Despite making numerous comments during the 2016 presidential campaign that indicated he favored a much more realistic foreign policy for the United States, Donald Trump continues to beat a hasty retreat from that position. His actions once he became president point to a continuation of the stale, needlessly confrontational approach that his predecessors adopted—an approach that has caused so much grief for the American people.
I’ve discussed elsewhere the fawning efforts of Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to “reassure” free-riding U.S. allies of the administration’s undying devotion to the status quo. Those actions followed an extremely belligerent stance adopted toward Iran, the country that policymakers who are determined to perpetuate America’s foolhardy entanglement in the Middle East view as their favorite designated enemy.
Even Trump’s repeated calls during the campaign for a cooperative relationship with Russia, which outraged American hawks, now seem on the verge of abandonment. Instead of pursuing a policy toward Moscow based on realist principles, the president is drifting toward a stance based on the same lack of realism that plagued the Obama administration.
Obama and his advisers, especially the infamous Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, apparently believed that Washington and the European Union could back anti-government demonstrators in Ukraine in their campaign to oust the elected, pro-Russian government without Russia lashing out in response. They were soon disabused of that notion when the Kremlin promptly seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and subsequently backed rebel forces in eastern Ukraine against the new regime in Kiev. Washington and its NATO allies responded by imposing economic sanctions on Moscow, and relations with Russia have deteriorated rapidly since then, with alarming deployments of both Russian and NATO military forces.
President Trump still insists that he wants to get along with Russia, but his lack of realism about the underlying issues will likely preclude a rapprochement. In a new briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insists that the president expects Vladimir Putin not only to reduce Moscow’s support for the Ukrainian separatist rebels, but to return the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine unconditionally.
The first demand is a stretch, but the second one is a nonstarter. There is virtually no chance that Russia will disgorge Crimea. Not only do most Crimean residents apparently favor an affiliation with Russia rather than Ukraine, but Moscow is determined to secure its longstanding naval base at Sevastopol. Having that crucial base end up in a foreign country occurred because of the breakup to the Soviet Union. Moreover, Russians point out that Crimea was part of Russia from the 1780s until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control to Ukraine. Since Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union, that decision didn’t seem to matter much at the time. But now both Russians and Americans might well ask why so many U.S. political leaders and policymakers regard with apparent reverence the arbitrary edict made by the communist dictator of a defunct country.
President Trump and other U.S. leaders need to accept the reality that Russia will not relinquish Crimea. Nor will Serbia be able to reclaim Kosovo, Syria regain the Golan Heights from Israel, or Tibet again become independent from China. The legality (much less the justice) of all of those territorial changes via conquest are certainly open to question. But a foreign policy based on realism must accept facts on the ground and deal with situations as they are, not how we might wish they would be. If the Trump administration truly wants a cooperative relationship with Russia, it must abandon its unrealistic demand regarding Crimea.