If there are any mainstays of President Trump’s foreign policy doctrine, these are chief among them:
- Other countries have taken advantage of our weak leadership for decades.
- Strength is the most important thing, irrespective of other concerns — and even if it means authoritarianism.
On Monday, Trump united these beliefs into a lengthy and confusing explanation of why Russia should be included in meetings such as the Group of Seven summit.
Ever since this topic has been floated, Trump has pushed a strange theory about why it was excluded in the first place. It wasn’t because Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in an illegal fashion, as the United States and its allies have said for years; instead, Trump contends, it was because Putin outsmarted President Barack Obama. PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor pressed him on this claim in his Monday news conference in France, and Trump explained:
And the other was in Ukraine, having to do with a certain section of Ukraine that you know very well, where it was sort of taken away from President Obama -- not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama. President Obama was not happy that this happened, because it was embarrassing to him, right? It was very embarrassing to him, and he wanted (INAUDIBLE) Russia to be out of the -- what was called the G-8, and that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin.
He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama. Wait a minute. And I can understand how President Obama would feel. He wasn’t happy and (INAUDIBLE) for that reason.
If we can try to follow this logic for a moment, Trump says Crimea was “taken away from President Obama.” He says this even though Crimea was part of Ukraine, not the United States. The United States also had no duty to intervene, given Ukraine is not part of NATO and doesn’t benefit from its Article 5 (or “collective defense”) protections.
It’s certainly possible Obama and other Western leaders could have applied pressure in other ways, short of military force, but describing annexing Crimea as “outsmarting” Obama rather than emphasizing it as an illegal incursion is quite the rhetorical concession from a U.S. president to an antagonistic Russian president.
And in fact, kicking Russia out of what was then the G-8 is precisely the kind of step that is intended to discourage such incursions in the future. It’s meant to be a punishment, yet Trump tries to portray it as some kind of sour grapes from leaders who were outmaneuvered, and he suggests it’s now counterproductive to maintain the grudge. What Trump is essentially arguing for is to give Putin a pass — returning his seat at the table despite his illegal action.
When Alcindor pressed Trump on his explanation that Crimea was taken away from Obama, Trump continued:
I know you like President Obama, but it was annexed during President Obama’s term. If it was annexed during my term I would say, ‘Sorry, folks. I made a mistake. Sorry folks.’ President Obama was helping the Ukraine. Crimea was annexed during his term.
Now it’s a very big area -- a very important area. Russia has its submarine. That is where they do their submarine work and that is where they dock large and powerful submarines, but not as powerful as ours and not as large as ours, but they have their submarines, and President Obama was pure and simply outsmarted. They took Crimea during his term. That was not a good thing. It could have been stopped, it could have been stopped with the right, whatever. It could have been stopped but President Obama was unable to stop it, and it’s too bad.
“It could have been stopped with the right, whatever,” is a pretty telling statement. He seems to be saying Obama should have done well, something, but he doesn’t even say what. He’s also pushing to take away what punishment has been doled out. (And it’s not the first time he’s shied away from being punitive with Russia.)
It’s a lesson on Trump’s foreign policy, in a nutshell. When a country such as Russia does something nefarious, it’s not because it’s a bad actor; it’s because we were too weak to stop it. Just as he’s been reluctant to denounce Russia’s 2016 election interference, which he apparently regards as fair game in geopolitics, he’s saying much the same about Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
It’s a doctrine that might make sense in some circles, but it’s also somewhat ironic coming from a president who has been so reluctant to apply pressure on Russia. It’s also pretty discordant from this supposed noninterventionist to argue that it’s the United States’ responsibility to protect a peninsula in the Black Sea that doesn’t even belong to a NATO ally.
It’s almost like it was just an opportunity to bash his predecessor on foreign soil and continue to cozy up to Russia.