If Trump Tries to Make a Deal With Putin, He’s Already Lost

The international order is based on values, institutions, and moral leadership — not transactional politics.


President Donald Trump believes that he can transfer his main professed skill in the private sector — deal-making — to the world of foreign policy. But foreign policy, and the diplomacy that supports it, cannot be reduced to cutting businesslike deals alone. When making short-term deals trumps long-term strategy, America loses. And this will create problems for the new president and his administration as they seek to implement their “America First” agenda.

Perhaps nowhere is Trump’s dangerous approach to foreign policy more concerning than in his apparent desire to accommodate Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It’s unclear whether Trump’s views are the product of foolishness or of Russian coercive leverage over him. But it’s not only his views on Putin and the Kremlin’s motives that should disturb all Americans. It’s that he has repeatedly talked about making deals as the way to improve the relationship.

What kind of deals would these be? We should all be concerned by what the president would be ready to give up to his Russian counterpart in order to reach an easy agreement. So far, Trump’s comments suggest that he’d be willing to trade away the two intertwined aspects of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II: strategic investment in a rules-based system of international politics and moral leadership grounded in a commitment to human dignity and freedom.

Never short on self-confidence, Trump may think he’s ready to sit down with Putin, put everything on the table, and come out a winner. Sadly, Trump appears to be moving forward with this flawed idea. At his Jan. 27 news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump — after awkwardly reading his scripted remarks about the importance of the special relationship with the United Kingdom based on universal values — reaffirmed his desire to make nice with Putin, suggesting that the United States, on his watch, might have relationships with Russia and China that were just as strong as that with Britain. How quickly he forgot that our relationship with London is based on shared values and investment in the post-World War II system.

On Jan. 28, Trump pressed on during a phone call with Putin, just a day after Trump’s senior advisor told a morning show that removing sanctions on Russia was “under consideration.” According to readouts of the call, Trump and Putin had a pleasant back-and-forth and agreed to further talks on counterterrorism cooperation. And the two presidents agreed to discuss “restoring business ties” — code for, among other things, removing sanctions — Dmitri Novikov, a leading member of Russia’s Parliament, told Interfax.

Don’t be fooled. This isn’t statesmanship — it’s selling America’s hard-won leadership in the world, and selling it cheap. And to do that for a handshake with an autocrat like Putin isn’t just a shameful deal, it’s a bad deal.

Trump may think he’s being clever by baiting Putin with the notion of the United States accepting the illegal invasion and attempted annexation of Crimea, or with ending the sanctions for Russia’s actions on the peninsula and its manufactured conflict in eastern Ukraine. But what Trump and his team seem to have missed is that the moment they sit down to do deals — the sort of deals that Putin wants (like throwing out the principle that states should be free to choose their own security arrangements or accepting Russian limitations on NATO’s defensive posture) — America will already have lost.

This is because it doesn’t matter what price Trump and his team extract from the Kremlin. By doing deals with Putin that undermine the principles of international law, such as lifting sanctions prematurely or changing U.S. policy on Crimea, the White House will have bought into a system based on deals rather than on rules. And it’s exactly this kind of deal-making devoid of principles that Putin and other authoritarian leaders want, and that those working on behalf of world peace, global prosperity, and human freedom have toiled so hard to leave behind.

This isn’t to say that the Trump administration should not engage in dialogue and negotiations with Moscow. The United States should be ready to negotiate on concrete initiatives that can advance international peace and security — as my team at the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe did to achieve the mandate and budget for the organization’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine — and agreements to counter foreign terrorist fighters, make progress on good governance, and fight anti-Semitism, among other things. These initiatives set a common agenda, with benchmarks and action items for which we can hold other countries — and they can hold us — accountable. But to negotiate with the Kremlin over the fundamental principles of the international system in which generations of U.S. political leaders and diplomats have invested so much is to lose before talks even begin.

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American leadership, in concert with close partners and allies, and backed by American hard power and the NATO alliance, helped to build a system where the kind of deal-making (and inevitable deal-breaking) that had bloodied Europe for centuries would be left behind. Although Putin would like a “Yalta 2” — a 21st-century grand bargain dividing Europe into spheres of influence — to engage in such deal-making would be an unconscionable abandonment of American moral leadership, and one that leaves the world more dangerous.

The consequences of abandoning these principles wouldn’t be limited to Europe. The Chinese are certainly watching the U.S. commitment to defend the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity in Ukraine as Beijing plots its next moves in the South China Sea. In effect, this would create a new age of uncertainty and usher in a world where anything goes. It’s a world where countries must jockey for the upper hand, including by deploying military capabilities, so that they can be the ones cutting deals rather than be the subject of deals.

This is one of the many things that Trump’s call for an “America First,” isolationist foreign policy gets wrong. One of the great strategic cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy has been the recognition that even in a world where the United States is by far the most powerful country, the interests of the American people are best served by a system that doesn’t depend on transactional encounters and instead creates long-term expectations of state behavior that allows for win-win arrangements. The peace and prosperity that have flowed from such a system has benefited Americans and U.S. allies around the world.

After Trump’s election in November, the diplomats I interacted with on a daily basis had two reactions: The Russian diplomats were gleeful and gloating — not only because the U.S. elections constituted perhaps the most successful Kremlin intel operation since the end of the Cold War, but also because they saw Trump’s desire to appease Putin as a harbinger for the end of American-led solidarity in holding the Kremlin accountable for its violations of international law. They saw a future where Moscow’s willingness to exercise destructive power would facilitate deal-making with the United States at the expense of Europe and its citizens.

The other diplomats — from all across Europe — were shaken and alarmed. First, they worried that the United States, which has been the guarantor of the European security system since World War II, was abandoning them and the rules intended to protect them from external aggression. In Helsinki in 1975, at the height of the Cold War, U.S. President Gerald Ford and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, along with 33 other heads of state and government, signed the Helsinki Final Act — which included commitments to open societies and markets, as well as to peacefully resolve disputes and respect sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ford wisely observed then that the leaders would be measured “not by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.” For more than four decades, the United States has been Europe’s chief partner in upholding the promises made in Helsinki, thereby helping to preserve European security.

But in addition to their very real security concerns, my European counterparts despaired at the loss of an America they respected — an America, imperfect though it was, that could inspire people around the world. Even those diplomats who represented countries where the elites have loved to hate the United States admitted unabashedly that they loved America in the days after Nov. 8. These were diplomats from across Europe and Eurasia: Some represented NATO allies, some represented former Soviet states, some represented neutral or non-aligned countries, some represented our closest friends, and others represented more difficult partners. Within 48 hours, I got text messages and emails from more than a dozen ambassadors. “We all mourn with you” and “We need you, and American values, more than ever,” they wrote. It is not only the economic and military might, but also values — and the degree that our country consistently upholds them — that makes the United States a superpower.

Of course, the new administration must find effective channels of communication with Moscow, and the United States should be prepared to engage with Putin, especially to welcome and encourage actions that show he is ready to remedy some of the damage done by Russia’s attacks on the international order. But America’s objective should always be to reinforce the rules, not rewrite them.

Speaking at his inauguration 36 years ago, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan reminded the American people, “No arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.” The generations-long quest to build a system of international politics that is anchored in this truth has been the moral and strategic bedrock of American foreign policy since World War II, throughout the Cold War and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. America has led the world by standing up for the moral courage of free men and women. We should not stop now.

Photo Credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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