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Trumpology meets Kremlinology


Despite showing some questionable judgment about whom to cite, Paul Musgrave has a nice piece in the Washington Post on Russian propaganda and the US election. The whole thing does a good job of synthesizing the current state of play. But it’s real ‘added value’ lies in providing some context for the success of such endeavors.

The big question is what effects such meddling could have. There are two reasons to think that Putin’s gambit might backfire.

First, as political scientists Alexander Downes and Lindsey O’Rourke argue in a new study, installing friendly regimes in other countries often backfires. They write that “once in power, the new leader is focused on ensuring his or her own political survival, a task that is often undermined by implementing the intervener’s agenda.” Given the difficulties U.S. officials faced in exerting leverage over Afghan and Iraqi leaders after establishing those governments, this should not be surprising to Americans.

Russian interference in the U.S. campaign is hardly tantamount to “foreign-imposed regime change,” but a similar logic still applies. As president, Trump’s reputation will depend on promoting U.S. interests, which will remain opposed to Russia’s in many areas. Furthermore, Trump will have many reasons to demonstrate that he can stand up to someone he has described as a tough leader. And nothing in Trump’s past suggests that loyalty or gratitude will temper his pursuit of his private interest.

Indeed, much also depends on whether the balance of power among factions. In Michael Flynn’s world, the west is locked in a generational struggle with radical Islam; the Russians—who, I imagine, show an ‘appropriate’ lack of restraint in fighting the long war—are key allies in this grand conflict. On the other hand, Mike Pence’s rhetoric on Russia matches the more traditional GOP template: the Obama Administration wasn’t hardline enough. That is, if the GOP foreign-policy establishment wins out, Moscow will wind up facing a more, not less, hostile United States.

The second risk of blowback comes from the long-term risks of eroding Americans’ and foreigners’ trust in U.S. institutions. As Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov writes, Trump himself represents a wild card. Other countries will find it hard to predict Trump’s actions or to distinguish between genuine policy statements and off-the-cuff exaggerations. That’s bad enough: As political scientist Phil Arena explains, uncertainty can itself be a cause of war.

More profoundly, as international relations scholar Daniel Nexon [see the lack of judgment that I noted above?] writes, the global political order requires a U.S. government accepted as legitimate at home and abroad to maintain peace and prosperity. If Washington lacks the legitimacy to act, the entire international order may be undermined.

That might work to Moscow’s advantage in the very short term in such areas as Syria or Crimea. But if ending U.S. hegemony results in a prolonged period of global disorder, Russia too would soon find itself impoverished and endangered.

At least one commentator asked me if I still believe that Russia is in a weak position. The answer is “yes,” Despite some signs of economic life, Russia still significantly lags across almost every indicator of power—except nuclear weapons. It’s current asymmetric ability to exploit political cleavages within and among democratic states doesn’t really change such fundamentals.

And the problem, as Paul notes, is that while Trump’s victory presents great opportunities for Moscow—both in terms of the bilateral relationship and increasing the likelihood of Washington committing multiple unforced errors —the downside risks are also potentially quite high.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Each clickthrough takes us one more step toward reconstituting the ‘good’ online public sphere.

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  • That’s not exactly heartening. The basic argument seems to be that this could backfire on Putin by creating such a disaster for the U.S. and the world that Russia is also damaged. Maybe so but that doesn’t make me sleep better.

  • Murc

    Also too: individual personal idiosyncrasies can’t ever be ignored.

    Donald Trump has no sense of gratitude and an outsized ego. He demands respect and flattery. To him, Putin is a friend inasmuch as Putin is friendly to him and his brand.

    Well, now his brand is the United States. The very first time Trump feels disrespected by Moscow, he’s going to be on the red phone hurling epithets Putin’s way and telling him we kicked the shit out of their rathole country once using dollar bills, and we can do it again using bombs if we really want to.

    • XTPD

      Any word on whether Perimetr is still operative?

    • Lost Left Coaster

      True, but I would guess that Putin will continue to demonstrate some skill in manipulating Trump through flattery, etc. Not saying that Putin won’t fuck it up, just I think Trump is hopelessly outmatched here.

