China, China, China. The coronavirus crisis and China’s inexorable rise has made the country the top foreign policy issue in the upcoming US presidential election. Look, I get it: China is huge, threatening, and full of infectious diseases. Western policymakers certainly have to do some hard thinking on China.
But there is little at stake for China policy in this election. Instead, the main foreign policy decision for the American people this year is about Russia.
Presidential campaign rhetoric on China shows few policy differences between the candidates and a lot of macho posturing. President Donald Trump and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, basically agree that the Chinese regime is awful. They only really fight about who will be tougher on China. The American people will not be making a fundamental choice on China policy in November.
On Russia, by contrast, the choice could hardly be starker. Trump and Biden see Russia and particularly its president, Vladimir Putin, in diametrically opposed ways. Trump sees a strongman with whom he can make deals; Biden sees a reckless, cruel regime led by a dictatorial leader that is, by its very nature, opposed to American values and interests. The November election could well determine whether Russia becomes a US partner or a US enemy, with striking implications for Europe.
Trump on Russia
The Trump administration’s approach to Russia over the last three and half years has been a study in contradiction. In its details, the policy has broadly reflected the bipartisan consensus in Washington that Russia is a malign actor and a national security threat to the United States. Obama-era economic sanctions against Russia have remained in place and become even tougher. The administration has increased military assistance to Eastern Europe and sent arms to Ukraine. The most recent US National Security Strategy, released in 2017, identified Russia as a strategic competitor and a revisionist power that threatens the integrity of Western democracy.
But all of this has been undermined by the president himself. Trump has treated Putin and Russia with rare politesse, even deference. Unlike virtually every other world leader, Trump has refrained from criticising Putin personally and sided with him over the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election. Trump has advocated that the G7 readmit Russia and frequently opposed congressional efforts to sanction or otherwise crack down on the country for its various geopolitical sins. His recalcitrance forced a Republican Congress to take the unprecedented step of passing sanctions legislation that contains essentially no executive waiver. In Trump’s speech introducing the hard-line National Security Strategy, Trump hardly mentioned the Russian threat, focusing instead on how to establish partnerships with Russia and China. He mostly referenced Russia to crow about a congratulatory phone call he had with Putin over a foiled terrorist plot.
The Trump administration’s approach to Russia over the last three and half years has been a study in contradiction.
These contradictions result in part from the constraints on the president created by accusations that his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. And Trump lacked people in key positions in his government who shared his accommodating vision of Russia and were willing to quietly implement a Russia-friendly foreign policy. He did not have a sufficient understanding of the workings of government to force even his own appointees to implement policies they opposed. Thus, so far, Trump’s Russia policy has been the product of political pressure, internal opposition, and bureaucratic incompetence.
But this situation is unlikely to persist into a second term. With the failure of impeachment, Trump has put the Russia scandal behind him. Over time, the so-called grown-ups have left the room. The Trump administration is now staffed by people who are willing and increasingly able to implement policy aligned with his desires – without any inconvenient recourse to personal belief, conscience, or congressional subpoena.
One can already see the effect of this new breed of ultra-subservient staffers. Much of the Trump administration’s vaunted increase in military assistance to Eastern Europe, the so-called European Deterrence Initiative, has been quietly diverted to fund the border wall with Mexico. It seems likely that, in a second term, Trump would use the relative lack of political pressure and his increased control over the government to establish a condominium with Putin’s Russia, effectively agreeing to a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. This would be unlikely to spell an abrupt end to NATO, but it would divest the organisation of much of its purpose and probably signal a slow descent into irrelevance.
Biden on Russia
Biden, by contrast, has been a picture of consistency (and antipathy) towards Russia. As a 20-year veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine after the Russian annexation of Crimea, he has a long record of hostility toward the Putin regime. Russia’s interference in the 2016 election in favour of Trump only reinforced his deep distaste for Putin. At the 2016 Democratic convention, Biden specifically noted Trump’s affinity for the Russian president to demonstrate his unfitness for office: “we cannot elect a man who belittles our closest allies while embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin.”
Lest that message was unclear, Biden and Michael Carpenter published in 2018 an article in Foreign Affairs entitled: “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin – Defending Democracy Against Its Enemies”. They lambasted Trump for not taking the Russian threat seriously and advocated an alternative Russia policy based on continued sanctions, a strengthened NATO, and a robust defence of democracy. Possibly anticipating Trump’s impulse to sell out Eastern Europe, Biden and Carpenter repeated Biden’s 2009 pledge that: “we will not recognise any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.”
The emphasis on alliances and defending democracy reflects an emerging view in Democratic foreign policy circles that the new global struggle is between authoritarianism and democracy. America must once again, in Biden’s words, lead “the free world to push back against rising authoritarianism”. This new struggle fits very well into the cold war paradigm in which Biden came of age, with the role of the communist Soviet Union now played by an authoritarian Russia (and China). Cold war 2.0 will thus follow a similar script as the first one. It will require US leadership to sustain a strong alliance of democracies in a generational, global struggle against an implacable ideological foe.
Elections have consequences
The 2020 election will, therefore, likely determine whether America seeks a deal with Russia to carve up Europe into spheres of influence or launches a new, ideological cold war against the country. It is a stark choice.
It is unlikely that either choice will improve security or stability in Europe. Neither Trump’s volatile self-absorption nor Biden’s Manichean fervour represents a sound basis for a policy on Russia. Worse, in the US, Russia policy has become primarily a domestic political issue. So, whatever choice the American people make in November runs the risk of a sudden reversal by the next president.
Of course, the issue of Russia also generates divisions within Europe. If Europeans want to avoid following the American president down one or another blind alley of US domestic politics, they will have to seek greater internal unity and their own policy of tough engagement along the lines that French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed. In that case, they could hope to bring America along and forge a transatlantic approach to Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.