Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

The United States President-elect Donald Trump ought to be grateful to erstwhile Republican Party colleague from Nebraska, late Senator George W. Norris, for having sponsored the Twentieth Amendment to the US Constitution (1933), which cut short the lame duck period of the outgoing president by full six weeks to January 20 from March 4.

But for the Twentieth Amendment, President Barack Obama would have scripted Trump’s foreign policy agenda. As a trained lawyer, Obama may argue ably that there is nothing common between his journey to Europe in November for a final ‘summit’ in Berlin with the US’ major allies, the foreign-ministerial level meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels last week and his own decision Friday to order a time-bound inquiry into an alleged Russian plan to get Trump elected.

The common thread of ‘Russophobia’ running through these events, however, is all too apparent. An unusual presidential election is leading to an extraordinary transition in American politics.

No incumbent president (or his wife) in recent American political history ever displayed such hyper-activism to persuade the electorate not to choose a particular candidate as his successor.

But Obama spectacularly failed. Now, the thumb rule is that if orderly transfer of power is the hallmark of democracy, the onus lies on the ‘lame duck’ president to walk gracefully to the exit door.

Obama simply has to be his natural self to be an exemplary lame duck president – read lots of books and be the family man he is. Instead, he is burning midnight oil to ensure Trump follows his footfalls in the foreign-policy arena.

Obama’s decision to order an inquiry into the Russian role in Trump’s victory is appalling. This was a decision he should have taken months ago. This is not a decision to be taken 30 days into his lame duck period, just 40 days before he hands over keys to the White House to Trump.

Obama’s decision serves only one purpose – stoke the fires of ‘Russophobia’ in America and Europe. If the inquiry upholds that the Kremlin indeed godfathered Trump, for the first time after Dwight Eisenhower, America will get a president branded as a ‘Russian agent.’

What good does that serve? For the uninitiated, Strobe Talbott’s ‘Russia Hand’ gives an authoritative account of Bill Clinton’s efforts to ensure Boris Yeltsin somehow won a second term against heavy odds. The American experts successfully masterminded Yeltsin’s campaign strategy.

Again, look at the ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine. In all three of these ‘post-Soviet’ states, the US manipulated their domestic politics to get a desirable outcome.

Patches of Europe and Angela Merkel aside, the world opinion is watching the sad vulnerability of the US to the shenanigans of the Russian intelligence with a sense of schadenfreude.

Importantly, does Russophobia do America any good? Quite obviously, the Kremlin has checkmated Obama administration’s containment strategy. The unthinkable option available now to Trump is to go to war, but then, Moscow forewarns that if attacked, it will defend itself with nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the core issue in Trump’s US foreign policies will be about managing the US-Russia-China strategic triangle. If in the Cold War era, the US occupied the desirable pivot point in this triangle, China seems to play the pivotal role today. The bottom line is that this is Obama’s legacy, too.

Although a China-Russia alliance is improbable, the US is unable to gain leverage because their partnership is based on shared norms of global governance and opposition to American hegemony (‘exceptionalism’).

While there could be differences between Russia and China on a host of regional issues, their economic relations may look anemic and their energy deals may remain fraught, the development of the strategic partnership is on an upward curve nonetheless, drawing impetus from shared normative understandings of regional and global politics.

Suffice it to say, Obama’s Russia and China policies significantly contributed to this paradigm shift. His containment strategies led to the current configuration of the US-Russia-China triangle, whereby even assuming that Russia-China differences may be perennial, the overall unity of these two adversaries is no longer in doubt.

The alchemy of the Russia-China partnership has changed phenomenally during the Obama era. Today, the partnership is no longer a mere consequence of Obama’s containment strategies.

It also signifies a strategic convergence with an existential dimension to it. (By the way, the ‘Protocol of Cooperation’ signed in March in Beijing between the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the Presidential Executive Office in the Kremlin is unique for both countries.)

Simply put, the current western discourses over the US-Russia-China triangle and the logic of yester-years no longer apply. Cooperation with Russia is not going to get leverage for the US vis-à-vis China. Nor would a robust US-China partnership damage the Sino-Russian partnership.

The triangle has transformed as an overarching roof beneath which sets of parallel interactions in various spheres of activity are taking place. The US, clearly, needs new thinking.

The good part is that both Russia and China are not only willing but are eager to cooperate with the US on particular issues. The US should explore this avenue optimally – both in self-interest and in the interests of world peace and stability.

It means going beyond Obama’s cherry-picking. It must have a strategic orientation and a vision that co-relates foreign policies with America’s real needs.

In regard to China, membership of the Asian Infrastructure Bank and partnership in China’s One Belt One Road are viable options. Equally, Trump’s intention to engage Russia as partner in the war against terrorism – be it in Syria or in Afghanistan – is far-sighted.

The heart of the matter is that Sino-Russian participation is steadily assuming a global scope. If Obama had a third term, this process might have dramatically quickened. His recipe of forward deployments along Russia’s borders and rebalancing from the Middle East to Asia prompted Moscow and Beijing to advance their partnership, in turn, to regions far away from Eurasia and East Asia.

The US simply cannot win this war of attrition given its near-terminal, neglected domestic problems. Henry Kissinger told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic on November 10 that although he didn’t expect Trump to win, he could understand why Middle America voted so vehemently.

Kissinger said with great prescience that Trump could enable Washington to “establish coherence between our foreign policy and our domestic situation. There is obviously a gap between the public’s perception of the role of US foreign policy and the elite’s perception. I think the new president has an opportunity to reconcile the two. He has an opportunity, but it is up to him to seize it.”

Move on, President Obama.

As the charismatic two-time Costa Rican President (and Nobel Peace Prize-winner) Oscar Arias recently wrote in a thoughtful column setting out his reasons for not accepting the calls from large sections of society to run for president for a third term: “I have enough strength and enough ideas to serve them again. But I also know I’m not indispensable. No one is indispensable in a democracy.”

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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