Wednesday’s bombshell op-ed in the New York Times makes the case that administration officials quietly subvert the worst of President Trump’s outlandish policies by actively working against his erratic impulses. Its author writes: This is “the work of the steady state.” As an example, he or she points to the relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin. In contrast to Trump’s “preference for autocrats and dictators” with “little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations,” the author argues that “the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.”
But this “steady state” is doing far more damage than good. By preserving stability and working behind the scenes to limit Trump’s worst excesses, the steady state helps keep him in power. This maintains a policy of minimizing the biggest threat facing the United States today: Russian attacks on democratic institutions, namely the 2016 U.S. election and the Brexit referendum. Forty years ago, confronted with similar Soviet aggression toward Western institutions, the United States succeeded, thanks to rhetorical and policy unity with its alliance partners. But this cannot happen so long as Trump publicly denigrates our allies and does little to foster alliances. Rather than defending us from external threats, therefore, the "steady state" props up the biggest impediment to American security: Trump.
Russia’s tactic of election interference may be new, but the objective is the same as Soviet aggression from the Cold War: destabilizing Western institutions and alliances to create space for Russia to advance its agenda.
During the Cold War, the battle was over nuclear weapons, not domestic election results. In 1976, for example, the Soviet Union put into service a new generation of nuclear weapons (SS-20 missiles) targeted on Western Europe. They posed both a military and a political challenge to NATO that the Soviets understood clearly. Yes, the Soviet Union wanted to improve its nuclear arsenal. But the Soviets also wanted to exploit the fact that, in the era of detente, Western public opinion was firmly against escalating the nuclear race — something that democratically elected leaders had to consider while conducting international negotiations and one that Soviet leaders did not.
As the Soviets expected, the SS-20 deployment prompted a political crisis over how NATO should respond. Early on, the Americans did not favor deploying new theater nuclear forces (TNF) as a response, but key European policymakers felt such a response was necessary and eventually brought the Americans around.
These SS-20 debates exacerbated tensions that had already begun to plague the Western alliance over another nuclear weapon, the neutron bomb, and whether to station it in Europe to deter the Soviets from capitalizing on their conventional military advantage. Initially American policymakers favored deploying the neutron bomb in West Germany. But President Jimmy Carter reversed course because he feared that political opposition in the deploying countries, fueled by Soviet propaganda, would erode support for the policy. This reversal enraged several European leaders who had staked their political reputations to initial deployment plans. The split undermined NATO’s united approach to nuclear policy, weakening the alliance.
The Soviets hoped the SS-20 would continue to exacerbate these divides. And it did. But NATO leaders kept working together to resolve their differences. In January 1979, the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom, West Germany and France met on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where they agreed on a “dual-track” compromise that, if adopted, would simultaneously deploy nuclear forces in several European countries while also moving forward on serious arms control negotiations with the Soviets.
This was a contentious military and political decision that threatened the very existence of NATO. As Francis Pym, Britain’s defense secretary, saw it, the issue was “a major public test of the Alliance’s ability to act resolutely and cohesively on security issues under the pressure of Soviet or Soviet-manipulated propaganda.” Pym argued that without confident unity expressed through collective policy, NATO would fail in its most basic purpose: Western security.
The challenge was not simply to come up with a policy, but also to officially adopt it (via a NATO vote) and, of course, to implement it. Complicating matters, the Soviets waged an intense propaganda campaign intended to undermine NATO’s efforts. In October 1979, Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev offered not only arms control talks on TNF but also conventional force reductions in Europe — but only if NATO agreed not to deploy new weapons.
In December 1979, NATO officially responded. The Alliance voted unanimously to modernize their TNF by deploying a new generation of U.S. missiles in several European countries. Based on the dual-track strategy, the deployment would be accompanied by parallel arms control talks.
The dual-track decision, however, instigated widespread antinuclear protests across Western Europe, making continued commitment to implementing the policy difficult. At the time of the 1979 NATO vote, for example, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had only about 2,000 members; within three years of the decision, its ranks had exceeded 100,000. Taking the necessary steps to deploy the missiles became increasingly difficult as public opposition mounted.
The Soviets, in turn, intensified their interference efforts. On the eve of the final round of arms control talks before American missiles arrived in Europe, the new Soviet premier Yuri Andropov sent letters to NATO leaders threatening new Soviet missile deployments if talks failed and the U.S. sent its missiles to Western Europe. This pressure forced careful collaboration within the alliance. When the talks failed, NATO leaders resolutely began deployment in November 1983 despite the Soviets’ threats, overcoming Soviet propaganda and ensuring unity and security.
What lessons can we learn from this? The Soviets successfully deployed both propaganda and nuclear weapons to divide opinion in the West. And, yet, conversations and collective action among NATO members ultimately defeated these efforts at sabotaging their unity. Now, Russia has taken aim at Western elections in the United States and Great Britain, using propaganda (the attempt to influence public opinion through social media) and more concrete attacks (hacking servers).
This is why Trump’s inability to denounce Russian aggression for what it is remains so problematic. His fawning over Putin is less damaging than his unwillingness to advance conversations with NATO allies on how to solve the problems of political sabotage that Russia has created. Whether Trump supports Russian interests for some as-yet-unknown reason, his rhetoric actively damages Western security and tacitly furthers pro-Russian aims by undermining structures that protect democracy, such as NATO.
Russia’s strategy is to delegitimize democratic institutions and to drive a wedge between alliance partners and, indeed, within nations. Trump’s behavior, clearly on display in Helsinki and during his visit to NATO and Britain, is shielded by power-hungry congressional Republicans and, as it happens, by high-level officials working within the administration. Despite the pretense of laboring behind the scenes to maintain a steady state, normalizing Trump’s presidency in this way only abets Russia’s goals of undermining the relationships and institutions that made the West successful during the Cold War.
One wonders, for example, how Trump’s aides have worked to undo his discrediting of the special counsel. We must restore a united front in the face of Russia’s anti-democratic aggression. This is fundamentally incompatible with working to keep the Trump presidency afloat. Only by fully exposing Trump’s flaws, prompting his replacement, can the United States address the dangers posed by Russia. The “resistance inside the Trump administration” is at best political cowardice and at worst policy that furthers the irreversible destruction of democratic norms.