The Putin-Trump Summit: In Helsinki, Three Worldviews Will Clash

July 15, 2018
Nikolai Sokov

The following is an excerpt from the National Interest.

The upcoming meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki has generated a storm of warnings about the possible collusion between two presidents intent on crushing the existing international system, on the one hand, and the rest of the international community—the collective West first and foremost—that built that system and is trying to preserve it.

This view, although attractive and popular, is, unfortunately, inaccurate. Donald Trump is, indeed, a consummate Realist. He has little use for international institutions and is not averse to dismantling them in pursuit of short-term goals. Vladimir Putin, in contrast, can be classified as “conservative institutionalist” who values international institutions as they emerged by the end of the Cold War and the traditional tenets of international law. Their opponents should more correctly be characterized as “democratic institutionalists” who seek to quickly remedy drawbacks of traditional international law and develop new institutions by using the rule of majority in roughly the same way it works in domestic politics.

U.S.-Russian relations during President Barack Obama’s tenure developed as conflict between the two latter worldviews. Common misidentification Putin as a Realist makes them concerned about possible collusion with Donald Trump, but, in fact, any cooperation between them can only be temporary and tactical. There is no doubt that they can achieve limited progress, but only because U.S.-Russian relations today are at an unprecedentedly low point.

Donald Trump and his supporters pay primary attention to power. They see that balance of power has been shifting away from the United States. They also see that the institutions, which were created under the leadership the United States during the Cold War, do not benefit the United States in the same way because it simply does not have the necessary resources. They employ classic Realist prescriptions—shift the burden to other players (demand that European allies significantly increased defense spending), redraw trading rules to better support U.S. economy (the end result should probably benefit primarily traditional industries and the associated middle class, which is gradually disappearing), and generally gain greater freedom of hand in pursuit of U.S. national interests. When existing institutions stand in the way of these policies, these institutions are smashed.

Continue reading at the National Interest.

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