Donald Trump is challenging a fundamental notion at the core of American identity – the role of the U.S. as an unchallenged global leader able to intervene anywhere in the world in the name of democracy.
The American debate about Russia and its role in the U.S. elections is about more than a single event – the purported hacking of Democratic National Committee servers by Russian intelligence services. And the debate goes beyond the traditional narrative of “Russian aggression” encountered in past U.S. elections. Increasingly, the debate reflects a growing debate over American identity and the future of the country’s foreign policy.
In 2008, U.S. presidential candidates blamed Russia for authoritarianism and revisionism – largely to draw the public’s attention to their own self-proclaimed virtues such as commitment to democracy and rule of law. Both Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and then Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) sought to exploit the Georgia-Russia conflict in August 2008, accusing the Kremlin of “aggression” against the “democratic” Georgia. Following McCain’s lead, Obama’s team also saw a future solution to problems in the Caucasus by bringing Georgia into NATO, despite Russia’s objections.
Such views on Russia reflected the consensus within the American media and political establishment. Influential politicians, including McCain and his Democratic counterparts, commonly referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a KGB spy with no soul. Russophobia was back in fashion, as then Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) admitted in a comment published in The Wall Street Journal in 2008.
While in the White House, Obama’s attention shifted from Russia to other pressing domestic and international issues. The Kremlin ceased to be the villain. And again, just as under former President George W. Bush, Russia was designated a junior partner charged with the task of helping the U.S. carry out its global plans. As before, Russia’s claims to an independent worldview and unique national interests were brushed off as insignificant.
Today’s Russia debate is strikingly defensive. The U.S. mainstream media outlets that support Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton are committed to turning the Kremlin into a scapegoat for America’s own problems and failed policies. Not bothering themselves with evidence, prominent members of the media, experts, and politicians - including Obama himself - have accused Moscow of hacking the servers of the Democratic Party and endorsing Republican candidate Donald Trump as the preferred choice as the next U.S. president.
However, the political and media presentation of Russia is changing. Increasingly, Russia is being viewed through the lens of two radically different narratives.
One of them is promoted by Clinton and is the already familiar view of Russia as a neo-Soviet autocracy that is led by a former KGB agent and threatens American global interests and values. Somewhat paradoxically, the conventional wisdom also claims that, while serving as a global threat – along with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) – Russia remains a deeply corrupt and declining power unable to compete with the West.
Republican presidential candidate Trump represents the other perspective. According to this point of view, Russia’s international interests are not fundamentally different from those of the United States. Indeed it can be beneficial for the U.S. to find a way to align its policies and priorities with those of the Kremlin. For instance, Trump stated that the main objective should be to defeat ISIS in the Middle East – the same goal that Russia shares.
Trump also says that it would be beneficial to scale down U.S. commitments to allies in Europe and Asia. Here, Trump applies his trademark transactional approach to issues of national security by opening himself to attacks from all corners of the U.S. political establishment.
The general idea of conducting a more restrained and less expensive foreign policy has Moscow’s ears because it has the potential to increase Russia’s contribution to global security and world order. Trump further hinted that he is prepared to revisit the thorny issues of Western sanctions against the Russian economy and recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia. Trump never commented on Russia’s political system, values or corruption.
It is not clear how much of Trump’s rhetoric reflects his true beliefs, rather than politics as usual. His habits of exaggerating, prevaricating, and distorting facts (whether on purpose or by accident) have already drawn many justifiable criticisms. Still, there is some consistency to his views on Russia and he has not yet wavered on either one of the above stated positions.
Trump’s views on Russia therefore deserve to be heard. So far, the perspective that stresses the U.S.-Russia commonality of interests and downplays domestic differences has barely been present in the public debate over foreign policy.
Moreover, those who dared to articulate such a perspective have been silenced or stigmatized as Putin apologists. In the meantime, if it is widely covered by the media, the perspective has the potential to seriously challenge the mainstream identity of the U.S. as a global hegemon.
America's foreign policy identity
The U.S. is at an important point of debating how foreign policy can benefit broad social strata within the country. Historically, as prominent American academic Walter Russell Mead wrote in his book Special Providence, U.S. identity was articulated by three schools of global engagement – Alexander Hamilton’s promotion of American enterprise abroad, Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to spreading U.S. values, and Andrew Jackson’s pride in honor, independence and military power – and one school of isolationism associated with Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the preservation of American democracy in a dangerous world.
Until Trump, the U.S. foreign policy was based on the consensus of Hamiltonians, Wilsonians and Jacksonians, representing different forms of American internationalism. For instance, the 2008 elections may be viewed as a competition between the radical Jacksonian McCain and the moderate combination of Wilsonianism and Hamiltonianism represented by Obama.
Today, Clinton offers yet another, potentially radical combination of Wilsonianism and Jacksonianism. If she wins the election, she may use force more frequently than did Obama and with more devastating consequences, particularly as it concerns relations with Russia.
Today, the foreign policy debate is beginning to take place on different terms. Perhaps, for the first time since the post-World War II era, the old internationalist consensus is being questioned by someone who is not shy about calling for different rules for military, political, and commercial engagement abroad. Trump’s promises to put America first by withdrawing from expensive military commitments abroad and leaving the World Trade Organization (WTO) deserve to have a wide public discussion because they appeal to various social strata.
Like all populists, Trump has simple messages for his main audiences – workers who fear losing their jobs to global markets, segments within the middle class who saw their pay shrinking as the rich get richer, and army servicemen who are tired of fighting wars for American hegemony.
The Russia debate contributes to this general discussion by adding arguments for a more restrained and domestically grounded U.S. foreign policy. Such foreign policy is not isolationism, but rather, a globalism with greater domestic and international sensitivities.
Now with the rise of China and other non-Western powers changing the global balance of power, there is more room for debating new principles of American engagement with the world.
This is a highly polarizing debate with multiple risks involved. For instance, if Trump continues to be obsessed with negative publicity, then the political mainstream has a good chance of delaying this important discussion or turning it into a caricature. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders surely would have been a stronger critic of the mainstream approach.
Still, there is a chance that Trump‘s self-narcissism does not prevent him from exposing failures of the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian-Jacksonian consensus in U.S. foreign policy and articulating some essential points of a neo-Jeffersonian alternative. An unlikely winner in this presidential race, Trump has the opportunity to be remembered either as a political buffoon or a contributor to a public debate about moderation and restraint in American foreign policy.
It's hard not to notice that the media environment affects the minds of the foreign policy elites. For many, foreign policy is increasingly becoming not just a professional occupation, but also a pleasant pastime and entertainment. This directly affects the quality of foreign policy assessments and decisions.
The risk of Russia’s involvement in low-intensity military conflicts has been growing since the early 2000s. Instability along many stretches of the border has forced Moscow to increase its military presence in the neighboring areas. This is increasing the risk of Russia’s involvement in military conflicts as a peacekeeper or the guarantor of the status quo. The biggest danger in this situation is that ideological priorities may prevail over rational considerations, forcing the country to overreach itself.
The information space is the main field of confrontation between Russia and the West today. The aim of this confrontation is to win over the public to one’s side. It is important not just to be right, but also to be convincing.