American Interest

Trump Isn't Sounding Like a Russian Mole

Walter Russell Mead on Moscow's false illusions

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 24, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 24, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

With his latest effusive remarks to Reuters on the importance of expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal, President Donald Trump has sent the press into a panic once again.

What the press has largely ignored about Trump’s latest pronouncement is an obvious truth that undermines its own narrative: someone who was safely in Vladimir Putin’s pocket wouldn’t run around saying things like this. While liberal America may have forgotten recent history, Russia certainly hasn’t: provoking a nuclear arms race with an outclassed, economically weak Soviet Union was Ronald Reagan’s winning strategy in the 1980s. Tech and wealth are two key American advantages over Russia now as they were over the Soviet Union then; Trump’s message here is that he intends to follow in Reagan’s footsteps to use these strengths to advance American power, with the inevitable result of marginalizing one of Russia’s primary sources of power and prestige. Putin’s ramshackle Russia is no more capable of matching an American nuclear buildup than Brezhnev’s sclerotic Soviet Union could keep up with the United States—and Putin knows it.

Whether it will work is an entirely different question, but there can be little doubt that Trump’s core global strategy will destroy any illusions in Moscow, or anywhere else, that Russia is a peer competitor of the United States. A Trump administration is going to be four years of hell for Russia: a massive American doubling down on shale production along with a major military buildup. Trump is, in other words, a nightmare for Putin and a much, much bigger threat to Putin’s goals than President Obama ever was or wanted to be.

If Trump were the Manchurian candidate that people keep wanting to believe that he is, here are some of the things he’d be doing:

* Limiting fracking as much as he possibly could
* Blocking oil and gas pipelines
* Opening negotiations for major nuclear arms reductions
* Cutting U.S. military spending
* Trying to tamp down tensions with Russia’s ally Iran

That Trump is planning to do precisely the opposite of these things may or may not be good policy for the United States, but anybody who thinks this is a Russia appeasement policy has been drinking way too much joy juice.
Obama actually did all of these things, and none of the liberal media now up in arms about Trump ever called Obama a Russian puppet; instead, they preferred to see a brave, farsighted and courageous statesman. Trump does none of these things and has embarked on a course that will inexorably weaken Russia’s position in the world, and the media, suddenly flushing eight years of Russia dovishness down the memory hole, now sounds the warning that Trump’s Russia policy is treasonously soft.

This foolishness is best understood as an unreasoning panic attack. The liberal media hate Trump more than they have hated any American politician in a generation, and they do not understand his supporters or the sources of his appeal. They are frantically picking up every available stick to beat him, in the hopes that something, somehow, will Miloize him.

So blind does hatred make them that they cannot understand how their own behavior is driving American public opinion in directions that bode ill for liberals in the future. In the first place, suppose Donald Trump does not in fact turn out to be the second coming of Benedict Arnold. Suppose instead, as is much more likely, that he turns out to be a very hawkish president, one who quite possibly will make George W. Bush look like Jimmy Carter. The media and Democratic Party leaders will have staked huge amounts of credibility on a position that turns out to be laughably untrue. Six months or a year from now, they will have to flip from calling Trump an anti-American traitor and Russian plant to calling him a dangerous, fascistic ultranationalist whose relentless hawkishness is bringing us closer to World War Three. Already there are some days when they mount both attacks at the same time: the hawkish traitor whose Nazi style America First ideology leads him to lick Putin’s boots. The media wants to cast Trump as both Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler; but you can’t give the Sudetenland to yourself.

The talking heads and the top pundits won’t admit it, and may not even see it—as our media is extremely good at hiding from facts that make it feel uncomfortable—but not many people will be convinced by this line of attack. Hawk or traitor: you can only pick one.

Meanwhile, the current media and Democratic drumbeat of fierce, hyper-patriotic anti-Russian fervor is legitimating exactly the kind of nationalist assertiveness and chauvinism that, in normal times, liberals try to tamp down. The liberal media, in the desperate hope of landing some blows on President Trump, is helping to create a national climate of alarmed and defensive patriotism that leads to exactly the kind of public opinion climate that is catnip to Republicans and poison to liberal Democrats.

Of course it’s possible that all the rumors and gossip about Trump and Putin are true, and that Putin holds powerful blackmail material on Trump, or alternatively that they share a dark and anti-democratic dream that they will jointly try to impose on the world. But if those things are true, we won’t find out because some nameless source has whispered something incriminating to one of Ben Rhodes’ 27 year-old journalistic naifs; it will be because Trump begins to shift American foreign policy in ways that benefit Russia.

What would those telltale signs of treason look like?

Trump might for example acquiesce in a greater Russian presence and say in the Middle East. He might limit U.S. fracking, helping to prop up Putin’s oil price. He might seek to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles in ways that give Russia badly needed economic relief from an arms burden that daily pressures the country more, and that accepts a permanent parity between the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, leaving America perpetually hostage to a nuclear balance of terror with a much weaker Russia. He might slash military spending and procurement; rather than steadily building the gap between Russian and American military capabilities, he might slow down and allow the Russians and others to dream of catching up.

In other words, if President Trump really is a Putin pawn, his foreign policy will start looking much more like Barack Obama’s. Will the New York Times and the Washington Post really have the brass to call Trump a traitor for pursuing a mix of policies which came right out of Obama’s playbook?

This would be a foolish enough positioning to cause even the press, or at least some of it, to blush. The Gray Lady has her limits. What is happening instead is the identification of the largely ineffective and symbolic sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea as the gold standard of anti-Russia policy. If Trump so much as hints at bargaining away these largely decorative sanctions, we are likely to see a media firestorm of historic scale. It will not be grounded in reality; Obama’s chosen anti-Russia policy mix was as weak and hesitating as such policy can be. The sanctions were a way of pretending to ourselves that we had a Ukraine policy more than offering an actual path to forcing Russia to disgorge its gains. Trump’s policies of fracking and big military build up are more anti-Russian without sanctions than Obama ever thought was practical or wise.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some honest and important questions about Trump and Russia. Looking into President Trump’s business ties and possible conflicts of interest is legitimate journalism. And there is little doubt that some of the Russian and other ex-Soviet figures which whom President Trump did business in the past are not the kind of people one would want a future president associating with.

But Trump’s actual foreign policy hardly suggests a president in thrall to the Kremlin, and excessive dovishness is unlikely to be the besetting sin of the Trump administration. The more the media locks itself into the narrative of Trump the appeaser, the harder its job will become when the real difficulties of the Trump presidency begin to take shape.

America needs an intellectually solvent and emotionally stable press to give this president the skeptical and searching scrutiny that he needs. What we are getting instead is something much worse for the health of the republic: a blind instinctive rage that lashes out without wounding, that injures its own credibility more than its target, that discredits the press at just the moment where its contributions are most needed.