It has become clear over the first 18 months of the Trump presidency that what we are witnessing is nothing short of an attempted reordering of world order. Trump appears intent on shaking the foundations of the entire post-war order (which America was of course instrumental in creating). He has established himself as the Disruptor-in-Chief, but is there any point in trying to disrupt so many things at once? And, can any of what Trump is trying to achieve actually occur while there is so much opposition to him and what he is trying to do?
These are legitimate questions and concerns, but they presume that anyone actually knows two things: what is in Trump’s mind and what the outcome will be. No one but Trump (and some would argue, not even he) actually knows what is going on in his mind at any given point in time. He has said so many outrageous things only to walk them back when the inevitable negative reaction occurs that it is genuinely hard to know if anything he says will actually stick.
The truth is, the disadvantage (or benefit) of being in uncharted territory is that no one knows what comes next. Herein resides an important point: no one knows what the outcome of Trump’s antics will be. Not even Trump. On one hand, it is absurd to imagine that 70+ years of post-war order will be upended in the space of a few months just because two leaders may want it to be that way. But what if Trump and Putin were to actually begin to collaborate (to the extent that Trump can without requiring congressional approval)?
Anyone who watched the Fox News interview with Putin following the Helsinki soiree will have noticed that Putin had some really good answers to the numerous provocative questions that were thrown at him. Seen from the Russia perspective, its interference in the 2016 US presidential election is no different than the many elections the US had meddled in in the past, such as in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. Crimea used to be part of the Russia, and a referendum overwhelmingly supported Russia’s annexation of the region. The point is, those of us in the West naturally view the world from our unique perspective and the Russians do the same. Both are right and both are wrong.
Let us look at some cold hard realities. The US has few friends in the world right now. Its influence in global affairs has been declining for the past 15 years. It has largely withdrawn from active engagement in global conflicts (with a couple of notable exceptions). Apart from Israel and Saudi Arabia, its influence in the Middle East is a shadow of what it used to be. By contrast, Russia and China’s influence is rising exponentially in the region, and beyond. So, is the US better or worse off trying to find a way to work with Russia? One could easily argue that it is actually in the US interest to do so at this time.
The question is, can US legislators jump off the Cold War, anti-Russian bandwagon long enough to see that the ground is shifting beneath them? All the things US legislators are busy screaming about – Putin’s meddling in the 2016 election, his annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s influence in Syria – are already a fait accompli. They are done! There is nothing the US or West can do about any of them, so what is the point, exactly, of continuing to cry foul about it all?
One could easily argue that the election meddling happened because US cyber defenses were too weak and Crimea happened because the US allowed it to happen. Assad and Putin’s victory in Syria happened because the US was too ineffectual and its sources of attempted influence there were too weak to counter their partnership. The West should probably be thanking them for destroying the Islamic State’s physical presence in Syria, because the West certainly could not.
While the US is busy slipping off of its precipice, many of its best known political figures are beating a rather tired old drum – the new Cold War, Russia, China, North Korea. It is boring, predictable, and dated. In the meantime, Russia and China are proceeding apace to reshape world order – without America.
Trump gets a lot of things wrong and his tactics often stink, but he is on to something here. His opponents presume that the reason he wants to make nice with Putin is that Putin has something on him. What, exactly would that be? Trump’s political base does not give two hoots about any of that and Trump’s political opponents have thus far not been able to prove a thing. Could it just be that he sees an America being diminished by its own failures and the folly of sitting on the sidelines while Russia and China pass it by?
Since no one yet knows the outcome of any of Trump’s supposed foreign “misadventures”, and since no one can predict the future, there is a chance –that an alliance with Putin could work and make America’s influence greater in the world, America’s relationship with Europe could become stronger in the longer-term as a result of Trump’s insistence that European countries begin to pay their fair share of NATO defense spending, and a lasting peace may finally be achieved on the Korean peninsula.
Only time will tell whether any of these outcomes will occur, but it would be nice if America would give itself a break, get out of its own way, and at least see if any of Trump’s bold initiatives will work. The alternative is to fall further behind Russia and China on the global chessboard.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and co-author of Global Risk Agility. His new book on Artificial Intelligence will be out in the Fall.