The Russian factor, which unexpectedly became the focus of the American presidential campaign, is starting to take on more serious weight in American internal affairs. The report that was made public in the first days of the new year about the alleged interference by Russian hackers in the election doesn’t so much complicate relations between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as it creates internal political problems for the 45th president of the United States (even putting impeachment on the table). How did it happen that Americans were so convinced of the all-powerful nature of Putin and the ever-present “arm of the Kremlin,” and what does this all mean for both the U.S. and the rest of the world?
A few days ago, an extensive article appeared on the influential American website Politico, which referred to a forgotten 30-year-old series, “Amerika.” (SEE HERE) This cinematic creation, commercially quite unsuccessful, described a takeover of the United States by the Soviet Union, not through military means, but through planting agents in the political system, which results in the 1988 election being won by a Kremlin stooge. Relying on his patrons, the new president quickly turns America into an enslaved totalitarian government.
The author of the article supposes that this story, which seemed completely absurd three decades ago, has practically come true today. “The seeds of that dark future are already in the soil,” the Politico author warns, and explains that Putin is undermining faith in American democracy and manipulating the minds of American citizens. The author of the article posits that the main threat is a lack of will to mobilize. He laments about people who are “plaintively wailing on Facebook that Russia has executed something akin to a coup, but feeling powerless as to what to do about it.”
A year ago, when the election was beginning in the United States, it was assumed that the most likely final candidates would be politicians with the last names Clinton and Bush. It was impossible back then to predict not only the result of the campaign, but also the level of panicked exultation that gripped the political class of the country 12 months hence. What is happening now, it seems, is only the beginning.
Already the first days of 2017 are setting the tone for the political year now underway. The end of the presidential election has not put to rest the furious wrangling, as it usually does, but has only added fuel to the fire of a serious intra-American conflict. The losing side (which is not just the Democrats and Hillary Clinton supporters, but also a not insignificant part of the Republican establishment which spoke out sharply against Trump) formally recognized the victory of the “vulgarian,” but has not come to terms with it. More than likely, the president-elect will not even get the usual 100-day grace period during which he can outline his priorities and start carrying them out. The resistance will begin on inauguration day, and everything will be in play; things that can, if not depose the head of the White House, then sabotage his policies to the greatest extent possible.
For instance, efforts directed at blocking re-examining relations with Russia come to mind. Obama’s decision to make the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomatic workers, a measure taken in response to the hacker attacks, as public as possible in the spirit of the peak of the Cold War is obviously aimed at making any actions by the incoming administration to do anything in that area as difficult as possible. The report of the intelligence agencies about interference in the election also puts Trump in an uncomfortable position. One cannot wave away the consolidated opinion of several intelligence agencies, even if the opinions look strange.
Actually, it’s interesting that the main attack is on the foreign affairs track, even though this is, in principle, not typical for the United States: this topic is not too interesting to the public. Trump’s domestic policies, like his willingness to repeal Obama’s health care reforms, are far more strongly supported in Republican circles than his intention to reject the role of global leader and world-builder.
It’s clear why this hits a nerve. A signal has been given to move away from a geopolitical consensus which has existed, not just for 25 years, but for closer to 70 years. After World War II, the United States proclaimed themselves to be the representatives of the “free world.” Spreading freedom has always been an ideological imperative, and when the Soviet Union self-destructed, the leadership of the western system became global, in a natural way. Trump is consciously avoiding “leadership” language when he underlines the importance of returning to “greatness,” which is not the same thing at all. A leader must always lead someone behind them, while a “great” person asserts their own interests, ostensibly with the agreement of others, but not necessarily.
Of course, this is a greatly simplified scheme. A “leader” is never ruled by ideological altruism, always recognizing he wants things for himself. A “great power” especially one like America, cannot descend into isolationist mercantilism; there’s too much dependent on it around the world, and it itself depends on a lot of things. But the motivations of the two approaches differ, as does the system of priorities. That is why the current escalation of resistance is not just an attempt by the political aristocracy to stop the lying upstart, but is a battle for the role of America in the world and against revisiting the results of the Cold War. The problem has come about not because of Trump, but precisely the opposite: his appearance is the result of a buildup of internal contradictions.
