TRUMP’S DIPLOMACY OF BULLYING
Janusz Bugajski, May 2018
President Donald Trump is juggling two dangerous grenades on the world stage as he simultaneously confronts the regimes of North Korea and Iran. His policy consists of two elements: bullying and diplomacy – or what is often called the “bad cop, good cop” routine, in which Trump sometimes plays both roles.
With regard to North Korea, Trump’s tough rhetoric of bombing the country into oblivion if it launched any nuclear device against US territory was followed by the brazen diplomacy of newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a surprise visit toPyongyang, he laid the groundwork for a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, scheduled to be held in Singapore on 12 June. This is the first planned meeting between the heads of state of the two countries since the Korean War in the 1950s.
Previous bilateral diplomatic moves have been slow and fruitless. An agreement in 1994 with North Korea slowed North Korea’s nuclear program for eight years, but the pact collapsed because of Pyongyang’s provocations, while the US failed to help the country develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Relations deteriorated during the Obama administration and Trump’s angry rhetoric seemed to be pushing both sides toward outright war.
Trump supporters believe that his threatening words combined with more punishing economic sanctions convinced Pyongyang to enter talks. Trump’s critics remain convinced that Kim is seeking to outwit the President. Indeed, despite the high hopes Washington must remain cautious. North Korea is suspected of having a nuclear stockpile of sixty warheads and pervious agreements to freeze its nuclear program have invariably failed because of cheating by Pyongyang. On the US side, because Trump is so unpredictable there will be fears inNorth Korea that he could pull out of a deal at a moments notice. This may give Kim Jong Un fewer incentives to make any concessions.
Trump has already granted Kim a massive gift of a bilateral summit that helps legitimize the North Korean regime. Although Kim has frozen missile and nuclear tests, began to close one of his nuclear test sites, and declined to complain about current US-South Korean military exercises, he has not offered any irreversible concessions to the US, let alone promised to surrender his nuclear arsenal. Above all, Kim is desperate to alleviate his country’s economic isolation, and in return for ceding any part of his nuclear arsenal he will demand significant political concessions possibly including the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea.
In the case of Iran, Trump has announced that America is pulling out of the nuclear deal that is supposed to stall Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. The President expressed several basic problems with the Iran deal, because it does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, does not prevent Tehran from generating instability in the Middle East, and rewarded Iran by releasing assets frozen by years of US sanctions. America’s withdrawal signifies that the White House is preparing to impose new economic sanctions.
Trump rejected the pleas of America’s closest European allies and virtual all former diplomats who have dealt with Iran. He even ignored his own Defense Secretary James Mattis who asserted that the agreement has allowed robust monitoring of Iran’s activities. Tehran had to surrender most of its ability to enrich uranium and agreed to place the vast majority of its centrifuges in storage under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In their response to Trump’s actions, European leaders noted that the Energy Agency has concluded that Iran was abiding by the agreement, in line with its obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
It remains uncertain whether the US withdrawal will completely terminate the Iran deal to which France, the UK, Germany, Russia, and China are also signatories. The most optimistic scenario is that the US withdrawal from the Iran agreement could actually stimulate new negotiations between Tehran and Washington. But nobody is holding their breath.
If Tehran itself abandons the agreement, this would simply serve to reunite the US and Europeans. In practice, the durability of the deal will be tested when American economic and trade sanctions are reapplied. The Iranians have abided by the agreement primarily because of the economic benefits it has brought the country. If European companies now withdraw from Iran to avoid being sanctioned by Washington then Tehran will have no incentive to stay in the international deal and is likely to revive its nuclear program. This could precipitate a more direct military confrontation with the US.
Paradoxically, a potential success in North Korea could actually undermine America’s Iran policy. Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal may convince other capitals that it is better to negotiate with Washington when already in possession of nuclear weapons than to be coerced not to develop them. The juxtaposition of North Korea and Iran could serve as a dangerous precedent.
FROM DEMOCRACY BUILDING TO SECURITY PROMOTION
Janusz Bugajski, April 2018
US foreign policy under the Donald Trump administration is evolving from a focus on democracy building to one of security promotion. Although these are not mutually exclusive concepts, even a slight shift in emphasis can enable the US to attract more allies and lessen anti-Americanism in several states.
The US has a number of partners and allies that are not democracies but are valued for their contribution to regional and American security. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf States are cases in point in the Middle East. They act as a buffer against Iran and host American military bases. South Korea was an authoritarian state after the Korean War but was protected by US troops as it evolved intoa pluralistic democracy.
In post-World War Two Europe, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Turkey were dictatorships for many years even while members of NATO and close American allies. Washington calculated that it was preferable to have these countries insidethe Alliance facing an assertive Soviet Union than risk their isolation and penetration by Moscow.
Contemporary Europe presents a new quandary for the US regarding the most effective policy toward authoritarian states or countries regressing as competitive democracies. The post-communist context underscores America’s dilemma in that the development of alliances was premised on each Central and East European (CEE) state developing into a stable democracy. Such stipulations were not applied to previous NATOmembers or to strategic allies in the Middle East, East Asia, and elsewhere.
US democracy promotion in Europe’s east was intended to immunize each country from slipping back toward communism or from imploding into inter-ethnic battlegrounds. It did not envisage a wave of national populism throughout the EU that would challenge democratic principles in political systems that had recently emerged from communism. Washington is now in the process of adapting to the new realities.
Given this context, two foreign policy concepts appear to stand out in the Donald Trump administration. First, that America will not dictate the structure of any country’s internal politics, and second that Russia is now a bigger threat to Allied security than international terrorism. And the two concepts are connected.
Although Trump’s speeches stressed that American foreign policy will no longer interfere in domestic politics, US officials continue to underscore that democratic systems are stronger and more secure than dictatorships. However, a country’s lack of progress toward pluralistic democracy should not disqualify it from moving closer to America if both states stand to benefit. The glue that ultimately holds alliances together is not common values or common cultures, but common security threats and a common defense against them.
Moscow attacks US democracy promotion as a cover for staging “colored revolutions,” inserting pro-American governments, and exerting covert political control. Instead of admitting that such revolts are internally generated, Russia’s propagandists equate America’s support for democratic reforms with Moscow’s campaign of subversion and political warfare. The Kremlin depicts NGOs providing assistance to post-communist and post-Soviet states as arms of the US government and the CIA. Moscow projects on to the West its own modus operandiwhere nominally independent organizations and the media are in reality arms of the Kremlin’s security and intelligence services.
Western pro-democracy groups have promoted stability, transparency, accountability, and inter-ethnic reconciliation, and worked closely with local activists from across the political spectrum. In stark contrast, Moscow corrupts the political process with illicit funds, fosters social and ethnic tensions, and supports anti-Western nationalists to keep countries outside multi-national institutions such as NATO and the EU.
Countering the Kremlin’s assault on European countries, whatever their political structures, must become Washington’s priority mission. In this sense, the US can transform from a democracy builder into a security promoter as the Russia threat increases. This is especially clear in America’s military contribution to the Enhanced Forward Presence along NATO’s eastern flank in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Approximately 4,000 US troops are now serving on a rotational basis to defend Poland.
The Trump administration has also supplied Patriot long-range missile defense systems to Poland, Javelin portable anti-tank missiles to Ukrainian forces battling Russia’s proxy separatists, and Javelin missiles to the Georgian army confronting Moscow’s occupation of two breakaway territories. Washington can also develop the NATO partnership program and bilateral security ties with quasi-authoritarian states such as Belarus and Azerbaijan, which remain anxious about preserving their sovereignty from an assertive Russia. If they are completely sucked into the “Russian World” then any prospects for democratization will evaporate.
Even though countries such as Poland and Hungary are no longer model democracies and the ruling parties have consolidated their influences, it would be mistaken to conclude that the Western alliance is “losing them.” Indeed, in Poland’s case the opposite is true, as Warsaw wants an increase in American troops and even an American military base on its territory. In a climate of escalating international threat, the US can intensify its leading role as a security promoter throughout the Wider Europe.
Janusz Bugajski, April 2018
Most American presidents have a specific war by which they are remembered in history. With Bill Clinton it was Serbia and Bosnia and with George W. Bush it was Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Trump like Obama underscored that he would avoid foreign entanglements, the sitting President is making Syria his war.
The recent US-led strike against Syria was limited, aimed primarily at eliminating the ability of Damascus to conduct chemical weapons attacks against civilians. Chemical weapons are banned under international treaties.The US, the UK, and France bombed specific chemical producing facilities, but “regime change” for President Bashar al-Assad was not the objective.
Unfortunately, Germany announced that it would not join any military action, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of sending a united message that using chemical weapons was unacceptable. Germany also refused to take part in the American-led war in Iraq, and in 2011 abstained from a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force to protect civilians in Libya. One wonders why key US bases remain in Germany rather than closer to NATO’s eastern front.
All eyes will now be on Assad’s response and his Russian allies. If American troops are targeted or there are further chemical attacks by Damascus, Washington is likely to escalate. President Donald Trump has been restrained by Defense Secretary James Mattis who was unwilling to engage in a comprehensive attack at the outset.
A massive Allied strike against Syria carries several risks – regional escalation that could draw in Iran and Israel into the war, but even more importantly a direct military confrontation between the US and Russia. Relations between Washington and Moscow are worse than they have been at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
In a worst vase scenario, the two states may stumble into direct military confrontation, and because Moscow will not win a conventional war its next step may be to threaten nuclear strikes. However, Putin’s reaction to the bombing of Syria makes nuclear war unlikely.Washington gave Moscow prior warning before the missile strike although the risk of miscalculation remains. Official verbal reaction has not been matched by military action and it seems that the Kremlin is more afraid of America than the White House is of Russia.
Thus far, Moscow has issued ominous warnings but has failed to defend its ally with arms. It threatened “grave repercussions” if the US carries out military strikes against the Syrian regime, including targeting American weapons systems. But Putin’s people are well aware that they will be defeated in any firefight with America. An estimated 2,000 US troops in Syria have been focused exclusively on fighting the Islamic State. Any attacks on these units by Syrian, Russian, or Iranian forces would be met with massive American strikes.
Putin faces humiliation if he is seen to be weak and unable to defend Syria. Other allies from Belarus to Armenia will wonder whether the Kremlin will ultimately cower from any move against Western forces. A Russian unit was decimated by US troops in February when it staged an attack on an America base assisting Syrian rebels. Moscow immediately distanced itself from the defeated troops and described them as “mercenaries” outside of state control. In reality, no Russian military units would be active in Syria without Kremlin approval and support.
Despite Russian fears of a war with America, the West must remain on guard in case Moscow decides to take its revenge for the US-UK-French strikes by staging provocations in other regions. One possibility would be to intensify the attack on Ukraine in order to rally the Russian masses behind Putin and demonstrate that he remains a strong leader.
Kremlin officials must now be convinced that the“hawks” dominate the White House and will channel Trump’s aggressive instincts against Russia’s assertiveness. Moreover, although both the House of Representatives and Senate are deeply divided along party lines, virtually all Members of Congress remain united on the issue of combating Russia. Trump himself criticizedMoscow for protecting the Syrian regime and its failure to keep its promise in guaranteeing the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons.
Trump may have started his presidency with a focus on isolationism, but he is clearly moving toward international interventions. This is despite the fact that his national security team is in flux following the ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the replacement of National Security Advisor McMaster with John Bolton. If Moscow was hoping for a more accomodationist team it is gravely mistaken. Bolton is a genuine “hawk” and interventionist and believes in a tough military posture.
If confirmed as Secretary of State by the Senate, Mike Pompeo, the former head of the CXIA, has also complained about soft US policy toward Moscow and considers Russia a direct danger to US security. Bolton and Pompeo both stress America’s “duty to lead,” – this is their interpretation of Trump’s slogan of putting “America first.”
WHO DECIDES US FOREIGN POLICY?
Janusz Bugajski, March 2018
The sacking of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has raised questions not only about American foreign policy but more importantly about who actually decides that policy and how it is applied. Although US Presidents traditionally determine the direction of policy, it is their interpretation and implementation that remains crucial.
Donald Trump’s Cabinet is in constant turmoil, as the President often makes statements impulsively and without consulting other officials. Sometimes, major policy disagreements can result in a sacking, while on other occasions Trump feels he needs to replace an individual who has appeared disloyal.
Tillerson frequently clashed with Trump and at one point was quoted by the media as calling him “a moron” when concluding that the President had no grasp of foreign affairs. During recent weeks, Trump undermined Tillerson by raging against the nuclear agreement with Iran, imposing tariffs on metal imports that impacts directly on foreign policy, and announcing a meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without consulting his Cabinet.
Trump’s ouster of Tillerson may be the first move in a wider government shakeup. For instance, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, may be sacrificed, as Trump has not forgiven him for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and exposing the President to charges of collaborating with the Kremlin. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may also be replaced after questioning by the Senate over his lavish spending on office renovations and private flights that are embarrassing to Trump. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin may also be sacked following release of a report on his ethics violations.
Despite these turnovers, Trump’s national security team remains committed to NATO as the foundation of trans-Atlantic security regardless of Trump’s tweets. The new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the former CIA Director, is known as a policy “hawk” which traditionally means a strong supporter of the US military, the NATO alliance, and America’s global role. Under Pompeo there are unlikely to be any major shifts in US policy toward Europe, although there may be some changes of emphasis and intensity in the Middle East and North Korea.
A more worrying prospect for foreign policy is the potential ouster of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who has reportedly never clicked with Trump. Observers will be closely watching his replacement – whether by another strong Atlanticist or a populist-nationalist in the mold of Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon.
The most important and powerful cabinet level official who retains Trump’s trust despite policy disagreements is Defense Secretary James Mattis. His military achievements simply cannot be dismissed by Trump even when he may support a contrary position. It will be instructive to see whether Pompeo sides with Mattis if there are any rifts between the White House and the Pentagon.
Tillerson came under immense criticism from Democrats and some traditional Republicans for alienating many career diplomats and scaling back the State Department. Paradoxically, Pompeo may need to build up the Department again if he is to pursue a more aggressive diplomatic policy, and this could potentially put him at odds with Trump who does not fully understand the need for the US foreign service. It remains to be seen whether Pompeo will be able to neutralize Trump’s often unpredictable decision-making.
While Tillerson left many State Department positions empty, reduced staffing at US embassies abroad, and confined decision-making to a small group of advisers, Pompeo is more expansive. As CIA Director he sent more agents into the field while eliminating bureaucratic red tape and decentralizing some of the Agency’s decision-making to lower levels.
A key test for Pompeo will be his position on Russia, particularly if Trump continues his soft rhetoric toward Putin. In contrast to Tillerson, Pompeo has a blunt-speaking style and will be more aggressive in calling out adversaries that challenge US national and security interests. Instructively, it was Pompeo who helped engineer a detente between Trump and America’s intelligence agencies after the President disparaged them for concluding that Moscow had interfered in the presidential elections.
Pompeo has been helped by the new sanctions imposed on 19 Russians and five entities Russian for their meddling in US elections and persistent cyber attacks. This was the most significant step taken against Moscow since Trump became President. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov asserted that the government was preparing retaliatory measures.
The US has joined its allies in demanding that Moscow explain a military-grade nerve toxin attack in England on a former Russian military intelligence double agent. Additionally, US officials announced that Russian hackers had attempted to break into the American energy grid, which is vulnerable to debilitating cyber attacks.
US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate despite Trump’s often-declared intention for improved cooperation. Pompeo is unlikely to jeopardize his reputation to defend either Putin or Trump. However, the real test will come if the ongoing FBI Special Counsel investigation confirms a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin as well as possible obstruction of justice by the White House.
AMERICA’S DEMOCRAT WAVE
Janusz Bugajski, March 2018
As America’s new election season approaches, fears are growing among Republicans that they will suffer significant setbacks in November. While the governing party usually loses some of its support during congressional mid-terms, the unpopularity of President Donald Trump can drastically increase support for Democratic Party candidates.
The mid-term elections will take place in the middle of Trump’s term in office. All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the US Senate will be contested, together with numerous state, county, and municipal elections.
In the Senate, Republicans can only afford to lose one seat to maintain their working majority, in which Republican Vice President Mike Pence can break any tied vote. Three of the Republican Senate seats are now open contests because of retirements, while Democrats are defending ten seats in states won by Trump in the presidential elections.
However, it is the House of Representatives that poses the biggest danger to the Republican majority. At least 25 have announced their retirement in recent weeks for a variety of personal and political reasons. Meanwhile, the Democrats need 24 extra seats to gain control of the House.
California and Pennsylvania may be pivotal in November, as it contains 14 House Republicans half of whom could lose their seats because of retirements and public disapproval of policies. In Pennsylvania, the new redistricting map could cost the Republicans six additional seats. In addition, suburbs in several parts of the country are now leaning Democrat. Democrat victories in recent Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races could indicate the road ahead.
First term midterm elections are invariably bad for the party in power, but approval ratings for congressional Republicans has dipped below expectations. Despite the passage of tax legislation, many citizens are dismayed that a Congress and White House controlled by one party is still incapable of major legislative achievements, such as Trump’s promises on infrastructure and affordable health care.
In addition, the Trump phenomenon could make it even worse for Republican incumbents. Historically, there is a close correlation between the President’s approval ratings and first-term midterm losses by the President’s party. On the six occasions when the President’s job approval among citizens dipped under 50%, the average loss for his party was more than 43 seats.
Trump’s popularity has hovered between 32% and 40%, most of whom are his hard-core supporters. The President’s impulsive moves and the evident chaos in the White House have alienated the majority of Americans. Many believe that Trump’s political instincts, which worked in the 2016 elections, are failing him and his time in office is widely viewed as disastrous.
Numerous senior officials in the White House have resigned in recent months, including Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn. Rumors abound that he could lose another Chief of Staff and another National Security Advisor in the coming weeks. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have become more critical of the White House, indicating their fears about the election impact.
Republicans had planned to focus on economic growth in the run up to the November elections after passing tax cuts for businesses. Instead, Trump’s sudden imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports could precipitate an international trade war and ultimately damage business development, worker employment, and consumer prices. Trump’s protectionism is anathema to establishment Republicans and indicates a continuing struggle between the traditionalist-conservative and populist-nationalist wings in the party.
Trump himself may keep his Republican base, or about a third of the electorate, but he has alienated many independents and the constant scandals around him have invigorated the Democrats who are likely to turn out to vote in record numbers. Moreover, Trump supporters may simply not be motivated to vote for congressmen that they view as part of the despised Washington establishment and whom Trump has berated in the past as political creatures of “the swamp.”
In this political maelstrom, Moscow is preparing further interventions. US intelligence chief Dan Coats recently informed Congress that Washington must take more vigorous action to deter attacks from Russian sources in the upcoming elections. He asserted that it was “highly likely” that Moscow would engage in a campaign of disruption, similar to its interventions through cyber space and the social media in the 2016 presidential election.
Despite Trump’s denials of any collaboration with Russian sources during his presidential campaign, the Russia question could come back to bite him after the November elections. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives, Trump will face more intensive investigations, frequent subpoenas, and most likely impeachment proceedings. If the House impeaches Trump, the process will then move to the Senate. And although, a two-thirds super majority is required to convict an impeached Preside t and remove him from office, the opprobrium of impeachment could itself force Trump to resign from office.
DANGERS OF AN ATLANTIC RIFT
Janusz Bugajski, February 2018
The EU’s new defense agreement risks weakening NATO and alienating the Trump administration from its Atlantic allies. If the PESCO pact among EU members leads to the diversion of resources and equipment from NATO then some in the White House may conclude that candidate Trump was correct in claiming that the North Atlantic Alliance has become obsolete.
The EU launched its Permanent Structured Cooperation on Security and Defense (PESCO) at the close of 2017, a project driven primarily by Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Although the list of potential PESCO projects is still being decided, its members will initially focus on 17 areas, including improved military training and cyber defense, for which a new funding mechanism will be established. Such developments have generated concerns in the Pentagon.
