UNKEN, Austria — It has been rightly suggested by one of my colleagues at the University of Oklahoma that I give too much credit to Vladimir Putin.
In retrospect, I think they’re right.
Russia is a pretty poor country, completely reliant on an incredibly corrupt energy industry, which will hopefully be rendered obsolete with the rise of cheaper renewable-energy alternatives. Putin’s campaign in Syria, his secret war against Ukraine, his occupation of Crimea and the accompanying $9 billion bridge (no doubt well-padded with kickbacks) have contributed to nearly halve Russia’s international reserves.
This isn’t the Soviet Union competing with the United States to be the most powerful force on Earth. This is a Potemkin great power, a shadow of it’s former self that competes not through economic, political and cultural diplomacy but through corruption and intimidation.
Putin’s brand of macho nationalism has a certain appeal to a certain group of generally middle-aged and older white men, but that’s hardly a foundation on which one builds anything more than a fan club headed up by Steven Seagal. Yes, they sent their only aircraft to Syria, no doubt great for Russian television cameras, but this is the same carrier that has to travel with its own tug because it breaks down so often.
Russia acts like North Korea
In 2008, the neoconservative foreign-policy expert Robert Kagan published a book called The Return of History and the End of Dreams. It was panned at the time by many scholars as a flop. He was all for the Iraq war, after all! Where was his credibility?
Meanwhile, experts on European politics hated his dismissal of the European Union and its institutions as a postmodern mishmash. “He just didn’t get it!” they exclaimed. Russia was mostly tame, Chinese growth was slowing as part of the 2008 Great Recession, and the European Union was just about to complete the Lisbon reform treaty. In their eyes, Kagan was just making trouble by proclaiming the world to be in a worse state than it actually was.
But was he really just wringing his hands, Chicken Little-style? I think time has started to show that Kagan was onto something in predicting a return to great-power politics.
Russia can’t cut it, though. Their economy is entirely dependent on burning carbon and smelting nickel. That’s no way to build political power, especially if you squander it.
Where are the new public-housing projects, the great universities? Where’s the social-welfare system? Sitting somewhere in bank accounts scattered around various islands in the Caribbean and hidden in Swiss mountains, that’s where.
Russia is only able to make itself a force in world affairs because it doesn’t play by the rules. Russia acts like North Korea, jumping up and down to get our attention — unbecoming of a great power amongst great powers, with respect for the legitimacy of other great powers.
Russia merely setting Trump up
Instead of electing a president who would have committed him or herself to building a concert of democracies as Kagan had suggested, we now will have a president who doesn’t know what he wants. That Trump benefited enormously from Russian hacking and now seems to be committed to defending the actions of Russian Intelligence against our own intelligence services is utterly shocking.
It is an indisputable fact that Russia actively disrupted the 2016 presidential election. If the president-elect believes that Putin did this because he thinks Trump is a classy, just really classy guy, he’s tragically mistaken. There is no telling what Putin may have on Trump to prompt this behavior, and it’s fair to assume it’s nothing flattering.
Even if Russia isn’t holding something over him, playing Trump is exceedingly easy. To start a fake crisis, like a couple of weeks ago when Russia declared that “nearly all communication between U.S. and Russia was frozen,” was the first step in them setting Trump up. I fully expect that, eventually, Trump will invite Putin on a state visit as he seeks to ingratiate himself further to Putin, and, in doing so, moves the United States closer in alignment with Putin’s foreign-policy goals. He will do so in a position that makes us subservient to Putin’s power.
‘Stronger Together’ isn’t just a slogan, it’s a worldview by Andrew Kierig
For all of the failures of American foreign policy during the Obama administration — the Syrian “red line” immediately comes to mind — Obama has been a paragon of virtue and stability. Stability and predictability aren’t bad things in international relations, and indeed the President-elect’s almost obsessive admiration for controversial World War II-era military leaders only betrays his ignorance and unpreparedness. Stability is how other nations know they can trust us not to make any sudden moves, not to exercise our power irrationally.
Yes, the 2003 War in Iraq was a bad move, and was seen as such not just by liberals but also conservatives like the renowned historian Paul Schroeder. In this case though, our allies knew what to expect. Iraq knew we were coming, and for that reason the instability that war could have generated (not to mention the additional outrage around our attacking a small country without warning) was thankfully avoided.
Ignorance cuts both ways
We live in a world where our incoming president knows very little about the world in which he is now the most powerful single person. He could ignite World War III in 23 minutes, the time it takes for a nuclear missile in Montana or Wyoming to reach Moscow or Beijing. He could provoke a bank run simply with a slip of the tongue. He is able to reach any world leader at any time from anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of the South Pole.
Unfortunately it increasingly appears that Trump’s foreign policy is a half-warmed-over version of Nixonian Madman Theory (without the benefit of Nixon and Kissinger’s cleverness), driven by someone who lacks any sense of self-reflection or analysis.
Our allies, who have looked to us for leadership and stability, will now look to Angela Merkel, a 62-year-old chemist who grew up in East Germany and who understands on a deep, personal level what it means to struggle for freedom and democracy. For that reason, I pray for her health and well-being daily.
But the point isn’t that Trump doesn’t understand the power he’s about to be given. It’s that he strikes me as perhaps the most unreflective person ever to have risen to national prominence.
Our allies – and adversaries – know that, too.