Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election has sent everyone into a stupor. Russia, on the contrary, is in a state of joyful excitement. Which is understandable, given the nature of the campaign in America – the Democrats themselves kept saying that a Trump victory would be a victory for Putin.
However, the real prospects – not so much for bilateral relations (which consistently move along the same curve from a rise in tensions to a detente and back again) as for the global context on the whole – are yet to be revealed.
Donald Trump's success marks an end of an era and a change of landmarks in global politics. It is this shift that will determine everything else, including what will happen between Russia and the United States.
Trump's electoral victory is the political equivalent of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
The prevalent opinion at the time was that the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers could not happen because it was impossible in principle. The global financial crisis triggered by that event set off a countdown for neoliberal globalization, which started picking up steam with the end of communism and the disappearance of the USSR. The increasing role of the state, the nationalization of market losses for the sake of supporting overall stability, the growth (albeit not dramatic at first) in protectionism – all this turned the trend in the other direction, one opposed to the further liberalization of the world economy.
The economic trend, which became stronger and stronger, was at adds with the political one. Or rather, there were changes in the political behavior of leading countries, primarily the U.S. and Europe, but they were covered up by an escalation in the previous rhetoric, typical of the peak years of the liberal world order.
The most striking example of this is Barack Obama. He won the presidential election in November 2008, i.e. at the height of the financial crisis, and better than many other people in his country realized that the world was undergoing a radical change and America would not be able to behave like it had before. Domination was becoming a thing of the past and other approaches were needed. Yet Obama failed to transform this understanding into an effective strategy, and the foreign policy aspect of his presidency turned out to be rather strange.
In effect, his was an extremely cautious approach seeking to avoid excessive risks, the realization that America should be dealing in earnest with its domestic problems, that it cannot be everywhere and is not capable of everything. However, Obama either did not want to or could not declare this out loud. Furthermore, the actual restraint was compensated by ratcheted up rhetoric about America’s exclusivity and public value judgments about other countries and leaders, with the Russian president being one of the favorite subjects for these pronouncements.
In the end, everybody ended up disappointed: many of Obama’s ardent supporters and opponents alike. Most importantly, the world got the feeling that America does not know what it wants and that it is no longer clear if it can be relied upon.
In effect, Obama started dismantling the United States’ global obligations, publicly stating the opposite. Trump openly declares things that Obama did not dare proclaim: The U.S. intends to focus on its own interests and no longer wants to carry the burden of the global boss.
Trump pays particular attention to the notions of prestige and respect (in the spirit of the classical interpretation of international relations), so the use of force is not at all ruled out. But not for ideological reasons – the idea of a military “adjustment” of other countries for the sake of bringing about a particular political model there is profoundly alien to the new president.
The idea of “greatness” (the president-elect’s key slogan was to “make America great again”) in his understanding does not equal global leadership.
It is more than symbolic that Trump’s defeated rival bears the surname Clinton: that was the name closely associated with the flourishing of America’s global domination post-1992. In other words, same as Lehman Brothers eight years ago, another seemingly unsinkable concept has gone down the drain.
The Clinton-Bush era, despite all its antagonisms, constituted one period – that of the United States’ establishment and rise as a lone global policeman, who has the right to interfere in any affairs as necessary and establish global order. That was the result of Washington’s unexpected and therefore quite stunning victory in the Cold War. That victory was so easy in the end that it created the feeling that now everything was possible.
The Obama-Trump era – no matter how long it lasts – is a return to a more moderate expression of national interests, the acknowledgement of an “imperial overstrain.” And bringing the political mantle and rhetoric in line with economic trends.
For the future master of the White House, greatness is something akin to “splendid egoism.”
America is dealing with its domestic problems, is showing everybody an example of how to tackle one’s own issues. It demonstrates that it is worth interfering anywhere else in the world only in order to remind everybody who the strongest power is and to prevent the emergence of a systemic opponent. The main focus is something similar to F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal but, of course, as applied to 21st-century conditions: the creation of a new large-scale infrastructure in the United States, boosting demand, the return of industrial production and jobs. All this is far from the global ideals of the preceding period.
What does the United States’ decision to give up the extreme foreign interventionism that it practiced in the 1990s and 2000s mean for the rest of the world? No matter how much criticism it raised, over more than two decades everybody got used to Washington’s hegemony (which is not to say they accepted it). Hence the current bewilderment and confusion everywhere: in Europe (deep depression), in Asia (a wary lack of comprehension).
Moscow should be prepared for Trump, as a pragmatic sort of person, to try and, having blamed all the troubles on his predecessor, drag Russia into assisting the United States’ new course in the world arena. This primarily concerns China and a proposal to “move away” from Beijing in exchange for some concessions on America’s part.
This must not happen because beyond the Western world Russia already has the reputation of a partner who is ready to rush to the United States, abandoning another party, the minute Washington beckons it. In recent years, this reputation has been gradually replaced by a more solid picture, but that can be easily ruined.
Another pitfall is the Middle East. Trump’s ideal would be to forget about that region as a nightmare. There is no way this ideal could become a reality but almost inevitably there will be a sharp drop in interest and readiness perhaps even to cede that region to Russia. After all, America is far away, while the regional players seem to be quite prepared to view Russia as a new incarnation of the USSR, which had a systemic presence in the Middle East.
One can take on this burden but it is not clear what is to be done with a disintegrating reality.
The Soviet Union at least had an ideological lever: a structure-forming ideology, whether right or wrong, that was proposed to its partners. Now there is nothing of the kind.
The threat of the biggest temptation comes from Europe, a perennial source of Russian inspiration and complexes. Trump has far less interest in the Old World than his predecessors. Furthermore, for a politician who is oriented towards force, the phenomenon of modern Europe, which at present is in a mush-like state, is simply incomprehensible.
Europe itself is in a bit of a panic over the phenomenon of Trump. The European Union is in a period of decline, so Russia could once again decide to take part, to restore some of its lost positions. This is a favorable trend: Last week alone, the presidential elections in Moldova and Bulgaria brought victory to politicians who advocate closer ties with Russia.
However, history shows that every time Russia got deeply involved in European affairs in the hope of becoming one of those who decide the destiny of continental Europe, things ended badly: It was dragged into wars, ended up with overexertion and losses, and was distracted from addressing the real problems of development.
The events of recent years have resulted in Russia beginning to diversify its policy, starting to turn to Asia and beginning to shed its feverish obsession with the West, which has been its hallmark for the past 200 years. Furthermore, the uncertainty in Asia, which at the moment is primarily linked to the American factor, is opening new opportunities for Russia, making it a more interesting partner. It is there that Russia should step up its efforts rather than in Eastern Europe.
The arrival of the maverick billionaire is drawing a line under a U.S.-centric world in which Moscow has failed to find a clear place for itself. Just as it has failed to occupy the slot allocated to it in “Greater Europe” – there was simply not enough room for it there. It was too weak to claim the role of the United States’ systemic opponent, but it categorically refused to be content with a subservient position either. It was this failure to fit into any of the proposed formats that largely triggered the acute crisis of the mid-2010s.
If the U.S. tones down its ambitions, or rather turns them inward, Russia, effectively, will get what it wanted: a far more multiple-option international system that does not play by the rules that were once adopted without Russia’s participation. That said, it is yet to be seen what rules this new game is played by and whether Russia has enough trump cards for it.
First published in Russia by Gazeta.ru