As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign starts to wind down, recent revelations in the New York Times and Washington Post raise the possibility that President Donald Trump was working as an agent of the Russian government.
While there is scant evidence on the public record so far that this was the case, there has long been speculation about this matter. Ever since the ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives in the United States became evident, this matter has moved to the front pages of newspapers just about everywhere.
Why would Donald Trump make common cause with Russia?
Some people become foreign agents for the money. Others do it because they have been compromised and are subject to blackmail. Still others become foreign agents because of their egos. They are flattered by the attention of a foreign government and their ego tells them they can get away with it.
Stunningly, Donald Trump puts a check mark in each of these boxes.
But what about ideology? Is the President of the United States actually taking instructions from the Kremlin? This concept strains credulity among most Americans, especially Trump’s base of supporters.
But the reason it strains credulity is because of the implied assumption that Trump was retrofitted with a pro-Russian ideology and is dutifully following the political instructions of the Kremlin.
The truth is simple
The truth is far simpler than that. It’s hardly likely that Trump is being told to march to the Kremlin’s beat. But the curious fact is that he is marching to it nonetheless.
The reason – and the actual evidence – is that Trump came to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election with a pre-formed set of beliefs that line up perfectly with President Vladimir Putin’s core foreign policy objectives.
Putin’s interest has long been to diminish the power and influence of the United States and its allies on the world stage. Donald Trump, for his part, is an incompetent semi-autocrat who has long embraced policies that would undermine and diminish America’s central role in global politics, economy and society.
In that sense, the 45th U.S. President may well have been a Russian agent for a very long time, albeit a self-directed one.
NATO is bad, but for different reasons
For Putin, NATO is public enemy number one. He sees NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union as a security threat.
NATO expansion into the Baltic states is seen as an assault on Russia’s “near abroad,” countries the Kremlin wrongly views as part of Russia itself. And the possibility of Ukraine becoming a NATO member is seen as a knife aimed at the very heart of “Mother Russia.”
To the Kremlin, it does not matter at all that there is no legitimacy in denying sovereign states the right to choose their own foreign policy and security outcomes. The simple reality is that NATO is seen as a threat.
President Trump for his part is a less than enthusiastic supporter of NATO. Trump has frequently stated that he resents giving the other NATO members a “free ride” in terms of national security.
For Trump, NATO expects everything from the United States and provides little in return. He is unafraid to ask whether the United States alone should be saddled with the burden of defending Europe, while NATO’s member states freely engage with the countries against which they expect America to provide defense.
Since becoming President, Trump has worked hard to drive wedges into the Atlantic alliance, against the wishes and goals of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. In fact, he has asked his security staff about withdrawing from the Alliance on multiple occasions.
But President Trump’s position vis-a-vis NATO was well-established long before he ran for President. And although his position and Putin’s align, they derive from totally different reasons. Trump couldn’t care less about the Baltic states and Ukraine, while Putin couldn’t care less about who foots the bill for NATO.
The evidence thus shows that Putin and Trump make common cause in trying to tear down the structures of NATO – albeit for different reasons.
The global economy
Beyond NATO, Russia resents and opposes the United State’s global economic hegemony and the centrality of the U.S. dollar in the world economy.
In the heyday of peak oil, Vladimir Putin strongly advocated for the inclusion of the ruble in the panoply of reserve currencies and promoted its use as a trade settlement currency. His ideas didn’t sell very well, but they provided a clear indication of Russia’s intentions and goals.
The United States does play an outsized role in the global economy. It has traditionally promoted globalization through multilateralism and set the rules for economic interaction based on an unflagging belief in the market economy, including free trade.
Furthermore, the U.S. dollar is used to settle approximately 52% of world trade and constitutes a whopping 63% of the world’s allocated currency reserves.
In setting the rules of the global economy, U.S. prosperity, prestige and power is enhanced, while other countries must play by America’s rules.
While increasingly resentful, other countries – including in Europe – do benefit from the arrangement. American consumerism, for example, creates a near-endless demand for foreign goods. This creates an abundant supply of global wealth, as U.S. dollars flow into the profit and loss accounts of foreign companies and, perhaps more importantly, into the reserve accounts of the world’s central banks.
The new “gold”
Simply put, the U.S. dollar is the new “gold.” It provides the foundation for growth in all of the world’s economies. Americans, as the global buyers of last resort, get a free ride in this process. The United States’ annual trade deficit of some $600 billion in goods and services is put on the country’s near-limitless credit card.
Not only does Putin’s Kremlin resent the United States’s hegemonic role in the global economy. Worse, Russia’s own economic initiatives are circumscribed by the U.S.-dominated structures that govern it.
The World Bank undermines Russia’s initiatives in emerging markets. The IMF imposes limitations on the flexibility Russia is able to employ in managing its fiscal accounts.
As a result, the Kremlin is decidedly against the U.S.-led economic world order. This became especially evident after the IMF’s failed intervention in the collapse of the ruble in 1998. Not that Vladimir Putin personally minded. This economic event helped propel him to power, as he became Prime Minister the following year.
Trump, for his part, takes a page from old school right-wing ideologue Patrick Buchanan’s playbook, namely, that the United States of America is the nation that loses through globalism and multilateralism.
