Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have very different views on how to deal with Russia. Clinton is a classic Cold Warrior while Trump appears to be more open to working with Russia on the global stage.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican counterpart Donald Trump shake hands during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Photo: Joe Raedle / Pool via AP
If Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Russia to be influential in the world and attract the attention of American politicians, he certainly has succeeded. Russia has played a larger role in this 2016 U.S. Presidential election than in any such contest for many years.
However, it has not been in the form of a serious debate among the candidates on how to work with Russia to solve global problems, or how to manage relations with Russia in areas of conflicts such as Ukraine, or over the merits of maintaining sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Rather, the debate has turned on why one candidate from the Republican Party – Donald Trump – seems to be so positively disposed to Putin.
Trump’s rival from the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, has a long history with Russia from her time as First Lady and Secretary of State. However, that history has not been all warmth and embraces. Although Clinton was one of the architects of the attempted “reset” of relations with Russia in 2009, that effort did not go as planned. Relations with Russia took a turn for the worse.
There were disagreements over engagement in Libya, and the response to the Arab revolutions in Egypt and Syria. When the Maidan revolution in Kiev drove Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych from power, Russia saw the hand of the U.S. behind the turmoil. When Russia then moved into Crimea and pro-Russian forces initiated conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Clinton, though no longer Secretary of State, called for tougher sanctions and more military support for the new Ukrainian government.
In short, Clinton has a history of strong disagreements with Russia over foreign policy and a record of calling for strong NATO support for countries on Russia’s borders. She is thus seen as a tough, experienced advocate of U.S. interests vs. Russia, but one who may increase friction and make relations worse.
This may be one reason why actors that have been identified as working in Russia (whether directly for the Kremlin or as independents in not clear) hacked into the files of the Democratic Party. They may have been looking for information on foreign policy plans being developed by the Clinton camp.
While Clinton’s stance is popular with U.S. foreign policy “hawks” and those suspicious of Russia, Trump’s position is popular with Americans who are tired of spending money on foreign military efforts that seem to yield little gain at great cost. After over 15 years of engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq that do not seem to have made the world any less vulnerable to jihadist terrorism, and a generous expansion of NATO to incorporate the Baltic states (formerly part of the U.S.S.R.) and major Eastern European nations, many Americans wish to be “done” with an aggressive foreign policy.
For them, the prospect of a President who can negotiate a good deal with Russia, and who seems to be able to work with Putin, would be a relief and a refreshing change. Thus, the links between Trump and Putin, including the statements by Trump and his running mate Governor Mike Pence admiring the Russian President, and the fact that Trump’s former campaign manager did work linked to Yanukovych before his ouster, do not seem to be negatives for Trump supporters.
There are, however, greater worries about Trump in other respects. Trump has said that he would not necessarily honor America’s NATO commitments to support front-line states unless other NATO nations spent more money on their own defenses. Calling into question America’s commitment to NATO threatens to undermine a long-established balance of power in the Eurasian sphere, and could be destabilizing.
Even more risky is Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. nuclear umbrella might not be worth extending to some allies, so that Japan and even Saudi Arabia might be encouraged to develop their own nuclear deterrents. These measures go against over half a century of joint U.S.-Russia and global efforts to limit nuclear proliferation.
The choice between Clinton and Trump in respect to Russia is thus a choice between the known and the unknown. Clinton is a known quantity, someone who can be expected to take a determined and aggressive stance to defend NATO allies and to confront Russia over policies she believes go against U.S. interests.
Trump, however, represents the unknown. Will he be able to make new deals with Russia on the Middle East, Ukraine, and nuclear materials? Or will he adopt isolationist policies and back away from NATO allies and reduce America’s role in the Middle East and its commitment to the nuclear defense of South Korea and Japan?
While Clinton can be expected to criticize Russia over human rights and rule of law issues, will a President Trump – who seems determined to expand police forces in the U.S. to track down illegal aliens and ban Muslims from entering the country – be at all concerned about human rights in other countries?
Clinton’s and Trump’s very different attitudes and relations with Russia have thus become an important issue separating their supporters in this very unusual Presidential race. Will American voters choose someone who looks like a traditional Cold Warrior (Clinton)? Or will they leap into the unknown, opting for a candidate who praises Putin’s strong leadership and seems willing to radically change a generation of U.S. foreign policy?
We will not know until November, but it is clear that voters’ attitudes toward Russia will play a significant role in this election, and that the outcome will greatly influence U.S.-Russian relations in the future.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.