Rodrigo Duterte speaks to supporters during a campaign rally. MOHD RASFAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
FORCEFUL, FOUL-MOUTHED, and willing, by his own account, to try any policy that worked, Rodrigo Duterte seemed like a new kind of politician when he swept to power by a decisive margin in the Philippines last year.
Today, his brash, often toxic, approach offers an early look at a leadership style suddenly more in vogue, with Donald Trump’s victory in the United States and a crop of populist authoritarians waiting in the wings in democracies around the world.
There are differences between the budding strongman in Philippines and his peers in other countries. Duterte hails from a left-wing background and has decades of government experience as mayor of a provincial city. His thirst for power does not seem to be matched by a propensity for personal corruption.
Still, Duterte’s recipe holds some alarming lessons about what can happen when an authoritarian wins a democratic election and rules with contempt for the rule of law — but with the blessing of passionate popular support.
Duterte is willing to attack shibboleths and savage his critics. He’s trashed the media and suggested that his most outspoken Senate critic kill herself. He approaches running a nation of 100 million people like a bigger version of being a mayor for whom there’s no coequal branch of government. However much these tactics endear him to voters who are fed up with conventional politics, they also erode the unwritten political norms that make a democracy work.
Duterte’s brief but already searing record in office demonstrates how quickly an elected leader can undermine the institutions of democracy and begin to transform a state. It also shows that, when aspiring leaders make extreme promises, we should take them at their word. We should pay attention to the devoted crowds who applaud them, and we should take seriously the threat they pose to democracy.
IT WAS ONLY AFTER its “people power” revolution in the late 1980s that the Philippines became a modern democracy — after a bloody century that included some genuinely contested elections but also decades of dictatorship and a lengthy American military occupation. The democratic experiment has been shaky but also pathbreaking.
The nonviolent popular movement that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 presaged the European revolts that brought down the Iron Curtain a few years later. For years the lone democracy in Southeast Asia, the Philippines provided moral and sometimes practical support for liberalism and pluralism elsewhere in the region. With no-holds-barred politics and a large population, the Philippines showed that even a rowdy and flawed democracy could stand in the way of authoritarian rule.
For a time, the Philippines looked like a promising regional barometer. By 2009 neighboring Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and East Timor had followed its lead, scoring as “free” or “partly free” by Freedom House.
Once again, the Philippines seems to be leading a political trend — this one not so positive. Democracy and reforms have regressed in Thailand and Malaysia, and Duterte ran a fiery campaign as much against the inefficiencies of democracy as against his opponents.
Fledgling democracies have not instantly solved poverty, crime, and other problems left over from decades of authoritarianism. Some countries whose democratic transitions have fared better, like South Korea, pair stable politics with rising levels of prosperity and development. But the theory that democracy and national wealth grow in tandem — popular among some political scientists — has been contradicted not only by the success of democracy in India, despite continuing poverty, but also by the surge in authoritarian politics in rich Eastern European countries and, now, America.
Duterte tapped into specific grievances about corruption, crime, and drugs, but also into a wider global malaise about the methodical approach to government that so many countries have pursued. He sold himself as a rough-talking straight-shooter, unconcerned about the feelings of a political establishment he viewed as self-serving and corrupt.
He won the May elections handily, 15 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor. Crude comments about rape and an open contempt for civil liberties appeared to only help his campaign. Soon after his June 30 inauguration, Duterte shook things up at every level. He called President Obama a “son of a bitch” and the pope a “son of a whore. (He later apologized for the latter comment, which provoked outrage in the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines.)
He also inaugurated a war on drugs in which he swore to kill or lock up every drug dealer and user in the country. He ordered the national police to pursue suspects with a vengeance. Of the roughly 7,000 people killed in this brief but bloody war on drugs, about two-thirds were killed by unknown gunmen.
“What President Duterte calls a war on drugs, in essence, has been a war on the poor,” said Rawya Rageh, is a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International. “This wave of extrajudicial executions targeting people suspected of using or selling drugs appears deliberate, widespread, and systematic and may amount to crimes against humanity.”
