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Dr. Robert Kaufman on "How Trump Can Undercut Russian Hysteria at the G-20" | Polizette

How Trump Can Undercut Russian Hysteria at the G-20

Firm commitment to European defense and Ukrainian sovereignty can further dispel soft-on-Putin criticism

July 3, 2017 | Robert G. Kaufman | Polizette

The efficacy of Donald Trump’s presidency will depend, at a minimum, on the administration’s dispelling the corrosive claim of pre-election collusion with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s disinformation campaign to undermine the integrity of American political institutions continues to haunt Trump while facilitating Putin’s ultimate ambition to reverse the outcome of the Cold War.

The president can contribute mightily to rectifying this dangerous dynamic in his talks with Putin at the G-20 summit, where Trump will also meet with other major world leaders, including China’s autocrat, Xi Jinping; Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel; and Japan’s prime minster, Shinzo Abe.

The president must discipline himself to project strategic clarity about America’s interests, America’s resolution to discharge its interests in major geopolitical regions, and his steadiness to stay the course. Otherwise, summits can reinforce negative perceptions that embolden adversaries and demoralize allies. As President Kennedy conceded, his poor performance at the Vienna Summit in April 1961 played a role in Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s underestimating his resolve, culminating in the Cuban missile crisis, which brought both superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.

President Trump inherited what Secretary of Defense James Mattis aptly termed a strategic mess. Eight years of the Obama administration's assault on the moral and material basis of American power created dangerous power vacuums in the world — which anti-American, autocratic, expansionist rogue regimes in Russia, China and Iran strive implacably to fill. Initially, candidate Trump compounded Obama's errors, flattering Putin and disparaging America's global democratic alliances.

The president has made substantial progress rectifying his mistakes, choosing an excellent national security team and reaffirming the importance of NATO. He is backing America's Japanese and South Korean allies in the escalating confrontation with North Korea. And he is reaching out to an acceptably democratic India that shares our values and strategic interests, while substantially increasing defense spending to restore a generous margin of American military pre-eminence.

On the positive side, Trump intends to confront Russia's destabilizing behavior, including cyberwarfare, political subversion, and adventurism, which could result in another war. All this provides a welcome contrast to Obama's reset with Russia, which treated Putin as a partner for peace at the expense of our democratic allies and our self-interest, rightly understood.

Yet legitimate questions persist about whether President Trump has entirely shed his previous illusions about Putin, which, at their worst, resembled President Obama's. According to a recent report from David Nakamura of The Washington Post, Trump still hopes to foster "areas of Russian-American cooperation," among them "North Korea" and "Syria."

It is a triumph of hope over experience to expect such cooperation or to make any concession for such a counterfeit illusion. As long as Putin remains in power, Russia will be an adversary. Putin has cheered China's relentless campaign to displace the United States as the dominant power in East Asia. Likewise, Russia seeks to displace the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in the Middle East — using negotiations to tranquilize us to the danger, while aiding and abetting Assad's murderous tyranny and Iran's fanatical, revolutionary, anti-American theocracy.

Above all, Trump should use the G-20 summit to categorically oppose Putin's illegal, immoral and perilous campaign to subvert Ukraine's independence. The late Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, accurately foresaw why Putin would regard Russian domination of Ukraine as key to achieving his grand design: "Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian Empire…. However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with….major resources as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia." 

Russia’s domination of Ukraine would adversely transform the European balance of power, imperiling the independence of Russia’s neighbors in the region, including democratic Eastern European allies that President Ronald Reagan liberated from Soviet tyranny. Collectively, the United States and our NATO allies have a vast preponderance of resources to stop a corrupt, demographically declining Russian regime in its tracks, averting a moral as well as geopolitical catastrophe. No people have suffered more from Russian oppression in various configurations than those of Ukraine.

This should entail Trump’s reaffirming unequivocally our commitment to honor Article 5 of NATO, which obliges us to defend all its members against Russian attack. This requires Trump to reverse Obama’s dishonorable and unwise decision to cancel the deployment of missile defense in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

This also calls for Trump to cease denigrating NATO, which — for all its flaws — remains vital for keeping the United States in Europe, keeping the Russians out, and ensuring a democratic Germany decent to its people and neighbors. Although Trump should also press our Western European allies to stop shirking their responsibilities to pay more for their own defense and to confront rather than appease radical Islam, our unshakable resolve to act as Europe’s default power is a small price to pay for the benefits.

Trump’s reassertion of American power and resolve at the G-20 summit would reap huge dividends domestically, too. The president would vindicate the integrity of America’s political institutions, along with his own. His legion of domestic critics could not legitimately argue with that outcome. Nor would our allies.

Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”