This week President Trump meets President Putin in ‘the margins’ of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. The American is on record several times as saying he has met Mr. Putin in the past. The Russian has no recollection of this alleged meeting. Either way, as Jack Wright argues below, their future relationship should be clearer by the weekend –
When cynical political leaders are unable to secure short- to medium-term domestic victories, they will distract from these perceptible failures by turning to the domain of foreign policy.
Five months into his tenure, President Trump has few achievements about which to boast, lumbered instead by: record-low approval ratings; accusations of collusion with a foreign adversary to subvert American democracy; and best attempts to turn the U.S. into a pariah among nations.
Now, the president has begun fundraising for his 2020 re-election at a time wherein the looming Republican Healthcare Bill appears to be the latest instance of consequential buffoonery. Were it not a political reality, this tragedy of errors might merely appear farcical.
Thus, the administration will exact victories on the international stage.
Consider: The executive branch has a reasonably-free hand in the conduct of international affairs. Since the Commander-in-Chief is not tightly wrapped, it becomes doubly important to assess the temperaments of any Oval Office occupant. Ideas matter because individuals behave in ways that conform to certain beliefs. Actions are beliefs in potential.
Analysts should be concerned. Since ideas concerning the nature of world order affect relationships to it, can we be surprised that the world now watches the White House with somewhat-baited breath? No. If the Obama Doctrine signaled steady long-term American retrenchment from the world, the Trump Doctrine seeks to upend the norms established after 1945 to which the West has become accustomed. It is dangerous because it is inherently disruptive.
Inherently disruptive? Let us just think about Europe: The signal achievement of American foreign policy after the Second World War was to transform the nature of international relations. By shifting focus away from “selfish and autocratic power” and towards “principles of peace and justice”, the U.S. had championed a Wilsonian vision of world order.
The Trump Doctrine poses a severe threat to this system.
Its organizing principle stems from the belief that the U.S. no longer “wins” on the international stage. The president seems keen on punishing traditional American allies where possible, such as threatening to disband an “obsolete” NATO. To regard sacred military treaties as business transactions sets the world on a regressive path back to a form of international relations hallmarked by narrow self-interest and power-hungry competitors.
The president may not be an ideologue, but Trumpianism exhibits clear disdain for democratic norms and liberalism the world over. To question the legitimacy of American hegemony in Europe (when it has ushered in seven decades of relative peace and stability) is to allow dangerous autocrats a free hand in the conduct of international relations.
Enter Vladimir Putin: Not simply a strategic realist and a self-preservationist, but a quasi-theocrat who desires to wreck Ukraine as a state rather than allow her control over her own political destiny. It is precisely a world determined by spheres of influence to which Putin would wish to return. His interests cannot ultimately align with our own.
So, if the president seeks a “win” on the international stage, the results of the upcoming Trump/Putin meeting at the G20 in Hamburg should provide a litmus test. We may then see the outlines of what will constitute a foreign-policy victory for President Trump. Achieving that victory would be another matter.