Amnesty and local human rights groups say that Duterte tolerates no dissent. He has threatened to reimpose a state of emergency, a hallmark of the Marcos dictatorship. Duterte has bullied domestic critics in the Legislature, the media, and the human rights sphere.
Nightly shootings and mass arrests have become a signature of Duterte’s war on drugs, about which he is unapologetic. Upward of 100,000 people have been taken into custody. He revels in rumors that as mayor of Mindanao he killed drug suspects himself.
Philippine voters have responded with fear and awe. Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and expert on the Philippines, said surveys show about 80 percent support the war on drugs, but an equal number fear they will be personally victimized by it. “What makes him different is that he is such a maverick and attacking so many assumed norms of Philippine politics,” Cook said. “There is no sign that he is paying a political cost. After six months in office, his popularity ratings are very high.”
Meanwhile, Duterte’s foreign policy shifts demonstrate the impact a purposeful leader can have. For years, Southeast Asian countries, working closely with the United States, tried to check Chinese expansion in the strategic South China Sea. But Duterte made clear that he didn’t care for the ironclad military alliance with the United States and would be willing to overturn decades of regional orthodoxy to forge a new deal with Beijing over the South China Sea, one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world.
In October, a few months after he took office and before he knew who would succeed Obama, Duterte announced his “separation from the United States” at a shock press conference in Beijing. “America has lost now,” Duterte declared, pledging to be “dependent” on China. Duterte’s sudden shift threw the regional balance into disarray. And that was before Trump was elected and promised to undo Obama’s pivot to Asia and conciliatory approach to China.
CONVENTIONAL POLITICIANS considered such abrupt moves inconceivable in democratic nations. Yes, strongmen could maneuver wildly in countries where public opinion can be suppressed or managed. But over time, governments as fundamentally different as China, the European Union, and the United States adopted a bland, nonconfrontational approach to global politics. Even when the effort to downplay conflict was superficial, it reinforced the idea that a growing global community of nations respected the same taboos.
But Duterte, like Trump, has thrived while radically reorienting long-settled policies. In the Philippines, a strategic divorce from America was unthinkable a year ago, but now it’s underway. Similarly, the White House has shifted America’s approach to Russia, and many voters don’t appear to mind.
How long can pluralism survive Duterte’s kind of rule? Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Philippine president’s most controversial moves, like his violent drug war and coarse talk, fit in with regional norms, but the most important danger comes from Duterte’s threat against democracy itself. “This is a fragile democracy,” Kurlantzick said. “We should worry.”
The Philippines, Kurlantzick said, has one of the strongest executive presidencies in the world, similar to France’s. When a member of the supreme court hinted that Duterte’s drug war could eventually face judicial review, Duterte immediately raised the prospect of martial law.
“It’s very much like Trump acting as CEO of his family business,” said Cook, the Philippines expert. “He seems to think that as president, he has power over everything.” The joke in the Philippines during the US election, Cook says, was, “If you want to see what will happen when Trump wins, just look at us!”
Donald Trump developed his own persona over a lifetime in New York, but the echoes with Duterte are uncanny. In one of his first calls to a foreign leader, Trump supposedly praised Duterte’s drug war and according to Duterte, said he looked forward to meeting Duterte and getting advice about how to deal with BS (Duterte didn’t use the abbreviation). The only readout came from the Philippines, but no one in Trump’s camp disputed the account.
Back when Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines, his type seemed almost comic — a bit scary, but on the fringe. Today, he shows how a chauvinist can rise to power not in backwater coups or in countries like Egypt that were authoritarian to begin with, but in free elections.
For some time, the United States, too, had been concentrating power in the executive branch, to the point that even staid auditors like the Economist Intelligence Unit have downgraded their estimation of its institutional health. And that was before Trump. Especially now, the perilous state of civil liberties and Philippine institutions serve as a stark warning: Popular, elected leaders can undo democracy, with the full blessing of their constituents.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is a columnist for the Globe Ideas section and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.
[Published at The Century Foundation.]
