Trump is making it too easy for Putin
7 Aug 2017|

Geopolitics must look easy to Putin. Undermining US global leadership is an important Russian strategic objective. The new US president has already eroded US global leadership through his own efforts. The prospect of a Trump presidency in 2016 probably presented the Russians with a previously unimagined opportunity to progress their core policy objectives. Trump’s victory has been delivering for the Russians in ways that they could’ve hardly dared hope for.

Russian intervention and possible collusion during the US presidential election are potentially enormous issues, especially if impeachment is the outcome. But internationally two things will be important—the extent to which having his domestic agenda confounded will intensify Trump’s focus on foreign affairs, and his ability to prevail over Congress on foreign policy.

Under the US Constitution, foreign policymaking power is shared between the executive and the legislature. Congress has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and declare war, and the president has the power to make treaties (with the Senate’s approval) and is commander-in-chief. In practice, those roles and responsibilities are not neatly and separately exercised.

Edwin Corwin famously observed that the US Constitution is ‘an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy’. Since 9/11 in particular, the advantage has been with the executive branch. A combative, frustrated and defensive Trump administration—especially if facing little prospect of re-election—might embark on an ambitious and aggressive foreign policy in its last years even against the views of a Republican-controlled Congress.

Moreover, in November 2018, all 435 congressional districts across the US will go to the polls. There’s only a loose correlation between presidential popularity and the performance of the president’s party in congressional elections, and the Democrats will need double-digit swings to secure the House. Still, the prospects for the Republicans are worsening. The accompanying Senate election is even more problematic for the Democrats, but they are not without a chance. If the Democrats gain the House, the Senate or both, domestically Trump is likely to be a lame-duck president before the end of his first term.

As Thomas Wright observed, even before the election it was well known that Trump’s ‘core beliefs are opposition to America’s alliance arrangements, opposition to free trade, and support for authoritarianism, particularly in Russia’. In the absence of any personal animosity towards Hilary Clinton for real or imagined slights or any residual resentment of Obama’s attitudes towards Putin, a Trump presidency would still have been an attractive prospect for the Russian leader.

Schadenfreude aside, there was a clear alignment of Russian strategic objectives with Trump’s ‘core beliefs’. Wright predicted, as Putin would have, that under Trump the US would go ‘from the leader of a liberal international order into a rogue superpower that withdraws from its international commitments, undermines the open global economy, and partners with Putin’s Russia’. On cue, Trump has already unnerved NATO with contradictory and reluctant messages of commitment, killed off the Trans-Pacific Partnership, confounded multinational support for the Paris climate agreement, and withdrawn funding for anti-Assad forces in Syria.

While Russia will have a range of different attitudes to each of these developments, its overarching strategic interest is in the extent to which collectively they represent a US retreat from global leadership. Weakening US dominance is the central step in Russia’s strategic priority to rebalance the international system away from what it perceives to be an abnormal unipolar arrangement into an equilibrium between the great powers and a recognition of spheres of influence.

Under Trump, positive perceptions of America and its leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region have nosedived. Assessments of the influence of the US and the benefits the US brings have diminished dramatically. The United States Study Centre found the 61% of Australians thought the influence of the US in the Indo-Pacific region was negative under Trump. That result is repeated across most of the Indo-Pacific region, except in China.

Putin would have been particularly pleased to see the results of the Pew Research Center’s June 2017 report U.S. image suffers as publics around world question Trump’s leadership. A survey across 37 countries found that nearly three-quarters of respondents expressed ‘no confidence’ in President Trump. (It’s worth noting that the survey was conducted before Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.) In Europe, 52% now view the US unfavourably. There’s been a significant drop in favourable views of the US in almost all surveyed nations since Trump replaced Obama, but in Russia the number of respondents viewing the US favourably has increased by 26%.

It’s likely that foreign policy will become increasingly attractive to the Trump administration if its room to manoeuvre on domestic policy becomes restricted. On the evidence so far, that would play further into Russian desires to see US leadership and influence fall away as Trump increasingly pursues an ‘America First’ foreign policy.

In his wildest dreams, Putin could not have anticipated such stunning strategic success. Building public support for US-led strategic initiatives and for involvement in alliance coalition operations is going to become increasingly difficult. Undoubtedly these new circumstances will embolden a more confident Russia and see aggressive moves—particularly in the Middle East, Balkans and Central Asia—to leverage Russia’s soft and hard power into increased regional and global leadership and influence.