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Trumpology meets Kremlinology

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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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