Why do so many people want to live in America? Why have so many, like my parents, emigrated to the United States, and why do so many prefer it over all other destinations? It’s not just because of America’s prosperous and diverse economy, or its promise of economic mobility and equality. It’s because America’s political, cultural, and religious freedoms have meant that people’s fates are less foreordained by last name, tribe, ethnicity, or religion than they are elsewhere. While imperfect, the American system has proven remarkably open to revision and improvement, trending over its history toward more openness and equality, and less discrimination and oppression. Individuals can choose their own course, and their own identity.
America’s story as an immigrant nation is neither all rosy nor simple. Racial and ethnic tensions have simmered along with every chapter of immigration, and for all the periods of openness, there have always been tragic moments when the gates were closed, including to many Jews during the Holocaust. And in many cases, America benefited economically and culturally from the arrival of refugees or immigrants created by America’s own foreign policy misadventures. My own parents came to the United States to study; one reason they stayed was because their home, Greece, was in the violent grasp of a military dictatorship that had been put in place with U.S. support. However, America also offered some Greeks like my parents a way out, and a new home. Such stories have been part of the American fabric since the beginning.
President Donald Trump’s executive order to close America’s borders to people from seven countries arbitrarily chosen as the most dangerous sources of terrorstrikes a body blow against a fundamental American conceit: that this country is a melting pot, and that we never discriminate on the basis of religion.
The anti-immigration measure unleashed over the weekend also attacked the fundamental notion of citizenship, by initially barring even permanent residents whose green card signifies they are in the last stage of the legal path toward citizenship (Trump was forced to walk back this element of the order). And it directly singled out Muslims as targets; whatever the verbal acrobatics Trump has engaged in since, his order and statements were clear; he wants to ban all Muslim immigration from these seven countries (and perhaps more later), while making special provisions to admit Christians from those same places.
Don’t Be Fooled: It’s a Muslim Ban
Of course, this is a Muslim ban, not a counter-terrorism measure. (Rudy Giuliani, a Trump adviser, confirmed as much talking to reporters.) It’s easy enough to see, if you’re open to fact-based policymaking, that a blanket ban on foreigners or members of some ethnic groups will do nothing to protect the United States from terrorist attacks, which in most cases have been perpetrated by attackers who were citizens, entered the country legally, or were members of groups not on the hot-button fear list of the day.
In standing against this shameful executive action, we certainly can and should make a case based on self interest. An immigration ban hurts America just as surely as it hurts many families and individuals. It hurts our economy, our workforce, our research and development prospects, our universities, and our vibrant tech sector. It will make our economy less competitive, our institutions weaker, and our companies less profitable. More broadly, it hurts us many times over as stewards and beneficiaries of an international order built on norms that if unevenly enforced were once quintessentially American in principle: equality, rights for all, opportunity, and colorblindness.
But most fundamentally, this outrage from the Trump White House harms us by damaging the foundation of American rule of law and equality, which are the very reasons this country has had such success and has grown into a worldwide beacon. Despite America’s checkered record, it remains a cherished home to that majority of its population descended from immigrants, and a choice destination for those seeking a freer life. There might be better places to live, but none, including the European nations with great social safety nets, offer an open society with equivalent individual rights and freedoms.
What we’ve witnessed over the last days has defied the already low expectations that Trump set in his first bellicose week in office. Unaccountable law enforcement officials denied lawyers and even members of Congress access to immigrants detained at airports. Unapologetic White House officials gloatedthat terrorists will be thwarted by an indiscriminate, punitive measure whose short-term harm is sure to be matched by its long-term ineffectiveness. While White House officials clarified parts of the order on TV and the president fanned the flames on Twitter, foreign governments began to take countermeasures and executive branch agencies appeared to trample on the separation of powers by ignoring court orders and legislative requests. Families separated by the order, and travelers whose visas and green cards were suddenly useless, scrambled to figure out when and if they could cross America’s threshold.
Under the current scheme it is likely that Trump will try to open America’s gates only, or primarily, to non-Muslims. I hope that such an effort will fall afoul of the letter of the American Constitution just as surely as it defiles its spirit. But as a longtime observer of the American political process and a student of some of its dark history, I fear that it will take uncomfortably long to reestablish a just order. Courts move slowly and deliberately. Even if they get it right on the first try, it might take years before a Supreme Court ruling strikes down a de facto Muslim ban. And maybe Donald Trump will find legalistic detours around justice, implementing his isolationist, racist, and xenophobic plan with just enough attention to detail that it squeaks through the judicial process. As George W. Bush’s torture policy showed, much can be accomplished that is against our laws and our values.
