The 2016 US Presidential race holds some surprises for Russia

The early success of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential campaign hints at changes within the U.S. political system that could hold important implications for the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, speaks at a rally on Feb. 19. Photo: AP

This year’s U.S. presidential race keeps bringing one surprise after another – something that hasn’t been the case since 2008, when we saw a little-known U.S. senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, ascend to the White House. There are other features in this presidential cycle – not just the rise of Democratic party candidate Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump - that make it truly unique in U.S. political history.

Yet, it all started quite differently – the experts originally viewed the representatives of two political dynasties – Republican Jeb Bush and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton - as potential leaders from both sides. This circumstance gave birth to plenty of jokes about the U.S.’s shift towards inherited governance.

But it later turned out that the jokes were expressing a real and long-accumulated annoyance of many regular members of both parties and the American society in general towards the increasing elitism of its government. To sum up, a broad discussion was caused by the domestic and foreign policy legacy of U.S. president Obama. Thus, we have seen a growing political polarization among the elites and in American society itself.

One has to note that even though such a situation is unique to the U.S., there’s one more feature that has popped up before. Both Clinton and Bush were not only members of “political royalty,” but moderates and close to the political establishment that represented the interests of Big Business. No wonder their political platforms had little difference from each other.

In such situations the appearance of alternative candidates belonging to the more extreme poles of their parties, representing “third” parties or just independent nominees, is expected.

The current presidential campaign wasn’t an exclusion from this rule, and the alternatives have arisen particularly within both major parties. Shining examples of such a political shuffle are Trump and Sanders. However, such a tendency represents much deeper processes than the society’s reaction to the personalities of the party candidates. With the end of the Cold War, the traditional dynamics of the U.S. elections saw a further transformation.

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Despite a rigid electoral system that forces politicians and interest groups to join under the banners of Republican and Democratic parties in two competing coalitions for victory, alternative candidates started appearing regularly. Among them are people from “third” parties, such as conservative publicist Patrick Buchanan, conservative businessman Ross Perot or independent candidate Ralph Nader, and also female candidates and representatives of under-represented minority groups.

Frequently not expecting, nor even willing to win at the elections, they either became the transmitters of certain initiatives, or made it their goal to “take down” one of the candidates of the two major parties, depriving him (or her) a part of the voters.

Foreign policy in the U.S. presidential race

From a Russian perspective, Americans show astonishingly little interest in U.S. foreign policy. The interest grows drastically only when blood is spilled, or the interests of the U.S. or particular American citizens are directly concerned.

That’s why the coverage of foreign policy events, especially on TV, has a spotty and only sensational character – wars, terrorist attacks, catastrophes or scandals in the British royal family. The amount of foreign policy events that are mentioned is astonishingly small, which creates a rather surrealistic picture of the world outside the U.S.

That’s why during the pre-election campaign, foreign policy issues are of second-rate value. But it’s obvious that after the end of the Cold War, the inter-party balance related to the attitude to foreign policy has changed quite fundamentally. During the years of the Cold War, Republicans were not only supporting the increase of war budgets, but the real use of force as well. Meanwhile, the Democrats have often played a deterring role in the process.

The irony, of course, is that even in those years it was easier for the Soviet Union to come to an agreement with realistic Republicans than with more leftist idealistic Democrats, which led to their foreign policy activity, which was often perceived as a threat to the sovereign rights of other states.

But after 1991, it was Democrats, under the slogan of protecting humanitarian values and human rights, who started showing even bigger foreign policy activity, which frequently included the use of armed forces abroad. In the 1990s, this tendency already appeared in the Balkans and the Middle East, as well as Northeast Africa.

At a certain level these tendencies – Republican, realistically power-related, and Democratic, idealistically interventionist - joined together in symbiosis during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency. He announced the concept of neoliberal interventionism, aimed at the power removal of unwanted dictatorships.

As a result, Obama had to deal with the unpleasant legacy of his predecessors, including the crises in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northeast Africa, the worsening of relations with Russia and China, and the new crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.

All that has intensified the perception of Obama as a poor and weak-willed leader in the U.S., which has been actively cultivated by his opponents among the Republicans.

