The US Elections and the Russian Factor

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Jeanne L. Wilson

Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Russian Studies, Professor of Political Science, Wheaton College, Norton, MA, USA; Research Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

The current American election campaign is the strangest – and also the most virulent – in recent memory. To begin with, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unpopular with a wide segment of the American population. Trump, moreover, has the distinction of being widely disliked by a large segment of the Republican Party leadership and associated political elites. Hillary Clinton managed to prevail as the Democratic Party candidate against a strong challenge by Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, who has most often identified as an independent rather than a Democrat.  Trump and Sanders exist on opposite sides of the political spectrum; Sanders has even promoted a form of “democratic socialism,” a rare and in fact almost non-existent construct on the American political scene. Both men, however, were successful in tapping into a large wellspring of discontent over rising income inequality in the United States, seen as a by product of free trade and the relentless forces of globalization. The populist message of Donald Trump (his billionaire status aside), in which he seeks to speak for the alienated and dispossessed is the primary source of Trump’s appeal. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has (quite accurately) been cast as the consummate Washington insider.

A second unusual feature of the current election has been the surprising intrusion of Russia as a campaign issue. Generally speaking, US elections focus on the primacy of domestic rather than foreign policy issues. A wide body of research indicates that the majority of US citizens do not pay much interest to foreign policy (except in a time of crisis) and furthermore know very little about foreign affairs. Gallop polling in 2016, however, indicated that 65% of Americans surveyed had an unfavourable opinion of Russia, while 86% of respondents perceived the military power of Russia to be a critical or important threat. The views of US citizens on Russia are not formed in a vacuum but are considered the result of their exposure to the opinions of foreign policy elites as transmitted in the media and other venues. In this sense, the prevailing view on Russia amongst the political class is largely bipartisan in nature, consensually held by members of both the Republican and Democratic party as well as a contingent of foreign policy experts: Russia is considered to be a hostile, aggressive state that harbours imperialistic designs on its neighbours (notably Ukraine) and systematically tramples the rights of its citizens. There is considerable identification of the Russian political system with the persona of Vladimir Putin, who is perceived as an authoritarian figure that has over time consolidated dictatorial rule over Russia. Closer to home, the hacking of the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee in July 2016 has widely been considered to have been instigated by the Kremlin, as a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of the US election.

In this situation, Donald Trump’s statements on Russia—and indeed his overall perspective on national security issues—place him as an outsider. Trump’s position on Russia conforms in some ways to standard realist assumptions. He is uninterested in democracy promotion or humanitarian intervention. At times, he has seemed to condone the Russian annexation of Crimea and questioned the efficacy of NATO. He has, moreover, exhibited an admiration for Vladimir Putin as a strong, effective leader, noting that he would likely “have a great relationship with Putin.” These statements, along with other controversial remarks on US global involvement, have been anathema to the US political elite. None of the former US presidents will be voting for Trump, while fifty of the nation’s most senior Republican national security officials, many of them associated with the George W. Bush administration, signed a letter in March 2016 warning that Donald Trump would put US security at risk. Subsequently, a number of other foreign policy elites associated with the Republican Party have publically disavowed their support for a Trump presidency.

The sparring between Trump and Clinton on Russia related issues during the 2016 election season partly indicates their disparate views on the US-Russian relationship. Hillary Clinton’s view on Russia fit solidly into the mainstream perspective of the political class, and has been further moulded by her personal interactions with Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov. Clinton, following in the footsteps of her husband, former president Bill Clinton, is considered, moreover, to be a staunch advocate of democracy promotion, and further emerged as a critic of the Russian 2011 parliamentary elections which were accompanied by allegations of voter fraud. Clinton, however, has also sought to capitalize on Trump’s aberrant views on Russia as a means to discredit him and paint him, in her words, as a “puppet” of Putin. This endeavour has been aided by Trump’s own missteps, as when Trump indicated that he hoped that Russian intelligence services had hacked Hillary Clinton’s e-mail, calling upon them to publish whatever they had taken, and indicated some confusion over the Russian presence in Crimea.

Trump’s willingness to conduct a cordial relationship with Russia contrasts with Clinton’s considerably more hawkish perspective. If elected, Clinton will probably moderate her tone although there are no expectations of a dramatic improvement in relations. Russian observers, however, should also recognize that Trump’s foreign policy agenda, seen in a broader global context, poses considerable challenges to Russian interests. Trump is an essentially parochial figure, who brings a business mentality to calculations of US national interest, absent a consideration of their feasibility or unforeseen consequences. He is not a force for stability or the status quo, a situation that heartens his supporters, but could have exceedingly negative ramifications (e.g. his suggestion that South Korea and Japan acquire nuclear weapons as a means of reducing US expenditures). Trump’s slogan to make “America Great Again” and his policy of “America First” should be interpreted as an attempt to restore an uncontested American global hegemony. This is not a world view that recognizes the concept of sovereign equality between states as a basis of interactions, even with the United State’s long standing allies, much less the Russian Federation.

Photo by Chris Parypa

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