US officials and generals are anxious that some of the proposed PESCO initiatives may pull resources and military capabilities out of NATO. In his recent visit to NATO HQ in Brussels, Defense Secretary James Mattis informed his European counterparts that the US is generally supportive of PESCO as long as it is complimentary to NATO’s activities and requirements and not a competitor.
One useful PESCO initiative would be to lower legal requirements that slow the movement of military equipment between European states in case of a crisis. This has been a major focus for NATO since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However, the Pentagon is concerned that PESCO may compound the problem by creating two sets of rules, one for the EU and one for NATO.
The US seeks to enhance practical co-operation among allies, as Washington has placed the threat from Moscow at the forefront of its new national defense strategy. A new NATO Joint Force Command for the Atlantic is to be established, the first since the end of the Cold War. Its mission will be to help protect sea lines of communication between North America and Europe and counter Russia’s military probing.
Above all, Mattis wants to focus Europe on modernization and burden sharing. Only Estonia, Greece, Poland, Romania, and the UK fulfill the 2% of GDP requirements for military spending. Washington is also urging NATO members to meet an equally important guideline by allocating at least 20% of their defense spending for military equipment. Less than half of the Alliance met this stipulation last year. Washington also wants to ensure that any closer EU co-operation does not undermine the commitment of NATO members in the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
An EU defense structure including a single EU army has been under discussion for several decades but continues to have opponents who perceived it as a challenge to NATO. The majority of EU members from Central and East Europe are skeptical about any distinct EU force that could undermine NATO precisely at a time when the Alliance needs to strengthen its capabilities to deter Moscow. Moreover, the EU has lost some of its potential military muscle in the wake of Brexit.
Supporters of PESCO argue that the initiative will not conflict with NATO. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini claimed that PESCO would be able to take actions where NATO could only use military tools. If that is the case, then PESCO is not a serious attempt at developing hard security but another mechanism for such mission as providing humanitarian relief and development aid.
If PESCO results in a limited mandate for a small international crisis-response force then this could prove valuable. In the past 15 years the EU has engaged in over thirty international missions, including peacekeeping and police-training operations in Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The creation of a compact international force could also help in intercepting refugee smuggling and other forms of trafficking, combatting piracy, rescuing distressed ships, providing humanitarian assistance, and contributing to counter-terrorism operations throughout Europe.
Another potentially positive outcome of PESCO would be to integrate the fractured EU defense industry. Analysts estimate that EU governments could save more than €25 billion annually if they coordinated their defense purchases to focus on the bloc’s overall security needs. However, American officials have warned the EU not to use any deepening of military cooperation to impose protectionist measures around Europe’s defense industry by excluding US companies from the bidding process for military equipment.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has asserted that EU efforts to boost its defense spending under the pact were welcome, but only if this was coordinated with NATO. He also warned that the EU could not replace the Alliance in guaranteeing European security and should not even try. Instead, the Union should pool its security within the most effective security organization that maintains the US in Europe.
Hopefully, as in past iterations of a European security arm, officials in Brussels and a few other capitals will make a few commitments, sign a few documents, and create a new bureaucracy, but the initiative silently fizzles out and only NATO remains standing as the sole effective guarantor of trans-Atlantic security.
TRUMP’S FIRST YEAR
Janusz Bugajski, January 2018
President Donald Trump launched his second year in office by a visit to the World Economic Council in Davos. Despite his combative and self-congratulatory speech, Trump’s foreign policy record during the first year in office has been marked by shortcomings, contradictions, and unintended consequences.
In Europe, Trump claims to have pursued closer bilateral ties and a business friendly agenda, but the results show serious shortcomings. US relations with the UK and Germany at the leadership level have rarely been weaker since World War Two, although this has not ultimately threatened the security ties maintained by Trump’s national security team.
The promised bilateral trade agreements have not been forged, as the EU remains a single market and evidently resilient to further national “exits.” Trump’s public popularity ratings in virtually every state make George W. Bush seem like a European celebrity. Trump’s withdrawal from the climate agreement, his xenophobic statements, and his attacks on various European governments as being weak on terrorism have alienated large sectors of the population.
With NATO, Trump has been more successful, but this despite his own statements on the Alliance. His security team working in tandem with Congress have reaffirmed the importance of NATO, underscored US commitments to article five for collective defense, strengthened NATO’s presence along its eastern flank, and have not blinked when facing Russia’s constant threats.
With regard to North Korea, Trump has created fear and confusion but without any end product. Pyongyang continues to manufacture and test its rocketry and nuclear devices and analysts estimate that within the coming year it will have the capability to hit the US with a nuclear weapon. Moscow continues to provide Pyongyang with the needed technology and both Russia and China bypass US economic sanctions as they want the Kim Jong Un regime to survive. Trump threats of nuclear annihilation have plainly not achieved nuclear disarmament and tensions will again increase this year.
In the Middle East, Trump claims that he has defeated the Islamic State terrorists, but the result is a mixed picture. Increased bombing of IS targets certainly contributed to shrinking their territories in Syria, but the prime agents were Kurdish forces, the Syrian opposition, and Syrian government military assisted by Russia. Although Trump pledged to stamp out terrorism globally, in reality the Islamic militants will simply move and mushroom in other unstable states in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and Southern Asia. And they will continue to threaten the US and Europe regardless of how many refugees from war zones are allowed into Western countries.
In Israel, Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and to threaten a cut-off in aid to the Palestinian authority is widely seen as the end of the two-state solution that may close the peace process. Analysts expect a growth of anti-Americanism and terrorist outrages as a result of Trump’s decision.
In the case of China, Trump has sent contradictory signals. While he praises President Xi Jinping as a great leader, he simultaneously attacks China’s economic and trading polices. However, his recipe for thwarting China’s predatory trade policies are backfiring. For instance, US withdrawal from the Pacific free trade agreement simply gives Beijing more influence and opportunities around the Pacific rim, while the imposition of tariffs on Chinese products is likely to hurt American consumers more than Chinese businesses.
In the case of Africa, Trump’s comments about “shit-hole” countries sending immigrants to America have been condemned as racism and discrimination. They will sour relations with several dozen countries that may increasingly look to China as an alternative investor, developer, and security partner.
In the case of Russia, Trump’s initial policy direction has been completely contradicted by later developments. Relations with Moscow have certainly not improved, despite the fact that Trump has consistently praised Putin and called for cooperation with Moscow in combating terrorism. In reality, relations continue to deteriorate with a host of disputes over Ukraine, Syria, NATO, North Korea, and US sanctions.
The perennial question of Russia hangs around the President’s neck, as one part of the FBI investigation is approaching its climax. The intense probe of whether Trump obstructed justice in preventing the FBI from investigating campaign collusion with Russia’s intelligence services has now reached the White House. Special Investigator Robert Mueller wants to interview Trump himself and the President’s lawyers fear that he could implicate himself even more if he agrees to talk under oath.
America is experiencing a unique era, in which there appear to be two foreign policies: the policy of words and the policy of deeds. Trump brash, loud, and controversial statements sometimes result in decisions that damage America’s position in the world. On the other hand, the President’s national security team continues to pursue the policy of the deed, in which US commitments are fulfilled and major damage is avoided. However, this balancing act between the President and the cabinet may sooner or later become untenable in the face of some major crisis in which a singular US policy will need to prevail.
AMERICA POISED FOR AN OFFENSIVE
Janusz Bugajski, January 2018
At the start of 2018 there are indications that the US is poised to take the offensive against Russia’s persistent subversion of Western institutions. A series of high-level reports and resolutions by the US Congress and a number of imminent steps by the Trump administration is likely to intensify the struggle with Moscow.
The Trump administration has two parallel foreign policies. On the one hand, Trump and his closest advisors, family members, and long-time friends act on impulse in trying to implement campaign promises to cut America’s foreign entanglements. On the other hand, the traditional internationalists in the cabinet seek to bypass the President and assert America’s global strategy. The majority of Congress quietly supports this parallel government that prevents Trump from damaging US interests.
Despite acquiescing to the President domestically, Congress has proved more assertive internationally. It has overwhelmingly passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to punish Russian oligarchs and entities linked with Kremlin interference in US elections. Trump reluctantly signed it into law, although its provisions are still to be implemented. If enacted this would have a crippling economic effect on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s presidential elections in March.
A new US Senate report produced by the Democrats asserts that the Trump administration has been negligent in responding to Putin’s election interference. The report urges better coordination among the State Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence services, and other US agencies to more effectively counter Moscow’s assaults.
There are growing fears about the Congressional elections scheduled for November and the primaries in the Spring. America’s vulnerabilities are evident in cyberspace and the social media sphere. In particular, measures need to be taken to help safeguard the electronic voting process from hacking and other forms of sabotage. Analysts are warning that Russian agents will have refined their tactics of interference to try and influence candidates and voters.
With approval from traditional Republicans, the White House itself has issued a National Security Strategy that contradicts Trump’s campaign statements that cooperating with Russia will transform it into a friendly partner. According to the document, the Kremlin is intent on weakening US influence and divide the Western allies, and preventative actions must be taken.
Despite the Kremlin attacks, some appeasers in Washington linked with Trump hope to diminish the escalating conflict with Moscow. The problem is that any unilateral move by the US will be perceived as weakness in the Kremlin. For instance, a halt to NATO enlargement and a weaker US military presence in Europe would signal to Putin that it may be a propitious time for another adventure against a neighboring state. Moreover, any talk about a new “security architecture” in Europe that sidelines NATO is music to the ears of Russia’s ruling imperialists.
When Moscow expresses outrage at some assertive US initiative, Russia’s propagandists aim to frighten the US public and policy makers with the threat of war. Fortunately, the most seasoned policy makers understand that strength and action are genuine deterrents while weakness and prevarication actually provoke the Kremlin.
As a result, arming Ukraine with lethal weapons, the further expansion of NATO in the Balkans, NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Ukraine and Georgia, and a more robust military presence along NATO’s eastern flank and in the Baltic and Black Seas, will signal to the Kremlin that Washington is no longer hesitating in its policy offensive.
In a significant recent bipartisan initiative, the US Congress has ordered a new report from the Defense Department on “Growing Russian Interests and Current Intrusions into the Western Balkans.” Congress is increasingly concerned about Serbia’s defense ties with Moscow and how this affects regional stability and the NATO presence. Belgrade has acquired a number of weapons systems in the past five years that could prove threatening to NATO members such as Croatia and to the stability of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, and Montenegro.
Serbia’s armed forces also participate in Russian exercises and Moscow’s operatives have penetrated Serbia’s intelligence services. All these factors pose a direct threat to the Alliance and cast a shadow over US and NATO cooperation with Belgrade. Indeed, there are suspicions that Serbia is becoming an outpost of Russian expansionism and even a facilitator of Moscow’s penetration of Western institutions.
The US House Foreign Affairs Committee has asserted that Washington needs a more effective plan to counter Moscow’s destabilizing influence throughout the Balkans and wants the Pentagon and State Department to additionally examine ties between Russia and other Balkan governments, including Bosnia’s Serb entity.
The intensifying FBI investigation of the Trump campaign will increase pressure on the White House. Regardless of the outcome, it will prevent the President from making any significant conciliatory moves toward Moscow. Washington will become even more combative if Democrats regain control of one or both houses of Congress during the November ballot, which even senior Republicans are now predicting. At that point, not only could the Trump presidency be imperiled with impeachment, but calls will intensify for retribution against Kremlin subversion of America’s political process.
TRUMP BATTLES FOR REPUBLICAN BASE
Janusz Bugajski, January 2018
The rift between President Donald Trump and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon has inflamed the battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. If the split is permanent and Bannon turns against his former boss, then Trump’s support among the populist wing of the party could decline and his presidency would be further imperiled.
Trump’s election victory was driven by a core of Republican voters who were mobilized by populist messages that Bannon helped to craft. Bannon has been a key figure in the “alt right” (alternative right) movement that helped Trump appeal to anti-establishment rightists, economic nationalists, and religious conservatives.
Trump won the presidency partly because of the high turnout among the Republican base, about one third of which are hard-core rightists and nativists. Their long-term reaction to Bannon’s rift with Trump will determine whether Republicans win or lose the Senate and House of Representatives in mid-term elections in November 2018. Although they will not vote Democrat, the question is whether they will be motivated to vote at all.
Trump has excoriated his former chief strategist, claiming that Bannon had “lost his mind” after being pushed out of the White House a few month ago. The President attacked Bannon after a new book by investigative journalist Michael Wolff “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” quoted Bannon criticizing senior members of the Trump campaign. He implied that Trump’s son and son-in-law were engaging in “treason” for meeting with Russian government agents during the election campaign.
Trump’s maintained regular contact with Bannon even after he was pushed out of the White House by the President’s new chief-of-staff General John Kelly. Bannon had influence over Trump as a de facto leader of the rightist populist movement. He returned to the helm of the ultra-right website, Breitbart, and has been focused on creating a political network to support nationalist and populist candidates against traditional Republicans.
Over recent months, Bannon has waged a political war against the two most prominent Republicans – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. He has accused them of being part of the corrupt establishment and undermining Trump’s populist and protectionist agenda. He has pledged to back new Republican candidates in the mid-term congressional elections to challenge the traditionalists. He uses his Breitbart media outlet to attack and discredit establishment figures and promote alternatives.
However, Bannon’s impact has come under question over the past month, especially after backing the losing Republican candidate in the Senate election in Alabama to fill a seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Bannon even convinced Trump to support the controversial candidate who was accused of sexual liaisons with under-age girls.
Mainstream Republicans are now hopeful that Bannon’s campaign against the party establishment will be extinguished after the split with Trump. Democrats may also miss his potential decline, as he was fuelling the Republican civil war and his populist campaign could ensure significant victories for Democrats in upcoming elections.
Bannon is also in conflict with several of Trump’s cabinet members and senior advisors. He presents himself as the guardian of Trump’s populist movement in conflict with “globalists” espousing free trade and “open borders,” including Trump’s relatives. His attacks on daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have clearly angered Trump and contributed to his venomous recent tweets against Bannon.
Bannon’s criticisms of Donald Trump Junior and Jared Kushner as potential traitors for meeting with Russian operatives will also provide extra ammunition for the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign. Indeed, Bannon may seek revenge against the “globalists” by providing evidence against them to Special Counsel Robert Mueller whose probe of Kremlin collusion, obstruction of justice, and financial crimes are increasingly focused on the Trump family.
If Bannon concludes that the presidency is irredeemably compromised by White House deals with globalists and establishment Republicans he may become Trump’s biggest critic for betraying his support base. Although the base may no longer find Bannon as appealing after his break with Trump, his persistent attacks could diminish enthusiasm for Republican candidates in the November elections.
A major deciding factor will be economic conditions, as Trump‘s working class voters were promised better jobs and higher wages. Major tax cuts for the rich and for private businesses in recently passed legislation and the record setting stock exchange will have little impact on their livelihoods. Additionally, cuts in government welfare programs and attacks on comprehensive health care may actually hit Trump’s base even harder.
Bannon and the populists support a redistributive economic agenda with tax cuts for working and middle classes, and they view much of the business class as part of the ossified establishment. In addition, one of the main planks of Trump’s campaign was to limit immigration in order to allegedly create jobs for US citizens. The stalemate in building a wall along the Mexican border will contribute to their apathy and resentment and Trump could well be the long-term loser.
AMERICA’S NEW SECURITY STRATEGY
Janusz Bugajski, December 2017
Contrary to suppositions by his critics, President Donald Trump’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) does not veer away from consistent US policy since the Cold War. It confirms America’s leadership role in the democratic world and may actually presage even greater US commitments internationally.
Written by a professional team of security experts, the document contains five key elements that will help determine US policy: threats to America’s interests; US global engagement; continuous competition with rivals; the importance of military power; and the significance of allied cooperation.
First, the Security Strategy acknowledges that America is under continuous attack: “The spread of accurate and inexpensive weapons and the use of cyber tools have allowed state and non-state competitors to harm the United States.” These tools challenge US dominance across the land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains. In addition, “adversaries and competitors became adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law.”
Second, the Security Strategy underscores the importance of US global engagement. The definition of “America First” rejects the isolationism that some of Trump’s populist advisers advocated and it closely links domestic strength with international involvement. According to the document, “Putting America first is the duty of our government and the foundation for US leadership in the world.”
With regions such as the Balkans in mind, there is a section about “aspiring partners” and “states that are fragile, recovering from conflict, and seeking a path forward to sustainable security and economic growth.” According to the text, stable, prosperous, and friendly states enhance American security, and “some of the greatest triumphs of American statecraft resulted from helping fragile and developing countries become successful societies.”
Third, the document declares that the US has to compete with key adversaries in order to preserve and advance American security and prosperity. The US “will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world.” The Strategy pinpoints Russia and China as the two main competitors. Both states “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
The Strategy contradicts the notion that cooperating with Russia will transform it into a benign and friendly power. Contrary to Trump’s own assertions, Washington should not assume that engagement with Russia will turn the regime into a trustworthy partner. On the contrary, Moscow “wants to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests,” aims to weaken Washington’s international influence, and “divide us from our allies and partners.”
Moreover, the Russian government is “determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow its military, and to control information and data to repress society and expand its influence.” With the US presidential elections in mind, the Strategy declares that “through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world.”
Fourth, the new US Strategy focuses on military and economic power. It underscores that peace will be preserved through strength by rebuilding the military “so that it remains preeminent, deters our adversaries, and if necessary, is able to fight and win.” America will evidently ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.
Fifth, the document trumpets the important role played by allies in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations. It acknowledges that Allies and partners magnify US power if they shoulder their share of the military burden against common threats. It pledges that the US will lead in multilateral organizations so that its interests and principles are protected. On the economic front, America can play a “catalytic role in promoting private-sector-led economic growth, helping aspiring partners become future trading and security partners.”
Working with allies, the US can prevent nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological attacks, block terrorists from reaching the homeland, reduce drug and human trafficking, and protect America’s critical infrastructure. Above all, alliances can “deter, disrupt, and defeat potential threats before they reach the US.”
The new National Security Strategy sets important goals, but does not flesh out specific strategies, plans, costs, and timeframes in confronting the threats. Although the document serves as a useful foundation, the White House needs to be more specific for the Pentagon, Congress, the American people, and US allies in how to combat common challenges.
The Security Strategy also does not explain what it means by the term “competitive diplomacy,” especially when there is great uncertainty on how the State Department and the diplomatic service are being reorganized. More specifics are also needed on how to engage in cyberwar and disinformation campaigns. Washington needs to craft communications strategies to combat ideological and psychological threats from radical Islamist groups and competing states, while exposing the aims of enemy propaganda and disinformation.
To his credit, Trump has tasked a range of more specific documents to address the missing strategic elements. It is insufficient simply to define the threats and establish national security goals without providing details on how they will be confronted and defeated.
GROWING TURMOIL FOR TRUMP
Janusz Bugajski, December 2017
Turmoil in the Donald Trump administration is intensifying following the indictment of former National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, and a pending cabinet reshuffle. The Flynn crisis and the potential replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may increase Trump’s pressure against the ongoing FBI-led investigations of his Kremlin connections.
Trump has been incensed with Tillerson since reports surfaced a few months ago that he called the President a “fucking moron” and subsequently proved unwilling to deny these reports in the media. In retaliation, Trump seems determined both to embarrass Tillerson publicly and to eventually replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, calculating the latter will be more loyal.
Trump remains deeply frustrated with his Secretary of State, and has repeatedly undermined him on a range of issues, including policy toward North Korea and Russia. Tillerson has refused to bend to Trump’s attempts to improve diplomatic relations with Moscow because he is convinced that the Kremlin interfered in the US elections. Tillerson values his independence on the diplomatic front and never envisioned his role as a lackey. Trump demands loyalty and even subservience from those who work for him and views himself as the only indispensable part of the government. He has even stated that he understands foreign policy better than the State Department.
