At noon on Friday in Washington, Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States. He enters office at a time of dynamic change, not only in U.S. political and economic life but also in the structure of the international system. At this point, how Trump plans to manage and channel changes underway within the United States is somewhat clear, at least in its broad strokes. By comparison, how his administration will approach foreign policy — whether it will follow through on some of Trump's less orthodox suggestions — is unknown. There is, as yet, no Trump Doctrine. There are threads of a worldview, and there is an understanding that Trump is not bound by the same ideological commitments as his immediate predecessors. That means that while Trump will face many of the same political, institutional and geopolitical constraints as outgoing President Barack Obama, he will face them differently and, perhaps, achieve very different ends.
Of the many unanswered questions surrounding foreign policy under Trump, few are more significant than the future of the U.S. relationships with Russia and China. For all its social and economic difficulties, Russia remains a major military power and a key force in the affairs of the world's most strategically significant regions: Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. China has likewise entered a period of economic and political uncertainty marked by slowing economic growth and a political centralization effort under President Xi Jinping. But China has the world's second-largest economy and boasts military forces that are growing increasingly capable. Though China is both much weaker and far more geographically constrained than the United States, it is the only country outside America with a plausible path to regional hegemony in the not-too-distant future. How the Trump administration engages these countries will have important implications for such pressing issues as European fragmentation, the future of NATO, the emergence of a new political order in the Middle East, America's role in the Asia-Pacific and, not least, the fates of the current governments in China and Russia.
Trump has said he hopes for a friendlier relationship with Russia under his administration, and in particular for greater cooperation with Moscow in managing chaos in the Middle East. He has also made it clear that he plans to strike a hard line with China on issues such as trade and Chinese island building in the South China Sea. He has even threatened to abandon the One China policy, a move that would fundamentally alter U.S.-China relations and upset the strategic balance in East Asia. On the face of it, these are distinct thrusts. In practice — at least to the extent that they are put into practice — each separate policy would likely steer the direction of another. Just as important, they could influence the relationship between Russia and China.
Trump's comments about China and Russia have given way to murmurs that his administration may seek to ease tensions with Russia not only to pave the way for cooperation in the Middle East or detente in Eastern Europe but also and more fundamentally to enlist Moscow in an effort to hamper China's rise to East Asian hegemony. Indeed, there is a serious argument to be made that even as Russia, still but a pale shadow of its Soviet-era self, threatens various secondary interests, it does not fundamentally threaten the core strategic interest of the United States: to prevent the emergence of a competing hegemon. Therefore, the argument goes, it is ultimately not in America's long-term strategic interest to isolate and alienate Russia, especially when there are bigger fish to fry. Instead, according to this view, Washington should set aside its ideological clash with Russia to focus on other matters.
Adherents to that line of thinking would have the United States take advantage of the fact that, thanks to Russia's lengthy border with China and its deepening economic dependence on its neighbor, Moscow has powerful incentives to keep Chinese power in check. Even a modest rapprochement with Russia that gave way to only limited cooperation in the Middle East and Europe would free the United States to devote greater resources to its security interests and allies in the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, it could serve to weaken the links between Russia and China. Failure to work with Russia, on the other hand, risks pushing it even further into Beijing's strategic and economic orbit, making effective containment of China more difficult.
It is worth emphasizing that none of this necessarily reflects the foreign policy direction that Trump's team will take. It is merely one logical extreme to which his thus-far disconnected comments on China and Russia might lead. In addition, it rests on a number of potentially faulty assumptions — for example, that China's military and economic power will grow largely unimpeded or that Russia would put its trust in a shaky rapprochement with the United States when it needs to tighten economic ties with China.
And even if these assumptions bear out, it is important to remember the numerous political and geopolitical constraints that limit the ability of the United States and Russia to actually realize some form of grand bargain. Russia's growing dependence on China as an oil and natural gas export destination alone will make Moscow wary of any move that upsets China's leaders, especially if it involves an alignment with the United States that enables actions increasingly and openly antagonistic to Chinese interests. And whatever Trump's intent, any effort at cooperation with Russia will face intense domestic scrutiny and possibly resistance from large segments of the electorate, not to mention U.S. congressional leaders, the country's foreign policy and national security establishments, and from U.S. allies abroad.
But if the prospect of U.S.-Russian cooperation to constrain China remains distant, that such cooperation appears feasible at all is, in itself, significant. To borrow from the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, it signals that the "normal" politics of the past three decades could be giving way to something new and revolutionary. At such times, the structures and alliances that grounded the status quo — in this case, the post-Cold War world order — collapse and are replaced by new and sometimes surprising alignments, dynamics and conflicts. Though it is possible that now is not the dawn of such an era, the signs that it is — the Brexit vote, Trump's election, the rise of populist and nationalist movements threatening to fragment Europe, China's emergence as a leader and defender of global interconnectedness, and much more — are hard to ignore.