President-elect Trump’s behaving like a 70-year-old Hamlet these days: Will he or won’t he name Mitt Romney his Secretary of State? Or will it be Rudy Giuliani, David Petraeus, Bob Corker or an “outsider.”
This is big and Trump must know it since he’s delayed this appointment even as he makes numerous others. American foreign policy hangs in the balance now more than it has for many decades, and Trump’s nominee for State will signal its likely character for the next four years.
Foreign policy turns on who takes the chair on the seventh floor in Foggy Bottom, but one question figures more than any other. What are Trump and his chief diplomat going to do about Russia?
Again, Trump strikes the Hamlet pose. Will he deliver on his often-repeated commitment to a new détente with Moscow? Or will he drop his criticism of NATO and take up the confrontational, Cold War-like stance he’ll inherit from the Obama administration on January 20?
This is a hard read for the moment. And all the Trump–Putin “bromance” business is of no consequence whatsoever.
On one hand, Trump has given no indication he will abandon his idea of rebuilding relations with Moscow based on shared interests. While a lot of his thinking on foreign affairs is either hazy, self-contradicting, or simply not in evidence, the record suggests strongly that his position on Russia is solid and serious.
On the other, no one now in the running to lead the State Department seems to be on Trump’s we-can-be-friends wavelength. On Wednesday the Washington Post quoted a Trump spokesperson saying Romney and Giuliani are the sum total of the president-elect’s shortlist, and both are hawks.
Romney is on record saying he considers Russia the No. 1 threat to America’s national security—this dating to his 2012 debates with Obama. Giuliani has been critical of President Obama for not using the term “Islamic terrorists” to describe ISIS and al-Qaeda and others who seek to destroy the west.
In an Op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last December, he said, “…it is foolish to refuse to call these Islamic terrorists by the name they give themselves or to refuse to acknowledge their overriding religious rationale.”
Of the two, Romney’s the wiser choice by magnitudes. He’s seasoned in global affairs, at least relatively, and can stitch Trump into the GOP’s mainstream.
As to Giuliani, the record suggests he can’t tell foreign affairs from Shinola. Serving as a tough-minded mayor given to law-and-order policing tactics is not, sorry, applicable experience. The best that can be said is Giuliani will do whatever President Trump tells him to do.
If you’re wondering why a man favoring détente has a shortlist for State consisting of two hawks, step right in. As things stand now, it’s likely both men would insist that President Putin cave to Washington’s pre-eminence, Gorbachev-style, before relations can improve, and that’s simply not going to happen.
Putin seemed to address this very question in his annual speech to the Federal Assembly on Thursday. “We will not allow any infringement on the interests of the Russian Federation,” he told Russian legislators, “and we will manage our own destiny without tips and unsolicited advice.”
Behind these two front-runners, we need to note, are two live factors weighing heavily on the Russia question.
One, national security experts who’ve served in previous Republican administrations have vigorously and very publicly opposed Trump’s position all year—and haven’t let up since the election.
This means Trump will have a very formidable fight on his hands once in the White House no matter whom he names at State. How he’ll wage this if his secretary of state sides with the national security establishment is another mystery we’ll have to wait to resolve.
Two, there’s mounting evidence that attitudes toward Russia are softening in Europe, and this could weigh significantly in Trump’s favor should he press ahead with his new version of détente.
The most recent sign of this came last Sunday when French voters chose François Fillon as the right-wing candidate in presidential elections due next spring. Fillon is straight from the Trump mold—a conservative who favors better ties with Moscow.
“Russia poses no threat to the West,” Fillon said on Europe–1 Radio before the election. That view isn’t new—Europeans have long been restive with the sanctions regime imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea two years ago—but it is gaining adherents across the Continent in line with the populist surge Trump also represents.
Bottom line: The relationship with Russia is once again the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy. This makes naming his top diplomat by far the most important decision Trump will make before January 20.
He’s right to take his time, edgy as this leaves us. He’ll have a big battle on his hands if he holds to his position on the U.S.–Russia relationship.
But he’s right about that, too: As The Atlantic put it last summer, “The time is ripe for Détente 2.0 .” And the political drift in Europe leaves him a lot less isolated on this point than he may seem inside the Washington Beltway.