All eyes will now be on Pompeo and whether he can resist White House pressure to simply become a yes-man. Similarly for Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who is the leading candidate as Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA. Until now Cotton has been supportive of Trump, but the two may clash if Trump ignores evidence about Russian interference in the election system or propounds conspiracy theories about the US intelligence agencies.
As Trump nears the end of his first year in office, other heads may be on the chopping block, including economic adviser Gary Cohn and even son-in-law Jared Kushner. Cohn’s relationship with Trump has become tense over economic policy, as Trump is heavily influenced by protectionists against free traders such as Cohn. Cohn’s position in the White House was also undermined after his public criticism of Trump’s response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia in August.
Kushner is under increasing pressure from the Russia investigation and his influence in the White House has shrunk. He could receive a face-saving exit by being given an outside advisory role. In addition, mid-level staffers could decide to leave in the middle of the turmoil to protect their own careers. This would have a significant impact on the White House because few replacements are available and not many people are eager to join the administration.
Even while dealing with turmoil in his government, Trump is becoming increasing angered and frustrated by the independent Russia investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that is moving closer to Trump’s inner circle and family members. However, any move to fire Mueller would not only spark a constitutional crisis but also a national political crisis in which the future of the presidency itself would be in doubt.
Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, indicating that he will testify against Kushner and possibly the President himself as the senior officials who instructed him to contact the Russian government before Trump took office. According to Flynn’s testimony, the Trump team was collaborating with Moscow and undermining the policies of the Obama administration even after it was revealed that Moscow was interfering in the US elections. Such a charge could result in prosecution because it is illegal for private citizens to conduct foreign policy. Before Trump took office and Obama was still President, Flynn allegedly reassured the Kremlin that the incoming White House would remove the sanctions punishing Russia for election meddling.
Even more significantly, Flynn could also shed light on whether the Trump campaign benefited from or conspired in Moscow’s election interference, which would constitute an even more serious criminal offense. It is illegal for any citizen to gain assistance from a foreign power in influencing the election process.
Flynn is the first Trump administration official and the fourth connected to the campaign implicated in possible collusion with the Kremlin, as well as obstruction of justice and financial crimes. In addition, evidence has emerged that Trump placed pressure on members of Congress to end the investigation of his campaign. In recent months, he repeatedly spoke to lawmakers directly involved in congressional inquiries, including Senator Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Ultimately, Mueller is searching for proof of a quid pro quo between Trump and Putin. In return for Russia’s assistance in defeating Hillary Clinton in the presidential elections through various social media and cyber interventions, did Trump’s representatives promise that they would ease or lift financial sanctions on Moscow? If Flynn provides evidence of such a deal that tampered with the elections, calls for Trump’s impeachment will escalate. With Flynn on the verge of testimony that could start the impeachment process, Trump may wish he could employ Putin’s direct methods of eliminating rivals and witnesses.
ENERGIZING THE ALLIANCE
Janusz Bugajski, November 2017
The Trump administration is boosting the effectiveness of the trans-Atlantic alliance by pushing for greater defense spending among all members and reinforcing NATO’s military presence along its eastern flank. An additional political step could be taken by Washington to energize the Alliance – a more restrained approach toward the Central-East European (CEE) states regarding any democratic shortcomings.
The promotion of democracy was a noble and necessary objective for Washington after the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It encouraged the development of political pluralism, representative institutions, and civil societies. It contributed to enshrining the minority rights of ethnic, religious, and regional groupings. And it helped to propel each state to qualify for NATO and EU membership.
However, at this hazardous juncture in Europe’s evolution, with the European Union itself facing an uncertain future and an aggressive Russia seeking to destabilize the continent, Washington needs to consolidate its alliances and not endanger them. An overly intrusive American posture toward its CEE allies that scolds elected governments for their domestic politics can alienate societies and push some leaders toward nationalism, populism, and closer ties with Moscow.
Having constructed their democratic systems, all the CEE states are now European Union members and subject to the norms and pressures of this diverse multi-national structure. The promotion of democratic standards and social policies is a primary role of EU institutions, in which each CEE country is now firmly embedded. Washington should neither interfere in internal EU developments, such as the Brexit vote or the Catalonian imbroglio, nor castigate countries when they adopt policies that challenge the resilience of indigenous democracies.
There is a difference between criticism and ostracism. Constructive criticism should not effect high-level political and diplomatic relations or our close security ties. No allied leader should be spurned or publicly castigated while Washington simultaneously avoids any open criticism of autocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States. Such perceived double standards generate suspicion about US motives and provide ammunition for anti-American propaganda.
Countries such as Poland and Hungary possess durable institutions, mature civil societies, and a broad political opposition that will prevent any long-term democratic reversals even when the separation of powers and media freedoms is under threat from the current governments. US diplomatic reprimands almost thirty years after the demise of communism could prove counter-productive by stimulating defensive nationalism against perceived American paternalism. One wonders how American officials would respond if Budapest or Warsaw persistently criticized the US President for attacking the free media or pressuring the Justice Department to investigate the opposition party.
With the rise of political formations throughout Europe that stress national sovereignty, a reproachful US policy could spawn new anti-American movements that resent Washington’s perceived intrusiveness, as witnessed in several West European states during the Cold War. Europe’s younger generation in particular has no memory of the immense American role in toppling both fascism and communism and may increasingly view the US as a new imperialist overlord that seeks to deprive the nation of its identity and independence.
Such misperceptions can undermine security relations and assist Moscow in gaining political inroads by claiming that it is defending these nations against American “cultural imperialism.” This would increase the susceptibility of local political leaders to corruption, manipulation, and intimidation, and amplify their isolation from Washington.
The White House also needs to be mindful that bilateral arrangements with each CEE state that neglects the broader multi-national frameworks can contribute to dividing Europe and assisting the Kremlin. A multi-speed or multi-tier EU may increasingly sideline the CEE states, which are still catching up economically with their West European partners while aiming to become a core part of Europe. No CEE government wants to drift into some stagnant grey zone by falling into a lower EU tier at a slower speed.
While the US needs to focus on strengthening NATO and expanding economic ties with Central Europe, the CEE governments must also bolster their obligations to trans-Atlanticism. No capital can logically pursue its national sovereignty (as persistently claimed) without resolutely defending its national security. This commitment includes the defense of NATO allies, partners, and other neighboring states under the threat of attack from a predatory power such as Russia. Bolstering Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity is a stark example of the common trans-Atlantic cause to forestall Moscow, and in which each CEE capital can assume greater responsibility.
To be relevant in Washington, all CEE states need to contribute to NATO capabilities, cooperate closely in combating jihadist terrorism, diversify their energy supplies and plug into US exports, and enhance their attractiveness for US business investment. They need to reach out to Washington with new initiatives that benefit both sides, whether in the economic arena or on the broad security front. In sum, both shores of the Atlantic need to demonstrate solidarity and commitment or we risk dividing the Alliance at an increasingly testing time in Europe’s history.
TRUMP INVESTIGATION INTENSIFIES
Janusz Bugajski, November 2017
The FBI Special Counsel investigations of illicit connections between the Kremlin and the Trump election campaign has entered a new phase. With several indictments issued and trials set, the probe by Robert Mueller is closing in around the White House.
Three new developments have disturbed the administration. First, two Trump campaign advisors have been indicted by the FBI, including Paul Manafort, chairman of the campaign for much of 2016. Second, another Trump foreign policy advisor pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his connections with Russia’s regime. And third, Mueller’s probe is zeroing in on Jared Kuchner, Trump’s son-in-law, particularly for his role in firing the previous FBI director James Comey.
The FBI probe is focused on three tracks: collusion with Moscow during the campaign, financial crimes by campaign staff, and the obstruction of justice by the White House in investigations of the first two tracks.
Regarding track one, collusion itself is not a crime and Mueller’s team needs evidence that laws were broken in contacts between Trump surrogates and Russian intelligence officials or their intermediaries. The main focus is whether “collusion” entailed allowing Moscow to interfere with the US elections or gaining information from Kremlin sources that would effect the elections. This would constitute a conspiracy to defraud the US.
Former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos is a key figure at the center of track one. After admitting making false statements to the FBI he is now fully cooperating with the probe to avoid prison. His false statements revolved around communicating with Russian nationals and attempting to arrange a meeting between Trump and Kremlin officials, even Putin himself.
Papadopoulos is also providing Mueller with information about other individuals that were involved with Moscow or who violated federal laws. He admitted interacting with an academic in London linked to Kremlin officials possessing compromising material on Hilary Clinton and informed Trump’s campaign chiefs. Sam Clovis, national co-chairman of the Trump campaign, encouraged Papadopoulos to pursue contacts with Russian officials and is also cooperating with Mueller’s team.
A particular charge the FBI may pursue is conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This would require proving that the Trump team conspired with Moscow’s hacking campaign against Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) by directing or aiding the hacking. By keeping the arrest of Papadopoulos secret for several months and allowing him to be at liberty while wiring him, the FBI may have gained more information about co-conspirators. This prospect has reportedly generated paranoia and even panic among White House staff.
Track two involves investigating and prosecuting an array of potential financial crimes by Trump’s former officials. Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates have been indicted for conspiracy to launder money, tax evasion, and failing to report their foreign bank accounts. In effect, they were conspiring against the US in order to defraud the Justice and Treasury Departments by hiding income from their lobbying work on behalf of Kremlin-linked politicians in Ukraine.
Manafort evidently had links with Russian organized crime, which is largely inseparable from the Kremlin oligarchy. In particular, the FBI indictment details that he illicitly received millions of dollars from a businessman closely linked to one of Russia’s most notorious criminals, Semion Mogilevich. According to the FBI, Mogilevich, who is under Kremlin protection, is responsible for weapons trafficking, contract killings, and international prostitution.
By charging Manafort and Gates with financial felonies that could result in long prison terms, Mueller is seeking their cooperation in providing information that will lead to further indictments of Trump associates. Mueller is also sending a signal to the wider Trump circle that he will leave no stone unturned to uncover criminal behavior.
Track three of the FBI investigation strikes even closer to home for Trump. It involves potential obstruction of justice by Trump’s close associates. Son-in-law Kushner has turned over stacks of documents as investigators probe his role in the firing of former FBI Director Comey. Evidently, Trump naively believed that by removing Comey he would end the Russia inquiry. Instead, an even more effective Special Counsel was placed in charge of the investigation. However, the Department of Justice has been struggling to maintain its independence from the White House.
The Kuchner investigation indicates that Mueller’s search for criminality not only involves the election campaign but also the activities of the current administration. Trump himself may be implicated in obstructing justice and covering up his knowledge of secret meetings between his campaign and Kremlin-connected individuals. In addition, Kuchner himself is under investigation for potentially criminal connections with a Russian bank that is under US sanctions.
As the Special Counsel probe deepens, Washington remains in suspense anticipating the next revelation. The core question for the FBI investigators is whether Trump and his close allies were working with a foreign government, and one that is a major adversary of the US, in order to manipulate America’s elections. If proven, such activities would constitute treason and would warrant impeachment and even imprisonment.
THREE PARADOXES OF US POLICY TOWARD EUROPE
Janusz Bugajski, November 2017
Nine months into the Donald Trump presidency, at least three major paradoxes have persisted in US policy toward Europe. They revolve around trans-Atlantic security and the institutional future of Europe itself. Resolving these paradoxes to consolidate the trans-Atlantic bridge is the main challenge for the rest of this decade.
The first US paradox concerns the European Union. Trump´s position has been that the EU is America’s global competitor rather than a partner. This is largely a result of the economic nationalists who still have influence over the President and who support the break-up of the EU and a refocusing on bilateral ties. They view the Union similarly to China – as a growing economic threat to American interests.
In marked contrast, the Atlanticists in the US administration understand the importance of the EU to preclude new nationalist conflicts in Europe and as America’s major trading partner and investor. Far more troubling for the Atlanticists than the weakening of democratic institutions by some ruling parties in Europe, is a weak approach toward both NATO and Russia.
Indeed, the second paradox revolves around NATO. When he was a presidential candidate, Trump declared the Alliance as obsolete. His position changed dramatically after assuming office. Indeed, the administration has taken steps to strengthen NATO and boost Western security. Trump’s criticisms misled both Europeans and Russians into believing that the White House would disband the Alliance and terminate US commitments to the defense of Europe. In reality, Trump’s strong criticism of NATO has refocused attention on Alliance costs, missions, and capabilities.
Two main factors are enabling Trump to reinvigorate the Alliance: his warnings about NATO’s performance and his strategically astute national security team. Trump’s main indignation was directed at those European governments who fail to allocate 2% of GDP for their national defense despite NATO’s common requirements. He threatened to scale back US support if these targets were not rapidly met.
Ironically, Trump’s threats seemed to have an impact, as a number of Allied governments, especially along Russia’s unpredictable borders, have pledged to increase their spending and raise their military capabilities. Even some West European governments are now revising their defense commitments.
The defense of national sovereignty, as claimed by several rightist governments in Central Europe, must also include the defense of national security. This in turn means speeding up the timetable for meeting NATO benchmarks in defense spending and helping to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank against Moscow’s revisionism. It is time for all laggards to fully commit to a common defense and demonstrate that they are reliable neighbors and allies whose own sovereignty is worth defending by America.
The determination of the US administration to bolster NATO has been especially evident in the key figures appointed to the Trump cabinet. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has asserted that the Alliance is indispensible for defending America’s national interests and maintaining global security. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have reinforced Mattis’s position that a traditional Atlanticism would prevail in Washington.
During the Iraqi and Afghani interventions, NATO developed its counter-insurgency capabilities, while the defense of Europe was neglected, and the number of American forces was drastically reduced. Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014 refocused attention on European defense with escalating anxieties among NATO’s front line states over Moscow’s expansionism. Trump’s team are bolstering NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) along the eastern flank, substantially increasing US defense spending, and working more closely with European allies committed to American goals.
The third US paradox is the Russia question. Trump may still avoid directly criticizing Vladimir Putin, for whatever skeletons he may have in his closet, but both the administration and Congress have sharpened their policy toward an expansionist adversary. Moscow is increasingly fearful that Trump will not surrender any ground despite his campaign promises to pursue closer cooperation with Russia.
For instance, Putin’s officials have condemned Washington’s policy of seeking nuclear superiority. The Kremlin claims that Washington’s pledge to reinforce the US nuclear arsenal would trigger a new arms race. In addition, Congress has overwhelmingly passed a new sanctions bill against Moscow for interfering in the US elections. This stipulates financial repercussions for oligarchs linked with the Kremlin, including freezing their bank accounts, and safeguards that the President cannot cancel sanctions unilaterally.
Although the White House has delayed the implementation of these sanctions, congressional pressure on the administration will bring results. Moreover, with the investigations into potential collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia’s intelligence services intensifying, the President will need to demonstrate that he is not beholden to Putin.
Despite the Kremlin’s initial expectations, the Trump White House is not moving toward a new “reset.” Mattis and other security chiefs have made it clear that Washington can only negotiate with Russia from a position of strength. By emplacing US troops and NATO infrastructure in countries bordering Russia, Washington has demonstrated that it is taking its Allied responsibilities seriously. And as the scale of Russian penetration of the US political system emerges in FBI investigations, the momentum to hit back against Moscow will also intensify.
TRUMP’S SYMBOLIC POLITICS
Janusz Bugajski, October 2017
Political symbolism and heated verbiage is often more important than policy substance to large parts of any electorate. Donald Trump won the US presidency by skillfully and brazenly manipulating public fears and resentments. He continues to do so in office the more that he comes under criticism from numerous political directions.
Trump continually creates news stories by sparking controversy and conflict. This is a deliberate ploy designed to achieve several objectives. It distracts focus and deflects blame from White House failures to push through any major legislation, such as health care reform, infrastructure rebuilding, or tax reform. It also overloads news cycles to such a degree that most of Trump’s failings disappear under the headlines.
However, the most significant and consistent objective is to defend Trump’s performance as President and to place responsibility for any shortcomings on his political opponents. And the most effective part of this strategy is to create or exploit divisions in society by underscoring themes that have emotional impact on voters.
There are numerous examples of this classic divide and rule policy that not only energize Trump’s support base but also engage wide sectors of society in largely symbolic disputes from which the President benefits.
In recent months, Trump has stirred conservative sentiments and the Republican base by issuing directives against the recruitment of transgender people in the US military, despite the opposition of his generals. He tweets about any terrorist incident in Europe to claim that he is correct in seeking a travel ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. And he jumps on any crimes committed by Mexican immigrants to claim that a border wall will solve the problem.
Trump’s most recent controversy has been over US national symbols at sporting events, in which he has not only raised the question of patriotism but also stirred latent racial animus. In a speech to his supporters in Alabama, Trump attacked black players in the National Football League (NFL) for kneeling during the national anthem and criticized basketball celebrity Steph Curry for his hesitation in attending an awards ceremony at the White House.
In recent months, several black footballers have knelt during the national anthem to express their opposition to racial discrimination and police brutality. Trump blew this mild protest out of all proportion by calling such athletes “sons of bitches” and appealed on NFL club owners to sack them. The vast majority of players in the NFL are black while almost all club owners are white.
Despite the fact that Trump himself evaded military service during the Vietnam war on spurious health grounds, he is now attacking athletes for their lack of patriotism, even though some of them or their families actually served in the military. He also called them privileged because they earn millions of dollars, ignoring the fact that while Trump inherited a fortune from his father and family business, most of the black athletes grew up in poverty and worked hard to achieve their goals.
But above all, Trump is neglecting the constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression to every citizen, including symbolic acts. Paradoxically, it is Trump and his supporters who have hit out against “political correctness” allegedly imposed by Democrats and liberals. Clearly, they now want to impose their own version of “political correctness.”
Trump’s tirade against black athletes sparked sympathy actions across the NFL in support of the protestors. But they also precipitated a storm of attacks against them in the mainstream and social media. Opinion polls indicate that the public remains evenly divided on the anthem protests.
Trump added fuel to the flames by claiming that the protestors demonstrated “total disrespect of our heritage and everything that we stand for.” References to heritage and culture are often code words for racial differences, in which blacks are depicted by racists as inferior aliens. This appeals to many of Trump’s core supporters and invigorates white supremacists and xenophobes. The President’s attacks in effect revived deep-rooted stereotypes and sentiments that black athletes should be grateful for their jobs and status, remain quiet, and not stir any trouble.
Trump’s focus on the national anthem reinforced his previous manipulation of historical symbolism. During the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, in which white supremacists clashed with anti-fascists and ultra-leftists, Trump defended monuments to the Confederacy. He presented Confederate generals as part of the American heritage even though they were slave-holding rebels responsible for sparking the Civil War in the 1860s.
Trump’s attacks have energized a populist crusade in which nationalist, supremacists, ultra-conservatives, and economic protectionists are thriving. They are now seeking to elect their representatives in mid-term congressional elections in November 2018. Their anti-establishment campaign is directed not only against Democrats but also against Republicans, even if that endangers the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. They believe that this will help Trump achieve his agenda in which division and symbolism will play an immense role.
THE US-NORTH KOREA WAR
Janusz Bugajski, September 2017
As the dispute between the United States and North Korea heats up, the main question is whether war is now avoidable. There are two contrary views of President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on dictator Kim Jong Un: either they will precipitate an all-out war or they will convince Pyongyang to desist from its nuclear weapons program.
In recent months, Pyongyang has tested its first two intercontinental ballistic missiles, conducted an underground hydrogen bomb test, and fired mid-range missiles over northern Japan. US experts calculate that North Korea is only a year away from building a nuclear warhead capable of surviving the intense heat of an intercontinental ballistic missile and reaching the US mainland. Unlike Israel, India, and Pakistan, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not solely intended to deter regional rivals, but to achieve the capacity to strike its archrival, the US.
