Trump’s Gift to Putin

The President’s Privatized Foreign Policy Is a Boon for Russia

Trump at a campaign rally in Dallas, October 2019 Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

For decades, if not centuries, scholars have debated which matters more in international affairs: structural forces, such as the relative power between states, or the ideas and decisions of individual leaders. But at least as far as the United States is concerned, President Donald Trump may put the debate to rest.

After a slow start, Trump has affected almost every facet of U.S. foreign policy. And the story to date is not an inspiring one. Trump has personalized, privatized, and deinstitutionalized foreign policy to the detriment of the national interest. That trend has accelerated in recent months, culminating in two disastrous missteps vis-à-vis Ukraine and Syria. In the process, the American public has suffered, U.S. allies have lost, and U.S. adversaries have gained—none more so than Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Three years ago, the United States was the world’s most powerful state, capable of influencing outcomes on every continent and every issue area. But from the beginning of his presidency, Trump chose to pull back. He pursued his withdrawal doctrine with vigor, exiting the 12-nation trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership within days of taking office, then going on to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, the Paris climate accord, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. He has since threatened to leave multiple other multilateral organizations and treaties.

And yet there were hints of continuity with previous administrations, at least in the first year of the Trump presidency. Trump’s senior national security officials resembled those of past administrations in their credentials and experience, especially once H. R. McMaster took over as national security advisor in February 2017. And, like his predecessors, Trump did not dismiss the thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of nonpartisan career professionals in the two dozen departments and agencies involved in making and implementing U.S. foreign policy.

Trump’s Russia policy initially differed little from Obama’s.

These forces for continuity—along with the U.S. Congress, independent

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