Trump on Russia: Historical perspective from FDR to Reagan to Obama

By Paul G. Kengor - Guest columnist

There is real danger in Donald Trump’s statements and attitude toward Vladimir Putin and Russia. “Putin likes me,” glowed Trump in a July 25, 2016 Tweet.

On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Trump basked in the warmness that he’s apparently feeling from the Russian authoritarian: “He has said nice things about me over the years,” Trump admired of Putin. “I remember years ago, he said something, many years ago, he said something very nice about me.”

Trump reciprocates the love he believes he feels. He seems to genuinely like Putin, given that, as he says, “Putin likes me.” And we’ve come to painfully see that there’s nothing that Donald Trump likes more than people who like him. (Conversely, there’s nothing that Donald Trump dislikes more than people who don’t like him, or merely criticize him.)

I think this legitimately raises serious questions over whether a Trump foreign policy toward Vladimir Putin and Russia would be personality-driven as much as (if not more than) policy-driven. That’s not an unfair assumption to make, and not just in the case of Donald Trump (though especially in his unique case). Any student of international relations knows that personalities and relationships among leaders can influence and even drive policy, and sometimes with bad results. It was certainly a factor in the fatal miscalculations in U.S.-Russian relations made by Franklin Roosevelt.

“I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department,” FDR oddly boasted to Winston Churchill on March 18, 1942. “Stalin hates the guts of all your people. He thinks he likes me better.”

“He likes me.” Sound familiar?

Stalin showed that “like” of FDR by rolling over Eastern Europe, hammering everything from the Ukraine to Poland. He abused FDR’s goodwill. Not until literally days before he died, just weeks after Stalin preyed upon his trust at Yalta, did FDR finally learn and admit he had been wrong about Stalin.

“Averell [Harriman] is right,” FDR sighed to Anna Rosenberg on March 23, 1945, less than three weeks before he died. “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.”

FDR’s tragic mistake was thinking that the Russian leader liked him and thus would “work with me for a world of democracy and peace” (yes, FDR actually said that about Stalin).

And yet, FDR, mistaken as he was, never suffered the significant personality issues that plague Donald Trump. Trump’s ignorance of policy and lack of any firm grounding in a set of bedrock principles is outdone only by a strikingly excessive sense of self, which would make a President Trump easily open for exploitation by a cynically manipulative foreign leader like a Vladimir Putin—a leader who learned the art of manipulation in the KGB.

The “Putin-likes-me” attitude of Trump is a fatal conceit, and it’s something that Donald Trump should have learned from watching two terms of Barack Obama’s naïve statements and attitude toward the Russians. It is also the polar opposite of Ronald Reagan’s statements and attitude toward the Russians.

Alas, here I’m reminded of a very different worldview toward the Russians, by another president. “If you were going to approach the Russians with a dove of peace in one hand, you had to have a sword in the other,” said President Ronald Reagan. “We had to bargain with them from strength, not weakness.”

Reagan’s motto toward Russia was dovorey no provorey, Russian for “trust but verify.”

That was not what Barack Obama did. Obama had approached Putin with a dove in one hand and a bouquet of roses in the other—and with plenty of promised “flexibility.” Obama showed weakness, not strength. And the Russians exploited it. Putin abused it.

Reagan understood the Russians. Obama did not. And if you think that didn’t matter, just look at the differences on the ground in places like the Ukraine.

Reagan took pride in the fact that the Russians didn’t gain “one inch of ground” while he was president. Indeed they did not—and after they had picked up nearly a dozen satellite states in the immediate years before Reagan was elected, under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

And that brings me back to Donald Trump. Trump is a textbook narcissist, meeting the literal definition of the term. Putin is a Machiavellian, schooled and trained by the KGB. Surely Putin and his advisers (the Russians are genius in their uncanny psychological profiles of foreign leaders) have discerned how obviously easy it is to get Donald Trump on your side. You simply say nice things about him. Just suggest that you like him and you will have him. He is easily flattered, and the Russians are shrewd flatterers.

That being the case, I really worry that Putin would play Trump like a fiddle, maybe even more than he played Obama.

Trump enthusiasts will recoil at the suggestion that their alpha-male strong-man—one Trump advocate described Trump to me (approvingly) as “Putin-esque”—would not stand up to Putin and the Russians if he became president. But I don’t share their confidence at all, especially given Trump’s ongoing soft assessments of Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. I’m sure Putin has a plan to play him right.

If Putin moved further against Ukraine or (heaven forbid) even Poland, would a President Trump blithely look the other way because “Putin likes me” and because they have a friendly relationship? Poland is a NATO member, but Trump’s attitude to NATO has been cavalier at best. And what if Poland’s leader, who’s a principled conservative, insulted a President Trump for being too pro-Putin? Trump would be incensed. He would blast the Polish leader as “horrible” because of the unforgivable Trumpian sin of not liking The Donald.

I think that Poles could be more worried about Trump than they were of Obama. At least a weak Obama appealed to NATO in the final analysis.

A “he-likes-me” attitude toward Vladimir Putin is not a solid basis for U.S. policy toward the Russians.

Donald Trump needs to remember what Ronald Reagan said. You approach the Russians, and especially a Russian like Vladimir Putin, from a position of strength, not weakness.

By Paul G. Kengor

Guest columnist

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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