Pyongyang has tested missiles and developed a nuclear program for many years, but experts calculated that any threat to the continental US was decades away. Officials of several US administrations and neighboring China failed to convince Pyongyang to dismantle or freeze its weapons program, but felt they had plenty of time. With North Korea moving closer to success, the danger has dramatically increased and the onus is on Trump to finally deal with an imminent threat.
The intensive financial and economic sanctions imposed by the US and the UN on Pyongyang is unlikely to achieve early results, especially as North Korea has mastered sanctions busting. After conducting six nuclear tests, Pyongyang’s next step could be to demonstrate that it can deliver a nuclear warhead on a long-range ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).
The escalating conflict now has only two potential outcomes: bilateral talks and a nuclear freeze or full-scale war. The current round of threats between Kim and Trump while rocket testing continues cannot continue indefinitely.
In the more optimistic solution, intense pressure from Washington leads to a stand down by Kim in testing nuclear devices and offensive rocketry. Trump agrees to negotiations that would give some concessions to Pyongyang and remove the immediate danger to the US. In such a scenario, both sides can claim a measure of victory.
The North Korean regime would seek several advantages for itself in any nuclear freeze. This would include a peace deal on the Korean peninsula that would legitimize the Kim dynasty; a commitment by the US not to seek regime change if Pyongyang ceases to threaten the US; and international funds for economic development.
Washington could then claim a modicum of victory in halting Pyongyang’s nuclear program. However, the US will not remove its 38,000 troops from South Korea and abandon its ally; it is also unlikely to scale down its military presence in Japan. Pyongyang remains committed to reunifying the two Koreas on its own terms and continues to threaten its southern neighbor with its massive conventional military forces. In addition, no one can be certain how durable the nuclear freeze would last, as the Kim regime is not trustworthy.
In the most pessimistic scenario, we could be on the verge of full-scale war, whether through miscalculation or design. Kim may fire at US military aircraft patrolling near Korea. Or its rocket may accidentally hit US territory or an ally such as Japan with or without a nuclear warhead. This could immediately provoke a US military response.
The Pentagon has been planning several potential military options against North Korea. These include pinpoint air strikes against rocket assembly and launching facilities, although most of these are underground or in mountain caves. It may also entail sending special forces to blow up military facilities or key members of the regime.
However, there is no ideal or easy military option, as an American attack could trigger a massive North Korean bombardment of Seoul, which is only 35 miles from the border. Pyongyang has massed artillery and tanks along the frontier and its firepower could annihilate tens of thousands of civilians before American and South Korean forces could strike back effectively.
Kim calculates that the prospect of mass civilian bloodshed will restrain Washington, although they are less certain about Trump than any previous President. In his recent UN speech, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the North if the US was forced to defend itself or any of its allies.
The next step in the escalating conflict could witness Pyongyang testing a hydrogen bomb with an atmospheric nuclear detonation. One possibility would be to fire its Hwasong-14 over Japan and into the Pacific. The purpose would be to show that Kim could also target American territory – whether Guam, Hawaii, or Alaska. Given that much of US missile defense systems are still in the early stages of testing, it is far from certain that North Korea’s ICBM could be intercepted.
The risks of such a nuclear test are immeasurable. If the missile detonates prematurely over Japan the result would almost guarantee a US nuclear strike on North Korea. Trump would have little choice, as he could not be seen as backing down from an act of aggression.
AMERICA’S POLITICAL HURRICANE
Janusz Bugajski, September 2017
While natural hurricanes have devastated coastal Texas and Florida, Washington is experiencing its own unrelenting political hurricane and its name is Donald Trump. While the President swirled through a summer of controversy, the autumn promises to be even more ferocious and potentially destructive.
During Trump’s seven months in office the White House has been in constant turmoil, as evident in the sacking of the national security, the chief of staff, two communications directors, and several others senior advisers to the President. The chaos was brought under partial control by General John Kelly, brought in from the Homeland Security department as the new chief of staff. However, more firings and resignations are now predicted and it is unclear how long Kelly himself will stay in office.
In many respects, Trump tries to run the US administration as the patriarch in a family business. He has little experience of management or politics. When he encounters resistance his instinct is to attack or fire opponents, When he faces scandal he deliberately generates conflict to distract attention and minimize the consequences.
Trump has executed a number of presidential decisions that have angered and alienated wide sectors of the population, including Latino immigrants, American Muslims, and anti-racists of all colors. His attempted travel ban from some Muslim countries has been challenged by the courts and berated by human rights organizations. Trump is widely perceived as a divisive figure who preys upon ignorance, prejudice, and fear.
The President also remains enraged by the inability of a Republican-controlled Congress to pass any significant legislation, which Trump promised to voters during the election campaign. In particular, the failure of a new health care program has demonstrated that even a Republican White House cannot guarantee overturning Democratic policies.
Disputes between Trump and the Republicans have raged throughout the summer. Republican leaders complain that the President has been insufficiently engaged in canvassing for legislation within a party deeply divided between traditional conservatives, neo-conservatives, populists, and moderates.
In addition, Republicans and Democrats have been completely polarized in Congress, and it seems that without some Democrat support for legislation the Republican majority will remain paralyzed by internal disputes. In an unprecedented move, in recent days Trump reached out to Democrat leaders in support of a three month extension of the debt ceiling and he may be prepared to work with them on other legislation.
Republican leaders are outraged by Trump’s Democrat move and have finally realized that the President has no ideology and no specific policies. He is primarily interested in scoring legislative victories that reflect positively on himself. He is now eager to raise his public ratings, which have dropped to under 35% support during the summer.
An even more ominous agenda is fast approaching Congress, with Trump expecting the rapid passage of key legislation. He is likely to become frustrated and will hit out at different congressmen. The passage of tax reform will remain contentious between Republican factions, particularly between pro-business conservatives who favor lower corporate taxes and populist nationalists seeking tax cuts for the working class.
The passage of a new budget will prove extremely conflictive not only due to ideological divergences but also because each congressperson will try satisfy his constituency with particular spending proposals. The passage of a Trump-supported infrastructure bill will be extremely expensive at a time when the cost of disaster relief in Texas and Florida will skyrocket. And Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall with Mexico is unlikely to come to fruition, as the majority of Congress opposes it.
On top of this heavy weather swirling over the capital another huge political storm will envelop Washington in the coming months. FBI special counsel and several congressional committees are investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin in affecting the 2016 presidential elections.
Each day has brought new leaks and revelations about potentially illegal contacts between Trump campaign representatives and Russian officials. Among the charges are suspicions that Russian intelligence services provided Trump’s people with Emails stolen from Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
In return, Trump associates may have enabled Russia’s disinformation campaign in targeting specific social groups in the three most contested states in the mid-West. In addition, Trump himself is being examined for potentially obstructing justice by trying to quash various investigations into the election campaign as well as his unclear business connections with Russian oligarchs.
In the latest twist, Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel investigating Trump, is zeroing in on key presidential aides for imminent interviews. They were all witnesses to critical events during the elections and the first few months of the presidency. The most important developments included Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey for his Russia investigations and the muted White House response to revelations that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Trump also played a role in drafting a misleading statement in response to revelations that his son Donald Trump Jr. held a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russians during the election campaign. This is now viewed as potential obstruction of justice. With each passing day the storm becomes more ferocious in DC.
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
President Donald Trump’s controversial remarks on the clashes between racists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia has opened the floodgates to radicalism. By equating the proponents of racism with those seeking to combat it, Trump may have acted to preserve his base of support among poorly educated whites. However, his statements have alienated the majority of political leaders and outraged a large segment of the population.
Trump’s speech, in which he claimed that there were “good people” among the angry white supremacists and neo-Nazi demonstrators spouting anti-Semitic slogans, was comprehensively criticized even by senior members of the Republican Party. The subsequent sacking of Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon from the White House seemed intended to appease his critics by removing the more extreme nationalist-populist elements from the President’s team. But the impact of Bannon’s ouster could further isolate the President.
An embittered Bannon has pledged to use the ultra-right media, of which he is one of the founders, to attack traditional Republicans within the administration who contributed to removing him. This could further split Republican loyalists, disillusion a growing number of Trump supporters, and create fresh problems for the White House. The ultra-right will also continue to play the race card to foster divisions in American society and to preoccupy the Democrats with constantly condemning Trump.
Trump continues to be a polarizing and divisive figure after an election in which he attacked immigrants, Mexicans, and Muslims as the core of America’s problems. By providing an aura of legitimacy to racists and xenophobes he polarized the political environment and was endorsed by White supremacists. These vocal radical groups view Trump as the best political hope for generating either a race war or a system of racial separation and apartheid.
Trump’s rhetoric regularly adds fuel to the flames. After the killing of a peaceful protestor by a racist driving his car into the crowd in Charlottesville, Trump proved unwilling to call the act “White supremacist terrorism.” In stark contrast, he has regularly blasted “radical Islamic terrorism” whenever a Muslim is involved in the murder of civilians.
The clashes in Charlottesville could motivate a growing number of people to engage in radical politics and take to the streets. White supremacists have pledged to organize further rallies around the country, and their opponents have promised to stage mass counter-protests. An increasing number of both ultra-rightists and ultra-leftists may become more brazen because for the first time in modern history they either view the President as their chief benefactor or their primary enemy.
Racist groups benefit from a proliferation of hate propaganda on the Internet. Persistent news coverage and media focus on Trump’s words simply exacerbates the problem. There has been an exponential growth of rallies and hate crimes, including vandalism at synagogues and Black churches. And recruitment to various radical rightist groups has soared, including the self-defined New Right, which claims not to be racist but is staunchly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic, and propounds various outlandish conspiracy theories.
Although a majority of anti-racist protestors have been peaceful, each rally also attracts an assortment of militants collectively known as “antifa,” short for “anti-fascists.” The more visible the racists become, the more it activates the antifa movement which in addition to hard-right targets also challenges ordinary Trump supporters at various demonstrations. Militant antifas also try to block the appearance of ultra-right ideologues during speaking engagements at college campuses and other venues.
The number of youths attracted to the antifa movements is difficult to gauge. It does not possess clear leadership or a top-down structure but consists of a collection of autonomous local cells. However, it is increasingly attracting a broad assortment of causes, including environmentalism, Black rights, and indigenous rights, as well as a mixed bag of socialists, communists, nihilists, and anarchists.
Although the US has a strong and long tradition of non-violent protest movements, including the civil rights and anti-war rallies in the 1960s, there has always been a more violent element who believe that free speech does not include hate speech and that racists and fascists pose a serious threat to American democracy. They seek to directly confront their opponents on the streets, arguing that the police are too tolerant. In some cases they are also willing to battle with the police.
The more peaceful elements of antifa have allied themselves with local clergy and grass-roots social-justice activists. However, many militants have been involved in anti-capitalist and anti-globalist rallies and are renowned for rioting and destroying property near targeted buildings such as the IMF headquarters in Washington.
The peaceful segment of the ant-fascist groups argue that militant attacks are harmful to the movement and actually assist the racists in claiming that the left is violent and anti-democratic. This resonates among many ordinary citizens who abhor violence, and once the two sides are seen as equivalent then in effect the racists appear victorious.
In the best-case scenario, future mass protests against racism and neo-Nazism will remain peaceful, as during the recent rally in Boston. This could convince Trump to condemn bigotry without any qualifications. But if violence and hate crimes spread, Trump’s ambiguity will simply add to the turbulence and unrest.
AMERICA’S ENERGY WEAPON
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
Decades of American dependence on foreign energy have ended and the US is now an emerging leader in the global gas market. While Moscow manipulates its energy supplies to exert political pressure on European states, Washington can now deploy its energy resources to reverse Russia’s expansionism while boosting America’s economy.
US gas exports in 2016 were more than three times higher than ten years ago. Growth in shale gas production is increasingly linked with the export of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Although the US currently supplies a small percentage of Europe’s gas needs, five new LNG export facilities will be constructed by 2021 and others are planned as Europe’s demands for gas continues to climb.
With increasing volumes of US gas, Russia’s Gazprom is entering a global price war that will further diminish its revenues. Several European countries want to terminate the Russian stranglehold over the gas market by tapping into alternative LNG sources. In particular, the front-line NATO states would prefer to become more reliant on US gas to broaden their energy diversity, even if it means paying a higher price. In his recent visit to Poland, President Trump claimed that the US will guarantee the region’s access to alternative energy sources so that a single supplier can no longer hold it hostage.
Washington seeks to undercut Europe’s energy links with Russia, despite protests from some West European energy companies. A key focus of tension is over the Russian-led Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Gazprom seeks to expand the existing pipeline that delivers Russian gas along the Baltic Sea to Germany. The European Commission has been unable to find a legal means of stopping Nord Stream 2 and the project has been viewed differently among European states. Large consumers of Russian gas, including Austria, France, and German, support it, while Poland, the Baltic and Nordic states view it as a threat to regional security.
The countries that disagree with Nord Stream have been growing in number, bolstered by new opportunities for gas supplies, especially from the US. Lithuanian and Polish LNG terminals have started receiving American gas. Global LNG exports will increase by over 20% in the coming years, thus heating up competition between the US and Russia over European and other markets. Russia is a late starter in LNG and its gas lines are becoming less significant geopolitical tools. In addition, diversification, efficiency, and renewables, will provide European countries with more attractive energy partners than Russia.
Washington holds another important card – the specter of new sanctions against Russian companies. On August 2nd Trump signed the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.” Among other provisions, the law allows for expanding US sanctions on Russia’s energy sector by empowering the President to sanction any foreign company or person that invests in the construction of Russian energy export pipelines. The law also prohibits persons and companies with an interest of 33 percent or higher in these projects from providing any “goods, services or technology in support of exploration or production” of deep-water fields.
Russian officials will seek to exploit EU concerns about the new legislation by arguing that the US is seeking a monopoly on gas supplies to Europe. Some EU spokesmen have warned of possible retaliation if European energy companies in business with Russia, including the construction of Nord Stream, are stifled by US sanctions. But they are overreacting, as the legislation instructs the US President to take measures in coordination with allies. The White House and Congress understand full well that joint sanctions are more effective and do not want to allow Moscow to drive wedges between the allies.
In addition to undermining Nord Stream, the sanctions bill will constrain the construction of the Gazprom-controlled Turkish Stream project and Moscow’s plans to export gas to Europe via the Azerbaijani-led Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). The threat of new US sanctions could compel TAP’s stakeholders to disqualify Russian gas. Gazprom’s penetration of TAP and the wider Southern Gas Corridor would neutralize the basic purpose of the project to diversify European imports away from Russian gas. The building of pipelines for Russian gas supplies would do more to damage European security than any steps the US takes.
The EU should not act hypocritically over the latest American sanctions. The Union itself is imposing new sanctions on Russian companies and individuals who delivered German Siemens turbines to Crimea despite assurances from Moscow. The EU has barred companies from doing business in Crimea after Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula, while France and Germany are considering further sanctions following Russian cyber attacks on their elections.
Above all, any EU reactions against US sanctions will prove difficult, as this requires consensus among EU members, some of which vehemently oppose Russia’s energy projects. Paradoxically, through its new energy policy and sanctions against the Kremlin the Trump administration will better defend Europe than several West European governments and energy conglomerates which seek short-term profits while ignoring the long-term costs to Europe’s security.
PENCE ON THE FRONT LINE
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
Vice President Mike Pence’s geopolitical tour in Europe’s east transmitted important messages to America’s NATO allies, partners, and rivals. Pence visited key countries in three regions where US competition with Putin’s Russia is mounting – Estonia in the Baltic region, Georgia in the Caucasus, and Montenegro in the Balkans.
For NATO members such as Estonia and Montenegro and for America’s strategic partners such as Georgia, Pence’s message was one of commitment and solidarity. Meanwhile, for a revisionist Russia the message was one of resistance and determination. Each visit needs to be followed up with practical joint initiatives to strengthen regional security and enhance the role of NATO as a security provider..
In meeting with the three Baltic Presidents – Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Raimonds Vējonis of Latvia, and Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania – Pence asserted that “no threat looms larger in the Baltic States than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east.” In response to Moscow’s persistent threats against the Baltic countries, Pence underscored that “a strong and united NATO is more important now than at any time since the Soviet Union’s collapse.”
Washington remains committed to stationing NATO battalions on Baltic territories under the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) initiative and providing them with defensive weapons to deter a Russian assault. In early July, the US deployed a Patriot air defense system for the first time in Lithuania as part of a multi-national NATO exercise, Tobruq Legacy 2017. Each Baltic country is seeking anti-aircraft missiles to deter a Russian military incursion, while Poland has already announced its decision to purchase the Patriot system.
Pence’s visit preceded Russia’s Zapad 2017 military drills scheduled for 14-20 September, which NATO officials expect could bring up to 100,000 troops to the Baltic borders with Russia and Belarus. Lithuania in particular has expressed fears that the exercises could simulate a cross-border intervention by Russian forces. Because they are more vulnerable to attack than other NATO members, the Balts seek assistance in both deterrence and defense from their NATO allies. They are also making significant contributions to Allied security given their experiences with Russian cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns that the US is now experiencing.
In Georgia, Pence met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, condemned Russia’s occupation of a fifth of Georgian territory, and signaled strong US support for Georgia’s desire to join NATO. The Caucasus was downgraded as a focus of interest during the Obama administration, creating perceptions that Washington was surrendering ground to Moscow. With Putin placing increasing pressure on all three South Caucasus states to curtail their Western aspirations, Pence’s visit signaled that the US aims to connect them to Europe through energy, transport, trade, and eventual integration.
Pence also visited with US and Georgian troops participating in the Noble Partner 2017 exercises, the largest joint drills between the US and Georgia, combining 1,600 US and 800 Georgian soldiers, with the participation of several other NATO members as well as Azerbaijan and Armenia. Washington has also deployed M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and M2 Bradley infantry vehicles for the exercises, which will continue until 12 August. Georgian officials view the exercises and Pence’s visit as clear support for Georgia’s NATO ambitions. Georgia already contributes to the NATO Response Force (NRF), a multinational contingent of land, air, navy, and special operations units that can deploy quickly when needed.
In Podgorica, Montenegro, Pence met with President Filip Vujanović and Prime Minister Duško Marković. He also participated in an Adriatic Charter Summit with leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosova, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia. Pence’s visit to Montenegro was intended to demonstrate America’s commitment to NATO’s newest member and deliver a strong message to Moscow not to interfere in Montenegro’s internal affairs, following the recent coup attempt concocted by Russian intelligence services. The high-level US visit will enhance Montenegro’s regional role as an American ally and an example of a successful transition that other states can emulate if they seek NATO accession.
In the longer-term, close and consistent US involvement in the Baltic, Caucasus, and Balkan regions can help resolve outstanding territorial or ethnic conflicts that Moscow has perpetuated in order to keep each region divided and conflicted. As in the Donbas separatist conflict in Ukraine, Washington can be more engaged in ending the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and seek ways to engage Georgia with its separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In the Balkans, a greater push is needed to resolve disputes between Serbs and Albanians, and Macedonians and Greeks, and to help transform Bosnia-Herzegovina into a functioning state that can move toward EU entry.
Just as the Kremlin grievously miscalculated by interfering in the US presidential elections and now faces even stiffer financial and diplomatic sanctions, its intervention in countries such as Montenegro, Georgia, and Ukraine will simply push each country closer to NATO. Following Pence’s trip all eyes will now be on the Trump administration to develop initiatives for consolidating the security of America’s most exposed allies and partners and neutralizing Putin’s strategy of subversion.
AMERICA IS A SOFT TARGET
Janusz Bugajski, July 2017
Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential elections, demonstrates that America has become a soft target for subversion. Russia’s intelligence services have probed American politics for many years, seeking to gain influence or to obtain intelligence on personalities, politics, and policy. However, under the Vladimir Putin regime the Kremlin has become more ambitious in its intentions and more capable in its operations.
