By David K. Shipler
Most Americans during the Cold War would probably have been stunned to learn that the Soviet Union, also known by Ronald Reagan as the Evil Empire, saw itself as a highly moral enterprise. It regarded its economic and political systems—centrally-planned socialism and the order brought by one-party rule—as the most beneficial for other countries, and it sought global influence not only to enhance its national security but also to spread its ideas of social justice.
It goes without saying that the Soviet system of dictatorship and state-owned production was unjust in the extreme, especially for the little guy. But the Russians’ sense of righteousness was as fervent as the Americans’ reverence for free enterprise and pluralistic democracy. So, pursuing their mirror images of what was best for the world, both Moscow and Washington propagated their beliefs abroad with missionary zeal.
The evangelical streak in Russian foreign policy ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the death of Marxism as a state ideology. True communism, never achieved, withered as a goal at home and abroad. Today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems driven only by a non-ideological impulse to protect its borderlands militarily, promote itself economically, and expand its international reach to recover its reputation from the humiliation of decline.
The United States has also become less ideological in foreign policy, it seems, since President Trump took office. Defense of human rights and the spread of democracy—and even the promotion of capitalism abroad—have taken a back seat to an inchoate campaign of counter-terrorism. To that end, Trump finds no fault with his chums in the authoritarian regimes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example, but cites human rights violations in rolling back relations with Cuba.
Washington was always inconsistent and opportunistic about supporting freedoms. It backed anti-communist dictators during the Cold War, and today Muslim radicals have taken the place of communists as the enemy: Trump shows affinity for strongmen who oppose ISIS and its ilk, and criticizes only those who do not.
In his several trips abroad, Trump has never publically pressed leaders on their domestic rights violations. In fact, even while extolling the virtues of “Western civilization” in Poland last week, he denounced a keystone of those Western freedoms—a freewheeling press—as Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has restricted his country’s news media, nodded in agreement. Giving comfort to aspiring autocrats is worse than silence.
A strong case can be made that American interests and good relations are bolstered with countries that are open, free, and democratic. If you look at the lineup of the world’s nations, that’s been the pattern since World War II. Nevertheless, in the shorter term, the absence of ideological competition between Russia and the US clears the stage for improved relations; Trump admires Putin and is not going to beat up on him over his arrests of political dissidents and suppression of the press. That’s not a moral posture, but it clears away some underbrush impeding pragmatic joint work on mutual problems.
In theory, at least, Moscow and Washington have important overlapping interests: counter-terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, nuclear arms control, security and tranquility in Europe, the threat of North Korean nuclear development, Arctic preservation, climate change, and so on.
The trouble is, Trump has no credibility in seeking softer, cooperative interactions with Moscow, because he looks as if he has been compromised by Putin’s alleged meddling on his behalf in last year’s election. With evidence piling up of Russian attempts to undermine Hillary Clinton, and with US intelligence agencies having detected Russian probes into state voter lists as well as the Democratic National Committee’s emails, a normal president with nothing to hide would adopt a posture of outrage and commitment to prevent future intrusions. Instead, Trump has denied, vacillated, and obfuscated, thereby damaging his national-security standing, even in the eyes of growing numbers in his own Republican party.
While Trump has shifted back and forth on whether the US intelligence agencies are correct in their assessments of Russia’s culpability, he can’t deny the alacrity with which his son, Donald Jr. embraced the prospect of the Russian government helping his father by conveying compromising information on Clinton. “If it’s what you say I love it,” the son emailed to an intermediary proposing a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer. Such was the anticipation of Moscow-generated dirt that Donald Jr. took his father’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner to the meeting. The son has claimed that no specific information about Clinton was provided.
“Most people would’ve taken that meeting,” the president said in Paris, apparently still oblivious to the ethical—and perhaps legal—problem of accepting what he called “opposition research” from a foreign government.
That perpetual obtuseness by Trump is part of what has damaged his credentials as a guardian of American national security. Further, the scandal has tainted the mood in Washington by making mere contacts with Russians appear suspect. This toxic atmosphere of innuendo and guilt by association is unhealthy and dangerous, and practically paralyzing for Trump. How can he conduct productive diplomacy with Moscow? He does not even have the skill to clear the air at home.
If all that we think we know so far about Russia’s election interference is correct, therefore, Putin’s gambit seems to have backfired. If it’s true that Putin really preferred Trump and thought his intrusions to support him could remain secret, then the Russian leader is a good deal less clever than commonly assumed.