Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, convenient international foes for multiple U.S. presidents, became an afterthought at the Republican National Convention.
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during the Republican National Convention, July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: AP
During this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH, one needed to look long and hard to find people talking about the geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia. It was as if the party that for years reveled in bashing Russia and the former Soviet Union had forgotten the nation remained an important player on the world stage.
There was significant talk at the convention about the United States needing to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). One heard repeated reminders that China and Iran posed legitimate short- and long-term threats to the U.S. One heard only fleeting references to Russia. Perhaps the most glaring sign that Russia didn’t matter at the convention: The Republican Party presidential nominee, billionaire Donald Trump, never mentioned the country during his acceptance speech.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who reportedly had been considered as a running mate for Trump, addressed the convention on its first night. Flynn hammered away at the Obama administration for, in his opinion, weakening America’s role as a world leader committed to fighting anti-democratic forces anywhere in the world.
Flynn told the audience that the U.S. had to “face [its] enemies head on” because it is a nation that believes in “freedom, democracy and liberty.” Later he said, “We ended the Cold War and we stopped Communism’s quest for world domination.”
But then Flynn said something peculiar. He argued that Russia needed to be lumped in with China and North Korea as nations with “growing nuclear capabilities” that posed threats to the United States. He offered no details. It was his only specific reference to Russia.
The next night Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson suggested that Russia had enjoyed a resurgence because of what he saw as the failed policies of the Obama administration. But the governor offered no sense of what Russia’s resurgence meant or why it was bad for the United States.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie ripped presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for not being tough with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Christie described as “a dictator who dreams of reassembling the old Soviet empire.”
In other words, all brief references with no acknowledgement of Russia’s vital place in the world.
Why would Russia and Putin, convenient international foes for multiple U.S. presidents, be an afterthought at the Republican National Convention?
Dr. Soren Fanning, an associate professor of History at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, argues that Trump is part of the answer.
“I think Mr. Trump wants closer relations and cooperation with Russia, to the point of assisting Putin’s goal of rebuilding Russian dominance in Eurasia,” Dr. Fanning wrote in an email.
Fanning contends that Trump is deliberately reversing long-held Republican positions about Russia. He used Ukraine as an example, noting that Trump and his allies stripped from the party’s platform language criticizing Russia for invading Ukraine and calls for giving Ukraine the arms necessary to fight Russian troops.
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Princeton University student Matt Miller was one of 130 college students who spent two weeks in Cleveland through a seminar offered by The Washington Center. He has studied Russian and Eastern European politics. He, too, had an opinion on why Russia drew little attention.
He stated, “I think Russia's an afterthought because foreign policy is almost an afterthought. The focus of the speeches [at the Republican National Convention] have leaned heavily on unity and vision and less on substance.”
He noted that Trump's openness and willingness to not take any political options off the table were being highlighted at the convention.
There has been consistent commentary in the U.S. media that Trump and Putin are similar. Both are seen as strong men who talk in blunt terms about protecting the country from enemies near and far. They speak with pride about the nation, though critics say they often inch too close to nationalistic sentiments. They pander to the majority populations within their borders.
The Wall Street Journal reported that while Trump’s vanquished Republican rivals offered hostile remarks about Putin during the early months of the 2016 campaign, Trump considered Putin “very bright” and a “strong leader.” The Atlantic added that Trump once suggested Putin was “highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
This has been an unusual political year in the United States. One more example of that was a Republican National Convention that seemed to forget that Russia – whether seen as friend or foe – remains an integral player in international relations.