We are a stronger nation with our immigrants, those who assimilate as well as those who struggle. We are stronger for our establishment clause which separates not just church but synagogue, mosque and all other religious belief from our state. The day we make religion part of the litmus test for American belonging is the day we turn our backs on the most American idea of all: that America can always, in theory, be home to anyone who wants it badly enough. America today is neither a Christian nor chauvinist nation; it is a nation built on a communal belief, and its success is a testament to change, inclusion and secularism, to the power of a collective national ideal that accommodates all takers.
America Doesn’t Live in a Vacuum
Trump’s excesses are possible because of the abusive bloating of executive authority and security state powers. Rights-stripping, unfortunately, is also as American as apple pie, and many of George W. Bush’s escalations of federal power, fear-mongering, and immigrant abuse after 9/11 were built on erosions of rights contained in two signal pieces of legislation by Bill Clinton that were supposed to reform immigration and the legal process in death penalty and terrorism cases. As a journalist covering federal court in Boston after 9/11, I was aghast at the cavalier lack of concern among many law-abiding Americans for the legal rights of foreigners, terror suspects, and drug criminals. I was also surprised to learn how deep and bipartisan support ran for any action couched as anti-terrorism, even if its primary target was immigrants and nonviolent criminals, as demonstrated by Clinton’s “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” of 1996.
Obama walked back some of the worst crimes of the Bush era, ending torture, closing black sites, and rolling back some surveillance measures, but he enjoyed the perks of unfettered executive power. Guantanamo remained open, drone strikes accelerated, and America didn’t join Canada and Europe in shouldering the burden of today’s historic refugee crisis.
Now Trump has taken the tools assembled by his predecessors and is applying them to toxic ends.
What about other countries? Will they function as extras in a one-man play called “America First”? Doubtful. They will retaliate, and America will care; even Trump, probably, will care. Soon enough the world will react, and Trump and his sycophants will notice they don’t live in a vacuum. Unfortunately, like the valiant domestic protests, it will take quite a while for the response to curtain the abuse of power. But the response will be devastating. Iraq is imposing a reciprocal ban on Americans, which while mostly symbolic could undo that oh-so-important war against ISIS, whose frontline today runs through Mosul, where American and Iraqi troops are together pushing back a real terrorist threat.
And American allies, on whom America depends for so many economic and political benefits, might take umbrage at having their citizenship suddenly downgraded. Citizens of Canada, France, or the United Kingdom are suddenly demoted in the eyes of the United States to having lesser rights because of their origins—might not, in a reasonable world, the governments of Canada, France and the U.K. retaliate to make the point that all their citizens should be treated equally?
How we act in the world matters just as surely as how we act within our own borders. A parent who abuses strangers and cheats in the workplace can’t expect the same behavior to result in an ethical and peaceful home. Trump’s anti-immigrant policies won’t make us safer from terrorist attacks, nor will they solve any other American woes, real or imagined. But we shouldn’t only make the case against isolationism and chauvinism solely on efficacy. Because even if such policies worked, we should still oppose on principle all moves to close our borders, disavow American ideals, and discriminate against religious groups. We have no interest in prevailing as an authoritarian state.
Our Better Angels
Donald Trump and his team will have to moderate their contempt for political life and dissent. Even autocrats in weaker states find they have to manage and sometimes cave to public opinion. Even outright tyrants can’t ignore street protests or the discontent of vast swathes of the public. So too, Trump, even in his first climbdown on Sunday when he relented on green card holders, will learn that public support matters in political life, all the more so in a democracy, which America today most resolutely still is.
Since 9/11, Americans have struggled to find the right balance between our security and trespass against our freedoms, all too often accepting compromises on core values in a devil’s bargain to fight terrorism. In the end, our security comes from both our readiness and our values, our laws and our fundamentally democratic melting pot ideal.