Accordingly, Trump is eager to discard multilateralism in favor bilateralism. He disregards the role of the Bretton Woods institutions, in favor of deal-making on a one-to-one basis.
This is so far evident in everything Trump has done, from his withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership to arm-twisting bi-lateral negotiations with Mexico, Canada and, of course, China.
The evidence thus shows that Putin and Trump make common cause in trying to tear down the structures that govern the global economy – albeit for different reasons.
From autocrats to the Middle East to climate change
There are other areas where Trump makes common cause with Putin. Trump, for example, has enunciated an amoral view of world politics that says that autocrats may do as they choose within their own borders.
Trump has so far said kind words about Xi, Un, Roderigo, Recep, MBS, as well as about just about every other dictator on the face of the earth.
To Trump, this is simply about showing a preference for making deals with people who have the authority to make them, because they control their domestic politics – instead of being controlled by them.
Whatever Trump’s motivation, Vladimir Putin gains much-desired legitimacy. While Trump in his own view simply gets to pursue the “art of the deal,” Putin gains immensely as the United States’ sometimes hypocritical moral authority is cast aside.
Bringing together Russia and Iran
In the Middle East, Trump’s repudiation of the Iran deal, in effect, helped cement a close alliance between Russia and Iran. And Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria cedes influence in that country to the Iran/Russia coalition.
As a result, Russian influence extends in an arc through the Middle East, from Iran, to Iraq to Syria and finally to the Mediterranean in Lebanon. For Putin, this means that he has succeeded in making his country a serious player in the Middle East again. Better yet, the Iran-Russia alliance offsets the U.S.-Saudi arrangement.
And then there is climate change. Trump and Putin, along with Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, are all eager to protect their domestic fossil fuel industries.
Common cause is once again established, this time for the mutually beneficial purpose of expanding the market for fossil fuels. In this case, though, Trump is not doing Russia’s bidding any more than Russia is doing America’s bidding. It’s just another identity of interests.
Still, the evidence on all of these important global policy matters shows that Putin and Trump stand shoulder to shoulder, whatever their respective motivation may be.
Russia’s role in U.S. domestic politics
What stands out in the analysis presented above is that there is a deep, even instinctive community of interest between what Donald Trump and the Kremlin both want.
The Putin/Trump “community of interest” ranges from NATO and the global economy to the Middle East and climate change. It goes all the way to hollowing out democracy and democratic principles around the world.
But it is in domestic U.S. politics where the Kremlin may realize its biggest bonus from Trump’s Presidency.
The Kremlin stands to gain because President Trump has found ways of dividing the American domestic political consensus in a manner that had heretofore been unthought-of.
On issues of race, immigration, guns, gay rights and abortion, the Trump Administration has promoted strident right-wing policy positions that drive wedges into the fault lines of U.S. politics.
Central to Trump’s policies are nativism, misogyny and bigotry, all of which turn political divides into emotional ones, inflaming passions all around.
Since taking office, Trump has mounted a direct assault on the mechanisms of American democracy, launching ad hominem attacks on the press, the judiciary, the policy establishment and the legislature.
In pursuing his domestic change agenda, it has not been sufficient for Trump to merely complain about perceived injustices. He attacks with an abandon that appeals to the ugly rabble on the periphery of American society, thereby undermining civil discourse and democratic processes.
The evidence on U.S. domestic politics shows that, whatever Russia’s influence may have been, Trump’s actions weaken American democracy — which Putin sees as beneficial to Russia.
At the same time, Trump’s brand of harsh political discourse was encoded in his DNA long ago
Was Trump’s role that of a Russian agent?
As to the central question of Trump’s role as a Russian agent, it may all come down to the question of the chicken or the egg and defining which came first.
It seems clear that the egg predated the chicken, because Trump’s policy choices and his political posturing pre-existed the 2016 election cycle.
Yes, nearly everything Trump says or does actually falls within the Kremlin’s foreign policy strike zone. The assertion that the Kremlin is calling the shots for Trump — an assertion that is not proven, at least not yet — is almost immaterial, however.
This is because there is little need for Russia’s leaders to direct Trump to do what he is doing. Consciously or not, he is following Russian doctrine and supporting Russia’s national interests in many policy domains in an uncannily consistent manner.
Despite this incredible, but proven “community of interests,” it is also important to keep in mind that just because Trump holds views that line up with the Kremlin’s does not necessarily mean that they are all bad for the United States.
There certainly is a valid debate to be had about NATO members paying their fair share, about bilateralism versus multilateralism, about abuses in trade, about Iran and about climate change.
Trump may simply be a convenient dupe for the Kremlin. The central issue – the so far legally unproven assertion that the Kremlin is calling the shots for Trump – is material to Trump, the United States and the world only in one regard, the legal consequences.
And that is where Robert Mueller’s investigation comes in. If Mueller ends up proving that Trump took money from Russian political interests, or that he coordinated social media initiatives with them, or that he took receipt of stolen or hacked information that benefited his 2016 campaign, it would no longer be a simple matter of him being a Russian tool.
It would be proven that he was a willing tool in league with a foreign power. That may well be treasonous.
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