It would hardly have been expected with negative relations between the United States and Russia (the former USSR) having subsided in accordance with the apparent end of the Cold War, that as President Obama prepares to leave the White House, relations between the two powers would have soured to their present state.
President Obama, over his eight-year period of office has, to all intents and purposes, rejected the premises for carrying on the Cold War, this coinciding with the fact that there is not today, any substantial competition between the two powers for decisive influence in any substantial part of the globe. But while relations between the two countries are not as cooperative, at least in verbal terms, as they might have been expected to be, there can be little doubt that as the President’s final term ends, President Putin has appeared not to mind leaving the situation between them uncertain and unstable.
It is undoubtedly the case that, in some measure, the present atmosphere of muted contention between the two is in part a consequence of the unexpected conduct of then presidential candidate Trump during the campaign. For he seems to have sought to create deliberate differences between himself and President Obama in a number of spheres, removing in particular, the historical characterisation of the Republican Party as more hostile to Russia as the descendant of the Soviet Union, than the Democrats.
Clearly, in Obama’s mind, while a certain normalisation between the two big powers has taken place, given Russia’s loss of direct influence, particularly in the Eastern European zone now constituted of many countries most of which are currently members of the European Union, there has been no expectation that Putin would wish to strongly reassert an influence in areas like the Middle East.
For the most part, Russia certainly appears to have conceded that most of the Eastern European states that were members of the now defunct Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact, have essentially become either members of the European Union, or directed their political and economic relations with that arrangement of states in such a manner that Putin’s Russia hardly expects that it can hold much sway, in political terms, over them.
And finally in our part of the world, President Obama’s visit to Cuba would certainly have indicated that while the regime in that country continues to seek to demonstrate an autonomy in its international decision-making, the affiliation that it may still continue to have with Russia does not, in present circumstances, have the ideological significance previously attributed to it.
It would appear that the Western powers have underestimated the extent to which, in Putin’s way of thinking, Russia does not accept that because of the demise of its immediate sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, this would necessarily lead to a similar situation in other spheres of the world, like the Middle East, where countries like Egypt under Nasser once leaned in their direction on specific Cold War issues and induced other countries in that region to do the same.
The fact is that Putin has clearly sought to conduct policy between the two powers not in the traditional ideological terms, but in terms of a view that with the end of the Cold War, there is no reason to accept a situation of American predominance, given that both states, and Russia in particular now, will necessarily conduct their international relations on the basis of normal geopolitical and economic competition. In other words, Russia no longer concedes that there cannot be, in geopolitical and therefore economic dominance terms, specific spheres of dominance or major influence by one or other of today’s great powers.
The rise to the presidency of Donald Trump suggests, on the face of it, in the new president’s mind, a situation in which the Russian leadership may publicly wish from January, to suggest to global public opinion, that the traditional contest between the two countries, is to be conducted on a different basis, and that he is capable of doing this.
In the context of present discussions in the US, indicating that Trump himself thinks that there can be a more mutually acceptable relationship between Putin and himself, American observers, and those from other traditional allies of the United States, may now well be considering the extent to which there might be a decisive change in relations between the two administrations, different from what exists at the present time.
In the present context, then, leaders of other major countries may well be considering what the terms of the US-Russia relationship are likely to be as time evolves, and the consequential effects on their own countries’ positions in global relations.
The Government of China, for example, whose normalisation of relations with the United States, has been a significant element in changing global relations will, no doubt, be concerned to observe how a closer Trump-Putin, as against an Obama-Putin, relationship will evolve. For in a sense, over the last many years, the evolution of China-US relations has been a significant factor in Russia-US relations, as China itself has sought to indicate new dimensions of its relationships in Asia, suggesting that the Asian arena must necessarily include Beijing in global consultations on events that evolve.
There is, of course, a perspective that suggests that Russia under Putin, despite the lessening of its geographical, and therefore geopolitical, leverage, is itself now seeking to fortify the bases of its own domestic strength, and therefore external leverage, in the relationship between itself and the United States, as it remains a substantial nuclear power.
But there is little doubt that president-elect Trump, a significant American businessman, with meaningful American domestic private sector connections as indicated in his choice of Secretary of State for example, as well as other significant business elites, is hoping to take advantage of these relationships in seeking to influence the behaviour of countries like Russia and China. And the implications would therefore seem to be that his policymaking will be a function not simply of the expertise and experience of his country’s diplomats and foreign policy making institutions, but of those personal connections.
How the influence of businsess decision-makers will influence his relations in Latin America and the Caribbean is left to be seen. His apparently deliberate creation of a challenge to the country’s North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) neighbour Mexico, will be instructive in this regard, for he has, in effect, challenged the creation, and benefit to the United States of NAFTA. This agreement is perceived by many as indicative of one of the more successful initiatives that the United States has taken in its relations to its neighbours.
We can expect that the Government of Mexico will be anxious to see Trump pursue his approach to NAFTA in a way that is at least not damaging to the economic strength of Mexico ‒ a stance that was not clearly portrayed during the election campaign. The response of the Mexican authorities has been, at least to the public eye, a nervous one, and unprepared for the stance that the then candidate for the presidency took.
They will be pondering whether candidate Trump’s election stance was largely taken to induce the electoral support of working-class Americans always sensitive to appeals to support the abandonment of external economic relations initiatives substantially branded, at home, as deleterious to the maintenance of domestic employment. But the uncertain response of the Mexican government suggests that they will need to prepare for any challenge from the US to change the terms of the agreement.