Changing course.

Photographer: Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

Trump Has Made Russia the Top Foreign Policy Issue

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
Read More.
a | A

For 40 years after World War II, the dominant national security issue for any new U.S. administration was dealing the Soviet Union. After a quarter-century hiatus, it's deja vu.

Donald Trump has praised President Vladimir Putin and nominated a secretary of state and a national security adviser with Russian connections. The president-elect has consistently rejected most criticism of Putin, including high-level intelligence reports that Russia illicitly hacked into private e-mails to try to affect U.S. elections.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

This has overshadowed the most pressing short-term challenge -- battling Islamic terrorism -- and the biggest long-term concern, dealing with China, the other 21st-century superpower along with the U.S.

But the most pressing question after Inauguration Day will be Russia and the intentions and motives of the new U.S. president. For secretary of state, Trump ended up picking Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil chief executive officer, who has done a lot of business with Russia and who was awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin. The runner-up for the job was Mitt Romney, who described Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" when he was the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. (The potential Romney appointment may have been a setup: A Trump confidant said the president-elect just wanted to "torture" Romney, who had criticized him during the campaign.)

It is indisputable that Trump is enamored of Putin. He really believes the Russians, who also face a threat from Islamic terrorists, can be important allies in that fight.

Moreover, the president-elect likes authoritarian figures. He has indicated that he believes the world would be less dangerous if Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi were still in power and that he would have no problem with a Syria deal that keeps the dictator Bashar al-Assad in control.

Putin has become a folk hero to right-wing white nationalists in Europe and America; many in this group also like Trump.

Trump says he wants to "get along" with Russia and expresses little support for the tough economic sanctions that President Barack Obama and the European Union imposed after Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. Even some supporters of those actions cite the need to bolster U.S.,-Russian relations, now at the lowest point since the Cold War. The U.S. and Russia have the the biggest nuclear arsenals and are both major players in the Middle East, so it's hard for them to avoid one another. Sure, Putin is a thug, but so were the Soviet dictators that every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan dealt with.

Dimitri Simes, a Russian emigre, former top adviser to Richard Nixon and an advocate of closer ties, argues that "major irritants" in the relationship could be lifted thanks to the president-elect's aversion to democracy-promotion programs, military interventions and skepticism about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's mission.

Nonetheless, there are fears that Trump's excessive eagerness to do a deal could result in an agreement that disproportionately favors Russia: for example, phasing out the sanctions in return for Putin's reiteration of a commitment to align with the U.S. in the war against terrorism.

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2011 to 2014 and now a Russia scholar at Stanford University, says any arrangement along those lines "would be a bad deal for America and a fantastic victory for Putin. He annexed and invaded another country and got away with it."

Rather than focus on getting along better, McFaul said the U.S. "should figure out what outcomes we want and when that would involve getting along and when it would involve confrontation."

The U.S. and Russia both face threats but have some significantly different approaches to Islamic terrorism and other issues. In Syria, Putin's forces are killing anti-Assad rebels that America considers the preferred opposition.

And, of course, there are the overwhelming indications that the Russians, probably under Putin's direction, interfered with the U.S. presidential election by hacking into the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and top party officials and leaked negative information. Trump has dismissed these intelligence findings.

These tensions will be aired during the Tillerson confirmation hearings where the nominee will have to go beyond simply differentiating between the role of CEO and that of America's top diplomat. If he continues to take a soft line on the economic sanctions and if he plays down Russian hacking, his approval could be jeopardized.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan's policy in dealing with the Soviet Union was "trust but verify." Putin critics fear Trump may neglect the second part.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net