It now seems obvious, if it wasn’t already, that Donald Trump is determined to pursue a policy of early and eager engagement with Russia. The signs are legion: the ongoing bromance with Vladimir Putin during the campaign, the appalling indifference to Russian meddling in the U.S. election, the proposal to condone Russia’s brutal military tactics and pursue counter-terrorism cooperation in Syria and perhaps elsewhere, and the forewarning that sanctions against Moscow may not be long for this world.
Most recently, there have been the rumors — unconfirmed, but apparently well-sourced — of an early Trump-Putin summit in Reykjavik, a location undoubtedly intended to evoke memories of the Reagan-Gorbachev diplomacy that helped end the Cold War. The sad irony, however, is that such a meeting, as well as the broader diplomatic approach that Trump seems set on taking, would be a slur against Ronald Reagan’s legacy. Such steps would forsake the very approach that made his transformative diplomacy successful and risk severe damage to the international order that Reagan’s successes helped construct.
Nearly 30 years after he left office, Reagan remains the odd U.S. political figure whose foreign policy achievements are often invoked as a model by those on the left and right alike. Yet too often, neither side wholly appreciates the fullness of Reagan’s approach that I discussed in my recent book, Making the Unipolar Moment. President Obama has touted Reagan’s engagement of the “evil empire” while eliding the policies of confrontation that preceded it. Republicans continually laud Reagan’s moral clarity and rebuilding of American strength, neglecting that he was also willing — in the service of reducing international tensions and ending the Cold War — to shake hands and make nice with the leaders of one of the vilest political systems in human history.
In reality, Reagan’s strategy was based upon the seemingly simple but actually fairly sophisticated concept of “peace through strength,” with both of the nouns in that phrase being essential, and the latter enabling the former. Even before he became president, Reagan understood the dangers of unconstrained hostility between the United States and its fellow nuclear superpower, and he was determined to achieve the eventual reduction of Cold War tensions. From the outset of his presidency, he even carried on a polite, if frequently pointed, correspondence with Soviet leaders in hopes of setting the stage for productive diplomacy.
But Reagan was equally determined that any reduction in tensions come on American, not Russian, terms, and so he understood that the sequencing of U.S. policy was essential. He believed that his administration must restore U.S. and Western strength before any eventual summit with Moscow. He knew that he had to set the geopolitical table in such a way that the United States could demand and achieve high standards in U.S.-Soviet diplomacy, whether the subject was arms control, human rights and political liberalization within the Soviet Union, or the settlement of ongoing East-West conflicts in the Third World.
To this end, Reagan ultimately deferred a summit with the top Soviet leadership until 1985 and used the intervening time to launch a multi-pronged strategic offensive against Moscow. The administration undertook the largest peacetime military buildup in American history and used covert support for anti-communist insurgents to pressure Soviet clients and positions in the Third World. Under Reagan, the United States also worked to strengthen the cohesion of the Atlantic alliance, and it encouraged political ferment within the Soviet Union by supporting political dissidents and the cause of human rights. Finally, the Reagan administration conducted a full-fledged rhetorical onslaught against Moscow as a way of making clear that the Soviet regime would not enjoy international legitimacy until its behavior changed.
In nearly all of these areas, Reagan was able to build on initial steps taken by Jimmy Carter, a man he defeated in the presidential election of 1980 and whose legacy he had often publicly derided. And combined with the acceleration of Soviet economic and political decline, the result was that, by the time Reagan and Gorbachev began the whirlwind diplomacy that would see them meet five times in four years beginning in 1985, the strategic context was set for historic American successes. The United States able to secure transformative breakthroughs on arms control (namely, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1988, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear delivery vehicles) and other issues, all on terms that fundamentally improved the security of the United States and its allies and helped bring about the highly advantageous post-Cold War world we have enjoyed for roughly a quarter-century.
Fast forward to today, and Trump seems determined to ignore all the key lessons of Reagan’s diplomacy and instead pursue engagement with Moscow in a way that would have been anathema to the 40th president. Consider the following ways in which Trump’s approach has been anything but “peace through strength.”
First, even before he was elected, Trump worked hard to forfeit any moral or ideological superiority the United States might wield in dealing with Russia by asserting that he sees no moral difference between America’s democracy and Russia’s autocratic kleptocracy. Second, he has labored assiduously to weaken the most useful geopolitical constraint on a revisionist Russia by making clear that he values relations with Moscow more than he cares for the NATO allies Vladimir Putin now threatens. Third, Trump is now taking actions that further undercut U.S. leverage with Russia by signaling his desire to remove sanctions or other measures that might exert pressure on Putin. This contrasts markedly — and perplexingly — with his approach to China, which seems intended to ratchet up pressure in advance of any potential future talks.
Fourth, rather than creating a climate in which Russian violations of international norms are penalized — as was the case in the 1980s — Trump is creating a climate of Kremlin impunity. He is doing so by making clear that he has no desire to punish something so grave as interference in America’s democratic process, an approach contrary to some of the statements of his top appointed advisers. And he is also doing do by repeatedly stating that he plans to undertake counter-terrorism cooperation that will simply reward the butchery that Russian forces have helped perpetrate in Syria. Finally, although Trump has pledged to raise defense spending — a badly needed change that could be quite helpful in setting conditions for effective diplomacy with Moscow — he seems determined to race to the summit with Putin before this or any other move that might strengthen the U.S. position can take effect.
A smart diplomatic strategy would seek to maximize American power and leverage, and improve the collective force and solidity of America’s international coalition, prior to engaging a shrewd and ruthless tyrant. The idea that power and strength are prerequisites to effective deal-making made sense in Reagan’s day. It makes sense today, as well. Trump’s position, however, seems likely to demoralize America’s allies, weaken America’s negotiating position, and give Putin renewed international legitimacy and an end to punishing economic sanctions without exacting any sort of meaningful price. It seems incredible that there could even be a diplomatic strategy that would allow the United States to be bested by a country that has an economy the size of Spain’s and seems slated for continued, long-term economic and demographic decline. But if there is such a strategy, Trump seems bent on finding it.
The significance of this, unfortunately, goes far beyond U.S.-Russia relations. We live in a moment at which the tectonic plates of history are shifting as aggressive, revisionist powers test the contours of the post-Cold War system. A moment at which key international norms, from human rights and democracy to non-aggression and freedom of navigation are being eroded piecemeal, but nonetheless quite alarmingly. A moment at which the actors that have upheld that order — whether the United Kingdom, NATO, the European Union, or the United States — are demoralized and in disarray, even though they still possess a preponderance of global military and economic power and could certainly mount a better defense of the post-Cold War system if only they could get their collective act together.
This is what makes Trump’s courting of Putin so dangerous, regardless of whether a U.S.-Russia summit happens in three weeks or three months, or whether it happens in Iceland or elsewhere. For given the signs that have emerged so far, that diplomacy seems likely to further divide and demoralize the defenders of the existing international order, while empowering those who threaten it. Trump may very well get some sort of deal with Putin; a bad bargain is easily achieved. But if he persists on the course he seems set on taking, he will not be assuming Reagan’s historical mantle at all. He will be emulating not the statesman who legacy is “peace through strength,” but rather another 20th century leader whose epitaph will forever be “peace for our time.”
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. From September 2015 through November 2016, he served in the Pentagon as a special assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic planning. His most recent books are Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (2016), and What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (2014).
Image: Reagan Library