The Donkey and the Elephant: American Presidential Politics, Russia, and None of the Above

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Matt Crosston

Professor of Political Science at Bellevue University

Whether one truly believes in the old adage that the President of the United States is the ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘the most powerful person on the global stage,’ it is unquestionable that whoever holds the Oval Office in the White House wields tremendous influence and impact far beyond the borders of America. As the world looks on with fascination in 2016 at the coming confrontation between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, questions remain as to which candidate is favored by which foreign leaders. While mainstream American media is still basically covering the race with horrified fascination at the popularity and perseverance of the Trump campaign, the reality beyond America seems to show his candidacy is being taken quite seriously by other countries. Some may even be taking it not just seriously but favorably when compared to the anticipated presidency of another Clinton.

At the moment, Russia seems to be one of those countries. However, deeper analysis shows this ‘support’ might be more of an indictment against past Hillary positions and statements rather than based on real evidence that accurately predicts what a Trump presidency might mean for Moscow. In fact, looking at both candidates strictly from a ‘what-this-means-for-Russia?’ perspective reveals the next four years of White House-Kremlin relations could be rather problematic no matter who wins.

Hillary Clinton

Before some of the specific statements and positions of Hillary Clinton on Russia are considered, a subtle comment needs to be made about the state of foreign policy within the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to potential candidates for President. Approximately four years ago I published a very popular piece that argued how the foreign policy of President Barack Obama was by and large ‘Republican’ in its conservative orthodoxy. While I admitted that this traditionalist approach could be partially explained by the personal comfort level of the President himself, American presidential race history also weighed heavily in explaining these right-of-center positions for a left-of-center President. This same heavy weight affects Hillary just as much as Obama and therefore bears repeating.[1]

Why do liberal leaders in America become largely conservative statesmen when it comes to real decision-making on the global stage? Some of this is undoubtedly tied to what Democrats have had to fend off as an entire party in the past generation of presidential races: that Democrats are too focused on domestic affairs and are unfit or inexperienced to handle world affairs. In essence, Democrats always have to defend against the accusation of being foreign policy weaklings. This accusation is never leveled against Republican candidates (even when a particular candidate may be internationally amateurish, his party’s reputational legacy is apparently automatically transferred to him. This is clearly happening today with Trump).

This ‘Chamberlain Syndrome’ (Democrat-as-global-appeaser) has existed for quite some time, but it was surely exacerbated by 9/11 and the new emphasis on national security. It was a major part of the lead-up to the 2004 election, when some analysts warned, ‘if Democrats are to have any hope of returning to power in 2004, or even of running competitively and keeping the U.S. two-party system healthy and balanced in the coming decade, they will have to convince the American people that they are as capable as Republicans of protecting the United States from terrorism and other security threats.’[2] While it was assumed that it would be quite some time before Democrats could actually win national elections based on their national security and foreign policy stances, the big hope was to have the party advance far enough so that it would stop losing national elections solely because of these two factors.[3] This was arguably the biggest lesson learned from the Democratic failure of 2004, when Vietnam war veteran, Purple Heart winner, and long-time Foreign Affairs Senate stalwart John Kerry lost to Bush, who had no such international military service accolades to lean on.

While in the past Democrats could always criticize Republicans for being too eager to consider war (all stick, no carrot), the reverse accusation thrown back at Democrats post-9/11 seemed more damning (all carrot, no stick). What Democrats as a party needed to ensure was that Americans could see them as not too weak or awkward when it came to handling said stick. Undoubtedly this was a legacy lesson made disturbingly eternal when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis stuck his head out of a tank in 1988, ostensibly to make people believe in his toughness, and instead became the butt of such jokes and ridicule that it arguably led to his loss to George H.W. Bush.

It seems clear that ever since that debacle Democrats have been quick to overreact to such criticism.[4] They thus tend to be even quicker than Republicans to line up and show the ‘military chevrons’ symbolically tattooed on their arms, signifying their willingness and capability to defend America as aggressively as the opposing party. This historical weight was prominent on Obama because his past experience as a Chicago community organizer, followed by very limited service as a single-term Senator, created a hyper-sensitivity to ‘not being internationally ready.’ If anything, this same weight is heavier on Hillary: not only must she fight the traditionally sexist accusations made against all women politicians as being ‘peacemakers’ and not ‘war-makers.’ She also must fight her own personal history, which if anything began as classically feminist and liberal, two things never commonly associated with the military or the utilization of hard power. Given this background, both within the party in general and her personality in specific, it becomes much easier to understand why Hillary’s comments and positions over the years have been so decidedly skeptical and critical toward Russia. Easier to understand, however, does not necessarily translate into easier to accept.

