The ideas and power of President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon might be good for Russian government interests in the short run, but complicated if not downright detrimental in the long run.

 

Steve Bannon (pictured right) sees ideological affinities with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as other Russian nationalists outside of the government. Photo: Donald Trump's Official Facebook page  

This article is revised and updated version of a blogpost that originally appeared on the Echo of Moscow website in Russian. Russia Direct republishes the article with the permission of Michael McFaul and Echo of Moscow. You can find the Russian version here.

Six months ago, most Americans and almost no one else in the world had ever even heard of the name Steve Bannon. Today, he is one of the most powerful men in the world. Mr. Bannon has the ideological convictions and now the power to carry out tremendous changes in America and the world. His ideas and power might be good for Russian government interests in the short run, but complicated if not downright detrimental in the long run.

We don't need to guess at what Bannon believes or desires. The former publisher of Breitbart News has been very open about the positions he supports. Many Russian analysts oversimplify the divide in American political life as between Republican “pragmatists” and Democratic “idealists.”  But Bannon is different. As many establishment Republicans have pointed out, his ideas have little to do with Republican Party traditions. He threatens Republican Party officialdom and ideas. Bannon frequently espouses nationalist ideas, shaded heavily with ethnic tones. In response to charges of racism, Bannon said, "I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist." But earlier statements, as well as many articles published by his website, contain ethnic nationalist and not purely civic nationalist themes.

Bannon and his allies call their ideology “alt-right,” a phrase to distinguish their brand of conservative nationalism from more traditional right-of-center ideas. He believes that America needs to battle ethnic challenges, first and foremost from Muslims, both outside of the United States and even from within. He told USA Today that Muslims in the U.S. have formed a “fifth column” of Islamic sympathizers now allegedly growing in power within the American government and press. He frames the ideological struggle between the American nation and its enemies in stark, Manichean terms. He also fears another non-Christian, non-European nation — the Chinese.

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In addition, Bannon does not seek to restore conservatism, but rather wants to overthrow the existing regime, and create, in his words, “a new political order.” He has spoken fondly about communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. As he said in November 2013, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too … I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Bannon now sits just a few doors down from the Oval office. On January 31, 2017, The New York Times editorial board titled their analysis of his mercurial rise “President Bannon?Time magazine put Bannon on its cover, asking in the accompanying story  “Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?” His rise to power within the Trump inner circle is striking. Bannon’s ideological influence was crystal clear in Trump’s inaugural speech, which had almost nothing in common with the ideas of George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan. The so-called “Muslim ban” also was a Bannon idea, executed as a presidential decree without consulting other newly appointed cabinet officials.

And those watching Trump’s inner circle — “ White House-ologists” — will note that Bannon attended the luncheon with Prime Minister Theresa May, while National Security Advisor Michael Flynn did not. When Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bannon was listening in, sitting in the Oval office. Most amazingly, Trump named Bannon as a member of the National Security Council (NSC), while at the same time downgrading the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as participants in NSC meetings with the president to only when their expertise is needed.  (This is the rough equivalent of Putin naming someone like Alexander Dugin to his Security Council while telling General Alexander Bortnikov, the director of FSB, and General Valery Gerasimov, the current chief of the General Staff of Russia's Armed Forces, that they need only show up when needed.)

In English, we have a saying, “If there’s a will there’s a way.”  Bannon has a strong will; and now sitting in the West Wing, he has a way.

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In the short run, Bannon’s ascent to power might benefit the Kremlin. The internal conflict, chaos and disunity that his ideas have already sparked within American society undermines our role in the world. We are divided, distracted, and inward looking. Putin benefits from a weaker American international presence.

Second, Bannon seeks to support like-minded anti-systematic nationalists in Europe. His English friends already won a major victory with the Brexit referendum vote. If his ideological allies win upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, European institutions such as the European Union and NATO will be weakened. That's good for the Kremlin as well. The alt-right’s intense disdain for German Chancellor Angela Merkel is particularly striking. That helps Putin and hurts American national interests.

Third, Bannon sees ideological affinities with Putin, as well as other Russian nationalists outside of the government. As Bannon reflected in 2014,  “[W]e the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing.” For those espousing alt-right ideas, Putin is revered as a world leader and is celebrated as the anchor of the “illiberal international.” You have to go back to the 1970s to remember a time when the Kremlin enjoyed such worldwide ideological appeal.

In the long run, however, Bannon and his brand of nationalism could pose problems for Putin and Russian national interests.

First, an unpredictable, ideological, anti-status-quo Trump administration could make the United States a difficult partner for Russia on global affairs, and maybe even a reckless actor abroad. Historically, ideological nationalists need enemies abroad; they often fight wars to rally their electoral bases at home. It’s way too early to suggest such a trajectory for the Trump administration. I am still counting on my former colleague at the Hoover Institution, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to add ballast, pragmatism, and strategic thinking to the Trump team once he begins to sit down across the table from Bannon at NSC meetings in the White House Situation Room. I hope the same from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But Trump’s first few weeks have been very volatile for domestic politics. What happens when Trump and Bannon are challenged with their first international crisis?

Second, as we witnessed on the eve of World War I, the rise of nationalism everywhere eventually produces clashes between states. Bannon believes strongly in America First. By definition, that means that Russia has to be second. Bannon wants to lead a “pro-American movement,” which will sometimes clash with a pro-Russian movement.

Moreover, alt-right thinkers define the world in ethnic, religious terms, not geopolitical balance of power terms. They are hoping that Trump can peel Putin away from his close relations with Iran and China. That aspiration — the idea of Judeo-Christian alliance against the rest — misreads Putin’s foreign policy priorities. Why would Putin want to disrupt very effective Russian partnerships with China and Iran to join the United States? What Russia security or economic interest would be served from such a pivot? Putin is too pragmatic for that.

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Third, Bannon’s brand of nationalism, not unlike some Russian nationalists who dislike Putin and Kremlin policies, echoes ethnic themes and anti-establishment notes that are at odds with Putin’s brand of conservatism. For instance, Bannon has warned: “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” Yet, Putin consciously tries to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims, saying last December “I would prefer Islam not be to be mentioned in vain alongside terrorism.” Governing a multiethnic country with a substantial Muslim population, Putin understands the risks of defining friends and enemies in religious terms. More fundamentally, after seventeen years in power, Putin is the establishment. He is not a Leninist. Bannon seeks to destroy the establishment everywhere and upend the status quo. Russian nationalists attracted to Bannon’s worldview do not always support the current order in Russia. Just like Bannon’s tense relationship with the Republican Party, some Russian nationalists are downright hostile to the party of power and the status quo.

But let’s not rush to sweeping judgments and forecasts. We are only a few weeks into the Trump administration. Bannon has accumulated tremendous power to advance his ideas so far, but it’s too early to predict his long-term success. He already has clashed with cabinet officials, including most recently Homeland Security Secretary (and former general) John Kelly. If he butts heads with Mattis and Tillerson in the future, Trump will face some hard decisions about which side to support. And all of Bannon’s recent notoriety, in fact, may begin to annoy his boss, who rarely likes to share the limelight. I can’t imagine President Trump liked seeing Bannon on Time’s cover. That’s Trump’s place! So maybe sometime soon, President Trump will turn to Bannon and utter his most famous phrase, “you’re fired.”

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

This article is revised and updated version of a blogpost that originally appeared on the Echo of Moscow website in Russian. Russia Direct republishes the article with the permission of Michael McFaul and Echo of Moscow. You can find the Russian version here.