A grand bargain? No thanks
The U.S. missile strike on Syrian territory spells the end of a long and strange period of speculation, of hopes for a new era of U.S.-Russian relations, of prospects for a “major deal” between the two countries and, in general, of any possibility that President Trump is, as alleged, a “pro-Russian” leader. Incidentally, it is amazing how that allegation — that the Hillary Clinton campaign created but failed to translate into an election victory — has since taken on a life of its own and become a political factor not only in the U.S., but even in Russia.
Given the way Mr. Trump constantly referred to himself as an unsurpassed “master of the deal” with long years of business experience, it was only natural to anticipate that Washington would try to strike some sort of “major deal” with Moscow. The buzz about such an agreement began with Mr. Trump’s election in November and continued until February, when it became clear that no “special” relations between the two countries were in the offing.
In theory, had Mr. Trump taken the nontraditional step of meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin before or immediately after his inauguration, it might have altered the entrenched thinking and opened a window of opportunity for improved relations. Though providing no guarantees, it would have created a chance to use this atmosphere of mutual interests between the two leaders. When that did not happen, institutional inertia kicked in. What’s more, with Russia now a major point of contention in U.S. politics, the Trump administration finds that its hands are tied for improving relations with Moscow, even if it wanted to.
However, even if Messrs. Trump and Putin had met early on, it is unlikely any deal would have resulted. In fact, certain factors make such an agreement almost impossible, regardless of who sits in the White House and Kremlin.
The first and most all-encompassing reason is that the 21st century is not the time for major powers to conclude pacts determining the fate of smaller states. The big players are unable to impose their will on even the most fragile and failing states, much less on those that function more or less normally. The great powers simply lack any leverage over a world that has grown far more diversified. The Yalta Conference and Congress of Vienna were held in the aftermath of major wars that left no doubt as to who was in control. Any modern attempt at such a deal would run up against the reality of a world whose affairs are now very nebulous — and likely to remain so.
Second, the history of U.S. relations with other states — and not only with Russia — convincingly proves one thing: that Washington almost never concludes deals on equal terms, but always from a position of strength. The arrangements made following World War II were unique in that an absolute balance of power existed for what, in historical terms, was a very short period. Nothing like that is possible now, meaning that Messrs. Trump and Putin will not strike any “major deal.”
Third, any hypothetical deal between Moscow and Washington would come at the expense of both countries’ other foreign policy interests. Does it make sense for Russia to place limits on its relations with China and Iran — both of which are strategically important to Moscow over the long term — in order to conclude certain agreements with the United States? Should Washington send its European and Asian allies into a frenzy, knowing that they bristle at even the mention of a U.S.-Russian deal? Of course not, especially because any such arrangement would necessarily be situational and short-lived, as the whole history of their mutual relations shows.
In a sense, the recent developments in Syria actually bring some clarity to the situation by underscoring that no such deal is in the works and that the “game” between the major powers will now resume with renewed vigor. In the past couple of months, the decision by the United States to absent itself from the region created the impression that it would be possible to resolve the Syrian crisis without Washington. Now it seems that the United States under Mr. Trump wants to play a decisive role, although toward which end remains even more unclear now than it was under former President Barack Obama. And, of course, the United States and all the other outside players in the crisis care more about their own interests than they do about the fate of Syria itself.
From this point onward, U.S.-Russia relations could go in a variety of directions, up to and including a sharp escalation in tensions and a military clash in Syria. For now, though, it looks as though neither side wants that. In a best-case scenario, the Trump administration would take this opportunity to express a desire for serious interaction with Russia on Syria. There is a certain logic in this. After all, prior to the missile strikes, the U.S. operated from a position of weakness, as a country that had relinquished its initiative in the region. Now Washington can take a more proactive stance, something Mr. Trump needs both as a leader and as a would-be negotiator on Syria. For now, Russia should wait to ascertain Washington’s real intentions — that is, if it has actually formulated any.