  • Many of Hillary’s critics tend to cite her steadfast belief in the mythology of ‘American exceptionalism’ and the country’s self-proclaimed role as ‘leader of the free world.’ To be fair, most Washington politicians will at least give public voice to these same ideas but few have also been Secretary of State and maintain very close ties to the military-security complex. It was Ralph Nader who decried her as both a ‘deep corporatist and deep militarist…never having met a weapons system she didn’t like.’[5] Perhaps most significant, this characterization would have been impossible to imagine when she began in Washington as First Lady. One only need look at the failed managed health care initiative Bill Clinton gave to her charge during his first term to see how dramatically her issue foci and temperament have adapted over time.
  • Hillary still maintains unofficial and official contacts within her Eastern European team that are, amazingly, highly adaptable neoconservative holdovers from the Bush administration and have succeeded in staying near to the ears of Obama, Clinton, and Kerry over time. Anatol Lieven, the renowned scholar at King’s College London, has openly decried that too many of the figures currently surrounding Hillary are old school members of the military, foreign policy, and security establishment that chronically view Russia with Cold War attitudes, regardless of evidence.[6]
  • During the Crimea crisis in 2014, Hillary tried to make a connection between Putin policy on the secession/annexation issue with policies pursued by Adolph Hitler in the 1930s. Given that over 20 million Russians died fighting Hitler, a sacrifice many historians the world over consider the crucial lynchpin that ultimately led to Hitler’s defeat, and that WWII in Russia is officially known instead as the ‘Great Fatherland War,’ it was incredibly rash and ill-thought to make such flippantly inaccurate connections given how important Russian-American relations will continue to be to the office Hillary is pursuing.
  • At the powerful and influential Brookings Institution, Hillary stated that more needed to be done to ‘up the costs’ on Russia in general and Putin in specific because of Russian action in Syria. These comments were of course made under the aegis of honoring international law and wanting an end to conflict, even though Russia was formally invited to enter Syria and its intervention was technically in line with said international law. Neither statement can be formally applied to the American assistance given to the chaotically diverse opposition groups trying to overthrow Assad. This type of ‘reworking the narrative’ is continually irritating to Russia: what it considers to be blatant and untruthful manipulation of the global media covering events actually transpiring on the ground.
  • Hillary has not been very gracious when discussing her personal opinion of Putin as a man, having once even described him as having ‘no soul.’ In her book “Hard Choices”, she called him ‘thin-skinned and autocratic.’ This fuels a general perception within the corridors of power in Russia that perhaps Hillary views this relationship too personally: that as long as Vladimir Putin is President of Russia (which could very well be for the entirety of a Hillary presidency), then she will not strive to achieve better relations with the country nor will she even treat Russia as an equal partner on areas of global mutual interest.
  • Hillary has maintained self-serving double standards in interviews, drawing false distinctions between the presidencies of Medvedev from 2008-2012 and the return of Putin after 2012. On the one hand, she would decry Medvedev of simply doing the bidding of Prime Minister Putin, but then on the other hand would praise her ability to work and get things done with Medvedev. Medvedev, therefore, has been both a puppet who does nothing and a puppet master who let the United States achieve a nuclear arms deal, Iranian sanctions, and facilitate further operations in Afghanistan. In a massively publicized interview with the famous television journalist Judy Woodruff, Hillary clearly established a stance marked by distrust and wariness toward Russia, even if begrudgingly acknowledging that it was still a country that had to be worked with.

While many traditional liberals within the Democratic Party have issues with what they consider to be the blatantly ‘far right’ conservative foreign policy positions of Hillary, the real concern for the Russian Federation is that it sees her as a candidate that, correctly or incorrectly, wants to use Russia and Putin as a convenient scapegoat and whipping boy to establish her own ‘toughness’ on the global stage and leans on outdated Cold War rhetoric to analyze contemporary strategies and initiatives. If Russia is interested in establishing new 21st century relations with the United States not beholden instinctively to the legacies of the 20th, then it is hard-pressed to view Hillary Clinton as the President that would be willing to create such an environment. This is what likely fuels the quasi-positive statements coming from Russia about Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Russia should be wary of wanting a President just because he isn’t Hillary. While Donald brings a different style and approach to potential relations with Russia, it does not mean those relations will produce anything new and innovative.

