Russia's surprise decision not to retaliate for President Obama's new sanctions highlights a striking trend: Governments that have feuded with the outgoing administration are openly indicating their belief that US policy under Donald Trump will change dramatically in their favor.
On Thursday, Obama took unprecedented steps to strike back at Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager to help Trump win the White House and undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of the American electoral system. The administration slapped new sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies and companies, ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours, and shut down two Russian government–owned compounds in the US.
The typical Russian response would be to take some kind of similar measure in reprisal. And indeed, Russia’s foreign minister initially did just that, publicly recommending on Friday that Russia shutter US diplomatic facilities and eject 35 diplomats.
But hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin overrode that sentiment, declaring that there would be no expulsions and the facilities would keep running. He even invited the children of US diplomats to join traditional Christmas parties in the Kremlin.
There’s only one reason he’d do that: He’s anticipating a pro-Russia pivot from Trump. While US-Russian relations are at their lowest point in years, Putin knows that departing from the typical diplomatic tit-for-tat playbook and showing restraint is the best way to set the stage for Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office and a potential about-face in US-Russian relations.
He's not alone. The leaders of Israel and the Philippines have also made obvious indications that they’re eager to see Obama leave Washington — and expect things to run far smoother with a man who has promised to make some big changes to the way the US does business around the world. It's common for foreign leaders to privately believe new American presidents will be friendlier than their predecessors. It's pretty unusual for so many to say so publicly.
Trump’s inexperience incentivizes unorthodox diplomacy
Even foreign governments that aren't hoping for major policy changes under Trump are devoting unusual amounts of effort to trying to curry favor with the new administration and better understand its key players. Take British Prime Minister Theresa May, who issued an unusually harsh condemnation of Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech Wednesday attacking Israel’s settlement policies.
May does “not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said the day after the speech. The comment, which deviates sharply from the way the UK would typically comment on American conduct toward Israel in recent years, was most likely a bid to ensure that its special relationship with the US stays special under Trump.
Leaders like May are taking such steps because of the historically unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency. New presidents are typically at least somewhat known figures for their foreign counterparts — Barack Obama was a first-term senator when he ran for president, but had taken numerous overseas trips before and during his campaign — and stock senior posts in the administrations with officials who had served in government before.
Trump, by contrast, has never held elected office and has rarely if ever interacted with foreign leaders. Many of those being tabbed for senior positions are likewise unknown quantities for other governments. His United Nations ambassador pick, Nikki Haley, has no experience in diplomacy whatsoever. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson has worked with other governments and leaders before, but to push the interests of Exxon Mobil, not the US government.
The unknowability of Trump’s incoming administration creates incentives for unorthodox diplomacy. And to the extent that foreign leaders can sense that his attitude toward their countries is likely to shift things in their favor, they’re eager to show that in relatively flashy ways.
Putin is returning Trump’s love
When describing Russia’s decision to hold back on retaliating against new US sanctions, Putin said he reserved the right to respond to the new US sanctions in the future, but that he wanted to wait to see how Trump treated Russia.
“Further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policies carried out by the administration of President Trump," a statement from the Kremlin said.
Putin knows his gesture won’t go unnoticed by Trump, and is wagering that a measured response is the best way to kick things off with him. Trump has indicated on many occasions that he wants to improve US-Russian ties, and a number of analysts believe he could lift some sanctions against Russia. Putin’s remarkable decision to temper the usual kind of retaliation for Obama’s new sanctions is intended to boost the likelihood of that happening.
As Obama leaves office, US-Russian relations are about as frosty as they can get. He and Putin are at odds over Moscow’s incursions into Ukraine, its backing of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, and its alleged oversight of a hacking operation to tip the US presidential election. But as Obama takes a parting shot at Russia with his latest actions, Putin has decided that some very conspicuous restraint is his best chance at starting off on the right foot with the most Russo-friendly president-elect in recent history.
Netanyahu hated Obama. He thinks Trump will be very different.
Israel provides another striking example of a government unabashedly counting down the days until Trump replaces Obama.
Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution harshly condemning Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territories, an act with potentially far-reaching legal implications in the International Criminal Court. The main reason it passed is because the US declined to exercise its veto power at the council to shoot it down, as it often does; the Obama administration did so in order to demonstrate its frustration with Israel’s refusal to stop building new settlements or expanding existing ones.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Obama, viewing the UN abstention as a final act of betrayal at the end of a tense and sometimes openly hostile relationship between the two of them.
At the same time, he also made it clear that he was looking forward to his successor in the White House. In response to a tweet from Trump encouraging Israel to “stay strong” in light of the UN resolution, Netanyahu tweeted back an emoji-studded expression of gratitude for the incoming president’s “clear-cut support” of Israel.
Israel also claimed it had evidence that the Obama administration was behind the UN resolution and helped orchestrate its passage. And Netanyahu’s aides said they would wait until Trump was in office to prove it.
“We will present this evidence to the new administration through the appropriate channels, and if they want to share it with the American people they are welcome to do it," Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, said.
The Israeli threat to use evidence to embarrass or damage the reputation of a sitting US president is striking. Netanyahu couldn’t be more clear about the fact that at the moment, his disdain for Obama is proportional to his optimism about Trump. His public pronouncements about the two leaders aren’t just about sharing his personal preferences — there’s a strategic element to them as well.
He knows that painting Obama as anti-Israel and doing things like likening him to President Jimmy Carter (a strong critic of Israel who has since leaving office used the term “apartheid” to describe its control of Palestinian land) will make it easier for Republicans — and some Democrats — to condemn the UN resolution and take steps to bolster Israel with American policy in the future.
And flatly declaring that Trump is a staunch supporter of Israel before the president-elect has even stepped foot inside the White House is a good way to stroke the ego of a man obsessed with his standing domestically and on the world stage.
Duterte is optimistic that Trump won’t bug him about murdering people
There’s nothing ambiguous about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s feelings toward the Obama administration. Duterte tends to rage about what he perceives as US meddling in the affairs of his country, particularly Washington’s expressions of concern over his brutal war on drugs, which has left thousands dead.
But Duterte, who brags about having personally killed criminals, has suggested that he expects to get along far better with Trump; he believes the new president will not particularly care about his murderous tendencies. In December, he claimed that during a phone call with Trump, the president-elect indicated that he approved of Duterte’s approach to his war on drugs, calling it “the right way.”
“I could sense a good rapport, an animated President-elect Trump,” he said. “And he was wishing me success in my campaign against the drug problem.”
During the call, both Duterte and Trump extended travel invitations to each other. The rift that’s opened up between the US and the Philippines this year since Duterte entered office is rather unusual. Perhaps under Trump, things will go back to normal.