The long-awaited inauguration of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president has been a source of constant debate within Russia’s expert community, which continues to point to his unpredictability.
Russian dolls of U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: TASS
As the U.S. prepares for President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, Moscow has been paying close attention as well. Arguably, the Russian media is paying as much attention to Donald Trump as it did to the annexation of Crimea or the military escalation in Eastern Ukraine.
Throughout the week leading up to the inauguration, Russian pundits have conducted a series of discussions and reports on Trump’s presidency and its impact on U.S.-Russia relations. At the same time, many everyday Russians are now pinning their hopes on the future American leader. Yet to what extent are these expectations justified and realistic?
To answer this question, a number of well-known Russian pundits weighed the pros and cons of a Trump presidency at two recent events in Moscow. One of these was a Jan. 18 Valdai Discussion Club event, while another was a Jan. 20 event at a media center in central Moscow. All agree that Trump’s presidency raises a lot of questions as well as creates both challenges and opportunities. The Trump administration looks like a big political experiment with uncertain results and implications for the world, they say.
Understanding the Trump phenomenon
However, even though the next four years in the United States are expected to be unpredictable, the election of Trump has a certain logic to it, resulting from many factors that should be analyzed together.
Increasing inequality in America, political differences within the U.S. establishment, disappointment of the bulk of population in the country’s elites, the failure of the Democrats to attract three million more voters, the underestimation of the Trump phenomenon and the overestimation of the Democratic party’s popularity — all this contributed to the victory of the flamboyant oligarch.
According to experts, Trump’s presidency is rather a symptom of a political crisis that needs to be resolved as soon as possible given the global clout of the United States. Robert Legvold, a professor at Columbia University, described it as “the intensification of polarization” of U.S. policy — the greatest since the 19th century. It is accompanied by the challenges of a “dysfunctional government” and an institutional crisis.
Trump is the result of Barack Obama’s presidency, according to Maxim Suchkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).
Trump is ‘an absolute field for an experiment’
Today, power and influence are shifting to leaders within the military and industrial sectors. Trump’s victory is a clear indication of this trend, according to Andrei Bezrukov, an associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), who presented his report “Donald Trump: A Professional Profile of The New U.S. President” at the Valdai Discussion Club this week.
In fact, during his pre-election campaign, the U.S.-President-elect represented these two elites — the military and industry — with his mantra “Make America Great Again!” In turn, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton represented four other elites — Wall Street, the media, academia, and the establishment.
Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin describes the members of the Trump team as “serious” dealmakers who are ready to relentlessly pursue their goals and come up with compromise, driven by simple categories of national and business interests. He also pointed out that his team doesn’t include representatives of think tanks and academia, as it was the case during the presidencies of Trump’s predecessors.
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All this indicates that Trump is behaving like a classic contrarian. He destroyed the Washington consensus and challenged notions of political correctness, which existed before in American political life and brought elephant-in-the-room problems to the agenda — many inconvenient questions that were passed over in silence or relegated to the secondary agenda. Specifically, he raised the problem of U.S. identity and outlined a new role that America should play domestically and globally, experts concluded.
The Trump phenomenon resulted from the fact that public debates on inconvenient and taboo topics were overshadowed by the establishment’s agenda or “suppressed” by political correctness, said Ivan Safranchuk, an associate professor at MGIMO University, during the Valdai Discussion.
There are a lot people in the U.S. with the Trump mentality. To quote Safranchuk, they supported him because they were accustomed to high living standards. Faced with economic challenges, they “felt wild fear of the future” and were uncertain about it, with looming unemployment, falling incomes, healthcare challenges and low odds of getting higher education and being competitive.
“Trump reformatted the political dialogue in the United States,” reiterated Bezrukov.
While shying away from political correctness (which is uncommon for the U.S.), Trump went too far in his rhetoric, with almost every single move bringing about an outcry and a great deal of buzz in the media. Yet, despite this, Trump was like a duck to water. The more outlandish and bizarre he was, the more criticism came from mainstream media, the more popular and strong he became. This is exactly how the law of antifragility works, presented in the book "Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
In fact, Trump transformed all this strenuous criticism in his favor and, finally, won the U.S. election. Any other candidate would have failed to convert his or her scandalous behavior into political triumph, yet Trump won, in part, due to the fact that “he is the phenomenon of pop culture,” according to Andrei Sushentsov, the director of the Foreign Policy Advisory Group, another author of the Valdai report.
“And this is a unique case,” he said, adding that Trump is a president who is not in debt to lobbyists, the establishment and other financial groups for his victory. And this gives him more freedom and turns his presidential tenure into “an absolute field for an experiment.”
Legvold argues that the U.S. and the world will be able to understand the nature of the Trump administration in several months. So far, everybody is consumed with trying to answer several looming questions: How much political capital will Trump’s team spend on domestic policy? How will foreign policy change — will Trump shy away from global U.S. dominance or try to maintain its global leadership? These are the questions that puzzle the expert community in the U.S., according to Legvold.
And this is especially important in the current geopolitical environment — amidst assertive and defiant foreign policy moves of Russia in Ukraine and China in the Asia-Pacific region, he added.
