The U.S. presidential election in 2016 led to an unprecedented president in American history who frequently distinguishes himself from traditional politicians. The election is a harbinger of a political revolution in Washington D.C. and it would be outdated if we continue to use the traditional framework to predict President-elect Trump’s next move on foreign policy.
From his rhetoric and appointments of several inner-circle members and key officials like Michael Flynn and Rex Tillerson, a U.S.-Russia détente seems imminent. The deal or compromise the new American leader might reach with President Vladimir Putin would again surprise both Republicans and Democrats if they could not keep up with Trump.
One move, probably a less unexpected one, would be seeking cooperation with Russia on anti-terrorism in Middle East, especially on fighting against ISIS. Trump has emphasized that Obama and Clinton’s failed policy helped the rise of ISIS and thus getting rid of ISIS should be his priority, rather than pursuing regime change in Syria, which Russia opposes.
But what President Putin desires most is the relief of U.S. sanctions, one of the significant preconditions for making any détente real. In 2014, the U.S. administration together with its European allies imposed a series of economic sanctions on Russia, targeting senior Russian officials, businessmen, major banks and energy companies, blocking them from visiting U.S. and limiting their financial transactions. The sanctions have hit the Russian economy hard, shrinking U.S.-Russia trade from $34 billion in 2014 to $23 billion in the next year.
Next March will be critical since the Trump administration will make decisions on whether to prolong the current sanctions on Russia. As a president who distances himself from traditional thoughts and policy, Trump would hardly resist the temptation of changing U.S. policy towards Russia by terminating Obama’s executive orders that imposed the sanctions.
Trump, of course, can easily overturn the existing sanctions with a stroke of a pen, even when he faces aversion both domestic and abroad. The House passed a bill in September, hoping to change the sanctions on Russia to a law and make sanctions more difficult to lift. The bill, however, did not get bipartisan support in the Senate. Even if the bill could get traction in the Senate next year, Trump can still use the provision of “national security waiver” to bypass the law and the likelihood for him to invoke it, if necessary, is relatively high.
The external pressure mainly comes from European allies who are especially uneasy and worried that the U.S. might “appease” or forgive Russia’s aggressive actions. Recently, EU leaders have decided to prolong sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine for another six months to mid 2017, sending a very clear signal to the next U.S. administration, hoping Trump will follow the suit. But it might be more wishful thinking.
Nevertheless, the prospects for U.S.-Russia détente is not all rosy. Bilateral relations still face numerous challenges. The European security issue remains the structural problem between the two countries. The détente will inevitably require U.S. to reassure its European allies more and ensure its commitment to European security. In the past two years, the mutual trust between Europe and Russia has plunged to a historic low due to the situation in Ukraine and Syria. Trump’s words on Crimea petrified European countries, especially those Central and Eastern European countries that were once in the Soviet sphere of influence. After the inauguration, Trump will have more chances to acquaint himself with those EU leaders and shorten his learning curve with those transatlantic allies. It’s reasonable for Trump not to abandon NATO’s core leadership in European security affairs, and so the strategic conflicts between NATO and Russia will not be wiped out easily.
Another challenge is U.S. domestic politics. To ease tensions with established power in U.S. politics, Trump may have to sacrifice some agendas on foreign policy in order to push forward his ambitious domestic reform. If Trump seeks détente with Russia too hard and too quick without considering opposition from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, they could make him pay political price on other more urgent domestic issues. Therefore, no matter how Trump would like to challenge the traditional outlook by building cozy relations with Russia, he has to strike a balance unless he can convince more people to join his revolutionary approach.
When a U.S.-Russia détente is around the corner, many people start to worry about China-Russia relations and some of them even argue that a reversed version of the “Nixon moment” will emerge, in which the U.S. holds hands with Russia to balance China — in contrast with the way the U.S. and China balanced the Soviet Union during the 1970s.
That comparison is totally misleading. In triangular relations, it is more reasonable for two defensive powers to unite against the aggressive one like what happened in the 1970s. But currently, the most aggressive power obviously is not China and thus there is no reason and motivations for the other two countries to balance against it.
Another reason is that the importance and independence of the three sets of bilateral relations among the three countries has far transcended the significance of the so called triangular relations. China and Russia has pursued all-round strategic coordination even as China and U.S. are constructing a new type of major-country relationship almost simultaneously. The key to a stable triangle is to stabilize the bilateral relationships respectively with each other. China and U.S. might face some challenges in the next stage on trade, Taiwan, South China Sea, Korean Peninsula issues, etc. How China and U.S. deal with those challenges, rather than the limited U.S.-Russia détente, will shape China-U.S. relations in the next stage.