President Trump’s upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin brings us back to the basics of sane foreign policy. Since they’re often contested by ideologues, let me review them before making suggestions on what the president should press for during that meeting.
Foreign policy is complicated. Enormously more so than the budget or social issues. That’s true for a simple reason: There is no ruling authority in international politics. No Supreme Court or Congress or president can step in and make a binding decision. Instead of a global government, we face what “realist” theorists call “anarchy.” It resolves itself into order through a clash of forces, whether by peaceful or martial means.
That’s not great, of course. It’s the cause of great power rivalries, massive military spending, and periodic wars.
However, this imperfect outcome is better than the alternative: a worldwide monopoly of power. Establishing such a system has been the fever-dream of globalists for centuries, often under the guise of imposing noble ideals or preserving peace. Candidates for global imperium tend to attract their fair share of courtiers. That’s why there was never a shortage of intellectuals ready to flatter and serve the Chinese emperor or Soviet premier in past decades and centuries — or the United Nations today. From the 1990s up through quite recently, most of the Republican chattering classes were caught up in the dream that the U.S. could serve such a role. That dream didn’t quite die in the howling sands of Iraq, but it lost much of its luster.
Look past the high-flown rhetoric. In fact, such an outcome is much more likely to turn out like some dystopian sci-fi movie: a universal tyranny from which there’s quite literally no escape on earth.
Nor would even the citizens of the dominant power live well under such a system. They’d be crushed by taxes, pressed into military service, and resented around the world.
Americans recognized this when they made the clear, definitive choice of Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, then the presidency. He laid out a starkly different course for the country in global affairs than rivals such as Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham—and again from liberal globalist Hillary Clinton.
Nor should we radically simplify global affairs through the crude expedient of demonizing our rivals. It’s all too easy to weaponize our country’s
And part of reality is that America has genuine concrete interests. And so do other countries. Sometimes they clash. To imagine that every time that happens is a replay of the Western powers facing Nazi Germany in the early 1930s is to drink intellectual Kool-Aid. It clouds our vision of the facts, infuriates foreigners, and is often so plainly untrue that it generates toxic cynicism.
Or worse, by identifying our interests with abstract “values,” it can lead us to neglect key issues of national interest, subordinating them to the dictates of some Kantian checklist, better suited to the United Federation of Planets than the United States of America. We just endured eight long dismal years of that under Barack Obama. Neither the U.S. nor vulnerable people around the world were any the better for it.
With all this in mind, we can view Putin’s Russia and the challenge it presents with clear-eyed honesty.
I will start off by rebuking a few people on my own side of this quarrel, namely a small but loud faction of conservatives. No, Vladimir Putin is not a benevolent would-be ally, the champion of religious conservatism, and European strength against the march of radical Islam on the one hand, and George Soros-led globalism on the other. Buy into that myth, and instead of believing Jeb Bush’s PR, you’re believing Vladimir Putin’s.
Putin’s regime is deeply corrupt, often thuggish, and dependent on the goodwill of crony capitalists who stole much of Russia’s wealth in the 1990s—under the guise of “privatization” led by American experts like Jeffrey Sachs. Putin is more than willing to murder his journalist critics, gin up fake elections, and of course as Ukrainians know, invade his neighbors.
Beyond that, Russia has genuine interests that often clash with America’s. Putin sees (as the tsars saw before him, then Stalin saw) that it benefits Russia to accomplish all of the following:
None of these outcomes would benefit American interests.
On many of these points we can come up with moral arguments that persuade us, but not the Russians. But that is pointless, since the high-minded reasons we give for them are not what motivates us, as the rest of the world well knows. We might as well know that too. We oppose these outcomes because they weaken the U.S. and its allies. Period. The rest is agitprop—a word we learned from the Russian.
Having stipulated all this, there are also areas of common ground between American interests as Trump sees them and Russian interests. There are issues on which we can give, so long as we get something in return. The status of the Crimea, for instance, which was part of Russia longer than the United States has held Texas.
There are many other examples.
We might well consider, for instance, splitting Russia from Turkey by pivoting toward Russia. A rogue NATO member that ethnically cleanses Syrian Christians, uses Muslim migrants to extort the EU for payoffs, imprisons thousands of journalists and persecutes religious minorities is a greater long-term threat to Europe than a demographically declining Russia.
A deal with Putin might be the indispensable factor in toppling the mullahs in Teheran, cutting off the source of Shia-linked terror attacks on Israel and Sunni Arab allies.
The prospect of common ground was possible even when the Soviet Union promised to “bury” us, and it’s all the more possible now. We are no longer in a Cold War with a militarily equal power committed to advancing totalitarian revolutions around the world. In that sense, Russia is now a normal country. We can and should pursue normal relations with it, not pretend that we must maintain the same vigilance against it that was merited in 1950, 1960, or 1980. We can’t let the stale intellectual and rhetorical habits of Russia-bashing, still common in neoconservative circles, distort our thinking.
John Zmirak is co-author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration.