Deal or No Deal

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When it comes to Russia, though, Trump is taking a very different approach. Rather than talking tough, in a way that will put pressure on Vladimir Putin to improve relations with the U.S. or else, he is all carrot and no stick. In response to the intelligence community’s devastating report on the Russian cyber-interference in our election, Trump did not come down hard on the meddling Russian strongman. Rather he attacked Putin’s critics, tweeting, “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!”

This is a puzzling giveaway of negotiating leverage. Trump is making clear that his primary goal is to have a “good relationship with Russia,” seemingly at any cost. This is repeating the same mistake often made by liberal politicians who think that getting along with other countries should be a goal in and of itself. Conservatives have generally believed, by contrast, that the U.S. goal should be to achieve its foreign policy objectives—and that while good relations with other countries are certainly preferable, that objective should not be pursued at the cost of sacrificing vital American interests.

There is some analogy here to the way that President Obama defined his foreign policy goal as “ending wars,” rather than achieving U.S. objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was able to unilaterally withdraw U.S. troops—but only at the cost of sacrificing American goals of maintaining security and stability in those countries. The result was not a decreasing tide of war but fresh conflict driven by groups like ISIS.

Trump can certainly achieve “better relations” with the Kremlin by taking certain steps, such as lifting economic sanctions that would endear him to Putin. But doing so is not in America’s interest as long as Putin continues to violate Ukrainian sovereignty, commit war crimes in Syria, or meddle in Western democratic processes, either in the United States or Europe. Rather, Trump’s goal should be to achieve a “deal”—really, a modus vivendi—on America’s terms. These should include, at a minimum, objectives such as an end to Russian aggression against Ukraine, a promise not to interfere in future Western elections, and a willingness to ease Bashar Assad out of power. Putin will balk at such conditions, but only by insisting on them will Trump get any concessions at all.

That’s certainly how Ronald Reagan approached relations with the Soviet Union. He didn’t come into office expressing his wish to revive détente. He realized that, to truly improve relations with Moscow, he would have to make Soviet leaders have greater respect for the United States. Hence his defense buildup, his support of anti-Communist rebels from Nicaragua to Afghanistan, and his talk tough about the “evil empire.” Reagan was always ready to walk away from the bargaining table if the deal on offer was one-sided. At the Reykjavik summit in 1986, for example, Reagan refused to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative as the cost of an agreement with Gorbachev, even though he was subjected to predictable criticism for hanging tough. Reagan’s willingness to stick to his guns eventually convinced Gorbachev to give in, setting the conditions for the peaceful end of the Cold War.

No end to the new Cold War is in sight today because Putin is a more malevolent figure than Gorbachev, but at the very least it should be possible to get the Russian dictator to decrease his hostile acts. However, President Trump won’t achieve that objective if gives the impression that he is desperate to do a deal at any cost. You would think as a veteran dealmaker he would understand that.

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