Russia, Eurasia, and the West

America’s Putin

March 17, 2016

Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton emerged as the leaders for the republicans and democrats respectively at the end of the decisive Super Tuesday on March 1. These results, though not final raise important questions on the notion and the role of American leadership in the 21st century.


The US has always been characterized by a certain exceptionalism. Since Woodrow Wilson this nation has been driven by its strong will to make the world ‘safe for democracy’[1]. For the liberals it translated into soft power, for neoconservatives into the use of force[2]. Thus, American foreign policy was characterised by both internationalism and interventionism with a mixed track record.


In this electoral process foreign policy is the top issue. Republicans are critical of Obama’s ‘weak and retreating[3]’ foreign policy. Putin’s ‘bullying’ of Ukraine, the weak positions in Iraq, Syria, China, or even over Iran’s nuclear program highlight the President’s hesitative stance. Yet if they want a change in foreign policy, Republicans will have no other choice than to back up Donald Trump. He offers to ‘make America great Again’ while his main democrat opponent Hilary Clinton assures that ‘America never stopped being great’[4].


Is Donald Trump announcing a new and transformative paradigm for the US foreign policy? What opinion do Russians have on the main candidates and what are the implications for Russia?


Donald Trump is the favourite candidate for Russian officials. Putin once referred to Trump as a ‘talented person[5]’; a compliment that Trump would return. On the advise of Michael Flynn – the former director of the defense Intelligence Agency, Trump highly supports a renewed dialogue and an improvement of US-Russia relations. According to Vasily Likhachev[6] - the former Russian ambassador to the EU, Trump is ‘wise in playing the Russian card’.


On the other hand, Clinton has adopted a more anti-Russian perspective. "I think Russia's objectives are to stymie and to confront and undermine American power whenever and wherever they can. I don't think there's much to be surprised about them.[7]" claimed Hilary. This prejudiced stance will not open the way for negotiations, the establishment of peaceful relations and in fine cooperation to face current challenges. On the contrary, this will only preserve the status quo. Yet for a revisionist power like Russia, a status quo oriented policy is unlikely to deliver a productive outcome.


Conversely, Donald Trump calls for a more restrained, more pragmatic foreign policy, as opposed to the prevailing ‘adventurism underwritten by neoconservative and liberal interventionist administrations[8]’. According to Trump, the US should intervene only when the vital interests of the state are at stake or when they also have partners involved in the resolution of the issue. He offers an objective appreciation of current issues and threats and perceives Russia as it is. For instance, he is in favour of Russia’s intervention in Syria. Fighting ISIS is the priority number one, while getting Assad out of power comes second. Regarding Ukraine, it is a European problem in which the US should not meddle – as a famous realist author once advised[9].


If many can argue that Trump’s grand vision is wrong on many aspects – especially because of a lack of knowledge -, it has the merit to qualify as a realist foreign policy, not seen in decades in the US.  Thus, ‘as President he might prove to be more pragmatic than bombastic[10]’. Regarding Russia, Trump could manage to ease the tensions and a real and working ‘reset’ could be installed. Indeed, Putin understands the language of hard politics.


However, if it is good to revive the American grand strategy on foreign policy, we should not be mistaken about its likely outcome. What Trump offers could lead to disastrous consequences for foreign policy and even more so on the domestic front. Each move needs to be thought thoroughly. Moreover, if the US does not play the role of the ‘world’s policeman’ anymore with its moral principals and ideals, the world will look much more cynical.


[1] Woodrow Wilson, ‘Safe for Democracy’, speech, 2 April 1917

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