For most of my life, I have tried to explain what makes America special to skeptical relatives, friends, and interlocutors from all over the world. Donald Trump’s immigration ban makes that job all the harder. But there is an answer, and it comes from the legions of Americans who instantaneously rose to fight the unjust measure. The Bill of Rights, the traditions of American citizenship, our institutions, and constitutional rule of law together pose formidable obstacles to a would-be tyrant. American history tells us that justice can prevail, even if it takes a long time. Let’s hope that we’ve learned our lessons from the last century, and that Donald Trump’s attempt to rewrite the American compact as a nativist, racist, and isolationist screed shatters before its first draft is finished.
[Published in Politico Magazine.]
One of Donald Trump’s campaign applause lines held that it was time for the United States to quit serving as the world’s policeman and take care of business at home.
Isolationist chestnuts like this are standard campaign fare for a certain kind of conservative; just before he embarked on the biggest expansion of American military interventionism, George W. Bush, too, ran against the idea of “nation-building.”
Set aside for a minute the fact that even during years of unabated war following Sept. 11, 2001, America has done very little nation-building. Forget, also, that it’s questionable just how accurate the shorthand of “world policeman” is to describe America’s role in today’s international security architecture.
The essential fact is that the United States sits at the pinnacle of a world order that it played a central role in designing, and which benefits no other country so much as it does — you might have guessed — America itself.
America runs a world order that might have some collateral benefits for other countries, but is largely built around US interests: to enrich America and American business; to keep Americans safe while creating jobs and profits for America’s military-industrial complex; and to make sure that America retains, as long as possible, its position as the richest, dominant global superpower. Rather than global cop, it’s more accurate to call America the world’s majority shareholder, investing its resources in global stability less out of charity than self-interest.
What this means is that as Trump develops his foreign policy — a dealmaking approach whose ultimate outlines we can only guess at — he will eventually have to walk back his promise or confront its real costs. It’s easy to paint America as the rich uncle whom the world takes advantage of. That caricature certainly resonates with Trump’s voting base. But if Trump really tries to deliver on his promise and walk away from the world, the biggest price is likely to be borne by America itself.
The United States and its allies, in the wake of World War II, built a web of institutions that had an ideological goal: to reduce the risk of another murderous global conflagration. The United Nations would serve as a political-diplomatic talk shop that would reduce the chance of accidental superpower war and create avenues for managing the conflicts that did break out. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were designed to minimize the risk of another Great Depression. An acronym soup of other institutions sprang up along the same lines. When memories of fascism were fresh and Washington feared the allure of communism, it made some far-sighted, pragmatic moves. It funded the Marshall Plan for Europe, paying so the continent could recover economically and emerge to become a pivotal U.S. ally–and a profitable market for US companies. U.S. military occupiers in Japan and South Korea decreed progressive reforms and land redistributions in order to outflank communists.
In some cases, America really has underwritten most of the funding for international institutions, whether their purpose is to monitor ancient ruins (UNESCO) or inspect nuclear sites (IAEA). It hasn’t done so out of altruism. The investment has paid itself back many times over. These institutions have worked imperfectly, but they build goodwill and reduce risk. That’s good for the world in general, but it’s great for America.
It’s true that America’s role is expensive. In 2015, America spent more than the next seven nations combined on defense. Worried about this gap in the years after 9/11, some American officials and neoconservative ideologues complained that “Old Europe” should pay more for its defense. Like Trump, they argued that Europe has been able to reap an economic windfall because America shoulders so much of the NATO security umbrella.
At best, this analysis is a dangerous exaggeration; Europe could and probably should shoulder more of the cost, but the US investment in NATO is worthwhile for its own sake. At worst, by threatening NATO, the “free-rider” trope sets up America to shoot itself in the foot – shaking its security and breaking up a system with huge direct benefits to Americans.
