by Gordon M. Hahn
A few months ago I was asked to give an interview, which never took place. The prospective interviewer sent the following question among several others: “How will President Donald Trump interact with Putin?”
In preparing for the interview I jotted down the following notes:
Realist + Realist >? Realist v. realist
Personality compatibility that can lead to conflict – large egos, tough negotiators.
Could get along and transform relationship, but if their relations go bad – will go VERY BAD.
Trump’s doubts about NATO expansion and revolutionism in Ukraine and elsewhere could become the foundation for a major rapprochement, since this is the main bone of contention for Russia.
Let me elaborate on some of these notes in anticipation of the much anticipated Trump-Putin ‘summit’ at the G-20 meeting this week.
The view that we are dealing with a pair of realists I believe is basically accurate, given both actors’ lack of a fundamentally ideological approach to politics. However, in both cases some caveats are in order. In Trump’s case even more than in Putin’s the absence of ideology is replaced by another ‘ism’ – egoism. Trump’s chief concern will be his image, reputation, popularity, and legacy as a ‘winner’. For Trump, neither party nor even country can trump Trump. To be sure, Trump’s popularity depends on Republican and American well-being to one degree or another, but Trump’s interests and that of ‘his’ party and country diverge. In the event, Trump will privilege Trump. The same is true on a smaller scale for most other politicians, including Putin.
Putin is more ideological than Trump in foreign affairs in that he is imbued by Russian traditionalism tempered by contemporary imperatives. Nevertheless, Putin is essentially a practical foreign policy realist and one with a more well-developed sense of what that means conceptually and strategically. Regarding the latter, Trump is more tactical, instinctive, and emotional. He shoots from the hip figuratively – as when he speaks – and even literally – as Bashar Assad and Putin found out from Trump’s retribution rocket attack on the Syrian military base after Assad’s alleged chemical attack.
More importantly, Trump is quick to change course to further his interests and the well-being of the entities with which they are tied. He quickly found it in his interest, for example, to compromise with the Washington crowd, despite running – somewhat deceptively – as an outsider. In domestic politics, for example, conservatives are also bemoaning Trump’s succumbing to the ‘Washington swamp’ when it comes to domestic politics. For example, they are distraught over the new president’s attempt to place the largest welfare program ever passed by a Democratic administration – ‘Obamacare’ or Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act — with the largest welfare program ever proposed by a Republic administration. In foreign policy, Trump’s Russia-friendly promise – exaggerated by the strategic communications efforts of Obama holdovers, Democratic Party operatives and their allies in the liberal-leftist media – has quickly proved to be empty.
Add in Putin’s preference for leaving room to maneuver and occasional changes of course — recall the Medvedev presidency’s liberalizing thaw in Russian domestic and foreign politics — could provide the kind of mutual flexibility necessary to make deals of some importance.
Unfortunately, the parties’ egos will make for tough negotiations, even if both parties were not tough cookies. But they are.
The two personalities’ and their behavioral history suggest that if they do not have a positive personal chemistry on the basis of mutual admiration for each other’s toughness or some other compatibility, the relationship could sour rapidly and deeply, imparting even more negative impulse to the Russian-American, Russian-Western tensions. This dynamic is already underway in tensions between Washington and Moscow over Syria. How far it will go is anybody’s guess at this point, but it could go very, very far.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution. Dr. Hahn also has been a Contributing Analyst for Russia Direct (russia-direct.com) and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California) (www.russiaotherpointsofview.com).