Win or lose, the GOP nominee has killed any chance of a reasonable debate about Russia.
Donald Trump and I have a couple of things in common. We’re both connected to the New York Observer and we’ve both been accused of being a Russian stooge.
As has been widely publicized, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, owns the Observer, where until recently I was the national political correspondent. I wrote for the publication for a little less than two years and despite being largely to the left of the paper’s editorial perspective, found it a good place to work. Although I had been uncomfortable with the Trump connection since the Observer endorsed him in the GOP primary, it was Kushner’s opinion piece defending Trump from charges of anti-Semitism that made my decision to leave easy. Ideological differences are part of the business. Being an apologist for bigotry should not be.
That tie was easy enough to sever. The other matter is more complicated. Before my time with the Observer, I was primarily a foreign-policy scholar focused on the former Soviet Union, so found myself paying particular attention to Trump’s statements about Russia throughout the course of his unusual campaign. I did indeed find his positions troubling, but not only for the reasons you might suspect.
Throughout the campaign, Trump has had kind words for Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. During the primary debates, Trump said that he “would probably get along with him very well,” and has expressed his admiration of Putin as a “strong leader.” Trump’s recent suggestion that as president he would “take a look at” the possibility of recognizing an independent Crimea and his assertion that maybe the U.S. should leave NATO are of even greater concern. His decision to hire Paul Manafort, recently the top foreign adviser to former Ukrainian President and Putin client Viktor Yanukovych, as well as several other campaign advisers with ties to Putin’s regime seems downright frightening. And most recently, the GOP presidential nominee’s invitation to Russia to further hack Hillary Clinton’s emails were considered borderline treasonous to some observers.
In other words, Trump’s relationship with Russia has, to put it mildly, raised some concerns. There has been speculation that a Trump administration would give Russia free rein over Ukraine and Georgia, increased influence in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, and even allow Moscow access to the computer files of Trump’s political adversaries.
But Trump’s Russia ties and comments raise another problem. His embrace of a new, less hardline Russia policy has strengthened the anti-Russia views that dominate the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, eroding the viability of less hawkish views in the mainstream political debate.
While the ties that Trump’s campaign has are unprecedented and genuinely concerning, and his call for Russia to interfere in our election is outrageous, not everything Trump says about Russia is quite so beyond the policy pale. And some of his policy ideas probably resonate with more voters than the foreign-policy establishment would like to admit.
U.S. foreign policy has been sent into anti-Moscow paroxysms not seen in a generation
My record on Russia has been somewhat different from Trump’s. I have called for the U.S. to more vigorously denounce Russian-backed regimes in the contested regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I have called Russia’s actions in Ukraine an invasion, and generally described Russia’s regime as undemocratic and dangerously aggressive. This is hardly the stuff of your typical Russian lackey.
I have, however, also been critical of the former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, an outspoken opponent of Putin’s. I’ve also proposed that the U.S. engage in civil-society exchanges with the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and noted that those two regions were not returning to Georgian control anytime soon. These are complicated issues that cannot be solved simply by restating the problem and proposing unworkable solutions that ultimately amount to little more than kvetching. But increasingly, that is the only lens through which the U.S. foreign-policy establishment can see Moscow.
When Russia invaded Crimea and then sought to destabilize Ukraine by supporting—or more accurately, creating—separatist movements in the Donbas region, U.S. foreign policy was sent into anti-Moscow paroxysms not seen in at least a generation. Our best foreign-policy minds competed to see who could most loudly compare Putin to Hitler, while any attempt to understand Russia’s motivations was dismissed as weakness. This soft McCarthyism has helped stifle debate about Russia. The reality that Trump’s campaign does have nefarious connections with Russia will help stifle it even more in the future.
For example, Trump has suggested recognizing Crimea. That would be a bad decision, but Trump’s attitude is not exactly out of step with the views of many Americans who favor a less interventionist foreign policy.
Also, if the U.S. rashly walked away from its NATO obligations, as Trump has suggested he would do, it would empower Russia, weaken the West, and jeopardize many relationships that have been beneficial to the U.S. for decades. Nonetheless, it should be acknowledged that Article 5, the mutual defense component of the alliance, requires the U.S. to go to war to defend several small and distant countries such as Estonia and Latvia. This may sound alarms inside the Beltway and at foreign-policy think tanks, but many Americans probably share Trump’s view that it is not worth fighting for those small and distant countries.
This could be a mere misunderstanding of global politics. But it could also be a call to discuss the far-ranging, economically demanding military commitments the U.S. has the world over. Additionally, the only part of the Republican platform in which the Trump campaign strongly intervened was the removal of language pledging to send defensive weapons to Ukraine. While it is frightening that the campaign intervened in this way, it is also not widely believed that arming Ukraine would be advisable.
In the post-Crimea climate, it is very difficult to even discuss these issues. Now that these positions are identified with the erratic and uninformed Republican nominee, a calm debate about what precisely our policy should be with regards to Russia is even less possible, as those calling for a less confrontational policy towards Russia can more easily be dismissed as Russian stooges because Trump actually is a Russian stooge. Democratic support for Clinton’s hawkish stance on Russia—she was one of the first Democratic politicians following the Crimea invasion to compare Putin to Hitler and at that time criticized President Obama for not responding to Putin’s actions strongly enough—will grow even stronger, weakening progressive voices against a militaristic Russia policy.
It should be obvious that Putin is a dangerous and disruptive force. He is increasingly authoritarian at home, invades his former Soviet neighbors, intervenes in the domestic affairs of numerous European countries, and is now doing the same in our own country. Nonetheless, crafting a policy based on this diagnosis is more complex than simply calling for a hardline approach.
Putin is not comparable to Hitler, nor does he represent a threat equal to Nazi Germany. It remains true that we do not want any direct military conflict with Russia, that the U.S. population is largely unconcerned with the fate of small—or in the case of Ukraine, even large—countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, and that NATO is poorly understood by many American voters.
An American policy based on those realities and animated by an understanding that Putin is acting in what he sees as Russia’s national interests and to preserve his domestic popularity—rather than portraying him as geopolitical madman—would lead to a more thoughtful, realist, and ultimately effective Russia policy. Moreover, U.S. policy towards Russia is just one element of a global commitment to engagement that is opposed by many Americans across the political spectrum. These ideas, which are important perspectives that should inform our Russia policy, are now tarred with the Trump brush.
In the context of the stain on American democracy that the Trump campaign has been, the declining prospect of a productive Russia debate is a relatively minor problem. But it underscores the larger question of what the lasting damage of Trump’s candidacy, even if he loses, will be. Trump’s success in turning ignorance of policy from a shortcoming to a core campaign strength, in framing insulting comments as straight talk, and in elevating conspiracy theories to the mainstream political discourse will make it very hard to rebuild what was an already-fraying social fabric.
Top image: Painting of Donald Trump in the Abode of Chaos, a contemporary art museum located in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, near Lyon, France. Photo by: Thierry Ehrmann