Rather than a nation rooked by crafty foreigners, it makes more sense to see America at the center of a web of productive investments. Here’s how it works:
First, most of America’s defense spending functions as a massive, job creating subsidy for the U.S. defense industry. According to a Deloitte study, the aerospace and defense sector directly employed 1.2 million workers in 2014, and another 3.2 million indirectly. Obama’s 2017 budget calls for $619 billion in defense spending, which is a direct giveback to the American economy, and only $50 billion in foreign aid – and even that often ends up in American pockets through grants that benefit American farmers, aid organizations, and other US interest groups. The U.S. military, and the Veterans Administration, are an almost socialist paradise of equality, job security and full health care when compared to life for Americans not on the payroll of the Defense Department and its generously (even absurdly) remunerated contractors. The defense budget, by playing on America’s obsession with security rather than social welfare, allows Washington to pump a massive stimulus into the economy every year without triggering another Tea Party.
Second, America’s steering role in numerous regions — NATO, Latin America, and the Arabian peninsula — gives it leverage to call the shots on matters of great important to American security and the bottom line. For all the friction with Saudi Arabia, for instance, the Gulf monarchy has propped up the American economy with massive Treasury bill purchases, and by adjusting oil production at America’s request to cushion the effect of policy priorities like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Third, and most importantly, if you listen the biggest critics of the new world order, what you’ll hear is that it’s rigged – in America’s favor. America’s “global cop” role means that shipping lanes, free trade agreements, oil exploration deals, ad hoc military coalitions, and so on are maintained to the benefit of the U.S. government or U.S. corporations. The truth is that America puts its thumb on the scale to tilt the world’s not-entirely free markets to America’s benefit. Nobody would be more thrilled for America to pull back than its economic rivals, like China.
Perhaps that’s why analysts in the business of predicting world affairs don’t think Trump is going to abandon America’s “world policeman” portfolio once he looks at the bottom line.
“Trump wants to be seen as projecting strength around the world and intends to expand spending on U.S. defense,” wrote Eurasia group’s Ian Bremmer shortly after the election. He might be more abrasive, and he might pressure some of America’s bottom-tier allies. But if he wants to be a strongman, he’ll have to keep America’s stick.
Obama, too, apparently thinks Trump will like being the world’s policeman even more than he’ll like being Putin’s friend. “There is no weakening of resolve when it comes to America’s commitment to maintaining a strong and robust NATO relationship and a recognition that those alliances aren’t just good for Europe, they’re good for the United States. And they’re vital for the world,” outgoing President Obama said on his valedictory trip to Europe, claiming confidence that Trump shared that view of global alliances.
Within Trumpworld, there’s no question a real rift exists on this question. Isolationist-nationalist America-firsters, like Steve Bannon, really do want to see America pull back, and downplay the costs in the interests of their ideological goals. Profit-driven internationalists like Rex Tillerson, however, are intimately acquainted with the benefits of keeping an American hand in global affairs.
Trump might like the sound of handing in America’s resignation as global cop. His voters might like it even more. But if pulling back makes America poorer and more vulnerable, the costs will land squarely on Trump.
When it comes time to choose between the two camps, Trump might find himself torn between an isolationist camp he connects with emotionally and an internationalist one that will — in the gross calculus of profits and power — be more of a winner. That’s a feeble rationale for a sound international order, but it might be the best one going in the age of Trump.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
It should come as no surprise that many Russians will mourn this month, a quarter century after Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union and overnight, one of the great world empires simply dissolved.
Today a tense realignment is underway, as a resurgent Russia jostles to the table and upends American nostrums about the post-Cold War order. Russia has given the United States plenty of grist for worry with its apparent meddling in the US presidential election. President Vladimir Putin’s hackers and propagandists appear ready and willing to work to tip the balance to the right in upcoming European elections as well.
While these Russian endeavors are important, they’re a sideshow to the main event: a long geopolitical struggle in which the United States briefly gained a dominant position, but which today is more evenly matched.
In many respects, Russia’s position has been consistent so long as Putin has been in power. When it comes to terrorists, separatists, or defiant neighbors, force matters more than moral jockeying. Recent events confirm Russia’s view of itself. Aleppo’s rebels collapsed before a Russian-led onslaught. Turkey is desperate to remain in Russia’s good graces; the theatrical assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in an art gallery Monday only brings the two countries into closer cooperation.
Incoming President Donald Trump, meanwhile, appears willing to grant Russia the official recognition that Putin has always craved.
