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U.S. President Donald Trump shocked the world earlier this week when, standing side by side with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he refused to accept the basic facts of the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump appeared to back Putin over his own intelligence community, saying during a press conference in Helsinki, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that hacked into Democratic Party servers. In that one answer, Trump guaranteed that the Helsinki summit would become a historic moment in U.S.-Russian relations. Although he later tried to reverse course by claiming he misspoke, the damage was done. Never in previous summits with Kremlin leaders had an American president looked so weak.
The controversy surrounding the press conference is more than understandable, but it should not overshadow another, perhaps more consequential, source of U.S. weakness on display in Helsinki. In the face of a growing Russian threat to the interests of the United States at home and around the globe, Washington still lacks anything resembling a grand strategy to meet it. Trump’s Helsinki performance showed the world that a year and a half into his administration, he has yet even to start crafting an approach. Unless that changes, as I argue in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs (“Russia as It Is”), U.S. interests will be further compromised and Putin will be further emboldened.
Trump’s questioning of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment at the summit was all the more alarming given the long-standing and well-documented evidence for Russian interference. A year and a half before the summit, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published an unclassified report that stated clearly and definitely that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” It went on: “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.” The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence affirmed the report’s findings in its investigation, stating, “The Committee believes the conclusions of the ICA are sound, and notes that collection and analysis subsequent to the ICA’s publication continue to reinforce its assessments.” And just days before the Trump-Putin summit, Special Counsel Robert Mueller added amazing details to the Russian operation when publishing an indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers who took part in it.
Putin had clearly ordered an attack on the sovereignty of the United States designed to help Trump win the election. Yet when asked about this Russian operation with the whole world watching at the Helsinki summit, Trump equivocated, saying that he had confidence in both parties. Trump’s answer must have surprised even Putin, but it most certainly jolted Americans watching, triggering widespread condemnation by members of Congress, former national security officials, and foreign policy experts. Republican Senator John McCain called Trump’s statement in Helsinki “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Former CIA Director John Brennan went even further, calling Trump’s press conference performance “nothing short of treasonous.” The press conference triggered a more intense search of explanations for Trump’s views on Russia. More and more commentators started to speculate about ties between the Russian government and the U.S. president forged during the 2016 presidential campaign, and maybe even earlier.
In the face of a growing Russian threat to the interests of the United States at home and around the globe, Washington still lacks anything resembling a grand strategy to meet it.
Trump’s performance was also telling in what it said about the greater U.S. approach to Russia. The juxtaposition of his public statements with his own administration’s stated policies underscores the dangers of not developing a grand strategy. In some actions, the administration appears to be following a strategy of containment. It has continued several policy initiatives of deterrence adopted by the Obama administration in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, such as imposing sanctions on Russian individuals and companies, strengthening NATO, and assisting Ukraine. In a few policy areas, the Trump administration has even gone beyond what the Obama administration was prepared to do, including, most importantly, the provision of lethal assistance to Ukraine and the closing of Russian consulates in San Francisco and Seattle.
When Trump speaks about his personal approach to Russia, however, he often contradicts his administration’s policies, as was on vivid display at the Helsinki summit. At the press conference, he not only refused to affirm the facts about Russian actions during the 2016 presidential election but did not denounce Crimean annexation, Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s unwavering support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or a whole host of other belligerent Russian activities around the world. Instead of containment, Trump made clear that he wants to befriend Putin. Instead of labeling Putin an adversary, he called him a “good competitor” and meant that as a compliment. And as he has done for years, Trump reiterated that it would be a “good thing” if the United States and Russia got along. Even advisers in his own government told reporters after the summit that Trump was riffing, not following the agreed-upon script for the Helsinki summit. The Trump administration thus has two Russia policies, not one.
There is nothing wrong with simultaneously using both engagement and containment means for pursuing U.S. foreign policy objectives with respect to Russia. During the Cold War, American and Soviet leaders met at summits even when the consensus, bipartisan grand strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union was containment. But Trump’s approach to engagement, at least as practiced in Helsinki, was different from the Cold War encounters in two important ways. First, no American president during the Cold War lavished praise on his Soviet counterparts as being great or strong leaders. That came after the end of the Cold War.
Second, previous American presidents both during and after the Cold War used summits to pursue concrete U.S. foreign policy objectives, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. In Helsinki, the goals of engagement were not clear, and no concrete deliverables were produced as a result of the meeting. Even the agenda moving forward was vague. The only concrete productive proposal hinted at by Putin was a suggestion to negotiate an extension to the New START treaty.
On issues where the bilateral agenda for cooperation was more granular in Helsinki, the “deals” proposed sounded dangerous. Most disturbing, it appears that Trump and Putin discussed the possibility of having Mueller and his investigative team interview Russian military intelligence officers indicted for conspiracy against the United States in return for Russian legal authorities having the opportunity to interview U.S. government and former government officials (including the author) regarding alleged money laundering out of Russia by British businessman Bill Browder and his firm, Hermitage Capital Management. To add to the craziness of this story, Putin suggested that Browder used some of these alleged laundered funds to finance the Clinton campaign in 2016. There is no equivalency whatsoever between Russian government operatives violating U.S. sovereignty during a presidential election and the completely invented Russian allegations against Browder and U.S. government officials who supposedly helped him. Putin appears to have lied to Trump about Browder and his alleged confederates as a way to silence Putin critics. Yet at the Helsinki press conference, Trump called this outrageous Putin proposal “an interesting idea.” And who knows what other “interesting ideas” were discussed behind closed doors when the two presidents met one-on-one. Already, the Russian government is affirming its commitments to implement the security agreements negotiated in Helsinki, yet Americans have yet to learn what security agreements were discussed. Presidential engagement that produces these kinds of outcomes does not advance but undermines U.S. national interests.
Finally, the absence of a coherent, unified grand strategy for dealing with Russia makes it difficult to forge bipartisan support at home or allied support abroad. The beauty of the elastic term “containment” during the Cold War was that U.S. presidents and their partisan opponents outside of government could at least agree on the basic strategy, even when arguing over some of the concrete policy issues. What is striking today, especially after the Helsinki summit, is how little support Trump has generated for his Russia policy even within his own party, let alone among Democrats or allies.
To be effective over the long run in containing Putin’s Russia, the United States needs unity at home and support from allies abroad. A necessary step for advancing this united front is agreement on the basic tenets of the strategy. Conceptual work for devising such a grand strategy needs to be done now more than ever, especially in the wake of the Helsinki summit, even if the product of such strategizing might become usable only after the Trump administration.