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Is Helsinki Trump’s Iran Deal?

Walter Russell Mead

Rarely has an American president been as isolated on foreign policy as President Trump is today. The Senate voted 97-2 to support the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last week, even as Mr. Trump belittled NATO and its principal members. Meanwhile, both the Justice Department and the director of national intelligence are sounding the alarm about the Russian leader Mr. Trump appears to be trying to recruit as an American ally. The president’s policy of reconciliation with Russia at the expense of NATO has even less support in Washington than President Obama’s policy of breaking with Middle East allies to attempt a reconciliation with Iran.

Among the president’s remarkable assumptions about Vladimir Putin’s Russia: that it can be induced to cooperate with the U.S. on a wide range of security issues, including Syria and Iran; and that it can replace Germany as America’s principal Eurasian partner—or, if not, the U.S. can use the threat of a Russian alliance to extract better terms from Germany and the European Union. The president is confident that he possesses the bargaining ability and diplomatic talent to manage the complex negotiations involved.

Why does Mr. Trump seem so determined to defy his advisers and play a Russia card that costs him dearly in Washington and nourishes the suspicions of the investigators probing his Russia connections? His fiercest critics are sure they know the answer: Vladimir Putin has “compromised” the president, leaving him no choice but to appease the Russian dictator.

Special counsel Robert Mueller will be in a better position to assess that question than the journalists who speculate about it wildly. Meanwhile, after Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, it’s worth remembering that his Russia policy is less of an outlier than some of his critics assume. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama also naively overestimated their ability to charm Mr. Putin.

Mr. Obama’s policy in particular bore similarities to Mr. Trump’s. Both men held Washington’s foreign-policy establishment (“the blob” or “the deep state”) in contempt. Both came to the job with a belief that their unique life stories and personal qualities would enable them to transform global politics in a historic way. Both were willing to accept a Russian presence in Syria and to overlook Russian complicity in Bashar Assad’s atrocities. Long after the 2009 “reset” failed, Mr. Obama was willing to flout domestic public opinion to make concessions to Russia. As he whispered to Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012: “This is my last election. . . . After my election I have more flexibility,” on issues like missile defense.

While the press celebrated rather than pilloried him for it, Mr. Obama also made overtures to a U.S. adversary (Iran) over the heads of longtime allies (Israel and the Gulf states). Mr. Trump’s Russia overtures over Germany’s head are just as ill-considered.

What differentiates Mr. Trump from Mr. Obama most sharply is his approach to Europe. Mr. Obama saw Europe as a rich and generally well-intentioned part of the world that punches well below its weight in world affairs. Mr. Trump’s view has been profoundly influenced by hard-core Brexiteers like Nigel Farage and anti-Islamist campaigners who see in the EU a mix of fecklessness in defending Western values and ruthlessness in promoting its own bureaucratic power.

Similarly, both Mr. Trump and the Brexiteers see the EU as a screen for German domination of the Continent. And Mr. Trump’s concern that “excessive” levels of migrants from Islamic countries threaten the social cohesion of Western societies tallies with the views of politicians in countries across Europe who resent German power and fear the imposition of post-Christian, postnationalist values through the EU.

From this perspective, Mr. Putin looks less like a malign force bent on dismantling the cathedral of liberty and more like an unsavory but potentially useful partner. After all, the one indisputable success of the EU is forming a bloc that can collectively resist American pressure on trade. Mr. Trump sees the trade balance as a fundamental inequity in the trans-Atlantic relationship. From this mercantilist perspective, cooperating with Mr. Putin’s anti-EU agenda is appealing to the president.

A fresh start with Russia appears to be as much of an idée fixe for Mr. Trump as outreach to Iran was for his predecessor. Mr. Obama never fully appreciated that the U.S. political system limits the ability of presidents to bring about diplomatic revolutions in the teeth of congressional resistance. It remains to be seen whether and how quickly Mr. Trump will grasp this important truth.

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