Trump and Putin — two macho leaders with empire-sized egos — tempt analysts to reduce the US-Russia relationship to personalities. But the unfolding clash stems from essentials. Russia has considerable hard power, starting with its nuclear arsenal and enormous territory. Its interests conflict with those of the United States and frequently of Europe, through tsarist and Soviet times down to the present. And finally, Moscow’s acerbic rhetoric and commitment to sovereignty and consistency place it in constant opposition in international forums to the United States, with its moralistic style and constant talk of human rights and democracy.
“Putin is about restoring his country as a major power recognized by the world,” said Dmitri V. Trenin, a former officer in the Soviet and Russian armies who now heads the Carnegie Moscow Center, an international think tank.
No amount of affection between Trump and Putin will change the fact that Russia’s interests never really overlapped with America’s. “The best we can hope for is to turn confrontation into competition,” Trenin said.
Trump won’t be the first recent US leader to woo Moscow. Every president since George H. W. Bush has tried to cultivate harmonious ties. Clinton might have helped Boris Yeltsin win a second term. George W. Bush famously waxed rhapsodic about Putin’s eyes. Barack Obama tried to reset. Trump will come into office on a wave of gushing rhetoric.
(Of course, all bets are off if some of the more unlikely theories turn out to be true and Trump turns out to be a sort of Manchurian Candidate with preexisting ties to Putin and a secret plan to realign the United States with Russia. But unless and until evidence emerges, we’ll have to chart the future based on what we’ve heard and observed so far.)
Through all these zigs and zags, Russia has consistently reasserted its alpha position in the former Soviet space while consolidating authoritarian state power in its heartland. Its techniques and rhetoric — against Chechen separatists, Russian oligarchs, political dissenters, suspected terrorists — won’t play by rules it considers rigged in favor of the West.
For Trump, this fundamental divergence means that despite any honeymoon period, the conversations are going to be difficult and full of disagreement.
Trump might see eye to eye with Putin when it comes to the Russian president’s reflex to crush dissent, and he may accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But Russian expansion will clash with America’s sphere of interests, and new boundaries will have to be negotiated.
Russia wants full hegemony in its old sphere of influence, which means a NATO rollback, and it wants a transactional international order stripped of even the rhetoric of international humanitarian law and its moral accoutrements.
Meanwhile, the United States will continue to preach a prosperity gospel built on capitalism, democracy, and lower-case liberalism.
Putin wants to erase once and for all the image of Russia as the tottering, ex-empire low on cash, trying to bully the world with a limping army whose rusty equipment is staffed by alcoholics with truncated life spans.
A multipolar world is full of fuzzy boundaries that breed conflict and uncertainty. The United States might be in first place, but China is gaining, and neither can patronizingly dismiss Russia as a “regional power.” The European Union is politically fragmented and economically hobbled, but it remains one of the richest markets in the world and, like Russia, possesses geostrategic depth. The fallacy of the American interregnum after 1991 was that old standards of geopolitical power no longer applied. Now the world has been put back on notice that they do, but that doesn’t answer the specific question: What should the United States do about Russia?
The first step toward a more effective Russia policy is to understand Moscow’s grievances. The sudden collapse of an empire of global scope traumatized many former Soviet citizens.
After Gorbachev’s Christmas-day resignation, Boris Yeltsin led an independent Russia into what was supposed to be a bright new age of capitalist democracy. Expert American advisers helped usher in a headlong rush to privatize state-owned industries. Whatever their intention, the chaotic process amounted to a looting of some of the former Soviet Union’s prized assets by a tiny circle of corrupt oligarchs. Yeltsin’s inner circle engaged in epic corruption. Some of the experts argued that a flawed sell-off of Communist-era industries was a necessary shock to shed Soviet mores. The result was catastrophic. Citizens lost the social safety net, while gaining very little in return. The visible results of capitalism piled up only for a tiny elite.
Added to the quotidian discomfort was a wrenching loss of national status. An ailing Yeltsin lurked out of view, while oligarchs ran riot and former Soviet republics made a mockery of Russia’s former primacy. NATO spread closer to Russia’s borders.
“Russia’s brief experience of democratic life was an experience of being pushed around by the United States,” said Mark MacKinnon, a Canadian journalist and author of “The New Cold War.”
