At the moment, U.S.-Russian relations could be thought of as a live experiment in the “Great Man” theory of history, which attributes historical change to the actions of exceptional individuals rather than impersonal forces that transcend any man or woman. If it were up to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, it seems, Russia and the United States would be teaming up to defeat terrorism, leaving the bitter days of sanctions and election meddling and proxy wars behind them.
The evidence to date, however, suggests it’s mostly not up to the two men. Despite all the speculation about the American president cozying up to the Kremlin, the United States under Trump has repeatedly done the opposite. Yes, Trump has echoed Putin talking points, wavered on clearly committing to defend NATO allies, and ended some U.S. funding for rebels fighting Russia’s ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad. Yet since Trump took office, the U.S. government has also attacked Assad’s forces, admitted another country to the NATO military alliance over Russian objections, and advanced new sanctions to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Many members of Congress and Trump’s own administration, including the president’s defense secretary and national-security adviser, consider Russia a U.S. adversary. Many Americans, amid investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, are suspicious of any White House concession to the Kremlin. And so far, these views, as well as the clashing geopolitical goals of the two world powers, have proven stronger than Trump’s desire to pursue friendlier relations with Moscow.