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“We Don’t Want The Smoking Gun To Be A Mushroom Cloud.”


President Donald Trump and Donald Trump, Jr.

The words above were spoken by former National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice in reference to Iraq’s purported possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) prior to the Iraq War. With the latest allegations against Donald Trump being labelled by some as Russiagate’s “smoking gun” occurring simultaneously with the U.S.’ nuclear standoff with North Korea, Russia, and China, Rice’s quote is actually much more relevant and truthful now than when it was originally uttered. Washington’s Russiagate obsession not only exacerbates its increasing isolation on the world stage, but also, more crucially, its increasing isolation from its own citizenry.

I’ve Seen This Movie Before 

Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany to discuss a whole range of issues. Despite the exclusive nature of the meeting, Syria was apparently a priority issue as it was soon announced afterward that a Syrian ceasefire in the south of the country had been negotiated between the U.S. and Russia.

However, very shortly after this meeting, which ran for four times as long as originally scheduled, the latest allegations involving Donald Trump’s “collusion” with Russia during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election surfaced in the form of actions taken by his son, Donald Trump Jr.. Curiously, this is eerily reminiscent of an earlier Syrian ceasefire agreement negotiated by the previous U.S. administration and Russia which was undone by the mistaken U.S. bombing of Syrian military personnel.

“Why Should We Help You?”

Regarding North Korea, this state’s missile and nuclear tests continue to receive front page attention in the U.S., culminating in the recent North Korean ICBM test on the U.S.’ national holiday, the 4th of July. However, what receives far less attention is the perceived impact of the U.S.’ THAAD system on both Russia and China, both of whom may assist the U.S. on this issue only if it suits their own respective national interests.

With respect to Russian concerns, the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Syrian theaters of operation collectively represent more than enough opportunities for both the U.S. and Russia to miscalculate and underestimate each others’ resolve in dealing with vital national security interests and overlapping spheres of influence. However, none of these theaters rises to the nuclear level (yet). Conversely, merely the Russian perception that U.S. deployment of THAAD in South Korea will impact Russia’s ability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons will more than likely just lead to Russia increasing its own first-strike nuclear capabilities in order to guarantee this deterrence capability for itself.

For China, the THAAD security dilemma is even more paramount than Russia’s as China’s known nuclear arsenal is much more limited than both Russia’s and the U.S.’. As with Russia, China is already in conflict with the U.S. on a range of issues and within differing geographical areas. These include, but are not limited to, the recent U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, continued U.S. “freedom of navigation” maneuvers in the South China Sea, tacit U.S. encouragement of Indian cross-border military incursions, U.S. admonishment of China on human rights and trafficking, and U.S. sanctions on Chinese banks and individuals accused by the U.S. of assisting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

These tactics may be part of an increased high-pressure strategy by the U.S. to get China to assist it in resolving the North Korean Crisis. However, as a true “ally” (which Trump labelled China shortly after Mar-a-Lago), China’s inevitably going to ask the U.S., “What will China get in return from the U.S. as true allies who respect each other’s core interests?” China’s “double cancellation” proposal and insistence upon its “new model of great power relations” paradigm are both emblematic of this dilemma.

Fundamentally, the U.S. has no good coercive options with respect to North Korea, either in the form of a threatened military strike, or continued ineffective sanctions. Also, at this point, neither Russia nor China are in a powerful enough position to change North Korea’s calculus that nuclear weapons possession is the ultimate guarantor of regime survival. Bilateral negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. won’t work without some form of buy-in from China. Therefore, though difficult and time-consuming, the only viable option for the U.S. is to restart some form of the now-stalled Six Party Talks where the vital national interests of all concerned regional states are acknowledged. Without this, and without some form of regional economic engagement with Asia post-TPP, the U.S. risks further isolation in  Asia on this particular issue.

Revolution, The Other “R” Word

Domestically, Russiagate continues to insult the intelligence of many Americans. Due to a historical, isolationist strain in early American culture, many Americans to this day are far more cognizant of the domestic issues which directly impact their everyday lives, not international relations. Of course, this is changing everyday, but former President Clinton’s maxim of “It’s the economy, stupid.” still rings true today.

To suggest to large numbers of Americans residing outside Washington and between the U.S. coasts that somehow Russia reminded them of the importance of basic questions is quite…indigestible. These questions might include: “How am I going to put food on the table for my family and myself in this economy?”, “How am I going to pay off all this student debt while being underemployed in a stagnant economy?”,  “How am I going to ensure that life is better for my children than myself in this economy?”, and “How will I take care of my ageing parent(s) if I lose my job and my insurance in this economy?”

As with great power relations in geopolitics today, interests predominate in domestic affairs as well. While some in power may perceive it to be beneficial to use Russiagate as the bell from Pavlov’s dogs experiments, this utility is only temporary. Unless certain elements in Washington understand that by actually helping to answer their various constituents’ questions above, they serve their voters’ long-term interests as well as their own, then they will continue to erode their own actual power and legitimacy on a daily basis. As of this writing on Bastille Day, this is an important lesson to not only learn, but an even more important one not to forget.



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.