s game

The US president’s America First stance has seen him surrender his nation’s power      
by: Philip Stephens


Donald Trump can be restrained — in what he does, if not always in what he says. Changing the president’s mind is another thing altogether. So a senior figure in the US administration describes the constant struggle about the direction of America’s foreign policy between Mr Trump and his cabinet’s grown-ups.

To take one example. The president has accepted, albeit grudgingly, that he cannot reauthorise torture in the interrogation of terrorists or enemy combatants. James Mattis simply said “No”.

It does not work and is abhorrent to American values, the secretary of defence argued. Mr Trump has complied, but no one in the White House doubts he still thinks torture works.

Much the same can be said about the president’s attitude to alliances. From time to time Mr Mattis or General HR McMaster, the national security adviser, persuade him to recommit to the mutual defence provisions at the heart of Nato or bilateral treaties with Japan and South Korea, which have guaranteed the peace in East Asia. They have not persuaded him of the worth of those alliances as a multiplier of US power.

The relationship with Russia falls into the same category. Mr Trump would like to do a deal with Vladimir Putin when the two leaders meet at this week’s gathering of G20 leaders in Hamburg. The odds are that the cabinet grown-ups will block anything substantive, although nothing can be ruled out with so volatile and meretricious a president. What aides and advisers cannot do is change Mr Trump’s worldview.

The multiple investigations into Russian interference in the US election and possible collusion with Mr Trump’s campaign have not dulled the US president’s infatuation with his Russian counterpart. Left to his own devices, he would lift the US sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in return for Mr Putin’s collaboration in Syria and Kremlin acquiescence in US efforts to contain Iran.

Mr Trump’s indifference to the fate of Ukraine was made plain during his White House meeting in May with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. The president explained that he wanted Moscow to negotiate with Kiev mainly because others in Washington (the Congress and State Department among them) were wedded to the Minsk peace accords. Shared western values, the preservation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, discouragement of Russian revanchism — these are not questions that grab Mr Trump’s attention.

Mr Trump’s approach is shaped by impulses, instincts and prejudices. Mr Putin has what the political scientists call a grand strategy. The US president snatches at power; the Russian leader understands it. Yes, Mr Putin is opportunistic, but to a purpose. Earlier this year, at a conference organised by Aspen Italia and Chatham House, I heard one of Moscow’s smartest foreign policy analysts set out the strategy.

Whether it was the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, interventionism in Syria and, more recently, Libya, this scholar explained, Mr Putin’s actions had a single, simple goal. The post-cold war international order had bestowed unchallenged primacy on the US.

Washington had done as it chose in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, brushing aside any objections from Moscow. In pushing back against the US in the Middle East and laying claim to the former Soviet space in Europe, Mr Putin is now challenging that order at every turn.

The strategy is to degrade and eventually dismantle the US-led, post-cold war settlement and replace it by an international system based on great power primacy and regional hegemonies. In the west, the concert established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, with its spheres of influence and great power balancing, is just another piece of history. For the Kremlin, it offers a model for today’s international relations.

What Mr Putin could never have imagined is that he would find such a willing collaborator in the White House. Mr Trump shares the Kremlin worldview. Sure, he will occasionally pay lip service to America’s global responsibilities but, like Mr Putin, he is a nationalist not a globalist.

Allies now understand that this US president could not be relied upon at a moment of crisis.

The alliances, rules and institutions of the old order were designed to provide protections for the weak as well as the strong. Mr Trump is no more interested than is Mr Putin in a voice for the weak. The shocking irony, as ever, escapes the US president: by striking a pose in defence of America First, Mr Trump has willingly surrendered US power and prestige accumulated over 70 years.

Things, of course, could go awry in Hamburg. Mr Putin may gang up with China’s Xi Jinping to blunt Mr Trump’s threats against North Korea. The Russian leader may judge that, for as long as the US administration is under siege from investigations into ties with Moscow, there is nothing more to be gained by playing chums with Mr Trump.

What no one should doubt is that Mr Putin is well on the way, courtesy of the White House, to achieving his grand strategic ambition. The US is estranged from its European partners; allies almost everywhere have lost trust in Mr Trump; and Washington now eschews the international leadership it had come to view as a birthright. If you are Mr Putin this marks a great victory.

For everyone else, it speaks to a much more dangerous world.

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