Yeltsin’s Communist challenger was expected to win in 1996, but a unified front of oligarchs, worried they might lose their privileges, and campaign experts dispatched by Clinton, saved the day for Yeltsin, if not for his constituents. The episode was memorialized in the 2003 American comedy “Spinning Boris.”
“Many Russians look at what’s happening now in the United States and giggle that it’s payback time,” MacKinnon said.
Russian influence reached its nadir when NATO intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, which Russia considered parts of its sphere of influence. Putin took power the year after the Kosovo campaign, and doggedly began rebuilding Russia’s military and intelligence prowess. His scorched-earth tactics in Chechnya presaged his approach to Syria.
By 2008, Putin felt confident and invaded Georgia, on the pretext of defending the ethnic Russian minority there. The act of aggression provoked apoplectic rhetoric but little else.
Meanwhile, analysts say, Putin was frustrated that America didn’t show more gratitude that Russia had not opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and campaign in Libya in 2011.
Ever since, he has sought opportunities to exploit Western disarray, as he did with the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea, and the 2015 intervention in Syria.
Russian diplomats have crowed about American fecklessness in Syria and were visibly buoyed when over the Pentagon’s objections the US State Department negotiated an agreement in September — which never was implemented — to cooperate with Russian forces against terrorists in Syria.
The path forward is risky. A belligerent Russia can cause a great deal of destruction and spread instability. Russia threatened Europe’s natural gas supply. It lied about its military activities in Crimea. Its muscle-flexing has rattled Europe and NATO. Turkey challenged Russia, shooting down a fighter plane, and quickly lost the ensuing face-off. Russia played hardball, putting tourism and economic relations on ice until Turkey apologized and scaled back its ambitions in Syria where those ambitions clashed with Russia’s. Russia won that round, and other countries noticed.
Some analysts, like Nikolay Kozhanov, an expert at the British think tank Chatham House, have argued that Putin’s most disruptive moves came largely as the result of Western mistakes. As a result, Western unity could severely limit Russian capacity.
Sooner or later, Russia experts agree that Putin will test Trump. Clashes could come in Poland, or the Baltics, where Trump has suggested NATO is overextended. Tensions could flare in places where Russia already chafes at the proximity of NATO forces, such as around the Arctic and the North and Baltic seas.
“Trump will identify his red lines, because Putin is going to test them,” MacKinnon said. “The feeling in Moscow will be, how can we take advantage of this period, now that there’s a leader in Washington willing to let Russia get away with things it couldn’t have otherwise.”
On a November visit to Moscow, he said many of his Russian contacts expressed surprise that Trump had won the election. Initial concern that Trump could be a loose cannon turned to glee when he announced a series of Cabinet picks viewed sympathetically by the Kremlin.
Derek Chollet, who dealt with the Russians as an official on Obama’s National Security Council, said that Russia will take advantage of the new administration. Putin, he predicted, will do all he can to undermine NATO and the EU, influence energy markets, and drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.
“Judging on his rhetoric so far, Trump will be the most pro-Russian president since World War II,” Chollet said. “He likes the art of the deal, but to what end?”
We’ll find out where the United States will check Putin’s expansionism when we learn Trump’s priorities, whether they have to do with security alliances, business partnerships, or something else.
The first seminal crisis will come when Putin challenges an interest dear to the Trump administration. Perhaps the Russian government will confiscate the assets of an American corporation or clash with NATO forces or invade the Baltic republics or enter a showdown with Europe.
Trump will presumably have the advantage, from America’s unparalleled military and the imposing NATO infrastructure, to an economy orders of magnitude richer and more productive than Russia’s. But if America has squandered international goodwill and allowed alliances to fray, those assets will prove as ineffectual as they have in the most recent contests in which Putin has outfoxed the West.
The chapter in contemporary history in which America stood alone at the top has come to a close. Russia will return to the top tier, along with the United States, China, and potentially other alliances. But the natural size of its power, whether measured in wealth, military power, or global political influence, is not as great as Putin appears to think it is. Trump might be willing to accept a bigger Russian role than his predecessors, but he’s unlikely to forfeit first place.