    • Barry_D

      “Well, now his brand is the United States. The very first time Trump feels disrespected by Moscow, he’s going to be on the red phone hurling epithets Putin’s way and telling him we kicked the shit out of their rathole country once using dollar bills, and we can do it again using bombs if we really want to.”

      What sort of dirt does Putin have on Trump?

      • Brett

        What sort of debt does Putin have on Trump?

        Fixed that for you.

        That said, I tend to think the Trump’s foreign policy will mostly follow the orthodoxy of Pence and the Republicans. Although I wouldn’t put it past Trump to get insulted by Putin making an ill-advised insult or maneuver and say he’s going to put US troops in the Ukraine (at least until he’s talked down).

  • Jordan

    Russia still significantly lags across almost every indicator of power—except nuclear weapons.

    I dunno about that. Germany or Poland could probably annex near territories if they wanted too and didn’t give a fuck about the international or european reaction. But they do care about that, for obvious reasons, while Russia doesn’t. In terms of alliances/whatever, which of course is a major part of state power, that seems like a real thing.

  • Warren Terra

    Also, Trump is already working to undermine the very notion of respect for Democracy. Case in point: he’s reportedly invited Hungary’s fascist leader Viktor Orban to the White House.

    • DrDick

      Trump, like all conservatives and much of America’s elite, hates democracy.

    • Is that remarkable? It seems that all sorts of despots and thugs get the occasional photo op in the Oval Office.

      • It’s remarkable insofar as he’s weighing in on a very specific argument playing out—right now—in the advanced industrialized democracies. And he’s weighing in on the wrong side.

      • Warren Terra

        Despots and thugs who have something we need, who are roughly in line with regional and historical standards, and who aren’t openly the enemies of institutions and values we traditionally treasure, get a photo op in the Oval Office. Eventually, they do – they don’t get an invitation two weeks after the election.

        We don’t need anything from Hungary. Orban’s machinations have moved the country away from meaningful Democracy and in doing so he has defied the principles of the European Union, which we have traditionally shared and supported. This isn’t the same as a photo-op for some third-world thug who’s providing us with oil or with basing rights seen as vital to our Cold War strategy.

  • DrDick

    Very nice piece and a good substantive introduction to your work. I have to agree that at this point in history Russia is merely an aspiring hegemon (wistfully gazing back at the glories of the Soviet era), while the US is a well established one. I also agree that Trump constitutes an extremely unreliable ally for Putin (or anyone else. I would even question whether he is even capable of gratitude or loyalty, there has been no sign of it in his career to date.

  • SaRA

    Your article at Minerva hits precisely my worry about how Brexit dovetails with the (nondemocratic) election of Trump and the elevation of his UN and NATO-hating cronies: the shakiness of a global political order that prevents the next world war.

    (I’ve been spending my time thinking up possible slogans for the Democratic party like “Democrats for Democracy!” and raising the specter of “unAmerican activities” to describe Trump’s government and other silly things.)

    As a nonexpert, I now find it all too easy to imagine the kind of instability that will end in violence. But how does an observer like me measure the likelihood of war or the degree of risk and stress these institutions are facing? I can imagine it; I’m afraid of it; but how occupied should I be with this fear? To put another way, if you were advising MSM journalists whose purview is US foreign relations, what are the warning signs that the American hegemon is weakening? If they were able to frame the debate as you wish–it’s not about “which liberal order” but “whether liberal order”–what kinds of evidence would you expect them to pursue?

  • SaRA

    OT–as a matter of blogging etiquette, I really like “Each clickthrough takes us one more step toward reconstituting the ‘good’ online public sphere.”

    I hate not knowing what I’m clicking through to, knowing that my appearance on a site could bring money to an offensive site or a bad writer.

    • John Revolta


  • Ronan

    I get the fact that Russia funds some of the far right parties in Europe (?) so there is a convergence of interests between them and the regime in Moscow.
    But there also seems to be a good deal of sympathy between more center right politicians (ie most recently Fillon in France) and Russian interests. What explains this? It seems from the post you’re saying it depends on what is seen as the most important security issue of the day (Islamist terrorism vs Russian expansionism)? If a politician/party prioritises terrorism theyre more likely to sympathise with putin?
    I’m just not sure, outside of the direct funding and development of political networks aspect, what the mechanisms are that have enabled Putin to develop such strong support on the western right?

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