Whatever awaits voters come inauguration day, it’s now clear that the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the next president will be Russia. Yet America’s plan for meeting that challenge isn’t clear at all.
Doubtless, crafting and pitching a strong and prudent response to Moscow’s machinations is not easy. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has been extraordinarily effective in maintaining the initiative and keeping the West on its heels by tiptoeing right up to — or over — implicit red lines.
Today’s fluid and murky situation invites fresh thinking and may offer a surprising degree of room for unorthodox maneuvers. That’s why Trump’s remarkably friendly attitude toward Russia has garnered more support than many elites expected. In an ideal world, Washington and Moscow would be able to hammer out a grand agreement on matters of global military significance. Yet Trump has not put much meat on these conceptual bones, while Putin has shown over and again that Russia cannot be trusted to strike any kind of mutually advantageous deal.
Even if the next administration didn’t want a fundamentally adversarial relationship with Russia, that’s more or less exactly what it would get.
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So despite fears on the populist left and right that a Clinton administration would quickly spin up a new Cold War, Clinton is actually poised to follow a reality-based instinct by departing from Obama’s squishier Russia policy.
Nevertheless, Clinton hasn’t done enough to explain where she’d go from here, or why she ought to be trusted to do so. Voters who think it’s naive to seek a deal with Russia can’t just settle for Clinton’s leadership because it isn’t Trump’s. And voters who still hold out hope for a hard-nosed settlement with Putin ought to be encouraged to think with some specificity about what Plan B will be if and when such a deal fails — or fails to materialize.
Clinton, perhaps because of lingering issues around her habit for non-transparency, hasn’t tried to excuse her lack of specificity on Russia with an appeal to the security value of secrets.
Clinton ought to put her detail-oriented diligence to work on presenting a Russia strategy we can believe in.