Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.AP
As the United States prepares to go to the polls to vote on the successor to President Barack Obama, the “common wisdom” in the West that the Russian leadership has endorsed one candidate against another and even attempted to use cyber attacks to influence voters should be dismissed as a media gimmick to influence unsophisticated public opinion.
What is true, however, is the genuine concern in Moscow over the extent to which the inertia built up by the torrent of anti-Kremlin rhetoric will continue if Hillary Clinton assumes the presidency.
Still, a number of academic thinkers tend to assert that it will not matter, and that Moscow would be better off welcoming the Democratic choice due to her excellent credentials.
Russia “needs someone who is predictable,” says Peter Kuznick, a professor from the Department of History at the American University, Washington, D.C. and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute.
Unlike Clinton, “Trump could do anything. He talks about using nuclear weapons. So cavalierly. He doesn’t know what it is. (Nikita) Khrushchev said that when he was briefed about nuclear weapons in 1952 he could not sleep for days,” says Kuznick.
Kuznick, who was attending an international conference in Moscow devoted to “Civil society, media and power,” reserved plenty of criticism for the Republican nominee.
“Trump is appealing to the worst instincts in American politics. He appeals to all backward tendencies. He also appeals to fear: The idea is that everybody is coming to get us. Blacks are dangerous. Immigrants are dangerous. Foreigners are dangerous.
“This is kind of an insular mentality, which in some way is close to fascism. There is nothing positive about his message,” says Kuznick.
This verdict is disputed by some other experts. “As for Trump, he’s got many handicaps but on security issues he talks like a businessman. This is mine, this is yours, and the rest is negotiable,” Eduard Lozansky, a former Soviet dissident and now president of the American University in Moscow, told RBTH at the VI Eurasian Forum in Verona, Italy back in October.
“I’m saying this as an American patriot. The U.S. gave me refuge. The Soviet Union was bad to me; it separated me from my wife. I am grateful to the United States. That is why I am worried. If one country claims that it is ‘indispensable’ and knows better what is good for others, it antagonizes people,” he said.
“Like many people I regard Trump as very vulgar and brash, and he embodies all the worst aspects of American culture. But on a number of subjects, to me, Trump has been absolutely admirable,” he added.
John Laughland, a right-wing British journalist and writer and director of Studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris, is defensive of Trump.
“Trump has repeatedly said, although he has been attacked for it, that he wants to come to an accommodation with Russia and that he wants to prioritize fighting the Islamic State and not Russia,” says Laughland. “I don’t see how these statements make him a ‘madman,’ on the contrary this is perfectly reasonable.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford, who heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a powerful think tank, recently made a clear forecast: If the U.S. introduces a ‘no fly zone’ in Syria, which is exactly what Hillary Clinton has said she intends to do if elected, then “it’s war.”
However, Xavier Moreau, a French political analyst, told RBTH that in his view a military conflict between Russia and the U.S. was unlikely: “No, I do not believe that Hillary Clinton would start the Third World War,” he said.
“The United States is in a dismal economic situation with millions out of work; one out of every six Americans depends on food stamps just like during the last war; the total national debt is gigantic. These are the issues that Clinton will have to deal with in the first place,” he said.
This view is not held by Eduard Lozansky, however. “Sometimes when you get into office, the Oval Office, you soften up,” he said. “But Hillary Clinton has been there already. She is not a newcomer. She was in the White House and in the U.S. State Department, and she lobbied for war in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. So, we have to face the reality.”
John Laughland believes that “the dangers are real,” arguing that “the American and the British establishments are mentally preparing themselves for a conflict with Russia.”
U.S. generals have said that the war is inevitable, that it will be “quick and lethal,” Laughland warns, drawing a historical parallel with the German generals in 1913 “who were convinced, long before Hitler, that a blitzkrieg would solve their problem. The Schlieffen Plan, it was all allegedly a matter of time.”
“Now the U.S. generals say that if they do not face down Russia through military confrontation, the West’s position will be undermined. I do not agree with them.”
But it is not all doom and gloom. Prof. Kuznick, who is hardly an ardent admirer of Hillary Clinton, made a remarkable emphasis on the new balance of power within the Democratic camp.
“There is a lot more progressive influence around Hillary Clinton now. You’ve got Elizabeth Warren [first female Senator from Massachusetts], Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold [a senator from Wisconsin], Barbara Lee [Congresswoman for the 13th District of California], the Congressional Black Caucus.”
The final verdict? “There are many reasonable people who are going to pressure Hillary and move her to the left and away from a confrontational course [with Russia],” says Kuznick.
“Trump should not be idealized,” says Elena Ponomareva, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and president of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation, also based in Moscow.
However, should Hillary Clinton move into the Oval Office, there is a danger of an “accelerated confrontation with Russia.” On the contrary, under Donald Trump as president, bilateral relations would be “complicated yet open vistas for agreements” given that U.S. industrial groups and even the military have a stake in making money through meaningful cooperation with Russia.
There could be a third option too, adds Ponomareva. “Since Hillary is both ill and ambitious, the United States might end up with the scenario of The Manchurian Candidate,” borrowing the metaphor from the 1959 novel by Richard Condon.
Basically, this means that after a “black swan” emerges, a “grey horse” will become the number one actor. In this case, it would be Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. This is the great unknown, since no one knows the identity of the people behind him, says Ponomareva.
The most intriguing aspect of what has been derogatorily termed as the longest U.S. political soap opera, according to academics approached by RBTH, is that the political system, which is showing cracks in its credibility, may now see genuine reforms from within.
“Neither the Democratic umbrella nor the Republican umbrella is working anymore,” says Professor Kuznick.
“The GOP is not the party of Donald Trump. The Republican establishment hates him. The Democratic Party is not the party of Roosevelt or even Kennedy. You’ve got the neocon wing with Hillary Clinton and the progressive wing. The question is: What kind of coalitions could we put together? It might start around issues rather than elections.”
There are first signs of preparations for tectonic changes, although “it is not apparent right now,” concludes Kuznick, adding that “if Bernie Sanders had got the nomination we would have a reasonable candidate at this point. Demographics are changing as well as the ethnic composition. It’s helpful too.”
John Laughland upholds this view with reference to the current political systems in Europe, which he describes as “very unstable.”
“For long time, there has been a cartel between left and right in Europe as much as in America. This cartel is losing its grip, because people are increasingly dissatisfied with the cartel,” he says.
The 2016 U.S. presidential elections have become a turning point in the evolution of Western democracy, with its deficiencies coming into the open and frustrating the electorate.
Despite contrasting forecasts on what America will look like “the day after,” it is clear that whoever wins on Nov. 8, the country will no longer be the same.
The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.
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