Donald Trump

Having examined some of the more strident comments and commentaries made by Hillary toward Russia, it is hard to avoid the impression that Russia may be ‘supporting’ a Trump presidency in very much the same way so many Americans are: they simply do not want a Clinton presidency. In my university classes I often caution students from engaging in what I call ‘negative voting:’ the vote being cast is not so much FOR a particular candidate but rather AGAINST the opposing one. When citizens cast votes based on negation rather than affirmation, then it is not uncommon that the succeeding presidency is ultimately disappointing. I believe this will be applicable to Russia as well if it thinks simply preventing Hillary results automatically in a better presidency for Russian-American relations. To wit:

  • Within Donald’s campaign has been a penchant for making bold statements that subsequently get walked back soon after. He did it with the building of a wall against Mexicans; did it with the promise to tax the super-rich; did it with the promise to raise the minimum wage; did it with the proposal to simply ban all self-declared Muslims from entering the country. While many Democrats (and Republicans for that matter) lament this as making it impossible to understand just what a Trump presidency will truly look like, many former business associates have warned that this spinning and counter-spinning is what his administration will be: no solid principles, simply a willingness to jump back and forth across diametrically opposed positions with no real logic as to why. Ultimately, the accusation is one of being supremely self-serving.[7] Russia may think this is a personality it can work with, but that makes an assumption that the self-serving egotism will be rational and predictable. Moscow seems to emphasize the word ‘pragmatism’ with Donald. But the policy spins, flip-flops, and contradictions do not indicate pragmatism. They indicate unreliability.
  • Donald has made headlines by saying he is willing to work with Russia, ‘but only from a position of strength,’ while also adding that the United States should be willing to walk away from Russia if it is ‘too demanding.’ Since Hillary has so clearly staked out a position openly antagonistic toward Russia, comments like these from Donald make it seem like a dramatically different policy. In real terms, it is not. The key is cluing in to the code words. Whenever a politician in America speaks about positions of strength and not wanting to see an opponent too demanding, it is basically arguing for the very same position crafted by Hillary: the preferences of the United States will take priority and working together only takes place if America is granted the clear leadership role. This attitudinal arrogance has been sanctified in Russian-American relations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and no President so far has seemed willing to blaze a new path. Donald’s comments are not trailblazing: they are secretly masked to hide what will simply be more of the status quo. He will be partner to Putin as long as Putin accepts a subordinate role, which, obviously, seems highly unlikely.
  • The previous point is a perfect segue to what will likely be the real fuel between Trump and Putin – ego and machismo. These two things are currency to Donald. It is clearly what he admires about Putin: whether countries around the world approve or disapprove of Putin policies and initiatives, one thing is never denied – his power and undeniable sense of authority over his administration and system. That Donald sees this as something to admire does not in fact indicate a willingness to be ‘mentored’ by Putin. Rather, it is far more plausible that the relationship devolves quickly into a battle of egos. In America, this is often denigrated as a ‘pissing contest.’ When Putin called Donald a ‘bright person, talented without a doubt,’ it inspired Trump to respond: ‘I like him because he called me a genius. He said Trump is the real leader.’ In other words, substance matters not. Just be sure to stroke the Donald’s ego and he will consider you a ‘friend’ and ‘partner.’ But what will his mercurial personality do when a disagreement on substance overrides any mutual admiration society based on style? For Donald, it will be the end of partnership, the end of friendship, and thus, the end of ‘new’ Russian-American relations. Ironically, Russia may find out that only Putin is the pragmatist. Donald is simply a narcissist.
  • In a bit of reverse psychology, Russia should be wary when one of the most biting opponents of Putin, the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, vociferously proclaims how Trump is the American version of ‘Putinism’ and that Donald’s presidency would be the ‘best hope’ for Russia.[8] Kasparov’s logic is that the election of Donald would severely weaken American democracy and rip apart positive trans-Atlantic relations. Put simply, Kasparov treats Donald like a de facto agent of Russian interests, ie, Donald would be willingly subordinate to Putin. As mentioned before, ego and narcissism will not allow that. In the current state of Russian-American relations, when so many Americans are being fed stories about the adversarial aggressiveness of Russia, there simply is no evidence-based thought process to make someone believe Donald would buck American opinion about a so-called enemy. Rather, he is much more likely to sycophantically cater to American paranoia, in order to guarantee his own need for self-aggrandizement.
  • Finally, the comments of Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Upper House Committee for Foreign Affairs, illustrate perfectly how much of the hope on Donald is really just about the lack of hope with Hillary:

“New chances may appear only as radically new tendencies in the White House, and we are talking not only about pro-Russian sentiments, we simply need some fresh air, some ‘wind of change’ in Washington. Then, we can reset certain things and agree on continuation of the dialogue…In the context of these two factors Trump looks slightly more promising…At least, he is capable of giving a shake to Washington. He is certainly a pragmatist and not a missionary like his main opponent Clinton.”

What this article has established is how misplaced such faith tends to be when considering Donald. People in Russia are making false connections: if you are not a missionary, then you must be a pragmatist. There are other more dangerous and damaging options in that equation. It is not binomial, 0 or 1. To repeat: just because Donald is not Hillary does not mean he is better or more approachable for Russia. His track record and personality indicate otherwise.

There are in fact some figures of cautious moderation in Russia and they are offering wisdom on the coming election. People like Aleksey Pushkov, head of the Lower House Committee for Foreign Relations, and Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, while admitting their understanding of the immediate Russian attraction of Donald over Hillary, also emphasize how the ‘system’ of Washington politics tends to bring any incoming President quickly to heel and that it is impossible to truly know what to expect from a Trump presidency. I think it is possible to reliably guess, however. For Russian-American relations to significantly change from its current negative status quo, the incoming President would have to be eager and intellectually motivated to instill innovative new political thinking and diplomatic pathways. Hillary has clearly staked her position in the ranks of the Old Guard of suspicion, skepticism, and distrust. Donald perhaps has not done this publicly. But his need to be adored and admired by the American public (an American public constantly fed a steady stream of negative perception and analysis about Russia and Russian leadership) means he would have to be willing to abandon the feeding of his narcissism for the sake of improved Russian relations. And while there are many mysteries in this world, one thing is most certainly NOT a mystery: the person Donald has always loved most of all is…..the Donald. Thus, Russia needs to be careful as it approaches the coming 2016 American presidential elections. Some loose assumptions and false connections are driving apparent loyalty to a candidate that is unlikely to offer anything close to what is hoped for. Indeed, it may just be the sad news that 2016 goes down simply as the American election that offers Russia option ‘C’ as the best choice: None of the above. 

[1] Matthew Crosston, ‘Hard Power in a Soft Package: The True Conservatism of Obama Leadership in Foreign Policy,’ Journal of Global Analysis, Vol.3, No.1, Jan 2012.

[2] Dana H. Allin and Philip H. Gordon and Michael E. O’Hanlon, ‘The Democratic Party and Foreign Policy,’ World Policy Journal, Vol. 20, Issue 1, Spring 2003.

[3] Dana H. Allin and Philip H. Gordon and Michael E. O’Hanlon, ‘The Democratic Party and Foreign Policy,’ World Policy Journal, Vol. 20, Issue 1, Spring 2003.

[4] Brian C. Rathbun, ‘Does One Right Make a Realist? Conservatism, Neoconservatism, and Isolationism in the Foreign Policy Ideology of American Elites,’ Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 123, Issue 2, Summer 2008.

[5] S.A. Miller, “Hillary Clinton’s Hawkish Position on Russia Troubles Both Sides of Aisle,’ Washington Times, 9 June 2016.

[6] Brian MacDonald, “President Hillary? If you think Russian-American relations are bad now, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Russia Today, https://www.rt.com/op-edge/340828-president-hillary-russia-american-relations/, 25 April 2016, accessed on 1 June 2016.

[7] Finian Cunningham, ‘Trump U-turns…Russia Beware,’ Sputnik News, 10 May 2016, http://sputniknews.com/columnists/20160510/1039369585/trump-u-turn-foreign-policy.html, accessed on 24 May 2016.

[8] Bryan Bender, ‘Russian Opposition Activist: Trump is Putin’s Best Hope,’ Politico, 4 May 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/05/russia-vladimir-putin-donald-trump-222805, accessed on 28 May 2016.

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