As evidence now accumulates and FBI and congressional investigations gather steam, it transpires that Russian state services have focused on at least five entry points to impact the US election process: hacking, hoaxing, corrupting, compromising, and penetrating.
The first Russian tool is the hacking strategy. It consists of intercepting, altering, forging, and releasing personal communications, including Emails, to discredit targeted American politicians. In the 2016 elections, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were the primary targets of Email hacks by Russia-connected specialists. Selections of stolen documents were provided to Wikileaks for general release at politically opportune occasions during the election campaign. Wikileaks acts as a surrogate for Russia’s intelligence services and is evidently funded by Moscow.
The second weapon of Russia’s influence is the hoaxing strategy and entails planting and disseminating false stories about election candidates through both the traditional and social media. The fabricated accounts can be positive or negative, but the purpose is to spread rumors and innuendo that may stick in a voter’s mind even if the stories are subsequently debunked as false. Hoaxers operate on the premise that the bigger the lie the more likely that people will believe it and repeat it.
The third tool of Moscow’s intervention is the corruption strategy. It involves enticing, bribing, and recruiting political activists, lobbyists, journalists, academics, and opinion leaders to take part in Moscow’s conspiracies in order to subvert America’s democratic system.
The current investigations in Washington revolve around the charge that Russia’s intelligence operatives recruited prominent members of Donald’s Trump election campaign team to serve Moscow’s interests. In return for obtaining damaging information on Hillary Clinton or caches of stolen EMails, Trump’s entourage may have made pledges to reverse painful US economic sanctions on Russian officials if they won the elections
The fourth Russian mechanism is the compromising strategy. It focuses on gathering scandalous and salacious material on targeted political leaders that can be used to blackmail the individual and thereby affect US policy, particularly after an election. Undoubtedly, potentially compromising material, whether financial or personal, was not only gathered on Hillary Clinton but also on Donald Trump. The Kremlin can hold this kompromat material in reserve in case it needs to generate scandals against an incumbent President and undermine White House policies. There have been numerous such cases in Central and Eastern Europe over the past decade, as Moscow sought to discredit politicians who opposed its policies.
The fifth method is Russia’s penetration strategy, which was largely uncovered after the US presidential elections. It consisted of hackers recruited by the Kremlin gaining access to election rolls and voting systems in over twenty states. The purpose seemed to be to alter voter information and thereby affect elections at local and state levels. Investigators have yet to determine what impact this may have had on the vote count and some believe the information gained could be used in subsequent elections.
Moscow’s five methods for influencing the outcome of elections relies on favorable political and social conditions in contemporary America. Political polarization between the two major parties, Republicans and Democrats, deepened considerably during the Obama administration. This continues to be evident in Congress where there are few if any bi-partisan efforts to pass legislation. The rifts are so profound that foreign actors have space to infiltrate if they provide a politician with useful assistance against a domestic opponent.
Congressional and party rifts are reflected in a deeply divided electorate, which is susceptible to conspiracy theories and negative propaganda against the opposing party. Informational gullibility allows Russia’s intelligence services to penetrate. They also feed into the political ambitions of some politicians and open the terrain to financial corruption geared toward destroying opponents and winning elections.
Such a competitive and polarized domestic environment also fosters naivete among many decision-makers about Moscow’s strategic aims. The idea that the Cold War is over and that Russia can be a partner pervaded the Obama administration and lulled much of the political establishment to sleep until the extent of the Trump-Russia scandal began to unfold. During the past decade, America has become a vulnerable society with a false sense of security regarding Moscow.
Russia’s penetration and manipulation will likely continue through forthcoming election cycles – congressional in 2018 and presidential in 2020. Although the FBI and other branches of the US government may be able to detect and defend against major cyber attacks it will be much more difficult to protect against propaganda, disinformation, and the ambitions of some politicians willing to collaborate with foreign powers simply to defeat their domestic political opponents.
TRUMP BETWEEN WARSAW AND MOSCOW
Janusz Bugajski, July 2017
The contrast between President Donald Trump’s recent meetings in Warsaw and his encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin could not be starker. The first was a reunion with one of America’s closest allies that supports US leadership to keep Europe secure. The second was a session with America’s primary adversary whose aims are to undercut US links with Europe and open up the continent to predominant Russian influence.
Both the US and Polish administrations stood to benefit from Trump’s visit to Poland before the President headed to Germany for the G20 Summit. For the White House, it demonstrated and clarified US commitments to the NATO alliance and to its article 5 guarantees of common defense in the event of attack.
Trump’s speech in Warsaw and his meeting with several Central and Eastern European (CEE) leaders gathered for the “Three Seas Initiative” helped to generate trans-Atlantic solidarity. The Three Seas Initiative is a Polish-led forum assembling twelve EU countries spanning half of continental Europe between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas and designed to bolster regional cooperation in energy, trade, and infrastructure. Warsaw also serves as a valuable example of increasing energy independence from Russia. Poland is boosting its imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US and seeks to multiply the presence of American business.
Trump’s stopover in Warsaw also pinpointed Poland as a dependable ally that does not shirk from its military responsibilities. Poland is one of five NATO countries that currently spend over 2% of its GDP on defense, although several of its CEE neighbors will soon join the frontrunners. Trump’s visit underscored that the White House remains wedded to NATO and is urging other members to strengthen the Alliance by increasing their military contributions.
For the government in Warsaw, Trump’s visit was important for two reasons. First, it highlighted Poland as a key ally and reinforced its diplomatic and military defenses against Russia. Second, it provided much needed international legitimacy to the Law and Justice Party government, which has been under criticism from its EU partners for increasing party controls over state institutions and the official media.
Trump’s national security team must also be calculating that the President’s learning curve about NATO and Russia was reinforced by his Polish visit. President Andrzej Duda and other interlocutors heightened Trump’s awareness that the most dangerous security threats along NATO’s eastern flank stemmed from Kremlin policy, particularly in Ukraine and toward the Baltic states.
In contrast to the Warsaw sessions, the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg was hyped as a unique event for both Presidents. They discussed a range of questions – from Syria and Ukraine to cyberspace, terrorism, and Russia’s election meddling. But despite all the fanfare, pleasantries, and verbal commitments, in practice the fundamental strategic differences between the US and Putin’s Russia cannot be resolved by any US President even if some temporary agreements are made. Moscow’s overarching goal in the wider Europe is to reverse US influence and raise Russia’s stature.
Each incoming US President seems to minimize or overlook Kremlin objectives and engages in a courtship ritual with Russian officials. A high-level engagement is arranged with overblown expectations, the new US President dismisses his predecessor’s failure to reach accommodation with Moscow, and makes a bold declaration to cooperate against some global menace. In their counter-ritual, Russia’s high officials pose as reliable partners and trumpet Russia’s indispensability in resolving pressing global problems.
Inevitably, after a short affair, it transpires that the vows made between the two capitals were not symmetrical. In retrospect, there are few if any gains for America, but the dalliance has provided Moscow with breathing room to engage in new international offensives and offered strategic advantages vis-a-vis the US. This was the case in 2009 when the Obama administration cancelled plans for installing a missile defense system in Central Europe in an effort to placate the Kremlin. Several US allies perceived the move as an act of betrayal displaying naiveté toward the Putin regime.
Any US-Russia flirtation also enables Moscow to gather intelligence on US capabilities and intentions while lulling Washington into a false sense of security as the Kremlin prepares for its next act of international assertiveness. Even though Trump signaled in Hamburg his interest in a new relationship with Russia, his advisors should urge him to remain skeptical and be prepared for disappointments, so that America is not extorted and duped once again.
After the Trump-Putin meeting, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that Washington was seeking a commitment from Moscow that it will not interfere in American and other elections in the future, a claim that Putin has fervently denied despite all evidence to the contrary. The Secretary described this as a potentially intractable disagreement. Fortunately for Trump, his national security team appears to be well versed in Moscow’s tactics and understands Putin’s objectives to make Russia great again at America’s expense.
ANXIOUS AMERICA ON INDEPENDENCE DAY
Janusz Bugajski, July 2017
Independence Day on July 4th is always a time of celebration and national pride in the United States. But this year darkening clouds are gathering over the festivities as the country braces for a period of domestic turmoil that could also have serious international repercussions.
Questions over the Donald Trump presidency continue to multiply. The President is being closely scrutinized not only for his persistent policy failures but also for his character and fitness for office. In recent weeks, he has intensified his twitter attacks on the media and constantly dismisses any criticism of his presidency as “fake news.”
At the core of Trump’s anger and frustration are two factors. First, is the underlying fear that his presidency may be widely perceived as illegitimate if evidence emerges that his election campaign staff collaborated with the Kremlin to defeat Hilary Clinton. And second, Trump believed that he could run the country as he operates his businesses – through top-down instructions and absolute employee loyalty. But democracies are not family businesses.
Trump’s inability to adjust to his new position has created various disconnects between the presidency and several branches of government. In fact, the first disunion is within his own administration – between Trump’s closest White House advisors and several cabinet members. Trump retained key figures from his campaign who helped him capture the populist vote, including the ultra-rightist Stephen Bannon. However, their isolationist and protectionist advice to Trump starkly contradicts the positions of the Secretaries of Defense and State as well as the National Security Advisor.
The disconnection between the White House and Congress is not simply with the Democrat minority in the House and Senate, but between Trump and the Republicans. While many Republicans supported Trump because they thought he would enable them to push through their legislative agenda, the President’s falling popularity, inattention to policy details, and confrontational tactics have deepened fissures within the majority party.
Trump and Congress have set themselves a monumental agenda for the rest of the year, including passing a new health care plan, raising the debt limit, approving a budget, implementing tax reform, and launching an infrastructure initiative. But little of this is likely to come to fruition especially given Trump’s numerous distractions and congressional disputes.
As he lurches from one controversy to another, Trump’s public approval ratings continue to fall. Opinion polls indicate that nearly 60% of voters disapprove of his performance in office. His lack of effective leadership in implementing his campaign promises have also stunned and divided the Republicans in Congress. This has been most evident over the health care debate where despite their majority position Republicans are unable to agree on replacing the “Obamacare” program.
Lack of progress on health care, which has an enormous impact on the national economy, will make it much more difficult to implement other legislation. This will affect passage of a new comprehensive tax bill, which was premised on cutting government health care costs and enabling income tax cuts.
The White House has also created new conflicts with dozens of state governments by calling on them to release private information contained on voter lists. Despite any evidence, Trump seems determined to uncover pro-Democrat voter fraud. Meanwhile, other Trump campaign promises, such as building a huge wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and starting a nationwide infrastructure project to rebuild roads, bridges, tunnels, and airports, have simply not materialized.
Another major disconnection is between the White House and US intelligence agencies. Trump continues to undermine FBI and other investigations of his alleged campaign contacts with Russia. The net effect is to alienate the leadership and personnel of various agencies, which itself fuels distrust of the President’s intentions and competence.
A similar situation is evident between the White House and the legal system, as Trump has voiced anger at the federal courts for blocking his travel ban against seven Muslim-majority states. The courts have to honor the constitution in their rulings and refuse to bow to political pressure from the executive. Trump continues to receive a painful lesson about the separation of powers between the three branches of government.
The President’s domestic frustrations can also translate into international problems. His preoccupation with how he is portrayed in the domestic media and his constant attacks on critics distracts Trump from several brewing international crises, whether in the Middle East or over North Korea. A number of government agencies, including the State Department, are also complaining that six months into the new administration they still lack essential staff in high positions to implement policy.
Trump’s growing domestic problems are compounded by his short attention span and hypersensitivity. Concerns are growing that America’s adversaries will seek to exploit and manipulate such presidential weaknesses. Officials and analysts will be closely watching the upcoming encounter between Trump and Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg for signs of any US retreat. They fear that Putin is a master at extracting advantages from opponents either through flattery or promises that Trump may naively take at face value.
COMPARING TRUMP AND NIXON
Janusz Bugajski, June 2017
President Donald Trump may follow Richard Nixon through impeachment and resignation, but the implications could much more serious for American democracy. Investigations of the current President are spreading, with each day bringing new revelations about potential abuses of power and, more ominously, secret links with Moscow during the election campaign.
The US Constitution provides set procedures for impeachment and removal from office on charges of “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” In such a rare process, the House of Representatives acts as the prosecutor and the Senate as judge and jury. Impeachment, however, is less of a legal process than a political decision by the majority of Congress. In effect, the executive branch would be charged with endangering national interests or the President with committing a serious crime. Congress has to define what constitutes an impeachable and removable offense, and no court can override its decision.
Moves toward impeachment pose a major democratic dilemma. Dislodging a sitting President without a general election can divide the nation and inflict grievous damage on the legitimacy of governing institutions. On the other hand, a failure by Congress to prevent the abuse of power can prove even more destructive to the rule of law and to national security.
In recent weeks, credible allegations have been made that Trump obstructed justice by pressuring FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn – a key figure in Trump’s election campaign who evidently had secret contacts with Russian intelligence services. When Comey refused to close the FBI investigation he was fired by Trump.
It is useful to consider both the similarities and the contrasts with the Nixon impeachment in the 1970s. Watergate refers to scandals that engulfed Nixon following a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex. Five men, including the security director of Nixon’s 1972 re-election committee, were caught inside the DNC offices with bugging equipment and photographs.
By the time Nixon resigned in August 1974, the scandal had grown into a major abuse of office, including FBI wiretaps of government officials by Nixon’s people. The President was also trying to use the CIA to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in.
In a modern version of interfering with the political opposition, the Trump campaign is under investigation by the FBI and two congressional committees for possible involvement in the hacking of DNC and Hilary Clinton’s Emails by Russian operatives. The stolen material was subsequently transferred to WikiLeaks, widely believed to be a front organization for the Kremlin.
The investigation process accelerated following the appointment of a special Justice Department prosecutor, Robert Mueller, to examine Russia’s interference in the presidential elections and the alleged connections between various members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Unless the President is implicated in a major crime beforehand, there will be no steps toward impeachment before the Mueller probe is completed. Nixon dug his own grave by engaging in an extensive cover-up of the original crime, so that the articles of impeachment included the obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress. Nixon resigned before the articles came to a vote. Trump’s advisors appear to be covering up their contacts with Russian officials during the election campaign, including the possibility that they offered something to Moscow in exchange for Russian hacking of Democratic Party Emails.
Nixon fired several Justice Department officials who were demanding documents and tapes of Nixon’s conversations in the White House and who refused to fire the special prosecutor. This is a step that Trump has not yet taken, but the investigation is in its early stages, considering that over two years elapsed between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation. If Trump ousts special investigator Mueller then the process of impeachment could be speeded up.
Despite all these similarities, there is one major difference between the Nixon impeachment and the actions against Trump: congressional control. In 1973, Democrats had a majority in Congress, with a long history of conflict with Republican Nixon. In stark contrast, the current majority in both houses is Republican. This raises the burden of proof on charges of abuse of power because many Republicans will defend Trump as they seek to push through their legislative agenda with White House support.
Much depends on the effect Trump has on mid-term congressional elections to the House of Representatives scheduled in 2018. If his popularity continues to sink then either most Republicans will abandon him or they will lose their seats. A Democratic majority in the House is much more likely to push for the President’s impeachment.
There is one other major contrast with the Nixon scandal: its significance for national security. The former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper considers the Russia affair facing Trump to be far worse than Watergate. Although the obstruction of justice charges may prove similar, it is the potential connection with Moscow that makes this case more profound. Nixon may have sought to undermine the elections but he did not benefit from the help of hostile outside powers – that would not only constitute an abuse of office but treason.
TRUMP’S RUSSIA SCANDALS INTENSIFY
Janusz Bugajski, May 2017
Presidents Trump and Putin may meet for the first time at the Group of 20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7. However, in the weeks leading up to this event a great deal is likely to be revealed about any clandestine connections between the two leaders during last year’s US presidential elections.
Russia had high hopes with Trump after ties with Washington deteriorated under President Obama following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and proxy war in eastern Ukraine. The visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the White House in early May to meet with Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was viewed in Moscow as the beginning of a potential thaw.
Russia is using the bait of fighting jihadist terrorism to entice Trump into a closer relationship. Trump himself naively declared during the election campaign that Russia could be an anti-terrorist partner, evidently unaware of the fact that in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran Moscow remains on the sides opposing the US.
The Kremlin has several objectives with Trump, above all lifting various sanctions imposed during the Obama administration. Last December, Washington denied Russian diplomats access to country estates that Moscow owns in New York and Maryland, while 32 Russian diplomats were expelled as a reprisal for Kremlin interference in the US elections. Russia did not retaliate, reportedly after Trump’s advisor Michael Flynn met with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and asked him to wait until Trump took office. Russia’s foreign ministry is becoming impatient and believes Trump should revoke these sanctions or it will retaliate against US diplomats.
Putin also wants Washington to lift the wider financial sanctions imposed for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Ultimately, it seeks Trump’s recognition of Russia’s exclusive sphere of dominance in the post-Soviet area, including Ukraine, Belarus, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia.
An authoritarian regime such as Russia’s cannot understand the workings of American democracy. It believed that Trump would impose his authority on Washington within a few months, having little conception about political accountability and the separation of powers in a democratic system.
Unfortunately for Moscow, any progress in restoring relations has been undermined by Trump himself and by the expanding investigations of his potential collusion with the Kremlin to undermine the US elections. At the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov on 10 May, Trump jeopardized a critical source of intelligence by disclosing top-secret information about plans by the Islamic State to hide explosives in computer notebooks. Moreover, photos of Trump and Lavrov smiling together at the Oval Office with Ambassador Kislyak was an optical mistake. Kislyak is implicated in several scandals involving key members of Trump’s election team.
Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey demonstrated that the FBI probe was getting closer to the Trump campaign. Indeed, the firing itself intensified suspicion that the White House was engaged in a cover up and obstructing justice. The US Department of Justice promptly appointed a special counsel to investigate alleged links between Trump’s election campaign and Russia.
By the time of the July summit, investigations into Russia’s interference in the US elections will heighten Putin’s anxiety that Washington will seek to punish Moscow. In recent revelations, it transpires that the briefly appointed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and other senior members of Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials in at least 18 phone calls and emails during the presidential race. The FBI and several congressional investigations are now reviewing these interactions.
The investigations have also reached the White House and revolve around Jared Kuchner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor who is accused of maintaining extensive business dealings with Russia. Revelations about Russian oligarchs with opaque financial transactions with Trump companies are likely to be disclosed. And Trump’s tax returns, which have been withheld from the public, may also be revealed during a probe by the Treasury Department. Although some of these business contacts with Russia may be legitimate they will also intensify perceptions that Trump colluded with Moscow to influence the US elections.
Nonetheless, unless there is egregious evidence of criminality, corruption, or treason, impeachment proceedings against Trump are unlikely to be initiated by the Republican-controlled Congress. However, if Democrats take control of the House, because of Trump’s dismally low popularity, after the mid-term elections in November 2018 then the President could be in deep trouble.
If it cannot take advantage of Trump, Russia may seek to benefit from the President’s political problems and the growing disarray in Washington. However, this is also unlikely to bring significant dividends for Moscow as a divided Washington and an unpredictable White House will prevent any major deals. If investigations into Trump intensify, Trump may even act more assertively toward Russia to compensate for perceptions that he is Putin’s puppet. Ultimately, Russian officials fear an even worse scenario: Trump’s impeachment and replacement by Vice President Mike Pence, who they believe is a fully-fledged Cold War “Russophobe.”
TRUMP’S NEW FOREIGN POLICY VIGOR
Janusz Bugajski, April 2017
President Donald Trump’s cruise missile strike on the Syrian air force sent four strong messages early on in his presidency: to dictators, allies, Russia, and Western populists. It also helped to remove attention from his domestic problems including investigations into alleged connections between Trump’s election campaign and Russian intelligence services.
