There are those on the right—Henry Kissinger, Bob Corker—who seem to think Trump’s foreign policy will amount to a “brutal realpolitik,” as Ross Douthat recently put it in a clever column in the Times. That’s incorrect. Realpolitik assumes that friends and foes are ever-changing, that the only constant is the national interest. That’s why Obama on Thursday announced a set of retaliatory measures against Russia for its efforts to influence the 2016 election, including ejecting 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the country, but took no such steps before November 8. Whether he was right or wrong to do so, the president decided it was more important to avoid seeming to tip the scales in favor of his preferred candidate, even if it meant allowing a foreign government to continue tipping them itself. But Trump, unlike Obama, doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the national interest. How could he be? An interest-based foreign policy stems from a deep knowledge of the American experiment, our historical and geopolitical role in the world. To be a realist is not to be unprincipled but to be driven by a single principle: the rightness of one’s country. Trump’s only principle appears to be Trump. He may yap endlessly about making America great again, but that’s just dog-whistling. That’s the carrion you feed to your base after you’ve blathered on and on about walls and rapists.
This is why Trump and Putin are so well suited for each other, why nothing that has happened in Aleppo in the past week or so will do anything to dampen the American president-elect’s admiration for his Russian counterpart. Trump, like Putin, intuits that they’re both in this racket because it’s a racket—that, by extension, there is no national interest, that it’s just Trump and Putin, and their job is to take as much as they can now. Putin is a the kind of man who came to power after an apartment-bombing and one who surrounds himself with sycophants and thugs. Trump, so far, has only been compared to a thug. He has mobster trappings—the bravado, the ostentatiousness, the whole bridge-and-tunnel complex—but we don’t actually know if he’s done anything illegal because, among other things, we haven’t seen his tax returns.
We’ll know soon. There are many more Aleppos—many more peoples who have nothing to offer or, at least, not as much as Russia does—and the Kremlin knows it. The Middle East, the post-Soviet near abroad, South Asia—they’re all teeming with pawns ready to be traded in exchange for cheap energy, a short-lived military alliance, good P.R. The question is whether Trump is a thug or just plays one on TV. One hopes that, buried in the gilded bowels of Trump Tower, there’s a Dr. Melfi listening to the president-elect rambling on about all the things he maybe shouldn’t have said about Putin and that nutbag in Pyongyang. What a lovely image—faded, fantastical—that would be.
This article has been updated.