Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, joins the assessment of the Russian foreign policy establishment that the euphoria over Trump’s presidential victory and the hope for a radical positive change in U.S.-Russia relations is over. As opposed to them, he does not believe that the hopes have been shattered by the American foreign policy establishment that blocked Trump’s efforts at change and Trump’s retreat before these forces.

Lukyanov, in contrast, sees the main problem as Trump himself, a man who rose to power in the cutthroat construction business. This has not prepared him to be an international leader and has plagued him with the dangerous illusion that the international arena and the business world are the same. Those focusing on Trump’s policy inconsistencies are barking up the wrong tree. For Trump what counts is to project power for its own sake. Putin also is not finicky about using power but he employs it for a purpose and knows when to draw back from the brink.

MEMRI’s translation of Lukyanov’s article[1] follows below.
Fyodor Lukyanov (Source: Valdaiclub.com)

The ‘Business Shark’ As International Leader

“In Donald Trump’s famous interview to Playboy magazine published in March 1990, the billionaire answers the question how far he is ready to go in a conflict with a competitor. ‘I will demand anything I can get. When you’re doing business, you take people to the brink of breaking them without having them break, to the maximum point their heads can handle – without breaking them. That’s the sign of a good businessman. ..What if your pressure results in losing the deal?’ – ‘Then I pressured him too far. I would have committed a mistake. But I don’t commit such things. I apply pressure to the necessary moment and as a result I get more out of the deal than the other side’.

“This interview – very professionally conducted and very frank – is, perhaps, the most faithful portrait of the new US president. It is not by accident that German Chancellor Angela Merkel studied it before her personal meeting with Trump in March. Foreign partners of the US, primarily Russia, which found itself (partly due to the course of circumstances) at the forefront American policy, now have the opportunity to observe a new phenomenon in world affairs. Specifically, the meaning of ‘business shark’ psychology for international relations, not forgetting the fact that the tycoon is the head of the most powerful state on the planet, central to the entire world system. From an intellectual and analytical point of view, it is extremely interesting; from the viewpoint of practical politics – it is fraught with hard to predict consequences.

“The first visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson  (yet another representative of big business who occupies the world’s most important foreign policy job) was conducted in a tense atmosphere. A few days previously, the U.S. had launched a missile strike against Syria in reaction to the chemical attack in Idlib province. What was promised but not delivered by president Obama in 2013 was done now by Trump quickly and without superfluous discussions, although the situation in Syria now is radically different: there are Russian troops there, and Assad is under Moscow’s protection – not just politically, but also militarily.

“It was this, and not merely the fact of violating international law and launching an attack on a sovereign state, unsanctioned by any authority, (alas, this has long since become the normal behavior of the world’s powerful), which has caused the most consternation: does the White House under Trump even understand the risks and lines one cannot cross without risking a direct conflict with a nuclear superpower? Especially since the statements and tweets that accompanied the crisis only fueled the flames: Trump, and his representatives who followed him, did not mince their words when talking about Russia, Iran, Syria, and they lumped North Korea together, with US navy vessels demonstratively sailing towards its shores.

“Tillerson was expected in Moscow, first and foremost, in order to understand what exactly were Washington’s intentions in Syria and in other key areas. Public statements not only failed to clarify the issue; on the contrary, they were baffling, because they either contradicted each other or sounded like nothing more than aggressive bravado combined with elements of an ultimatum.

“From the public statements, the extent to which Tillerson’s Moscow interlocutors managed to divine U.S. plans is unclear. But something else has become clear – the behavioral style of the team currently in power, which, apparently, will determine everything else to a much greater extent than political aims ever will. So now is the time to re-read that Playboy interview.

Donald Trumps worldview, which became the core of his election campaign, took shape a very long time ago and has not changed; it is expressed in the slogan “America first”.  Actually it turned out that it does not mean what many expected it to. The USA is not scaling down its overseas activity, but turning it into a tool for solving domestic problems. Thus, the Syrian strike has become a rather effective way of gaining the support of the vast majority of the establishment, which is committed to total obstruction of Trump’s actions in everything else. Tactically this may be efficient, but it creates new problems strategically.

“Firstly, Trump’s opponents, while favorably assessing his resoluteness against Syria, suspect him of trying to simply brush away their criticism; in other words, they need further confirmation of his following the “right” line. And one could go far in pursuit of proofs.

“Secondly, even in comparison with Obama’s rather vague policy as regards the Syrian conflict, Trump’s approach looks haphazard. At least, if you view it through the prism of international conflict resolution, as the foreign policy tradition prescribes. The US administration still has no idea what exactly it wants to achieve in Syria. And if two or three years ago the threats of regime change were at least feasible following  the Iraqi or Libyan scenario, now they would mean a high probability of war with Russia.

“But the truth is that Trump’s approach should not be measured according to classical diplomatic templates at all. Trump is a man of instincts, and his instincts have been well honed in the constant struggle for survival, typical of big business. “By the way, the business that the US president has had such success in is quite particular: it is not machine industry or hi-tech, where you need an intellectual and innovational component in addition to your own will and intuition. Real estate is a brutal area, and personal confrontation often plays a decisive part in it. It is symbolic that most of the question in the Playboy interview concern Trump’s personal relations with specific partners and competitors.

