How It Might Have Been Otherwise

Mikhail Gorbachev’s death last week added poignancy to memories of his meetings with Ronald Reagan in the Eighties, but not much else in the way of understanding the current situation. Gorbachev was forced into retirement in 1991 by a failed coup.  Boris Yeltsin, a maverick reformer, faced down the conservative plotters, and, against all odds, became Gorby’s successor. Yeltsin then presided over a decade of “shock therapy,” a massive helter-skelter privatization of government-owned Russian assets based largely on ideas propounded in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, after forty years of containment of the former USSR, the US, under President Bill Clinton, quietly embraced a doctrine of creeping dismemberment, via a policy of NATO expansion. Yeltsin chose Vladimir Putin as his successor in 1999, hoping to put some more spine in his nation. The US doubled-down on its strategy of NATO expansion, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Now people are dying in an appalling and needless war in Ukraine. Thirty years after the Cold War was thought to have ended, it has resumed, this time without a conclusion as easy to imagine as before. It is time to begin taking stock. The place to start is with the election of Donald Trump.

It is not easy to say nice things about Trump in present circumstances, but it is important to do so. The former president, property developer, and reality-TV star possessed well-developed political instincts – realistic, cautious, bipartisan.  They have been completely obscured by the way his character has revealed itself since 2016.

Recall the foreign affairs component of Trump’s original cabinet: former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at State, military historian H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser, investment banker Steven Mnuchin at Treasury, Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis at Defense, veteran businessman Wilbur Ross at Commerce, and strategist Robert Lighthizer as Trade Representative. Mitt Romney, who correctly understood that Moscow was a rival power, not an investment opportunity, might have chosen much the same kind of slate. Trump’s failed nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser was the tell (if campaign manager Paul Manafort wasn’t enough). Then it all fell apart. The conviction of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, and its columnists, that the Clinton campaign and the Steele dossier were responsible, was always unconvincing.

More than one EP reader was taken aback three weeks ago when I wrote that

 [T]he issues that Trump brought to the 2016 election remain at center of the of the 2024 campaign. While President Biden adopted as many of Trump’s positions as he dared, and modified others as much as he could, Trump’s all-but-forgotten core political agenda dominates debate today.

Let me elaborate a little.

Suppose that Joe Biden had done the one thing that Trump himself never could have dared. Suppose Biden devoted a portion of his inaugural address to going over the history of America’s policy of NATO, taking note of Russia’s growing opposition to it. Without going into the intricacies of the argument over the years, suppose he had offered Putin a pledge, a treaty even: no further NATO expansion to include former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia, in exchange for a promise to work together on cyber-security and climate change?

What might have gone differently?  The US probably would still be in Afghanistan, staving off the heart-rending calamity unfolding there. Certainly there would be no war in Ukraine. And Russia would still be connected to Europe.

That did not happen. It may have never entered the president’s mind. After all, Biden’s prior convictions were probably determined by nearly half a century of service in the Senate, a bastion of NATO support. He chose Antony Blinken as Secretary of State, a distinctly modest figure  compared to his high-profile predecessors (Mike Pompeo, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton), but thoroughly schooled in the policies made since his government service began in the first term of Bill Clinton. National Security Adviser JJack Sullivan came up along the same path. The exception in the Biden administration is Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns, a former ambassador to Moscow for George W. Bush, with a mind of his own. Did the possibility ever come up? Among Biden’s political strategists? That’s for the political press to find out.

I am not advocating for Putin, any more than I am advocating for Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, or any other authoritarian leader whose policies are repugnant to our own.  Nor am I advocating for isolationism. What I hope is that America will return to the realistic sense of its own limitations that sustained the nation through the forty years of the Cold War.  Practicing the principles we preach of openness, tolerance, and democracy is hard enough, without unrealistically demanding that others practice them too

Disruption of America’s post-Cold War megalomania began when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The extent of the disorder has yet to e grasped, because Trump so quickly commenced self-destruction. A great deal of sobering-up remains to be done.

(Posted six days late, after a week on the road. See forthcoming September 11 weekly for  a  significant correction.)

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