Although the military strike only involved one Syrian airfield, it also proved to be swift and decisive, thereby demonstrating to dictators such as Bashar al-Assad that the new White House values hard deeds above tough words. Trump’s action was in stark contrast with the Barack Obama administration, which warned of consequences for war crimes but did not deliver any punishment and lost international credibility as a result.
Effective diplomacy always needs to be backed by an element of coercion and the willingness to use force to convince one’s opponent. The question is whether there will be any follow up by Trump if the Syrian government continues to bomb civilian targets. Indeed, some in the US administration are pushing for “regime change” in Syria as Assad is unwilling to negotiate with rebels to allow for a political transition. If he is unwilling to relinquish power the stage is set for further confrontation with Washington.
America’s Syria bombing also sends a clearer message to America’s allies, not just in the Middle East and East Asia, but also in Central and Eastern Europe. If Washington is willing to actively defend civilians in Syria, then it will surely not sit on its hands if civilians are threatened in any front line NATO state, even if the aggressor is Russia.
During the Obama administration, several US allies remained concerned that Washington was unwilling to use force and would baulk at applying NATO’s article five for mutual self-defense. In the Middle East, it appeared that Obama was withdrawing and surrendering all responsibilities.
When Trump was elected fears of US weakness and withdrawal were heightened, as the new White House had been stressing its isolationist nationalism and non-intervention abroad. In stark contrast, a more vigorous Trump foreign policy is likely to elicit support among allies and a greater responsiveness to future US requests for assistance.
Trump’s message to Russia is unmistakable. Several members of the Trump cabinet have spelled out their disgust with Moscow’s involvement in war crimes in Syria, its neglect of international treaties in the use of chemical weapons, and its collaboration with a rogue regime that systematically murders its own civilians. All that is missing is to underscore that the Kremlin has also mass murdered its own citizens, as evident in the slaughters in Chechnya after Putin assumed power.
At the same time, the White House gave the Kremlin an enticement to cooperate with the US in replacing Assad and building a durable ceasefire in Syria under the Geneva peace process. President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to welcome such an offer, as it would mean abandoning Assad – his most trusted ally in the region. Moreover, if Moscow backs away from Assad, Russia’s credibility will plummet throughout the Middle East as an unreliable partner that buckles under pressure from the US and whose air defense systems are helpless against American technology. Washington also has an opportunity to build a broader coalition against Moscow’s Syrian adventure. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN has signaled a hardening of Washington’s attitude toward Russia with the threat of more onerous sanctions.
There is an additional bonus for Trump in being tough with Moscow, as it serves to dispel suspicions that he colluded with the Kremlin during the presidential election campaign. The notion that Putin helped Trump win the elections in return for lifting financial sanctions on Moscow has preoccupied Washington since Trump’s inauguration. The best outcome for the President from the FBI and Congressional investigations would be evidence that Russia sought to destabilize America’s democracy but without directly helping Trump.
Regardless of the outcome of investigations, the more Trump challenges Moscow the less will he be viewed as a potential puppet who has been bribed or blackmailed by Russian intelligence services. Nevertheless, in retaliation against Russia’s humiliation in the Middle East, the Kremlin may decide to release a trove of hacked Republican Emails and other materials from the Trump campaign. The objective would be either to discredit him personally or to confirm the supposition that he acted as a Kremlin agent. Moscow would welcome an impeachment process in order to paralyze the US administration for many months.
Trump has also sent a strong message of rejection to populists and nationalists in the US – many of whom supported his candidacy. Contrary to their non-interventionist mantra, Trump has demonstrated that he will not abandon America’s global leadership and that America still possesses both interests and values that it will defend internationally. The rejection of populism will certainly move Trump closer to the Republican mainstream and even endear him to many centrist Democrats on the international arena.
A TEST FOR AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
The Donald Trump presidency is providing important lessons in civic politics and testing the resilience of American democracy. For all citizens in any state there is a time-tested saying worth remembering that even if you are not interested in politics, “politics is always interested in you.”
No country can consider itself absolutely safe from threats and even reversals to its democratic system often through the maneuvers of elected officials and government leaders. Trump has authoritarian and centralizing tendencies that he applied in his business enterprises, some of which succeeded and others failed. However, he is discovering that running a business and presiding over a democratic country are clearly not compatible or even comparable.
Since taking office, Trump has tried to exert and expand presidential authority but has encountered institutional resistance because of the structure of American democracy. The principle of the separation of powers has become a crucial factor during the early weeks of the Trump administration. Both the judicial and legislative branches of government have constrained and even blocked executive authority and decision-making.
Constitutionalism and the rule of law are the fundamental components of the American system. As a result, several federal judges have blocked Trump’s executive orders restricting or banning immigration from selected Muslim-majority countries. Despite protests from the White House, these independent judges ruled that elements of Trump’s orders violated the constitution and discriminated against specific religious groups.
Although the President nominates judges to the Supreme Court, who are then accepted or rejected by the US Congress, this key national body remains fully independent of the other two branches. This has been evident during the ratification process for judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. As Gorsuch clearly stated during questioning in Congress, every official is accountable to the law including the President.
Congressional oversight over presidential authority has also been displayed on several occasions. Most notably, the failure by the House of Representatives to pass a new health care bill demonstrates that the White House can be opposed and overruled. Trump thereby lost the first major piece of legislation that he was committed to implementing throughout the election campaign.
The inability to push through an unpopular health care bill also showed that there are not only divisions between Democrats and Republicans but deep policy differences between different factions of the Republican Party. As a result, even though the Republicans have majorities in both houses of Congress and control the executive, they are constrained from full political control and potential authoritarianism by factionalism, procedures, and public opinion.
Trump’s failure with health care also underscored that a President needs to fully understand the legislation he wants to introduce, particularly as restructuring health care is not as simple as building a hotel or a golf course.
For too many decades, the majority of citizens have taken the US system of government for granted or failed to understand how it operates. The Trump presidency is dramatically changing both public interest and involvement.
Opposition to Trump has revived and expanded America’s civil society organizations, including consumer groups, women’s organizations, and minority lobbies. It is also raising new recruits into the political process. There has been a surge of candidates registering to run in local and state government elections, in what many believe is a backlash against Trump. Most of these candidates are from the Democratic Party, which under normal circumstances experiences problems in local recruitment.
Observers believe that there is a revived awareness of the importance of state legislatures to counter Republican control in Congress and the White House. At present, Republicans control more than two-thirds of legislative chambers in America’s 50 states, having increased their total during and after the Obama presidency.
In particular, thousands of women are preparing to run for office, in an evident retort to what is widely perceived as Trump’s misogyny. The ongoing protest movements are producing a flood of first-time female candidates on a number of local ballots, including school boards, municipal councils, and state legislatures. Young people under thirty have also become more involved in local politics since the presidential elections. Republican recruitment has also increased as interest in politics continues to spread with blanket coverage by the mass media of the Trump presidency.
America should serve as a lesson to those states in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) where ruling parties seek to use their electoral mandate to entrench their rule through constitutional changes and legislative measures. A vibrant civil society and political opposition needs to make sure that the internal balance of power is maintained and no branch of government can disregard the rule of law.
As a result of the Trump experiment, regardless of the President’s policy successes and failures, the US is likely to develop into a stronger democracy. Indeed, one could call it the reproduction of democracy in which a greater number of citizens not only become aware of their system of government but also actively participate in it. Trump too will hopefully learn a lesson that politics is the art of compromise.
AMERICA’S RUSSIAN CONNECTIONS
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
Russia’s regime has declared war on the United States. Unable to challenge America ideologically, economically, or militarily, Moscow uses alternative tools to generate political and social turmoil and to weaken Washington’s global role.
It is clear that by hacking and distributing Democratic Party Emails, the Russian government interfered in the US presidential elections. WikiLeaks was used as a cover and a tool for Russia’s intelligence services to inject anti-Clinton stories through the mass media. Moreover, there is a consensus among US intelligence agencies that Russian agents accessed numerous state and local electoral boards and threatened to interfere with the balloting and counting process.
Congressional investigations have been launched on Russian hacking and the role, if any, of the Trump campaign. The President himself has promoted another conspiracy theory that has also been promulgated by Moscow to discredit American democracy. Critics argue that Trump is trying to deflect attention by positing the existence of a “deep state” of intelligence officials and bureaucrats undermining the administration. The problem for Trump is there is no evidence for such a shadow government, whereas the evidence is overwhelming for Russian interference.
In attempts to confirm the “deep state” theory, WikiLeaks recently released a stash of hacked CIA material detailing the agency’s surveillance methods. Trump’s ultra-right supporters now claim, without evidence, that the CIA not Russia hacked Democratic National Committee (DNC) Emails. The new President was allegedly a victim of a “false flag” operation whereby CIA hackers broke into the DNC and blamed Moscow. The inconsistency in this story is why should the CIA seek to discredit Hillary Clinton if, as Trump implies, the intelligence services are part of the anti-Trump “deep state.”
Nonetheless, the notion of a “deep state” fits with Trump’s previous accusations of a rigged election and a fraudulent vote count if he lost. Such claims may undermine the credibility and legitimacy of American democracy. However, when there is no evidence for such allegations it is the President who discredits himself and will be widely perceived as either delusional or deliberately lying.
The overriding question is whether the Trump campaign cooperated with Moscow to influence the outcome of the elections. If the answer is no, then the focus of US foreign policy should be to combat and prevent any future Kremlin subversion of American democracy. If the answer is yes, then Trump and his closest advisers could face impeachment on charges of treason.
The benign explanation for Trump’s contacts with Russian officials is simply the cultivation of good relations in preparation for office. This is common for all potential administrations. The problem for Trump and his advisers is that they have denied having such contacts and thereby raised suspicions that the meetings were neither routine nor innocent.
The more ominous explanation is outright Trump collaboration with Moscow either for financial or political gain. Trump has regularly praised Putin and denied any financial involvement in Russia. However, reports have surfaced that some Russian oligarchs may have invested in Trump businesses and that the President does not want these links unearthed. Suspicions are raised by the fact that Trump has refused to disclose his tax returns and other financial information.
The political explanation for the Russian connection is far more serious. With several Trump associates under FBI and Treasury Department investigation for links with the Kremlin, each day brings fresh allegations and evidence. Roger Stone, Trump’s former campaign advisor, admitted that he was in private communication with a Kremlin-connected hacker behind the DMC email attack. U.S. intelligence officials and cybersecurity firms assert that Russian spy agencies created Guccifer 2.0 as an Internet persona for the purpose of helping Trump win the elections.
Ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort, former Trump adviser Carter Page, and the sacked National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are also under investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is under suspicion for his contacts with the Russian ambassador, while Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross may have played a role in various Trump’s financial connections with Russia.
The most important question is whether the Trump team collaborated with Moscow to subvert the election process by offering to ease sanctions if the Kremlin released Clinton Emails. According to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, no direct evidence has surfaced thus far. But even without direct collusion, some analysts have raised the possibility that Trump may have possessed advanced knowledge of Moscow’s attack on the elections and failed to reveal it.
An additional question revolves around changes to the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) platform just before the Republican Convention in July 2016. Inexplicably removed was the statement on providing lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine to combat Russia’s proxy forces in the Donbas. Evidence now indicates that Kremlin-connected interlocutors convinced the Trump team to remove this provision.
The slowly dripping leaks from the White House create the appearance of a major cover up. Trump’s inner circle has not helped itself through deception and deflection. Indeed, Trump’s tweet that President Obama tapped his phones has raised even more questions as to whether Trump was actually under investigation by the FBI for potential criminality or conspiracy with foreign powers.
TRUMP BATTLES THE EU
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
President Donald Trump’s denunciation of the European Union and his support for Brexit has unnerved many European leaders. The White House is generating mixed messages on the EU, which, despite its failures, remains vital for keeping peace in Europe and reducing the need for American intervention.
Trump himself is receiving two contradictory policy prescriptions about the EU: one from America’s rightist nationalists and one from the centrist-internationalists in the Republican Party and in his own cabinet. Unfortunately, his public statements on the EU seem to reflect the views of the last person Trump spoke with rather than a consistent policy.
On the nationalist wing, the driving force behind Trump’s antagonism toward the EU is senior counselor Stephen Bannon. Contrary to all historical evidence, Bannon claims that strong nationalist governments ensure good neighbors. Moreover, he has urged Trump to encourage populist-nationalist and Eurosceptic movements in the EU over the heads of elected governments.
Trump has questioned the rationale and effectiveness of the EU and has publicly stated that he favors its dissolution. He also claimed that the Union is basically a vehicle for German control, whereas in reality the EU is built to constrain German power. Trump’s nationalist advisers prefer dealing on a bilateral basis with EU member states and oppose multilateral free trade agreements.
On the internationalist wing, Trump’s key players are Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Michael Pence. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also stated his support for existing alliances and for the EU. Each has visited Brussels to affirm Washington’s support for the Union and even Trump has been persuaded to assert that he was “totally in favor” of the EU.
The internationalists contend that there are costs and benefits in EU membership. On the negative side, the Union is politically flawed and has not developed into a confederation with a credible security structure. Oftentimes, Brussels is seen as imposing unpopular continent-wide regulations on states that are grappling with their sovereignty. The Schengen open border system has also come under fire since the massive refugee inflow from the Middle East.
However, the EU has delivered a number of positives. It consolidated the post-World War Two peace in Western Europe, incorporated the majority of former communist states, and proved instrumental in constructing free markets, democratic systems, and the rule of law throughout Europe. It is equally vital for pushing all Balkan states to complete their reform programs and reduce their disputes.
The EU is also important for America. It forms the world’s most significant market for US companies and the major base for their operations abroad. The trans-Atlantic economy is valued at $5.5 trillion and generates 15 million jobs, half of them for US citizens. The EU is America’s largest trading partner and the greatest source of foreign investment. The Union provides a one-stop platform, allowing American companies to deal with a single financial and economic regulator rather than 28 separate country regulatory bodies. European policy makers fear that despite these benefits the Trump administration will impose protectionist tariffs on EU goods as part of its nationalist program, believing that this will “bring jobs back to America.”
The EU has a largely positive impact on NATO, as countries that have a common economic and political agenda are more likely to defend each other during a crisis. A lessened commitment to the EU could mean a reduced commitment to joint security and more divided relations with the US. For instance, with London no longer having a voice in EU affairs it may become less committed to Europe’s defense and less important for Washington.
The transatlantic link has been the bedrock of American foreign policy since World War Two. All US Presidents supported a politically and economically integrated Europe bound to the US by values, trade, and security. Indeed, the EU itself can be viewed as a historical success for American policy, helping to ensure peace and prosperity and ending the prospect for a major new war.
The withdrawal of US support at a time when the EU is experiencing an institutional crisis and growing populist demands would weaken European security and benefit Russia’s ambitions to divide the continent. Without the EU, the old continent may revert to national disputes, undermine the NATO alliance, and potentially necessitate another US military intervention.
The EU should not react to Trump’s occasional pronouncements by ostracizing the US or pushing for some separate defense structure. Such moves are more likely to doom NATO than any policies actually pursued by the White House. Trump has already said that he will reconsider US contributions to NATO if Europe pursues its own military structure.
One paradox may also become evident in the coming year: if Trump continues to attack the EU he may inadvertently strengthen the Union. The populist wave could recede among the general public if it is too closely associated with Trump. The US President is not a popular figure among a majority of EU citizens and policy failures early in his term contribute to the weariness of voters in supporting populists with big promises but little delivery.
TRUMP BOOSTS NATO
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
Throughout the election campaign, candidate Donald Trump was berated for suggesting that NATO was redundant and for implying that the US would pull its forces out of Europe. In stark contrast, President Trump has already made moves to strengthen NATO and significantly boost Western security.
Trump’s statements on NATO appeared to be contradictory and may have misled both Europeans and Russians into thinking that the White House would move to disband the Alliance and terminate US commitments to the defense of Europe. In retrospect, it transpires that Trump’s strong criticism of NATO was intended to refocus attention on Alliance missions and capabilities.
Two main factors can enable Trump to revive the Alliance: his warnings about NATO’s future and his selection of a strong security team. Trump’s main indignation was directed at European governments who consistently fail to allocate 2% of GDP for their national defense despite NATO’s common requirements. Trump threatened to cut American support if these targets were not met, claiming that the American taxpayer should not be primarily responsible for defending a wealthy Europe.
Although several former US leaders have expressed their frustration with Europe’s inadequate defense spending, it appears that threats are more effective than pleas. Trump’s words are having an impact already with several capitals pledging to boost their spending over the coming years and improving their fighting capabilities.
Trump’s commitment to strengthening NATO is even more evident in the selection of his security team. In particular, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is a staunch supporter of the Alliance, which he views as indispensible for defending America’s national interests. He stated unambiguously at the Munich security conference that the bond between the US and NATO is a critical component in regional and global security.
Mattis’ visit to Brussels for NATO’s defense ministerial meeting in February was an important occasion to reaffirm US commitments but also to push for NATO’s internal reform to deal with contemporary threats. Mattis and the Pentagon understand that the Russian threat to Europe is growing and that NATO also needs to be more effective in combating terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Vice President Mike Pence reinforced Mattis’ pro-NATO position during his recent visit to Europe. Moreover, the replacement of the Russia-friendly National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn with General H. R. McMaster demonstrated that a more traditional Atlanticism would prevail in Washington. McMaster like Mattis has no illusions about Russia and will counter Kremlin objectives to dismantle NATO and reduce American influence in Europe.
Under the George W. Bush administration, NATO allies were focused on expeditionary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Barack Obama NATO was neglected and Europe’s defense was downgraded until Russia’s attack on Ukraine in early 2014 and growing fears among NATO’s front line states over Moscow’s revisionist ambitions. Under the Trump administration there is an opportunity to modernize and strengthen NATO with the commitment of an increasing number of Allies.
Trump’s security policy will be largely defined by his handling of ISIS, the Middle East, and Russia’s assertiveness. In each of these arenas NATO has a role to play even before any discussions are undertaken or agreements made with Moscow. Indeed, Trump should learn lessons from Obama’s naïve expectations about “resets” with the Kremlin. As Mattis stated at the Munich security conference America and NATO need to negotiate with Russia from a position of strength.
Trump should learn from Obama’s mistakes and embrace a U.S. leadership role in Europe early in his term. This should also include a repositioning of American military deployments. Since the end of World War Two, German governments have taken US defense of the country for granted. The time is fast approaching to move some of NATO’s major installations from Germany to the new members in order to more effectively protect NATO’s eastern flank and deter Kremlin aggression. This should also include repositioning a larger share of the 60,000 US troops currently stationed in Western Europe to Poland and the Baltic states.
Moscow’s view of Trump has swung from euphoria to trepidation since he moved into the White House. Putin’s officials increasingly compare him to President Ronald Reagan, in seeking superiority over Russia and undercutting Moscow’s claims to global stature. For instance, they assert that Trump’s declared aim of putting the U.S. nuclear arsenal “at the top of the pack” risked triggering a new arms race between Washington and Moscow. Trump has proclaimed that he will reverse the decline in US nuclear weapons and dismisses treaties with Russia as “bad deals” for Washington.
With regard to NATO, instead of dismantling the Alliance as Moscow had hoped, Trump looks poised to rebuild and rejuvenate NATO, to substantially increase US defense spending, and to work more closely with European allies that are most committed to American goals. While Reagan’s military posture contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the ultimate fear in Moscow is that Trump’s planned military buildup could contribute to dismantling the Russian Federation.
WILL TRUMP BE IMPEACHED?
Janusz Bugajski, February 2017
The Donald Trump administration is only one month old, but talk about the President’s impeachment is already swirling around Washington. The future of the presidency may hinge on what emerges from upcoming congressional investigations into Trump’s dealings with Russia’s regime. Some insiders believe that the outcome could compare with the infamous Watergate scandal and the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
There is growing suspicion in Congress that during the election campaign the recently fired national security adviser Michael Flynn promised sanctions relief to Moscow in return for Kremlin hacking of Hilary Clinton’s Emails that helped Trump win the presidential elections. Such an act by a private citizen is illegal.
