ANURADHA CHENOY | 17 DECEMBER, 2016
US-Russia: Gas Yes, But What About Iran?
NEW DELHI: President elect Donald Trump’s selection of Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil as his secretary of state indicates many things. It is in keeping with Trumps crony capitalism image, in line with his ‘out of the establishment’ choices, in tow with his white male club.
But most of all, the President’s choice says a lot of what the duo’s policy to Russia can be. This is important because US-Russia relations shape the international system and the fate of countries and individuals.
Tillerson has a two decade relationship with Russia. The company he has headed – Exxon Mobile has billions of dollars of contracts with Russia ($500 billion in 2011 according to Wall Street Journal). Many of these have been pushed forward and signed by Tillerson himself, a task for which he has been awarded the prestigious ‘Order of Friendship’ by the Russian Government in 2013.
Putin has a stake in this nomination of the secretary of state, because US –Russian relations declined sharply during the Obama administration.
The confrontation deepened when Russia re-took the Crimea Province of Ukraine which is populated by ethnic Russians who had voted for secession. Russian position in West Asia and their support to the Assad regime exacerbated the hostility.
The US placed unilateral sanctions against Russia. The EU followed. The sanctions meant that the huge oil contracts lie frozen, as do many commercial and trade deals between Russia and the US and other EU countries.
Tillerson had opposed sanctions against Russia.
Russia-US hostility was an issue in the recent elections, where the Hilary Clinton campaign and later the CIA squarely blamed Russia for hacking Clinton’s emails which contributed to her electoral losses. Trump rejects the charges by the CIA as baseless and has pointed out that the CIA has gone badly wrong earlier, as in the case of Iraq’s nuclear weapons.
Trumps nomination has been roundly critiqued in the US and a narrative built of a presidency that will bend to the ‘wily Putin’. But Trump continues to assert his agenda which could shift the current geopolitical landscape of the US.
Drawing from Trump’s speeches he projects a vision to revive the US economy and ‘rust belt’ by looking inwards and not outwards, i.e. make the US isolationist. This was practiced in the US before the Second World War to some extent, when the US did not intervene in Europe. Trump in his speeches has unfolded a plan.
This plan includes:
1. Decrease US security expenses abroad. Which means the he would like the Europeans to pay more for NATO.
2. Lower US policy of interventionism and support to regime changes in West Asia, especially Syria. Trump believes this has been too costly for the local economy and leads to a blow back.
3. Free trade agreements allow too much import and impact US manufacturing, so cut down on these.
These three proposals (amongst many others) have strong strategic implications for the US.
For starters this plan can only be put in place if the US lowers its threat perceptions of Russia. This means that US policy to Russia cannot be one of confrontation and containment as was played out in the last few years. The Trump -Tillerson duo would advocate a relationship built on transactions and detente.
This approach is critiqued as bending and being soft on Russia and in opposition to US national security interests as constructed by the earlier regimes. The argument of liberal interventionism that the US has used in Iraq, Libya Syria is being shifted by the conservative Trump. Liberal opinion is worried that this can change the balance of power to favour Russia.
So, is Trumps thinking contrary to that of the traditional Military Industrial Complex (MIC) of the US that has dominated both the Republicans and Democrats for decades and is core to their economy? Can a president who will be surrounded by the bureaucrats and representatives of the MIC actually go ahead and change this?
Trump's shrewd plan is one that will make some shift from the MIC to a Gas Industrial Complex (GIC). That is to say that military expenditure abroad will be curtailed but defence manufacturing and export will continue. And more profits from the the oil and gas sector, which the US has plenty of, and with fracking will have more than planned. Since he has little regard for the environment, this plan suits Trump, his cronies as well as the Russians.
The Russians led by Putin, are well into this plan of quid pro quo with the US. The Russians will be a regional power in West Asia, with Assad retaining his hold on Syria. The Saudis and others will have to sing a new tune with Russia. Trump and Putin will agree that EU can look after Ukraine, as long as Russia maintains its bases in Crimea. NATO can have less worries. As far as hacking the US, as Putin said any one with an internet connection, sitting anywhere from New York to Panama can do it. Russia is not interested.
A major problem in this possible entente is the Trump administration's severe Islamophobia and hatred for Iran, which they see as heading radical Islam.
Trump's nominated national security advisor Flynn has advocated aggression towards Iran and regime change there. The Russians however will not stand for this. At the same time the Trump cabinet is full of strange contradictions and nothing can be ruled out in terms of a new kind of militarism in US policy.
As far as the Chinese are concerned, Trump is hardly interested in the rights of Taiwan or Tibet. If he declares a one China policy, Russia, US and China can have transactional relations and run their broader regions as clearcut fiefdoms and with less intervention.
The minor questions of trimming the Washington mandarins, an unruly public, and questions from the press can always be handled.
(Cover Photograph: Russian President Vladimir Putin with Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: old cosy friends bound by fuel)
(Anuradha Chenoy is a Professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University.She has written extensively on women and conflict, and is well known for her work on Russia)