How’s this for a thought experiment the day after US President Donald Trump provoked bipartisan disgust over his performance with Russian President Vladimir Putin: Try to think charitably and ascribe rational, non-corrupt motives to political actors.
Looking at domestic politics, Trump may simply think that any acknowledgement on his part of Russian efforts to elect him discredits his presidency. Looking internationally, it would be possible to explain Trump’s behaviour as an expression of a radically realist foreign policy coupled with a radical downward revision of US power in the world.
That line of thinking imagines a realignment of US foreign policy into a strategic alliance with Russia at the expense of European allies, possibly with the goal of containing China.
Before you turn away in frustration, please understand that I’m not claiming to know what Trump was really thinking and I’m definitely not trying to defend his bizarre behaviour in Helsinki on Monday. Rather, I’m offering a rational way to make sense of some very strange facts.
That exercise is valuable not least because the president’s critics, of whom I am one, need to check ourselves constantly to avoid falling into the kind of conspiracy thinking that Trump favours and promotes. He may have secret business connections to Russia that put him in Putin’s power, and he could conceivably even be the Russian “asset” that his enemies make him out to be. But less malevolent possibilities must also be thought through.
The most obvious explanation for Trump’s refusal to accept evidence presented by the US Justice Department and US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election is simply that Russia’s intervention delegitimises his Electoral College victory. [Trump later said he supports US intelligence consensus on the 2016 vote and that he was misconstrued during the press conference with Putin]. This explanation relies on an observation that is certainly true. Trump barely won, and any help he got from Russia could therefore be seen as decisive.
Add to that the fact that Democrats are indeed eager to find explanations for Trump’s win that excuse their own mistakes and shortcomings.
By this interpretation, Trump is just cognitively and politically unable to accept that Putin helped hand him the presidency.
But Trumpian self-interest isn’t the only way to think about a potential US-Russia rapprochement. I don’t know whether Trump was thinking strategically when he sat down with Putin, but a White House theorist of global realpolitik might have something like this in mind:
Start with the clear fact that Trump doesn’t care whether US allies share democratic values. He respects power and wants alliances with powerful countries.
America’s erstwhile European allies talk the talk of common values, not pure power. That’s a norm that the US encouraged in the post-Second World War era, but it means nothing to Trump.
Putin, by contrast, takes over regions of sovereign countries (like Crimea) and sends planes and troops to win wars abroad (as in Syria). To Trump, that’s power. And not only to Trump. Putin actually has restored Russia’s regional power and its Middle Eastern power to a degree that seemed unthinkable a decade ago.
Alongside a perception of Russia as strong, and Europe (including the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation alliance) as weak, Trump must also think that the US itself is much weaker than most establishment foreign policy experts believe. He sees US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan not just as instances of imperial overreach, but as proof that the US can’t do what it wants in the world. In other words, Trump’s narrative of US decline may not be just rabble-rousing rhetoric. He may actually believe it.
In this worldview, a weak US should ally itself with powerful states like Russia. This is particularly important when you add the notion of China as a major economic threat that ought to be confronted.
As Henry Kissinger showed in the 1970s, the way to defeat Russia in the Cold War was to pursue an opening with China. Trump’s love-in with Putin could be seen as a mirror image of that ploy: Trump trying to build closer ties with Russia to counter the rise of China.
Yes, Trump also says he wants good relations with President Xi Jinping of China. But since Trump doesn’t see Russia as an economic rival, as China certainly is, an overture to Russia could make logical sense.
We can’t say whether Trump’s behaviour in Helsinki was motivated by corruption, vanity or a radical worldview. I have no interest in defending him or making a dangerous politician sound normal. But before going to the most extreme conclusions about Trump, we need to consider all the possibilities.
Trump’s policies represent a severe danger to US interests no matter what their motive. Yet opposing those policies is a different process if they are based on the logic of political and national self-interest than if they are based on something more sinister.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to US Supreme Court Justice David Souter.