The Russian question has been chosen as a battering ram to use against Trump’s course of action. This is partly a confluence of circumstances, and partly a logical and even symbolic move. The culmination of American domination was tied to the Moscow’s disappearance as a systemic opponent and as a key factor in international affairs. Global leadership has stalled, and not because of Russia; however, this has coincided with the moment when the Kremlin mobilized its potential to raise its status in the international hierarchy and to underscore the fact that Western domination is coming to an end.
It is typical that at the center of this much discussed report on Russian interference in the American presidential election are not technical details, but political philosophy, a good portion of which comprises value judgments. That is to say, Putin didn’t want Clinton to win and resolved to interfere with her election. By that logic, one can return to the events of 2011, when Barack Obama’s administration really did not want Putin to return to the presidency (and did not hide the fact), or in 1996, when Bill Clinton’s administration really wanted Boris Yeltsin to remain president.
The attempts of Trump and his allies to call attention to the fact that the hacker attacks were made possible by the casual and technologically irresponsible attitude of Democratic Party functionaries did not get much interest. (It is also well-known that Clinton has her own rich history of a careless attitude regarding confidential information.) Paradoxically, American officials suddenly accepted the Russian understanding of “information security,” which they formerly objected to, because they saw it as an assault on freedom of information. Now they themselves are putting emphasis not on the security of infrastructure, but on containment, painting both the hackers and the troll factory, and the Russia Today network, with the same brush.
All of this underscores the fact that the developing crisis has an ideological character. We are talking about a conflict of different approaches to the world order inside of the top countries themselves (society against the political elite). Russia has become – not completely willingly, however not without bearing some responsibility – the manifestation of the position that stands against the Western approach of the 1990 and 2000s and an external cause, which you can use to dismiss internal strife.
Since 2017 is a period of important elections in Europe (the Netherlands, France, Germany). The “Putin is threatening honest elections” campaign is under way in the Old World as well. In the vanguard is Germany, where the situation is already mirroring America, but with German details. The main argument is that Angela Merkel remains the guardian of liberal values (a few times we have heard a half-joking, half-serious thought: that after Trump’s election, Germany is now the leader of the “free world”), so the goal of the Kremlin is to get rid of her. In France, this motif is not expressed as prominently, but will obviously gain strength closer to election day.
The consequences of this will be hard to predict. The target of the current Russian revelations is Trump, but his main Republican opponent, John McCain, has said that the legitimacy of the new president is not in doubt, even though Putin does sympathize with him. It is pretty clear how to reconcile one and the other, since the exaggeration of the scale and effectiveness of the Russian interference inexorably begs the question: is the king rightful? Trump will have to cleverly twist and turn, reacting to announcements by intelligence services so as not to give his opponents new evidence of his “Putinism.” On the other hand, McCain’s hand-waving is also quite explainable: annulling the results of the election would be a fatal blow to the American political system, so the more predictable path is discrediting Trump as a leader who doesn’t understand the realities of threats to national security, and to try to get an impeachment on that basis. Here, however, one should keep in mind that Trump himself has shown his fighting skills: he has real support from a significant portion of the “angry Americans,” so he won’t give up without a serious fight.
A few years ago, first when the global financial crisis struck, and then against the background of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, there was talk that a new world order, a multi-polar world order whatever that meant, would not happen as a result of a big war, but from a series of regional shocks. That is what is happening now, but back then, few people could have supposed that the leading countries of the world, the United States and the prominent governments of Europe, would not be immune to these shocks. As we can already observe, they are inclined to project their own problems externally, which could, though an unfortunate set of circumstances, strike a far greater blow to international stability than even events in the Middle East.