With Donald Trump in the White House, a new interface of US-Russia relationship is unfolding. Behind the mutual singing of praises between Trump and Vladimir Putin is actually the ambition to not only make their respective countries “greater”, but also to change the global status quo. What has driven the two to get close? How far can they go? What will be the obstacles on their way ahead?
Why is Trump particularly fond of Putin? It seems to me there are three aspects to this question.
First, the ranges of their respective political philosophies intersect. Looking back on the spectrum of American political philosophies over the past few decades, liberalism, neo-conservatism, theories of clash of civilizations, and traditional geo-political thinking have all found their way into real-world politics, though to varying extents. Some have labeled Trump as Jacksonian, which I don’t think is enough. Though Trump’s nativist stance features obvious support from clash-of-civilizations theories and geo-political, geo-economic principles, it is not difficult to see Trump has reservations about liberalist ideologies. Not to mention he doesn’t seem like a neo-conserve. Neo-conservatism tends to lean toward elites; Trump, however, appears to lean toward common people. At such levels, his ideas resonate with those of Putin’s. Putin is not only critical of liberalist ideologies, but equally in favor of the common people. Both Putin and Trump are more comfortable with traditional political conservatism. Putin’s concept of “the Russian world”, too, is evidently based on civilizations theories and geo-political, geo-economic principles.
Second, as a successful businessman, Trump has tremendous admiration for Putin’s governance capacity. As a huge country, Russia has gone through historical vicissitudes, and faces an extremely complex international environment. The difficulty of governing such a country is self-evident. Trump’s praise of Putin did contain a snub to Barack Obama in the context of the presidential campaign. But no matter how divergent their backgrounds have been, it won’t be unimaginable for the leaders of the world’s two largest countries, who share the experience of fighting and winning in adverse circumstances, to appreciate and respect each other.
Third, a very pragmatic consideration behind Trump’s choice of easing tensions with Russia is the “big triangle” of the China-US-Russia relationship. The entire world is watching whether the power structure that played a subtle yet significant role in ending the Cold War will be re-initiated.
The China-US-Russia trilateral relationship – I use “trilateral relationship” in order to distinguish from the Cold War era “big triangle relationship” – is the most critical trilateral relationship in present-day international politics. Although the US faces a trend of decline, it remains the strongest country in today’s world. By and large, Russia is still the only world power that can rival the US in terms of strategic security forces. China is the world’s second-largest economy.
Since entering the new century, US-Russia relations have been in a state of stalemate, even confrontation. Worrying trends have also emerged in US ties with China. Therefore, in this “triangle”, the US has troubles in relations with both China and Russia, and finds itself at a relatively disadvantaged endpoint in a highly simplified mechanical structure. China and Russia at least see each other as the most reliable strategic partner and friend, i.e. at least having one of the two triangle sides where it is concerned in a “stable state”. The US at least needs to reshape the undesirable asymmetric triangular structure into a relatively stable one that is akin to an equilateral triangle, i.e., at least ending confrontation with Russia, even enabling itself to maintain fine relations with both China and Russia.
It is logical and consistent with common sense, and perfectly understandable for any country to seek a relatively stable triangular structure. It won’t be bad for any party if China, Russia and the US can return to a relatively balanced triangle relationship for their mutual benefit. There will be cooperation and competition in the trilateral relationship, but the key is to avoid all-round confrontation. High-intensity confrontation between any two of the three major powers on either regional or global issues does not bode well for the third. Of course the present-day world is far from the Cold War era, and is it not easy to return to the old-time geo-political game targeted specifically at a third party.
It is worth mentioning that Chinese, US and Russian leaders share profound respect for Henry Kissinger, a master of geo-political studies. Putin once made a remark few have noticed: “In my opinion, geopolitics is far more profound than ideologies”, which fully demonstrated the significance of the matter.
The troubles are: First, the Obama administration’s decision to expel more than 30 Russian diplomats notwithstanding, it remains a huge question mark to what extent the tensions between the US and Russia can be eased after the Ukraine crisis and the bloody rivalry in war-torn Syria. A more serious question is, with NATO pressing ahead with military expansion and accelerating deployment of anti-missile systems surrounding Russia, how can people even imagine Putin and Trump shaking hands and brushing all animosity aside? Second, inside the US, the bureaucratic establishment, elite groups, including most professionals in both parties, are harshly critical of Russia. There also are hardcore anti-Russia members at the core of the Trump administration. It is obviously difficult for Trump to handle these internal divergences. Third, the calm the Russians have demonstrated in the face of the unexpected Trump victory is an indication that the Russian elites are rather aware of, and serious about, healing the wounds. After all, this has been the third round of adjustments since the beginning of the new century. The first round took place at the beginning of the century when Putin and George W. Bush assumed office, when the emerging warmth, particularly in the wake of 9/11, evaporated as the US withdrew from the anti-missile regime. Neither did the “reset” of US-Russia ties initiated after Dmitry Medvedev and Obama assumed office last long, as it was disrupted by the Middle East revolutions and Ukraine crisis. We will have to wait and see how the third “reset” proceeds.
For China, the first priority is to be confident in the diplomatic achievements it has made over the past few decades. Putin has recently pledged to “cherish the Russia-China relationship,” which is of profound implications. In the meantime, we should believe that the deep and solid foundation of China-US relations, which has been laid over the years, may not be overthrown by short-term changes. More importantly, we should first do our own homework well, neither cherishing unrealistic expectations nor complaining about the troubles and challenges that may arise any time.