Trump, Tillerson, and Optimism for Russo-American Relations

For a party, president, and Secretary of State (and failed presidential candidate) who presented a giant red Reset button to the Russian foreign minister in 2011 and mocked Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for referring to Russia as the “number one geopolitical foe of the United States”, the Democratic Party, led by the Obama administration and Clinton campaign, has sure changed its tune. The past week has been full of liberals (and some establishment Republicans) either decrying Russia for handing the election to Trump through a coordinated hacking scheme that went all the way up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, or reacting with consternation that President-elect Donald Trump appointed Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to the position of Secretary of State. They perceive Tillerson as having too close of ties to Russia, given his many successful business dealings in Russia as Exxon CEO (aka, doing his job), which culminated in his reception of the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin, one of the highest honors a non-Russian can receive.

Throwing partisanship aside, though, Trump’s Tillerson pick is brilliant on so many levels, and provides optimism for closer Russo-American relations, collaboration in the Middle East, nuclear arms control, the sustained security of Eastern Europe—all of which result in a Russia more closely aligned and economically dependent on the West, which will result in greater protection for human rights and civil liberties within Russia. We have moved past the Cold War, and though Russia remains an oligarchy with rampant corruption controlled by a quasi-dictator, it is in the best interests of the security of the United States to cultivate a closer relationship with Russia—and a better relationship with the United States and the West is also in Russia’s best interests.

For all of his many faults, there is no denying that Vladimir Putin is skilled at playing a weak hand, as he governs a nation with an aging and demoralized populace and decaying infrastructure, who just happens to have the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. All of his actions are easily explained as those of a rational state actor acting in a way to increase the power and security of the nation he governs. To highlight two examples, Putin achieved economic benefit through the construction of an oil pipeline with the European Union, while also ensuring that the EU would not risk its oil supply being cut off in retaliation for a strong response to his invasion of Ukraine, as he seized the valuable Crimean peninsula. He also correctly judged that America, led by an Obama administration hesitant to embrace America’s superpower status while governing a war-weary population, would not stand up for Ukraine. Additionally, he took advantage of Obama’s misguided “red line” remark in Syria to establish Russia, not the United States, as the most powerful player in the Middle East—at Obama’s behest nonetheless. Given Russia’s actions under Putin, it is easy to extrapolate that Russia will act in its own self-interest (as any rational state should, so this should not be a surprise), and in order to improve relations with Russia, the United States must demonstrate that a strong Russo-American partnership will benefit Russia just as it benefits America.

Improved Russo-American relations will help both countries, as both countries face the same long-term threats. The two biggest threats to U.S. national security are an ascendant and rapidly-militarizing China and the growing threat of radical Islamic terrorism. As Nice, Paris, Orlando, and Ohio State have demonstrated, radical Islamic terrorism is no longer confined to the Middle East. The same two geopolitical threats that present the greatest long-term danger to U.S. national security present the same long-term danger to Russian security, only their threat to Russia is much more acute. While at this point the closest conceivable Sino-American conflict is a trade war, Russia faces the very real possibility of a Chinese military invasion. In addition to the two countries sharing the sixth-longest border in the world, a border which happens to cross a lightly populated, resource-rich region, Russia is rapidly depopulating due to declining birth rates while China has a large population of unemployed, single men searching for purpose in life. When countries have male populations with those traits, they tend to fight wars, and the most logical choice for China is an invasion of Russia to seize the resource-rich steppe along the Sino-Russian border. Additionally, while the United States must improve its identification of homegrown terrorist threats, Russia faces an extremist Islamist separatist movement along its southern border in Chechnya, a region that has seen its share of violence and terrorist attacks since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Given the geopolitical landscape and the common threats faced by the United States and Russia, a Trump administration would be blatantly negligent if it did not seek stronger relations with Russia. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton realized this to their credit when they took office, though they wouldn’t admit it today. Their lack of success stemmed from the fact they were unable to convince Russia it was in its best strategic interests to align with the West. Putin interpreted Obama’s unwillingness to use America’s hard power– evidenced by the campaign promise to pull troops out of the Middle East, the infamous apology tour, and slashes in defense spending that reduced the American military to its pre-World War II size—as weakness, and stepped into the power vacuum left by the Obama administration in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, most notably in Syria.

Despite Trump’s hints that the United States could pull out of NATO, there is little chance of that happening, signaled most clearly by the appointment of three generals to cabinet positions, most notably James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense. There’s a big difference between demanding member countries pay their fair share and pulling out of the longest peacetime alliance in world history, and to go along with Trump’s cabinet appointments, he has repeatedly pledged to rebuild the U.S. military, which will serve to strengthen the NATO alliance and reestablish the specter of American military intervention to protect its national interests.

However, while Trump will reestablish American hard power to once again fill the vacuum vacated by Obama and subsequently filled by Putin, this will merely stem the tide of Russian advancement and will not bring Russia closer to the West. However, the reestablishment of American hard power coupled with the Tillerson appointment to State will usher in a new era of Russo-American relations, because Tillerson has built the political capital in Russia necessary to convince Putin that closer alignment with the West is in both Russia’s and America’s best interests. Tillerson spent every day at Exxon Mobil working toward ensuring the stability of his shareholders’ investments in Russia, and now he will be doing the same on behalf of the American people as the international face of the Trump administration. Tillerson can credibly show Putin that economic and political alignment with the West is in the best interests of Russia, just as he was able to successfully demonstrate to Putin that Exxon Mobil was the best partner for the development of Russian oil resources. In bringing his business background to politics combined with his still in negotiation and knowledge of Russian culture and history, he can demand a firm, but fair price in return for Russia’s doing business with the West.

A closer Russo-American alignment has the potential to result in the following outcomes.

  1. Russian and American cooperation in the Middle East, especially in Syria. In additional to establishing a no-fly zone, the United States will convince Russia to abandon its support of Assad, ending the genocide and allowing moderate elements to come to power with the combined support of both Russia and the United States. American and western European advocacy groups such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders will have much greater access to serve the Syrian population brutalized by Assad.
  2. A commitment to the security of Eastern Europe, especially the Baltics. Much like the European Union achieved its goal to prevent war between France and Germany, who fought five wars in the 130 years between Napoleon and Hitler, by creating an economic interdependency in which neither country could afford the economic loss of war with the other, a more closely aligned Russia with the West will create an environment in which Russia cannot afford to lose the economic benefit of increased trade with the West by invading a Baltic state or other Eastern European nation.
  3. A treaty on the reduction of nuclear arsenals, which has been a longstanding goal of the United States since the Carter administration and will make the world a safer place.
  4. A guarantee of civil liberties in Russia, especially the establishment of a free press, due process, and the protection of all Russians under the law, regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual orientation. As the European Union mandates the abolishment of the death penalty as a prerequisite for joining, the United States can set the establishment and protection of civil liberties for all Russian citizens as a prerequisite for better relations and increased trade.

Will a Trump administration see the benefits to the United States of improved relations with Russia? That remains to be seen, but the appointment of Tillerson to head the State Department is an encouraging sign that Trump understands that the same geopolitical forces threaten both Russia and the United States, and that a stronger relationship with Russia can benefit both nations. The chance for cooperation with a longtime foe, along with the four potential outcomes listed above, is something for which every American should hope.


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