Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state must have led to a new round of hearty cheers in the Kremlin. Mr. Tillerson, the recipient of the “Order of Friendship” personally awarded to him by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013, has had close ties with Russia for many years with his company’s deep involvement in Russian energy exploration and its direct links with state-owned Rosneft.
Given Mr. Trump’s nomination of retired lieutenant-general Michael Flynn – who also boasts close ties with Russia – as national security adviser, conspiracy theorists are already portraying Mr. Trump as a “Manchurian candidate,” while many others are concerned Mr. Trump could at least be close to an unalloyed asset for the Kremlin. Even among U.S. Republicans, there are fears the Trump-Putin “bromance” could prove to be deeply deleterious to U.S. national interests.
Mr. Tillerson’s appointment may be problematic in certain respects, but Russian celebrations are premature and misguided, for several reasons.
First, despite the fact that Mr. Trump portrayed Mr. Tillerson as a “world-class player,” it is highly unlikely he will simply subcontract foreign policy to his secretary of state. Throughout his campaign, Mr. Trump has made it very clear he insists on being and looking like a “winner” in all situations, and the international arena will be no exception. Consequently, Mr. Tillerson will need to operate within those restrictive parameters. In relations with Russia, where Mr. Putin himself has made looking like a winner in foreign policy a crucial source of his domestic political legitimacy, Mr. Tillerson’s job will hinge on his ability to satisfy his own boss. This could quickly cause considerable stress in the Trump-Putin relationship. Despite the need to improve U.S.-Russian relations, there are also deep differences in national interests and aspirations. Assertive and aggressive Russian actions in Europe, for instance, would significantly erode U.S. national interests and international credibility. Protecting the latter is necessary to ensuring that Mr. Trump looks like a “winner.”
Second, despite the possibility Mr. Trump may pursue a kind of neo-isolationist foreign policy, he is not a proponent of disarmament. On the contrary, he is committed to greatly strengthening American military power. In fact, Mr. Trump has pointed to Russia’s sharp increase in military expenditure and modernizations of its nuclear forces as a crucial reason why the United States needs to re-arm. With a U.S. GDP that is roughly eight times that of Russia’s, Mr. Putin could ill afford to get into a militarily dangerous and economically devastating arms race.
Third, Mr. Trump’s intent to make the United States into an energy superpower with huge exports is congruent with the views of Mr. Tillerson, who, despite Exxon’s investment in Russia and elsewhere, has argued that abundant domestic supplies of fossil fuels is seminal to making the United States “great again.” Growth in U.S. energy exports could drive down world energy prices, thereby damaging a Russian economy that is so heavily dependent on exports oil and gas.
Fourth, Mr. Trump’s commitment to abandon or sharply change the Iran nuclear deal will also be a jolt to Russia, given Moscow’s very extensive military and economic relations with Tehran.
Fifth, it is also likely Mr. Tillerson, who was so effective in pursuing profit for Exxon, will change priorities when he is mandated with protecting the United States’ national interest. As the late Ariel Sharon explained of his sharp political turn in deciding to withdraw from Gaza after he became Israel’s prime minister, “The things you see from here, you don’t see from there.”
In sum, with the fundamental differences in national interests, the asymmetry of power and the insistence of Mr. Trump to always be the “winner” in what may often be binary situations, Moscow is likely to be mistaken if it concludes that Mr. Tillerson’s appointment will give it a free hand in U.S. foreign policy and a true global partnership. Moreover, Russian assumptions that the current “bromance” can now only flourish may lead an emboldened Mr. Putin to dangerous misperceptions and miscalculations.Report Typo/Error
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