Trump's bromance with Putin will split the West in two

Story highlights

  • Hemmings: It's hard to know whether Trump's foreign policy tweets represent actual future positions of his administration
  • US presidents are notoriously dependent on the other branches of government

John Hemmings is a Doctoral Researcher at the London School of Economics and an Adjunct Fellow at CSIS in Washington. The opinions in this article belong to the author

(CNN)When the Financial Times and Time magazine both named President-elect Trump as their person of the year, the publications did so as less of a plaudit and more of a recognition that his election is a pivotal event for the West.

Certainly, it represents a major challenge to the shared foreign and security policies of the broad community of nations known as the Western alliance.
Only two years after Russia illegally occupied a sovereign nation's territory in Crimea and then began a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, an American leader has come to power, promising to improve relations with Moscow.
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How will Trump's "pivot to Russia" affect European security, and what impact will his increasingly hard line on China have on Washington's Asian allies?
Trump has revealed time and again on the campaign trail -- and now, more disturbingly, over the hacking scandal -- a willingness to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt.

A soft spot for authoritarian leaders? Not so fast...

However, despite his apparent soft spot for authoritarian leaders, Trump has not extended this friendliness to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In the wake of the Taiwan phone call and the President-elect's ambiguity over the "One China policy," the Chinese have responded by flying a bomber over the South China Sea.
They have also held life-fire drills on the PLA Navy's new aircraft carrier and revealed that they are arming their illegal island bases in the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Then, on Friday, China seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea.
President-elect Trump has responded in the manner to which we have become accustomed, tweeting: "China steals US Navy research drone in international waters -- rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented (sic) act" and "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!"

A reverse Kissinger?

Some commentators, like David Martin Jones in the Telegraph, have wondered if Trump is trying to execute a reverse Henry Kissinger by building ties with Moscow while freezing ties with China.
While such a diplomatic move is technically feasible, is it probable?
After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is well positioned at the moment vis-a-vis Beijing.
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While China has clearly become the dominant partner, and its One Belt, One Road strategy unilaterally consolidates Beijing's influence over central Asia at Russia's expense, China has been careful to pay the Russians lip service and accord them the face that Moscow craves.
Putin's ties with China's Xi Jinping are commonly described as a "bromance," as the two have met 19 times in four years.
Trade between the countries mushroomed in the wake of Crimea-related Western sanctions against Russia, and the defense forces of the two nations are growing closer.
Last September, Russian forces drilled alongside their Chinese counterparts, in apparent support of Beijing's claims.
As a consequence, any ideas Trump may have of splitting the two continental giants should be tempered by reality.
We simply aren't at the position in the Cold War where Beijing and Moscow were eyeball to eyeball and welcomed American balancing.

Will Trump divide the West in two?

So, if a Kissinger-style swap isn't on the cards, what are the likely effects of Trump's new foreign policy?
Unfortunately, his policy is likely to exacerbate a tension already running through the Western alliance, in which the European allies -- like the EU, NATO member states, and Sweden -- balance against Russia while welcoming warm diplomatic and trade ties with China.
This is the polar opposite in the Pacific, where Washington and its allies -- concerned about Beijing's intentions in the South China Sea -- are attempting to balance against China while improving ties with Russia.
While it may not look like much, this split is likely to divide the West in two, while doing little to worry China and Russia.
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There are some very real dangers that might arise from this: Europeans might soften on the arms embargo to China, or dampen their criticism of Chinese moves in the Pacific even more than they have already done.
Washington, for its part, might undo sanctions on Russia, effectively legitimizing the first territorial invasion of a state by another in post-War history.
This would not bode well for the Baltic states.
So, what's to be done? Well, first it's a long way to January 20.
Trump's Cabinet is still being picked, and it is difficult to know how much his foreign policy tweets represent the actual future positions of his administration.
Furthermore, his administration may yet be challenged-- either by the hacking scandal or even by a rejection of Trump's polices within the Washington policy establishment.
US presidents are notoriously dependent on the other branches of government to implement their policies.
Any number of things could collide, making Trump a sitting-duck president before he's even hung his name up in the Oval Office.

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Regardless of all this uncertainty, neither Americans nor Europeans can afford to ignore the very real possibility outlined above that Trump's attempt to split the two authoritarian states will actually split the West.
Much diplomacy and intra-alliance dialogue will be necessary in the next four years. No less than the future of the liberal, rules-based global order is at stake.