Moreover, according to information leaked from US intelligence services other members of Trump’s campaign regularly communicated with Russian intelligence operatives. This has raised the key question that could precipitate impeachment: did Trump himself or members of his team collaborate with a foreign adversary to subvert the US elections? Furthermore, is the Trump administration trying to cover up the scandal by hiding behind the camouflage of “fake news”?
Impeachment is not simply a legal mechanism, but a political act. As long as a majority of congressional Republicans believe that Trump can push through their legislative agenda, impeachment seems unlikely. Nonetheless, if it is proved that Trump conspired with Russian intelligence it would be difficult even for Republicans to ignore the evidence.
America’s founders intentionally used the broad term “high crimes and misdemeanors” to hold Presidents, Vice Presidents, and cabinet members accountable. An impeached official is not charged by a prosecutor or in the courts, but is charged by the House of Representatives, tried by the Senate, and removed from office if convicted in order to restore respect for the Constitution.
Other accusations about the Trump administration continue to escalate, especially regarding his alleged conflict of interests that could undermine national security. There are concerns over potential violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, designed to prevent corruption and foreign influence over policy decisions.
Democrats in Congress have called for transparency in Trump’s business dealings and the release of his tax returns. They charge that Trump has not divested himself of ownership of his global businesses and is thereby susceptible to bribery or blackmail by foreign powers seeking to influence his policies. Some in Congress are warning about legal actions, including the prospect of impeachment.
Another arena where congressional action has been threatened revolves around Trump’s executive orders designed to block immigration from selected Muslim-majority states. If the President orders federal agencies to ignore judicial rulings halting his immigration order, Congress could pass a resolution of censure. But if presidential unilateralism persists, there could be a new push for impeachment.
Moscow remains at the center of Trump’s problems and Putin has made various calculations about the new White House. Early hopes that Trump will engineer deals with Russia are fast receding, including the notion that Ukraine will be sacrificed in return for anti-terrorist cooperation. US Secretary of Defense Secretary Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence, and other high-ranking officials have made it clear that NATO will remain united and no major deals with the Kremlin are possible if it continues to occupy Crimea and fuels war in eastern Ukraine.
If Russia concludes that it cannot benefit from Trump’s foreign policy decisions then it will seek to exploit any disarray in the new administration. Indeed, Russian commentators are banking on Trump polarizing and dividing America. Some officials are even hoping that Trump will become an American Gorbachev who will create a major domestic crisis and substantially reduce US global influence. Russia’s propaganda offensive against Washington could even provide support to anyone in the country who promotes confrontation with Trump.
If Trump becomes weak politically because of numerous scandals then the Kremlin will prepare for an early collapse and potential impeachment. Domestic turmoil could provide Moscow with a unique opportunity to pursue its expansionist policies around its borders without fear of US retaliation. A dysfunctional White House would itself be a threat to US national security that could be exploited by several aggressive powers.
However, there could be another twist to the Trump-Putin saga. In order to shield himself from accusations of collusion with Russia and his alleged business ties with Moscow oligarchs, Trump may actually welcome a conflict with Russia to restore his legitimacy and credibility.
Since the inauguration, Putin has been testing Trump with deployments of missile systems prohibited by the IMF Treaty, with confrontational overflights of US warships in the Black Sea, and by positioning a spy ship off America’s east coast. Putin evidently calculates that Trump is too preoccupied to respond or too determined to cooperate with Russia in the Middle East to confront Moscow.
But the Kremlin may miscalculate. An exasperated and besieged Trump may decide to demonstrate his toughness and resolve, whether by increasing the US troop presence along NATO’s eastern flank or arming Ukraine with more sophisticated weapons. Trump may even hit out by shooting down a Russian jet that strays too close to an American vessel. Putin needs to beware of provoking a wounded White House.
TRUMP THE SOCIALIST
Janusz Bugajski, February 2017
President Donald Trump’s first days in office indicate that he is more of a statist socialist than a capitalist Republican. His pursuit of greater state intervention in the economy and his opposition to neo-liberal globalism places him closer to leftist Democrats than to centrists or rightist Republicans.
Most analysts have labeled Trump as a radical rightist and even a neo-fascist. However, such labels are imprecise and do not fully fit with the policy moves of the new American administration. A closer look at Trump’s early initiatives indicate that he is both a nationalist and a socialist.
Socially, Trump has pandered to ultra-conservatives and Christian evangelicals, but he is neither a religious fanatic nor convinced by an agenda that opposes homosexual rights or abortion. He may support such initiatives but only as long as they secure him the backing of the most conservative voters and prevent the Republican base from rebelling against his economic plans.
It is on the economic front that Trump is veering toward state socialist prescriptions. Republicans are traditionally opposed to big government and state intervention. Over recent decades both conservatives and neo-liberals have tried to limit the power of the state, which is often viewed as a socialist impediment to development. Despite Trump’s claims, such policies have not weakened America as much as cuts in defense spending and an accomodationist policy toward Russian expansionism.
Trump’s statist socialism is evident in several areas. He is coercing large private US companies to invest inside America, planning for huge government spending on infrastructure projects, opposing free trade agreements, ignoring threats to the environment (similarly to socialist East Europe), and issuing millenarian promises to the population. This is aside from his threats against the media and distrust of civic initiatives evident in all socialist autocracies.
Trump is seeking higher economic growth and job creation using a classic “import-substitution” approach. This involves significant government intervention, including deregulation and incentives to favor domestic production and the consumption of American-made goods and services.
Such a program is underpinned by a contract between state and business that involves both carrots and stick. The carrot of business deregulation and lower corporate taxes is counterbalanced by the threat of onerous tariffs and other forms of punishment against corporations investing abroad. Some economists have compared this to policies pursued by leftist governments in several Latin America countries.
The centerpiece of Trump’s state socialist project is a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative proposed during the election campaign, although decreased to $550 billion following the ballot. A group of senior Senate Democrats have unveiled their own $1 trillion plan to revamp the nation’s airports, bridges, roads and seaports, urging Trump to back their proposal, which they claim would create 15 million jobs over the next decade. This is a clear case where self-styled “progressives” overlap with rightist statist interventionists.
Some Democratic congressmen assert that their infrastructure plan would rely on direct federal spending and would span a range of projects including roads, bridges, and schools. Democrats want to use this statist initiative to drive a wedge between the new president and congressional Republicans who oppose a major new government spending program that would balloon Washington’s already massive budget deficit.
Much like the self-declared socialist and Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders, Trump has also supported nationalized universal health care, although his position may shift in office in order to maintain traditional Republican support.
Trump’s statism also blends with his nationalist and isolationist convictions. His stated commitment to increase spending for a stronger military does not coincide with Socialist prescriptions. However, his isolationist leanings certainly fall within the socialist camp. Isolationism has two elements – a protectionist economic policy to allegedly defend American workers and limit immigration – and opposition to international military involvement.
Trump is a classic protectionist, mirroring the program of the left in calling for an end to multilateral free trade agreements and high tariff on imports from countries such as China and Mexico. Although the purpose is to encourage American business and to raise employment, the effect will be to raise domestic prices and undermine America’s global competitiveness. Trump will face opposition from within Republican ranks, who favor a lessened state role in trade and free markets.
On the security side, Trump wants to reduce funding for NATO and other international organizations while withdrawing American bases from around the world. This is a traditional leftist position intended to limit US military intervention in overseas wars. Nonetheless, Trump’s unpredictability is more likely to provoke a regional war than the much more cautious leftist isolationists.
The Trump phenomenon demonstrates that extreme left and right ultimately merge. This was evident among fascist parties throughout inter-war Europe. Nationalism and protectionism are far rightist principles and can combine with state socialist programs to appeal to a sizeable sector of the population including dissatisfied working class voters. In addition, Trump’s authoritarian inclinations favor a statist approach to government with the notion of a patriotic vanguard that leads “the people” into a new millennium.
TRUMP’S FOREIGN POLICY CONTRADICTIONS
Janusz Bugajski, January 2017
As America prepares for the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a major rift has appeared not only between Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate but even between members of Trump’s own foreign policy team. The dispute revolves around US policy toward Russia.
A storm has erupted following the release of US intelligence reports that the Kremlin was involved in influencing the presidential elections. While Trump seeks to downplay Moscow’s role in the campaign, fearful that it will delegitimize his victory, both Democrats and Republicans view Russian Email hacking as an attack on American democracy.
Republicans have embraced Trump’s positions on immigration, trade, Iran, and even on China, but not Russia. Most elected Republicans have a traditional hard-line position on Russia as an expansionist power and a threat to US interests and America’s allies. By contrast, Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin.
According to senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Trump appears to have a blind spot toward Moscow despite the fact the Russia is undermining democracy around the globe, attacking neighbors, and hacking into the US political system. Trump has even sided with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, someone that most Republicans consider an enemy of the state. Assange released Democratic Party Emails after reportedly receiving them from Russian sources tied to the Kremlin.
There are various theories why Trump acquiesces to the Kremlin. Some believe that Russian agencies possess compromising material on him gathered over several decades. Or Trump may simply have extensive financial ties with Russian oligarchs that he does not want exposed or cancelled.
The conflict over Russia effects Trump’s national security choices, some of whom are preparing to testify before the US Congress. Trump’s nominees to run the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security will need to be confirmed by the Senate, amidst fears that they could express positions at odds with Trump.
Senators from both parties, who support a tougher policy toward Russia than that pursued by President Barack Obama, will use the confirmation hearings to highlight the confusion in Trump’s position toward Moscow. Indeed, Trump’s national security team can be divided into two camps: the realists and the appeasers, and no one knows which will prevail in formulating policy.
The realists include Defense Secretary nominee General James Mattis who has stated that Russia could be America’s most dangerous rival. Mattis has strongly criticized Putin, asserting that he wants “to break NATO apart” and called for a more aggressive posture to confront Moscow.
Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo, nominated to head the CIA, has asserted that Washington’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was “far too weak.” Pompeo, who served on the US House Intelligence Committee, has been a strong supporter of sanctions against Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, while Trump has held out the prospect of lifting sanctions.
K.T. McFarland, a former Reagan administration official selected to be Trump’s deputy national security adviser, is also a Russia realist. She has claimed that the US is engaged in a cyberwar with Moscow, which has been trying to influence the US elections.
General John Kelly, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Homeland Security, which has a major role in dealing with cyber threats, has told Congress that Russia’s inroads in Latin America are more dangerous than China’s. According to Kelly, Putin has returned to Cold War-tactics and is using power projection to erode US leadership and challenge American influence even in the Western Hemisphere.
In stark contrast, Trump’s Russia appeasers include the incoming national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, who has defended Moscow in the past and seeks close cooperation to counter international terrorism. Flynn, who does not require Senate confirmation and who has shaped many of Trump’s foreign policy views, was a paid consultant for Russia Today – a propaganda arm of the Kremlin.
Potentially the most explosive confirmation process will be for the US Secretary of State. Trump’s nominee is Rex Tillerson, who as head of the energy giant Exxon Mobil was a vehement critic of economic sanctions against Russia. Tillerson is under intense scrutiny for his close relationship with Putin in several oil deals and for his opposition to punishing Russia economically for its aggressive actions against neighbors.
Some Trump advisers predict that the incoming President will eventually have to confront reality as it becomes apparent that Putin will only be accommodating if compelled to do so. The looming question is how Trump reconciles contradictory views in pursuing an effective Russia policy that promotes US interests. If Trump really wants to strengthen US security, as he pledged during the elections, then he cannot create the appearance of weakness or surrender ground to a permanent geopolitical rival.
Janusz Bugajski, November 2016
The next four years will be a severe test for American unity and stability. America’s divisions have been starkly exposed by the long and raucous presidential election campaign and the incoming Donald Trump administration looks set to deepen them.
There are numerous fissures in American society. The post-election map displayed a stark geographic division between the “red” Republican states and “blue” Democrat states, with several contested states in between. Clinton won overwhelmingly along the north eastern and western seaboards although failing to regain the northern “rust belt” where Obama triumphed eight years ago.
Trump and the Republicans captured significant majorities across the north, center, and south of the country and even managed to regain a more evenly balanced Florida. These inter-state divisions in some ways mirror the Union-Confederate fracture during the 1861-1865 Civil War between the Deep South and the Yankee North. Some radicals are even proposing the secession of California where Clinton gained 62% of the vote. Although such desperate calls will not succeed they indicate the depth of emotion generated by the election results.
An even starker contrast in American society is the urban-rural divide that many public opinion polls failed to properly monitor. The overwhelming majority of rural and small town dwellers voted for Trump. They are traditionally suspicious of the “Washington establishment” and believed that Trump was an outsider who would shake up the federal government and root out what is widely perceived as official corruption and elite self-interest.
The geographic divisions have been reinforced by the contrast between blue and white collar workers. Manual workers laid off during the “great recession” in 2008 have struggled to gain full employment and bitterly complain that their manufacturing jobs are no longer available. Indeed, it has become more profitable for US companies to move their factories abroad. Trump himself has business outlets overseas but tried to disguise this during the elections.
Trump made repeated promises to “bring back” jobs to the US that have been lost in competitive globalization. His protectionist prescriptions may actually worsen economic conditions but at a basic level they appeal to citizens. Many of his worker supporters have a sense of entitlement to well-paid jobs, resent immigrants who are willing to work for less, and feel abandoned by the Democratic Party.
All these antagonisms feed into the immigrant-native divisions that were constantly exploited by the Trump campaign. The Republican candidate singled out Mexicans and Muslims in stereotypes that appealed to angry workers and white Christian nationalists. He painted them not only as a threat to security but also to American employment and economic prosperity.
Rising xenophobia is also reflected in persistent racial divisions, despite the fact that America has had a black president for the past eight years. Trump’s campaign brought many of the grievances and prejudices to the forefront and opened the gates to white supremacist support, even though Trump belatedly sought to distance himself from openly racist groups.
Muslims were depicted as a suspicious element in American society who could be harboring terrorists. Trump’s threat to ban all Muslims from entering the country sent shock waves not only through the Islamic community but also among other religious minorities. He has since reversed his position but the bitter taste of prejudice and discrimination remains.
Another key division in the election race emerged between people with higher education and those with only a rudimentary schooling and nostalgic for a mythical past. The latter voted overwhelmingly for Trump, as they soaked in his simplistic messages to “Make America Great Again” without any rational explanation of how he intended to do it.
A generational gap also emerged during the campaign, with many of the “millenials” who backed Democrat Party socialist Bernie Sanders in the primary elections switching their support to Hillary Clinton. Exit polls indicated that older people, especially pensioners, tended to vote for Trump largely because they did not trust Clinton or had little faith in a woman as commander-in-chief. This gender gap remains evident across the nation, which Trump adroitly exploited.
Frustration among young people has been on display since the elections with protest marches and demonstrations against Trump breaking out in over a dozen cities. It remains to be seen whether the protest will be transformed into some constructive political activism or if they will generate various forms of anti-government militancy.
In the post-election malaise, several political figures have called on Trump to repudiate some of the statements that deepened the divisions in American society. Although the President elect has asserted that he wants to bring the country together, it remains to be seen whether Trump actually reaches out to a number of communities that were alienated by his campaign. With or without reconciliation from the top, American society is undergoing convulsions that no one would have imagined before the elections. The next four years will be an unpredictable journey through social politics.
PRESIDENT TRUMP’S HARD AGENDA
Janusz Bugajski, November 2016
America has a new President and enters an unpredictable and volatile new era. President-elect Donald Trump faces a fundamental dilemma – either he follows through on his campaign pledges and sparks major conflicts inside and outside the US, or he rolls back his threats and alienates half of the electorate who viewed him as a populist savior.
Donald Trump will be inaugurated on January 20. He will face enormous domestic and foreign policy challenges following an election that has sharply divided the population and disturbed many of America’s allies. Indeed, the two candidates have split the country more than any politicians in recent history.
On the domestic front, there is an urgent need for reconciliation among a frustrated public many of whom view the federal government in Washington as a corrupt elite. Trump pledged to “clean the swamp” in the capital, but it is unclear what this would mean in practice. Any attempted purges or investigations of politicians such as the Clintons could further jeopardize political bi-partisanship in Congress.
An equally severe danger is the public reaction against Trump if he begins to implement his promises to deport millions of Mexicans and other Latino immigrants and if he bans Muslims from entering the country or engages in “extreme vetting” for potential terrorists. It cannot be excluded that America will witness mass violence on the scale not seen since the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war campaigns during the 1960s.
Trump’s economic program is big on promises but lacks any detail. The notion that the federal government can ensure accelerated economic growth and create millions of new jobs is simplistic and misleading. However, a failure to deliver on such campaign statements will lead to even more public alienation and Trump himself could be exposed as another Washington insider or even as an outright fraud.
Fortunately, the checks and balances embedded in the American system of government will mute some of Trump’s authoritarian temptations, such as muzzling the press or imprisoning his political rivals. Nonetheless, because both houses of Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) have been retained by Republicans, it will be easier for Trump to try and push through policies that will further split the nation.
In particular, a social conservative agenda such as restricting abortions or rolling back some of the liberal legislation through his appointments to the Supreme Court will outrage large sectors of the population. Again, protests and even violence can be expected if Trump tries to push through his conservative election promises.
A whole host of other polarizing issues will now be in question, including comprehensive health care, minimum wages, and income taxation. The expectations of students and poor workers are unlikely to be fulfilled as Trump has pledged to roll back business regulations, implement major tax cuts for big business, and does not support an increase in the minimal wage.
On the international arena, Trumpism is part of a wider rightist populist movement that is gaining ground in Europe and is based around xenophobia, anti-globalism, political nationalism, and economic protectionism.
Trump’s economic prescriptions will ensure that all free trade deals will be reviewed and no new ones signed with Europe or East Asia. Paradoxically, this will undermine the creation of new business, raise prices on goods, and ultimately hurt the American worker. It will also alienate China and other key powers and create further tensions in contested regions such as East Asia.
Trump’s pledge to destroy ISIS and to cancel the nuclear disarmament deal with Iran could foreshadow a new arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia seeking nuclear weapons. Trump actually supported nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and the Far East during the election campaign.
The state that stands to gain the most from a Trump presidency is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Trump has praised Putin as a great leader, he has called NATO obsolete, and some of his foreign policy advisors have close business and personal links to the Kremlin.
No European ally can now be certain that the US will remain committed to NATO and defend their national security. Indeed, Trump’s comments about NATO’s redundancy has had serious reverberations along the eastern front from the Baltics to the Black Seas. Putin may even test Trump’s reaction through a quick war with a country like Estonia and claim that it is a local dispute and not America’s business.
Even more likely, the Kremlin will try and lure Trump into a new division of Europe in return for a grandiose anti-terrorism coalition that is advantageous for Moscow. Such an approach will also embolden Russia’s allies and partners such as Serbia to become more assertive in the Balkans without fear of any significant American reaction at a time of European disarray.
The danger also remains that Russia may miscalculate and overreach in dealing with Washington. Trump may prove to be more strongly reactive to what he may interpret as an insult from Moscow or where a bilateral deal is broken. Such unpredictability could result in a sudden and much more dangerous international confrontation.
THE RISE AND FALL OF DONALD TRUMP
Janusz Bugajski, October 2016
Although nothing seems impossible in politics, Donald Trump’s chances of winning the US presidential elections are slipping away. Whatever the result, the Trump phenomenon will be discussed by politologists and psychiatrists for many years to come and certain basic lessons have already been learned.
Despite his complaints that the “mainstream media” is corrupt and biased against him, Trump was created by the media. Seeking high ratings, the mass media is fixated on a celebrity culture in which reality shows are conflated with reality and entertainment is blended with politics.
