Donald Trump is right. (I’ve been waiting weeks for a chance to write that.)
“Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” the president-elect tweeted recently. “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!”
That’s true; no sensible person wants a state of hostility with a nuclear superpower.
But – and you knew a “but” was coming – Trump tweeted his foreign policy doctrine with an essential piece missing. The goal of American foreign policy is to protect U.S. interests, not to achieve “a good relationship” with any particular country – much less a country as troubling in its conduct as Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Here are three specific steps Trump should take:
First, he should reassure U.S. allies that he doesn’t plan to walk away from NATO treaty commitments. (The three small Baltic states, which feel directly threatened by Russia, are already racing to meet their commitments on defense spending.)
Second, Trump should announce that he won’t support any relaxation of Western sanctions against Russia unless Putin withdraws from eastern Ukraine. Former U.S. envoy Stephen Sestanovich says the Russians are waiting to see if Trump will act without asking for anything in return. “The other side never pays for something it expects to get for free,” he wrote.
Third, the president-elect should wait for the 90-day review of cybersecurity he’s requested before tweaking any of the Obama administration’s added cybersanctions. Until now, he’s treated questions about Russian hacking as political attacks on his legitimacy; once he’s safely in office, he might be able to consider them more calmly as a question of U.S. security interests.
Trump should take his own advice: Deal with Putin from a position of strength, not weakness – and seek good relations only in pursuit of a “good deal,” not as an end in themselves.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.