So far, Trump’s pledges and statements have left Ukraine worried, China frustrated, and “Russia uneasy, but hopeful,” said Legvold. And, most importantly, does Trump’s team really know how to reconcile with other stakeholders, including Russia?
Trump’s team and challenges for his presidency
All experts agree that the next four years won’t be easy for Trump, given that he failed to win the popular vote, with Clinton having garnered two to three million votes more than her Republican opponent. After his election, many Americans took to the streets chanting slogans like “Trump is not my president.”
According to the Jan. 4-8 Gallup-Newsweek poll, Trump’s approval rating is the lowest in comparison with his predecessors, and people were disappointed even before his tenure officially started. When asked if they approved of the way Trump is handling his transition, 51 percent of Americans disapproved of it, and only 44 percent approved.
By comparison, Obama’s rankings were high during his transition in January 2009: 83 percent of the Gallup respondents supported him. Likewise, George W. Bush performed better before his inauguration and got the support of 61 percent of Americans (only 25 percent disapproved of him).
Moreover, the Washington establishment voted against Trump and now he will have to work with many of those who publicly distanced themselves from him. It is not ruled out that any of his moves will be rejected by the U.S. Congress or sabotaged, Russian experts assume.
The Congress will block any of Trump’s initiatives that it sees as too pro-Russian or controversial, says Suchkov. However, Trenin believes that Trump might be able to deal with the challenge, given his background and ability to cut deals.
“The Congress is not only a platform for debates, but also a place for lobbying one’s interest, ” Trenin told Russia Direct during the Jan. 20 discussion, when asked about the potential conflict between Trump and the Washington establishment. “The relations with the Congress will be based on the principles of a business deal.”
Meanwhile, Safranchuk expects that the Trump administration will be controversial and even scandalous, “so there is no reason to expect consistency from it,” he added, warning that the way it is handling domestic problems and foreign policy might “turn into chaos.”
“It is likely to be a scandalous administration,” he predicted.
Also read Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?"
Such a hostile political environment might create a lot of risks, according to Trenin. Given Trump’s penchant for “playing hardball,” he will be as assertive as possible in responding to threats of political sabotage or the information war that has already been covered in detail by American journalists.
When asked by Russia Direct about the odds of Trump’s impeachment, which has already become the topic of debates, Trenin warned that such a scenario would be deleterious for the stability of the U.S. political system and, most importantly, could pose a serious threat to the world.
“Any impeachment means a grave political crisis within the country,” he said. “I don’t think that Trump’s opponents will provoke his impeachment. If it takes place, the crisis will be exacerbated and lead to unpredictable implications, including for the entire world.”
U.S.-Russia relations under Trump
At the same time, Sushentsov and Bezrukov imply in their report that the Trump administration might become a catalyst and resolve many international and domestic problems, given the background of Trump and his image of an effective and assertive dealmaker.
They assume that Trump will be driven by pragmatic interests, not ideology, which creates an opportunity for Russia to find common ground with Washington. Yet, it remains to be seen whether Trump is able to translate his effective business experience into a successful presidency and good relations with the Kremlin, says Sushentsov.
Indeed, during his press conference, he admitted that he would try to get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet, if he fails to establish chemistry with his counterpart, he will be much tougher than Clinton if she had won the election, Trump implied.
Most Russian experts, including Trenin and his colleague Alexei Arbatov, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, believe that the Trump administration will talk with Russia from a position as the world’s only superpower, from a position of force, if it fails to come to a compromise with the Kremlin.
While the Democrats want to make the world happier by contributing to resolving global problems, "the Republicans want to make America happier by exploiting the world as an asset," said Arbatov, adding that such an approach could lead to tensions with Russia.
“Russia will have to respond from a weaker position and not lose at the same time, because it is weaker [than the U.S.] economically and politically,” Trenin said.
However, the good sign is that the Trump administration, at least, has a concept of how the U.S. sees the role of modern Russia in the world. And if this concept echoes the Kremlin’s one, Trump might normalize relations with Russia, Sushentsov says. If not, no one dares to predict the consequences. And, hopefully, the warnings of Clinton won’t come true. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” she said during her campaign.
"A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons." —Hillary
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) July 29, 2016
Yet, even though Putin and Trump might see eye-to-eye, it doesn’t mean that their personal chemistry will translate to better relations, warns Suchkov. Such an approach — focusing on the personal ties between two leaders — could mislead and lead to wishful thinking. It is vitally important to find chemistry not only between leaders, but also with other groups, structures and agency.
Otherwise, the future of U.S.-Russia relations will amount to nothing more than the assumed friendship between Putin and Trump. And this is dangerous, given the example of Putin’s relationship with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the downing of Russia’s jet near the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015.
Suchkov argues that the Kremlin should not be surprised if Trump changes his favorable and complimentary tone toward Putin and moves to a tougher realistic rhetoric, implying the need for tradeoffs for the relationship to work.
Amidst such unpredictability, Moscow and Washington should alleviate tensions and prevent politics from hampering their cooperation in the Arctic and other fields, where they might find common ground, said Ivan Timofeev, the program director at the Russian International Affairs Council.