NOTTINGHAM – The last three weeks have presented a harsh truth for the people of the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’. The self-perception of America as a great nation which police’s the world for the greater good of democracy and freedom has been violently about-faced by the Trump administration; and it’s about time too.
Under previous governments the US has continued to behave in its typical self-riteous and hegemonic way towards Russia, continuing to pose as the unquestionable modern answer to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. The US has continued under Obama to prioritise ethics in its dealings with Russia and the world, to much political cost.
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
Whilst the sermon itself remains partially true for both the US and Russia in the sense both countries are set on the highest of hills in global politics, it’s heavily debatable that either country is the indisputable “light of the world”. Trump’s harsh truths for America regarding torture, military intervention and diplomacy have sent shockwaves through the American establishment. His response to Fox News over the ‘killer’ allegations made against Putin prove he has a totally polar opposite approach to Russia than previous US presidents. “There are a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?” exclaimed Trump in response to the question.
Many journalists report these comments as a further mark of Trump’s infatuation with the Russian president. Many in the media have called Trump’s defence of Putin dangerous, allowing Russia more propaganda material against the US. However, if the US and Russia are to ‘reset’ their relationship for the third time – and make it work – they must do so through a relationship between two men who actually understand each other’s political aims. Trump must prove to Putin he can be as equally brutal with throwing ethics out the window in the international landscape. I believe this is what Trump is starting to accomplish, not just with Putin but also with countries such as Australia.
Both Bush Jr. and Obama ran elections on promises of hitting that ‘reset’ button with Russia, both undeniably recognising the importance of a productive relationship with an old arch-enemy. Yet much to Putin’s dismay, the US has consistently become distracted with other ideological wars to wage than engage in anything other than a one-sided relationship with Russia. Bush had Iraq and Obama had doomed any final positive US-Russia relationship in his last few years due to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. Today we are on a diplomatic footing that some people are calling the beginning of the second ‘Cold War’.
The question therefore is how can we deal with Russia in a way that begins to be mutually beneficial for both countries. How can the US and Russia work together and cooperate even though some of their ambitions might not always align, where do we draw a ‘red-line’ for Putin to cross where we actually follow-up with some sort of substantial response? And finally, when is it the ‘pot calling the kettle black’ as far as international military intervention is concerned? The problem with the relationship the US has had previously to Russia is that Obama has shown that ethical actions are more important to him than politically sound ones, actions to which Putin has no interest in.
With Putin trying to pursue an agenda of restoring Russia as a great global superpower again like in the 1970’s, the US has done nothing but furnish these desires by ethically condemning but politically appeasing the country. Putin has consistently gone past many ethical red lines imposed by Obama, such as Syria, yet the consequences for this have been next to nothing. It’s been quite obvious in the media that the US’ bark is currently worse than their bite as despite their clearly ethical objections to Russia’s actions they lack the confidence to provoke any conflict that puts US/Russian lives at risk. Putin will keep poking and testing the US’ commitments in Europe, such as Crimea, as long as he sees the US does not possess the confidence to stand up for its beliefs internationally.
Trump’s approach to Russia is different, his refusal to comment on his relationship with Russia up-to his phone call with president Putin made it clear that he wanted to have the clearest dialogue possible at the start of his presidency. Trump’s aim during his campaign was to work with Russia wherever he could, unlike Clinton who through her track record as Secretary of State would have only condemned the relationship to become even more impossibly sour over the next 8 years.
The failing policy of economic sanctions against Russia, which Clinton oversaw, was nothing but appeasement – disguised . There is nothing that says Trump does not share the same condemnation for the annexation of Crimea than Clinton and the Obama administration did. However, I believe that Trump will instead have no choice but to accept these issues as ‘bad history’ and take advantage of what opportunities going forward there are for asserting US dominance in the region. At least Trump will pick his battles, and not avoid all of them.
According to Trump, “nothing is off the table”.
With the appointment of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, the indication that it is indeed Trump’s policy to make improving relations with Russia a central foreign policy goal is obvious. Tillerson has a wide ranging portfolio through his two decades with ExxonMobil in Russia and has a very productive working relationship already with Putin, something Trump does not as of yet. In terms of employing the best CEO to smooth relations with Russia, he’s picked the man for the job.
So when Trump talks of the US being no different to Russia in its ‘killing’ of people, he’s got a good point. His policy towards Russia is geared up with this in mind, with recognising that the US can not push its own propaganda of being the ‘City upon the hill’ any longer, it can not ignore the fact that both them and Russia practice very similar intelligence gathering techniques. Both use torture (It’s how they found and killed Osama Bin Laden), bugging, double-agents and sending troops into Middle Eastern countries purely to secure their countries own assets and oil wealth.
The difference is, the US lies about the reasons, Russia doesn’t. Russia is on the rise, the US is showing itself up to be a declining power in regions of the world where they used to be dominant. In many respects, Russia is having to clear up many of the foreign policy disasters of the US in regions they’ve abandoned, subsequently creating a power vacuum. Supporting Assad’s government in Syria to fight against the rebels as an example, since under Obama both the US and British legislatures voted against war in the region.
For the last three years the US and Russia have been fighting a proxy war in Syria but only one side seems to have the commitment to acknowledge this remote war and deploy some of their own physical assets, helping to protect their national interests and secure a victory. The US has increasingly left these regions heavily destabilised in an effort to damage other regime’s legitimacies and also undermine the Russian economy through toppling key allies in the region. Russia’s recent fleet deployment in response to the US backed rebellion has secured major victories for Assad and left the US-backed rebels in retreat.
Trump’s plan to destroy ISIS is yet to form into a coherent policy however since many of these US armed rebels have now joined ISIS, I can imagine it will involve intervention similar to what we see today from Russia. I’m sure a lot of the conversation Trump had with Putin regarding this issue will have included a lot of “I told you so” from Russia. The fact of the matter is, Obama had a policy objective in the region, made disastrous mis-judgement on the rebels allegiances to democracy, as with Libya, and have lacked the confidence to engage in a region of heavy Russian military interest, again to Putin this reveals massive opportunities to encroach in the region. This is a mistake Trump can not and will not make in his presidency.
We won’t have to wait long to find out how Putin and Trump will cooperate in a future diplomatic crisis. With the US “putting Iran on notice” regarding its ballistic missile tests and believing the Obama deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme is not worth the paper it’s written on, they may have difficulty negotiating with Russia on how the world tackles Iran going forward. Russia plans to expand it’s support of Iran and use it as a major staging ground for securing the Middle East, both countries have strong economic ties and Russia clearly deposed the original US-led Iran agreement. Russia clearly values the ability to have a major nuclear power in the Middle East that will do its bidding.
I just hope that Trump’s new policy towards Russia and its recognition of the country as an equal partner and a state that deserves mutual respect is reciprocated by Putin. That US foreign policy doesn’t just continue the decline it has suffered under Obama but makes an effort to consolidate itself again with its new objectives on the world stage, as one of many powerful cities upon hills. As Trump eloquently puts, both countries equally do a fair amount of “killing” and they need to create an environment where both countries can recognise each others benefits in a world where the US is becoming more isolationist and certainly less prone to traditional interventionism.
Background on ‘city on a hill’: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-city-on-the-hill-american-exceptionalism-and-redemptive-violence/5350265
Iran, ‘there’s a new president in town’: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/07/donald-trump-white-house-warns-iran-new-president-town/