“Donald Trump is often reproached for inconsistency – he said that the US should not get involved in Syria, but now he himself is entangled there. But one should understand that for the current president, the content of his foreign policy is obviously secondary, and the shift in rhetoric to the very opposite does not  appear problematic to him. He is very sensitive about another thing – God forbid somebody should think that he has displayed weakness and backed down from a position ‘we must be respected’. This idea has become the leitmotif not only of his campaign but of all the statements related to international affairs since the 1980s. Therefore, the meaning of the Syrian strike is fundamentally different from what his predecessors did – it is the resort to force that is valued in its own right, not the goal it is used for. Nobody must have any doubts that the US is ready to strike anyone at any moment, if it deems it necessary. [It is] necessary for its own interests, [and] not aimed at improving the world or some specific country.

“In this sense, Trump is really no Obama; in fact, he is the anti-Obama. It turns out that the recently retired president’s shortcoming is that he, with the professional profile of an academic lawyer, did not grasp the meaning of such a key international relations concept as “power”. Yet, understanding this (and not only intellectually but viscerally) is a necessary feature for a political leader, especially on the global stage.

“Obama’s failed Syrian gambit in 2013 is the clearest indication of that. Rationally, the US president came to an impartial conclusion that going through with the ultimatum to Assad would not contribute to solving the conflict but could fuel another cycle of violence and involve America in a hopeless feud. And he refused to strike as promised. But he did not take into account the effect this reasonable restraint would have on the US position on the whole, on how it would be perceived by the other players. And the effect was powerful – American partners and allies not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe and Asia were assailed by doubts about Washington’s competency. And US foes, of course, took notice that ‘Akela [the wolfpack leader in Kipling’s Jungle Book] was a coward.’

“Trump is the exact opposite. His aim is to show that Akela is back and is ready to rip them apart, and it does not matter what happens next. Trump is convinced that the demonstration of power is the end in itself, not the means. And this approach should not come as a surprise to Moscow, because the Russian leader feels the power component in international relations very strongly and understands it very well. And he is ready to use it when necessary.”

Putin As Opposed To Trump Uses Force For A Purpose And Knows The Limit Of Brinksmanship

“But there is a fundamental difference. Putin, apart from his readiness to use force, to act suddenly and unexpectedly, not necessarily adhering to all formal procedures, has a clear understanding of what he wants to achieve. It doesn’t matter whether it is the annexation of Crimea or the intervention in the Syrian war. Putin is an expert in risky play on the edge (called the brinkmanship game in the [professional] literature), which involves an understanding of this very brink – the line beyond which the threat of uncontrolled escalation begins. It’s a big question whether and to what extent Trump, who lacks any experience in world politics and thinks there is no great difference between it and real estate, realizes it.

“One American colleague, who has rich experience working in various administrations, has compared Trump to Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev[2]. The latter had no knowledge and could not conceptualize the international situation, but had an instinct for confrontation and was not afraid to raise the stakes. The result was the Caribbean crisis of 1962 – the attempt to deploy Soviet missiles in Cuba, when the USSR and the USA were at the very brink. It is noteworthy that two years later, when Khrushchev was being removed from office, his colleagues in the Politburo accused him of, amongst other things, adventurism and reckless behavior in that situation.

“The 1962 crisis was the most dangerous point of the Cold War, but its consequences played a positive role, because from that moment onwards both formal and informal rules for avoiding extreme forms of confrontation were set in place. Currently, the global situation is fundamentally different from that of the early 1960s – it is much more complicated and therefore more dangerous. But the emergence of a superpower leader with Trump’s worldview and life experience does not rule out similar exacerbations; the American president will try to impose his will by any means. And the fact that his secretary of state is not a professional diplomat either but a representative of big capital (not a tycoon but a very high-ranking manager), makes one assume that there will not be any serious restraining factors in Trump’s team. And it is necessary to be prepared for that.

“The positive result of the visit is the intention to develop a system of special representatives on both sides, who will focus on bilateral problems. But Sergei Lavrov has mentioned that these officials will represent the foreign ministries. Taking into account the particular nature of the two presidents and the administrative systems formed around them, those special representatives must be very high-profile, have political weight and, most importantly, have direct access to their head of state. And in the Russian case, they must understand not only the international and diplomatic context but also the peculiarities of business psychology which is now dominant on the American side.

An End To The Illusion Of A Radical Positive Transformation In U.S-Russia Relations

“Tillerson’s visit has drawn a line under the period of strange expectations of a breakthrough in Russian-American relations, and illusions about the possibility of their radical transformation. Now we are returning to the “norm” – mistrust, rivalry, differences in worldview. In contrast to the time of the Cold War and even the period that followed it, Moscow and Washington are acting in circumstances of general uncertainty and changes in the international context, partly controllable but mostly not.  And it is this fact rather than the intentions of the parties towards each other that will determine the development scenario. In other words, what’s more important to us is not what Trump and his team think about Russia, but what they think about their country’s role in the world in general. All the rest depends on it.

As for the specific behavior model vis-à-vis our partner who has spent all his life in the construction business, we can formulate two rules. We must not make concessions and submit to pressure. And we must be extremely prudent and precise. Combining the two will be the main substance of Russian foreign policy in the forthcoming months or years.”



[1] Kommersant.ru, April 17, 2017.

[2] Khruschev served as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953-1964. He is best known for the De-Stalinization process in the Soviet Union that he began with his “secret speech” at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956.