WASHINGTON — In the normal course of events, the revelation of attempted collusion with Russia to determine the outcome of a presidential election might cause an administration to overcorrect in the other direction. A president might find ways to confront the range of Russian aggression, including cyber-aggression, if only to avoid the impression of being bought and sold by a strategic rival.
But once again, Donald Trump — after extended personal contact with Vladimir Putin and the complete surrender to Russian interests in Syria — acts precisely like he has been bought and sold by a strategic rival. The ignoble cutoff of aid to American proxies means that “Putin won in Syria,” as an administration official was quoted by The Washington Post. Concessions without reciprocation, made against the better judgment of foreign policy advisers, smack more of payoff than outreach. If this is what Trump’s version of “winning” looks like, what might further victory entail? The recreation of the Warsaw Pact? The reversion of Alaska to Russian control?
There is nothing normal about an American president’s subservience to Russia’s interests and worldview. It is not the result of some bold, secret, Nixonian foreign policy stratagem — the most laughable possible explanation. Does it come from Trump’s bad case of authoritarianism envy? A fundamental sympathy with European right-wing, anti-democratic populism? An exposure to pressure from his checkered financial history? There are no benign explanations, and the worst ones seem the most plausible.
There is no way to venture where this approach ends up, except that it involves greater Russian influence and intimidation in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East (where Iran, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are winners as well). But we can already count some of the costs.
Trump is alienating Republicans from their own heroic, foreign policy tradition. The conduct of the Cold War was steadied and steeled by Ronald Reagan, who engaged with Soviet leaders but was an enemy of communism and a foe of Soviet aggression. In fact, he successfully engaged Soviet leaders because he was an enemy of communism and a foe of Soviet aggression. There is no single or simple explanation for the end of the Cold War, but Republicans have generally held that America’s strategic determination played a central role.
Now Trump pursues a policy of pre-emptive concession with a Russia that is literally on the march in places such as Georgia and the Ukraine. Trump is the Henry Wallace of the populist right (which more than occasionally finds common cause with the populist left). “We should recognize,” Wallace argued following World War II, “that we have no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America, Western Europe and the United States.” The difference now is that Russia has made the political affairs of the United States very much its business. With almost no serious American response. Russian interference in America’s self-defining civic ritual has been almost costless.
And this points to the main cost of Trump’s Russophilia. It is effective permission for a broad, unconventional Russian offensive, designed to undo the “color revolutions” and restore lost glory at the expense of neighbors and American interests. Russia has employed a sophisticated mix of conventional operations and cyber-operations to annex territory and destabilize governments. It has systematically encouraged far-right, nationalist leaders and supported pro-Russian, anti-democratic parties across Europe. It is trying to delegitimize democratic processes on the theory that turbulence in the West is good for a rising East. This is a strategy that allows Russia to punch above its strategic weight, especially since Trump has chosen to abdicate America’s natural role in opposition.
How deep is this transformation of America' global self-conception? I suspect (and social science seems to indicate) that most foreign policy views of the public are shallowly held and that leaders play a disproportionate role in legitimizing or delegitimizing views on things like trade, foreign aid or Russia. So 49 percent of Republicans now identify Russia as an ally or friend, taking their political signal from the head of their party. But this cognitive conformity would probably work in the other direction with a more traditional Republican leader.
The problem is the damage to American interests done in the meantime. It now seems that the Russians — by meddling in a presidential election and by downplaying such aggression — has achieved an intelligence coup beyond the dreams of the Soviet era. The result is an America strategically and morally disarmed.