In the meantime, such perception is very far from reality – in particular situations Obama showed himself as a tough realist and a very straightforward and cynical politician, drastically changing the U.S.’s strategy towards Cuba, Iran, Israel and the Middle East in general, while also pushing a complex immigration reform. At the same time, he often had to go counter to very influential, politically committed groups.

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Despite all that, the image of a “weakling” created by the politically biased press will, no doubt, lead to sharp criticism of his foreign policy course and promises to make the U.S. foreign policy tougher and more decisive, becoming one of the typical features of Republican primaries, and then the official national election campaign.

The influence of the presidential campaign on U.S.-Russia relations

How will it all influence the progress of U.S.-Russia relations? Not well. It’s obvious that the Republicans, as it was during the years of the Cold War, will be trying to out-duel each other, telling everyone about their decisiveness and Obama’s weaknesses, promising to “teach Russia a lesson.”

During the Republican debates, a number of candidates, including the only Republican female candidate, Hewlett Packard’s ex-president Carly Fiorina, and right-wing senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, promised to fully stop any contacts with Russian president Vladimir Putin and aggravate relations with Russia. Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie all gave anti-Russian speeches, especially talking about the Syrian conflict. With the Democrats, Clinton, the candidate of the party’s leadership, doesn’t hide her unfriendly sentiments towards Putin personally and takes a hawkish stand in the matter of the Ukrainian crisis and other aspects of U.S.-Russia relations (including the European direction and the Syrian conflict).

However, today Clinton faces substantial difficulties connected to the “skeletons in her closet,” including serious potential violations of both ethics and law.

That turned out quite unexpectedly, because despite the fact that her husband left the White House in January 2001, the Clinton couple retains an amazingly high level of control over the top of the Democratic Party. In particular they, it seems, learned the lessons of the 2008 campaign when, fearing Clinton’s weakness as a candidate, the majority of party activists turned away from her and supported the political newbie, Obama. By that time, he had spent only a year in the Senate and that was his first position at the federal level.

This time the field, it seems, is cleared from any potentially strong rivals, including vice president Joe Biden. However, Clinton was in for an unpleasant surprise. Her well-known connections with the largest monopolies and big business, multimillion fortune built after her husband’s presidency, serious problems in the ethical and juridical sphere, as well as the Clintons’ centrist positions, lead to the outcome that a part of the liberal wing of the Democratic party started feeling distrustful and unfriendly towards her.

The expression of all that was Sanders’ rocket growth of popularity. He received solid support from party activists and the young. The results of the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire show that he’s been supported by 90 percent of young (under age 25) activists. Among other groups (excluding women 65+) he also received strong support, crushing Clinton in New Hampshire (out-voting her by 22 percent) and yielding by just 0.2 percent in Iowa.

Even though Hillary is trying to catch up what’s lost in the other regions of the country, leaning on African-Americans and other minorities, it’s clear that Sanders turned out to be tougher than expected, playing a role equal to Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Then, McCarthy basically destroyed the candidacy of Lyndon Johnson, successfully acting as a leftist alternative in the beginning of the primaries and heavily criticizing him for starting the Vietnam War.

With all that, it’s still hard to predict whether Sanders will remain in the role of a spoiler, or whether he will be able to stand above Clinton. Still, even though a lot of surveys show that at this moment he could as well win additional primaries, and even stand above the majority of Republicans, it’s really hard to imagine a socialist candidate during the November elections.

But in perspective, the repetition of 2008 is possible, when, seeing Clinton’s weakness as a candidate, activists and party heads suddenly gave their support to little-known senator Obama. The problem is that the figures reviewed by the Democratic elite (Joe Biden, Al Gore, John Kerry) are themselves “people from the past,” barely acceptable for young Democrats, and the population in general.

And that’s why an appearance of a completely new figure on the Democratic horizon is actually possible – as it happened in 1992 with the young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, or with even relatively unknown senator Obama in 2008. From the point of view of U.S.-Russia relations, the appearance of such a new leader, who would be unburdened by the Cold War stereotypes and having no personal hostility towards foreign partners, would be very desirable.

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

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