US/Russian Relations in a World of Tweets and Destabilization

Barack Obama often said that the Ship of State turns slowly. He frequently paraphrased Martin Luther King's statement that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Both statements take an optimistic, historic view of unfolding events. They imply that neither the historic nor the optimistic view is overwhelmed by the day-to-day. In academia, long-cycle analyses of history are not concerned with 24/7 news reports or the last 15 seconds on a Reuters screen. 

And yet, here we are with President Trump’s tweets. Here we are with destabilizing statements that may or may not be part of some programmed “diversionary reverse accusation.” For President Trump to say that his phone were tapped before Election Day captures headlines and diverts attention away from Attorney General Session’s recusing himself from investigations into possible Russian interference in the election or, even worse, investigations of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump team. “I will attack Obama before they attack me,” Trump plans. “I will ask for investigations of others to cloud and fog possible investigations of me,” he strategizes.

At the same time Trump has dismissed intelligence agency reports that President Putin personally directed activities aimed at influencing the 2016 election, and that he has called for better relations with Russia while complimenting Putin, he is expected to name Fiona Hill as his main adviser on Russia. Ms. Hill, who served as a Russia analyst on the National Intelligence Council, is a well-known critic of President Putin. In a book she co-authored on the Russian President, they called him the “CEO of Russia, Inc.,” and wrote that “his leadership style is more like that of a mafia family Don.”

In an interview appearing in The New Yorker, Hill is quoted as saying: “I think we are in a hot war with Russia, not a cold war. But we have to be careful about the analogy. It’s a more complex world. There is no set-piece confrontation. This is no holds barred. The Cold War was a more disciplined competition, aside from the near blowups in Berlin and Cuba, where we walked away from the brink. The Kremlin is now willing to jump over the abyss…They see themselves in a period of hot kinetic war.”

Many analysts are saying that the Kremlin rejoiced over Trump’s election, not because he would be friendlier to Russia, but because they felt that for various reasons his election would weaken the United States to Russia’s obvious advantage. A neophyte president with serious domestic considerations would be unable to counter Russia on issues such as Crimea, Ukraine or resolving the Syrian crisis, they reasoned. Much better to have Trump and confusion – the State Department still does not have a number 2 and the proposed budget cuts in the US State Department and foreign aid can only benefit Russia worldwide in spite of hikes in defense spending.

The Obama and Martin Luther King quotations have two assumptions. The Obama quote assumes a ship of state, something that is solid with a captain at the wheel. The current impression of the United States shows more fluidity than solidity, more chaos than stability with no clear captain behind the wheel. Diplomacy is very traditional; it based on rules, norms and customs evolved over time. With President Trump, all institutions are being questioned; the rules of law and diplomacy are being challenged, to be diplomatic. From the American perspective, there is no clear foreign policy except tendencies toward an eventual withdrawal from active democracy promotion and skepticism of multilateral institutions.

Looking at the King quotation leads to further pessimism. For if the first twitter president has challenged traditional means of communication, he has also separated himself from any notion of a moral universe or justice. To promote “America First” by peering only through the lens of “What’s in it for us,” and by denigrating multilateral cooperation, President Trump has expressly prioritized us against them, and, hence, separated his politics from any moral or just considerations. His narrow utilitarianism is closed to cooperation except on shared interests; shared values are no longer on the radar.

To speak of US/Russian relations today as part of traditional diplomacy or history is mistaken. The 21st century is witnessing dramatic technological changes accompanied by revolutionary investigations of chaos theory and quantum mechanics. Donald Trump is the president for his time. One can only wonder how Russia and other countries that base their diplomacy on traditional practices are planning to deal with someone dedicated to destabilizing. This is not just a matter of new types of diplomacy; Trump is putting into question the very bases of diplomacy itself. 

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