Stop worrying about Trump being in Putin’s pocket. Start thinking of how to deal with him.
Donald Trump’s attitude and statements both during the election campaign and after his victory have led many analysts to conclude that the new president of the United States will share an unprecedented cosy relationship with Vladimir Putin, the long-time president of Russia. The uncharitable view is that Mr Trump is in Mr Putin’s pocket. The charitable view is that Mr Trump’s affinity for Mr Putin will cause US foreign policy to be less antagonistic to Russia.
Here’s the thing though: for all his statements, posturing and actions, it is unlikely that Mr Trump is a sellout. Why so? First, his populist credentials will not survive a concession to Russia that hurts the United States’ interests or prestige. Second, the Republican party might have changed over the past few years, but cannot condone a pro-Russia policy where that is against the party’s institutional interests. Third, there are strong bureaucratic bases for foreign policy that cannot simply change because a new president is in power. Like every new head of government, Mr Trump will discover that once he occupies the office. Finally, for all appearances and commentary there is the possibility that Mr Trump is not Putin’s puppet at all.
Some of the more astute analysts I have discussed the issue with think that Mr Trump will be the dealmaking, transactional president. What this means is allies, partners, neutrals and adversaries will need to figure out what they are prepared to concede to the United States obtain what they wish to procure. A deal is a deal only when there is mutual agreement on the give and the take. Mr Trump’s prejudices, campaign rhetoric and political interests will both determine his administration’s priorities and constrain his dealmaking. With Russia as with Japan. With China as with India. On climate change as with nuclear weapons, trade and so on.
Seen from this perspective, Mr Trump might well have — intentionally or willy nilly — created favourable negotiating conditions with respect to Mr Putin. Consider. Will Mr Putin be willing to risk jeopardising a friendly relationship with Mr Trump should the United States push Russia to yield a little more on some issue? With Mr Trump in the White House, the Russian president will have to choose between a hard line on a specific issue and the long term advantage of having a friendly relationship with his US counterpart. He is unlikely to want to throw away his advantage quickly or cheaply.
And if Mr Trump is the dealmaker that he believes he is, he won’t pass up this chance to secure an advantage.