The showman Trump, known for his widely watched television spectacles, such as “The Apprentice,” was given exceptional coverage by journalists who viewed him as an entertaining oddity. His controversial statements were barely challenged. Instead, his entertainer status was contrasted with that of allegedly dull and tedious politicians in the Republican Party.
Pop culture becomes pop politics with a year of Trump rallies, election interviews, and Republican candidate debates in which he hurled insults against his opponents and gained further popularity. The social media contributed to fuelling this publicity, in which offensive language and unfounded assertions became normal means of communication.
It took most of the media an entire year to finally understand Trump’s dark side. It became increasingly obvious that his simplistic populism was designed to divide the electorate and to tap into public dissatisfaction, resentment, fear, anger, and hatred.
Trump consistently spouts xenophobia against immigrants from Latin America, accusing Mexicans in particular of having a disproportionate number of rapists and murderers. He exploits racism against Muslims by asserting that they are prone to terrorism and should be banned from the country. And he depicts women as objects and second-class citizens, as evident in his boasts of sexually groping women.
To gain support among the most gullible or partially educated citizenry Trump has peddled various conspiracy theories. A sector of Americans have always been drawn to the notion that certain people or organizations are working in secret against the public good. However, most politicians have steered clear of paranoia. In contrast, Trump has transformed conspiracy theories into a major component of his election campaign.
By branding himself as an “outsider” Trump launches attacks on the “Washington establishment.” This resonates among an electorate frustrated with legislative gridlock and unfulfilled promises from both major parties. He casts himself as an ordinary man even though he is part of a small billionaire class and the “celebrity establishment.”
The most dangerous part of his mass paranoia is the notion that the entire political system is corrupt and “rigged” against the ordinary citizen. It is not just the election process that he has called into question, by spuriously claiming voter fraud despite having no evidence. Much more serious is the allegation that the entire political structure is rigged against ordinary people.
Trump’s threat that he may not accept the result of the elections calls into question the legitimacy of the democratic system and would undermine the functioning of a Clinton administration. It could even lead to violence, as his supporters may act upon his threats against various minorities or against government institutions.
Trump has even suggested that the Obama White House, in league with Hillary Clinton, in engaged in a major cover-up regarding its links with international terrorism. At one point he even claimed that Obama and Clinton actually established ISIS. In Trump’s campaign there is no distinction between truth and falsehood. Any charge can be concocted to discredit the opponent and feed mass hysteria and rage. If his supporters act on this and do not recognize a Clinton presidency the US could face years of turmoil.
Fortunately for America, an increasing number of people have seen through the Trump façade and realize that the position of President cannot be given to a volatile and paranoid egotist. Many are dismayed by Trump’s staggering ignorance of basic facts, his limited vocabulary, and they dismiss his claims of utopian salvation if he becomes President. His weaknesses were clearly exposed in the three debates, in which Clinton was victorious in all major opinion polls
Although Clinton is not a popular politician, comparisons with Trump have raised her credentials and capabilities. Despite questions about her honesty and the Russian-Wikileaks assault on Democratic Party Emails, Clinton looks increasingly likely to prevail in the 8th November balloting.
Trump’s opinion poll numbers continue to plummet. Nonetheless, each day remains unpredictable and a last minute surprise that will reverse current trends cannot be discounted. In the world of pop politics and presidential entertainment, Trump could still spring a November surprise. This could be the result of some shocking revelations in Clinton’s hacked Emails or a major terrorist attack on US soil that convinces a sufficient number of people that Trump’s xenophobia and tough stance on immigration is the only way to ensure public safety and national security.
FINAL US ELECTION SPRINT
Janusz Bugajski, October 2016
The US Presidential elections have entered the final phase. Following the first national debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the characters and capabilities of both candidates have become starker. During this final month of the campaign the electorate can decide who is fit to lead the country, or more accurately who is less unfit.
Both Trump and Clinton remain widely unpopular. Paradoxically, almost any Republican other than Trump could beat Clinton and almost any Democrat with the possible exception of Clinton could beat Trump. Neither scenario can be guaranteed in these elections.
Both candidates have strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, Trump has raised several pressing issues that need to be more effectively addressed by the next administration, including job creation, urban unrest and street violence, international terrorism, political gridlock in Washington, and the influence of moneyed interests in election campaigns.
Nonetheless, his negatives outweigh the positives. During the first debate, watched by a record audience, his volatility and vindictiveness were obvious. His angry outbursts highlighted that he lacks the temperament to be a rational leader and is prone to anger at the slightest insult. Observers are concerned that in an international crisis he may overreact and escalate a conflict.
Trump also exhibits an inadequate knowledge of both domestic and foreign policy issues and many experts consider him ill-equipped to be commander in chief. His foreign policy statements are either simplistic, contradictory, or incoherent. Dozens of Republican national security leaders have signed an open letter calling Trump’s foreign policy vision “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.”
Domestically, Trump persistently alienates various groups who will be crucial in the elections. For instance, his obsessive Twitter attacks on a former Miss Universe and a popular Latin American actress who has accused Trump of sexism will backfire on him among women and Latino voters – two blocs he is in danger of losing on a massive scale.
From the beginning of the primaries, Trump has built his campaign on appeals to bigotry and xenophobia, whipping up resentment against Mexicans, Muslims, and migrants in particular. His proposals for mass deportations of immigrants and religious tests for Muslims are ultimately unworkable and contrary to America’s principles. Voicing such proposals may appeal to Trump’s base of support but they alienate the majority of voters.
Trump is also believed to be dishonest in his business dealings. Although his companies have had some financial successes, he has also had six major bankruptcies, misused his family’s charitable foundation, and allegedly defrauded clients who enrolled in Trump University. In addition, Trump has been involved in thousands of lawsuits over the past three decades, including at least sixty involving small businesses and contract employees who were unpaid by Trump.
Trump has also refused to release his tax returns, thus raising numerous questions about the size of his wealth and his tax status. Recently disclosed documents indicate that Trump has not paid income tax for nearly two decades, a charge that could seriously damage him in the elections. In addition, Trump has avoided providing information about the sources of his loans and his foreign financial connections that could disclose significant conflicts of interest if he is elected President.
Clinton has her own flaws, many of them revolving around her perceived secrecy, lack of empathy, and potential dishonesty. Trump and his proxies also accuse her of using the Clinton Foundation to peddle political influence for substantial payments.
Although Clinton is much less likely than Trump to threaten national security or lead the country into a constitutional crisis, her use of a private Email server when she was US Secretary of State remains under FBI investigation. She stands accused of being careless at best and reckless at worst in handling classified information.
Clinton will continue to struggle with sectors of the electorate who do not trust her or condemn her personal ambitions and see her as part of the discredited establishment. This includes many independent voters who will form a critical bloc if the elections are close. Trump will intensify his attacks on various fronts against Clinton, including her private life and alleged cover-up of her husband’s infidelities. Republicans claim that she enabled his affairs with several women while her husband served as President in the 1990s.
On the positive side, Clinton’s long record of public service, as first lady in the White House, US Senator for New York, and Secretary of State, give her a clear advantage. Trump has never held public office and his business management model simply cannot be applied to politics as he would alienate Congress and undermine America’s global alliances.
Moreover, unlike Trump, Clinton has command of all major foreign and domestic policy issues. Her performance during the first national debate demonstrated that unlike Trump she is immersed in policy questions and has generally adopted consistent positions. She is also renowned for being hard working and focused, unlike her rival who is easily diverted by personal attacks and scandals. All eyes will be on the upcoming second debate in what promises to be a combustible contest.
TRUMP’S EURO-NATIONALIST CONNECTIONS
Janusz Bugajski, August 2016
Republican presidential contender Donald Trump has not only aligned himself with the ultra-right in the United States, he is also gaining support from an assortment of European nationalist, populist, and neo-fascists movements.
Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon as his campaign’s chief executive has provoked dismay and anger in the country. Bannon is an ultra-rightist demagogue and former chairman of the radical nationalist Breitbart News. This network is notorious for its nationalistic and racist interpretation of the news and has supported Trump’s campaign from the outset.
In reaction to Trump’s appointment, Democratic presidential contender Hilary Clinton launched a heated attack on Trump, describing him as a vessel for hate speech, a champion of conspiracy theories, and a representative of the far-right fringe of the Republican Party. She claimed that the real estate oligarch had built his campaign around prejudice and paranoia and enabled a radical hate group to essentially take over the Republican Party.
Clinton also pointed out that Trump himself had a long history of racial discrimination. In the 1970s, the US Justice Department took Trump, his father, and their real estate management corporation to court for racial discrimination in housing following numerous complaints from prospective tenants. The buildings in question included 14,000 units throughout greater New York City. The case ended in a settlement in which the Trumps were required to abide with the Fair Housing Act.
During the election campaign, Trump has used racist language against Mexicans, Muslims, and other minorities. His supporters openly include members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist and racial segregationist networks. David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, frequently praises Trump as the inspiration for his decision to run for the U.S. Senate in November.
Although Trump claims he has no links with America’s rightist fringe, he frequently repeats conspiracy theories propounded by various radical groups, including AltRight (alternative Right), of which Bannon is a major figure. AltRight depicts itself as an anti-establishment network and is closely tied with white nationalism. It has been criticized for persistent racism, anti-Semitism, and misogynism. Clinton is stressing Trump’s connections with extremists in order to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans who are alarmed by their candidate’s political connections.
In addition to being a champion for ethno-nationalists in the US, Trump has gained support from a host of right radical parties in the EU. The list includes Greece’s Golden Dawn, France’s Front National, the Dutch Party of Freedom, and Italy’s Northern League. Also openly backing Trump’s anti-immigrant policies are Belgium’s far-right Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang), the ultra-rightist Swedish Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, the Swiss People’s Party, the English Defense League, and the Alternative for Germany.
In Italy, rightists and neo-fascists glowingly refer to Trump as the new Benito Mussolini. Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj also supports Trump and has called on Serbs in the US to vote for him in November. Trump’s victory would certainly encourage a host of nationalist, racist, and neo-fascist parties throughout Europe. It would give trans-Atlantic credibility to xenophobia, anti-globalism, and mono-culturalism.
Trump recently hosted Britain’s Nigel Farage at one of his election rallies – the leader of the hardline anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), which contributed to creating a xenophobic atmosphere that helped to drive the country into a Brexit. Trump introduced Farage as someone who had “brilliantly” led the campaign to take Britain out of the EU, while Trump himself openly supports breaking up the Union.
Bannon is reportedly intent on assisting populists and radical rightists throughout Europe after the US elections. He will seek to capitalize on the rise in right-wing, nationalist politics and persistent anti-EU feelings in several West European states. Rising tensions over immigration and the angry anti-establishment mood provides fertile ground for Bannon’s form of propaganda.
He aims to help groom a new crop of European readers to the US brand of anti-establishment journalism. Germany, Belgium, and France are especially attractive for Breitbart after it opened an office in London. Any country where there are pronounced fears of terrorism and the impact of Islam on local society are eminently exploitable.
Regular themes in the articles produced from London focus on the threat of rising immigration, the menace of Islamic fundamentalism, and the success of populist right-wing parties across Europe. The site constantly beats the drum that the most serious domestic problems throughout Europe are caused by Muslim immigration.
The Breitbart site has proved extremely successful on social platforms and numbered first in the world for political social media earlier this year. It claimed two million more Facebook and Twitter engagements than its closest competitor, the leftist Huffington Post. Whether Trump wins or loses the November elections, he will be hailed as a hero among nationalist circles in Europe and a number of little Trumps will seek to emulate him. The media and social outlets to promote their policies will be readily available.
TESTING AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
Janusz Bugajski, August 2016
In an increasingly tumultuous presidential campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump has questioned the legitimacy of American democracy. Trump’s warning that the November 8th elections may be falsified can undermine the democratic process and provoke civil conflict if he loses.
After trailing in opinion polls after the party conventions, Trump issued a warning to his voters that the election will be “rigged” against him, and he could lose as a result. The latest polls demonstrate that Clinton has been pulling ahead and leads Trump nationally by ten or more points. Trump may be preparing the ground for defeat even though a public opinion can shift dramatically during three months.
In his election rallies, Trump has pointed to several court cases nationwide in which restrictive laws requiring voters to show identification have been rejected as long as people are on voting lists. He claimed that such decisions open the door to fraud in November.
Traditionally, a low turnout favors the Republican Party and in some states minority groups have faced various hurdles to register and cast their ballots. The Clinton campaign has made voter registration a primary focus of the campaign and sought to overturn restrictive registration laws in Republican-run states. Those laws have already been challenged successfully in North Carolina, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.
Trump is tapping into long-standing conspiracy theories among a broad section of citizens. These claim that elections are always stolen by the elites, so that voters are cheated by Wall Street, Washington officials, and a complicit mass media. For the first time in a century, a possible loser in the presidential contest is making an issue out of the election process itself and questioning the validity of the democratic system.
In reality, voter fraud is extremely rare in the US. A 2014 in-depth study at Loyola Law School found only 31 possible instances of fraud over 14 years of elections out of a total of one billion votes cast. Although some supporters of the losing Democratic Party candidate, Bernie Sanders, claimed that the primary elections were stolen by Hillary Clinton, each accusation has been investigated and debunked.
Sanders supporters also latched onto internal emails between staff members at the Democratic National Committee, in which they speculated about a Clinton nomination even before the primaries were over. Trump also tried to exploit this scandal to his advantage, but it backfired when he appealed to Russia to reveal hacked Clinton and Democratic Party E Mails.
Some pro-Trump demagogues and radio hosts are warning of a violent post-election scenario if their candidate loses the count. Trump adviser Roger Stone has asserted that Trump supporters will engage in civil disobedience in order to shut down the government if Clinton wins. In some states this could escalate into outright violence with law enforcement agencies and Clinton supporters.
Trump’s supporters tend to blindly believe what he says even when he has been caught in an outright fabrication. There are millions of people prepared to believe that a loss means the election has been stolen. Following the balloting, professional provocateurs on talk radio and the internet may encourage them to reject the results and challenge the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump himself may claim the election was illegitimate and that the new President should not be recognized in order to provoke a constitutional crisis. If he asserts that Clinton stole the election, many of his most loyal followers who have been fed on anger and resentment are likely to blame African American and Latino voters, setting the stage for civil clashes.
By questioning the democratic process Trump may be tapping into sentiments beyond his capacity to control. A significant proportion of the population unfamiliar with the process of democratic voting is likely to believe that their party was cheated. The figure may reach 50% of voters according to some surveys. Such private beliefs are significantly boosted when they are validated by a contender for President. At a time when anti-establishment sentiments are running high, this becomes an appealing message.
For Trump himself it is important to have well-prepared excuses if he fails. He spent the primary elections berating Republicans like John McCain and Mitt Romney who lost elections to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Trump has a long record of blaming everybody else when one of his business ventures fails and wants to make sure that he emerges from any loss unscathed and untainted as a “loser.”
It is difficult to restore legitimacy to a system once a substantial section of the population has challenged it. And many observers believe that Trumpism will outlast Trump and could become even more militant. Democratic institutions are only as strong as they are legitimate. When this primary source of authority is challenged either by unaccountable elites or by reckless politicians, democracy is weakened.
US CONVENTION BATTLES
Janusz Bugajski, July 2016
The Republicans and Democrats are holding their national conventions this month to officially launch America’s presidential elections. The conventions will set the tone for what will be a bitter fight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton until election day itself on November 8.
US conventions are huge gatherings of all sectors of the party. Their official purpose is to select a presidential and vice presidential nominee and to issue a policy platform for the elections. In reality, much is already decided before the conventions, including the identities of the presidential nominees through the primary elections. Nonetheless, conventions serve an important function to mobilize the party and appeal to the general electorate.
Major political figures deliver speeches because it is a valuable format to obtain extensive coverage. Although conventions do not sway many undecided voters, they can better define the candidates to the electorate. They also serve as a means for unification between diverse elements that were competing in the primaries. Both Clinton and Trump have experienced problems in gaining the support of many rank-and-file members.
Democrats who supported the more radical Bernie Sanders will now switch over to Clinton especially after the appeals of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton at the Philadelphia convention on July 25-28. Unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, rival factions will no longer battle over party platforms that have been largely decided beforehand. Sanders himself will be on stage to deliver a speech in support of Clinton on the first night of the gathering.
While the Democrat convention will include many political heavyweights, the Trump convention in Cleveland is more unusual. Many key Republican leaders who do not support him were absent, including former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. A large number of elected officials avoided the convention altogether including many rising stars in the Republican Party who do not want to be associated with Trump. Instead, the list of speakers included a colorful mix of controversial politicians, entertainers, and Trump family members.
Each night of the four-day gathering in Cleveland centered on a different theme, including national security, immigration, and the economy. It could also include presentations on controversial subjects such as former President Bill Clinton’s reported infidelities and Hillary Clinton’s alleged involvement in covering up his affairs.
Trump has made one significant decision in recent days by recruiting Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate for Vice President. Pence is an evangelical Christian and will appeal to the large conservative wing of the Republican Party. However, the choice of Pence paradoxically contradicts many of the basic arguments that Trump has employed against Hillary Clinton.
Trump claims that Clinton is a “Washington insider” out of touch with ordinary Americans. However, Pence himself has held elective office for the over fifteen years, twelve of them in the US Congress and three as governor of Indiana. In Congress, he chaired the House Republican Conference, the fourth-highest leadership position in that chamber, making him a member of the elite that Trump claims he despises.
Trump has depicted himself as being opposed to the Iraq War that Clinton voted to authorize. By calling it a disaster he is questioning her judgment and national security credentials.. The problem for Trump is that Pence was among the most vehement supporters of the war. Indeed, he was a co-sponsor of the initial resolution authorizing military intervention in Iraq. Trump has also cast Clinton as soft on potentially dangerous refugees. Unfortunately for him, Pence has also denounced Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration.
On the economic front, Trump has condemned all free trade agreements that allegedly take jobs away from American workers and favor other countries. He has attacked Clinton for supporting free trade and thereby decimating the US working class. Antithetically, his own running mate opposes Trump’s simplistic formulations about free trade.
Pence is one of the most pro-free trade lawmakers in US Congress. He voted for every free-trade deal while in the legislature and has continued to promote free trade as Indiana governor, including President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump has berated throughout the election campaign.
The differences between Trump and Pence will give the Democrats plenty of ammunition not only to attack Trump but also to defend Clinton. It seems that in trying to find a viable conservative to secure the Republican base, Trump overlooked the actual views of his vice presidential choice.
Clinton has yet to pick a running mate but will make her decision shortly before the Democrat convention. Her shortlist includes Senators Tim Kaine and Elizabeth Warren, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, and James Stavridis, NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
Although Kaine is the favorite, Stavridis would be the most sensible choice given the growing importance of NATO in protection Europe’s east against Russia’s resurgence and combating terrorism generated from the Middle East. The coup attempt in a key state like Turkey should also focus attention on the importance of America’s military alliances.
CLINTON MAKES HISTORY
Janusz Bugajski, June 2016
After long and difficult primary elections, Hillary Clinton has become the first woman in US history to become a presidential nominee for a major party. In November she could become the country’s first female commander-in-chief. However, her path to the White House will be a mud-slinging contest with Donald Trump in which scandals will be more important than policies.
Despite claiming to be the beacon of equality and democracy, America trails the world in electing a woman as head of state. The “glass ceiling” to a country’s top office has been shattered in many locations, including in the new democracies such as Croatia.
There are currently 18 female world leaders, including 12 prime ministers and 11 elected presidents. India can claim the longest period with a woman in power. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Pratibha Patil served a combined 21 years during the last half-century.
The world has also had two “iron ladies” – tough women who changed the world – Golda Meir, a founder of the state of Israel and Margaret Thatcher, who transformed Britain into a modern state through free market policies that became known as Thatcherism. Angela Merkel could be added to that elite group. Germany’s first female chancellor is one of the key leaders of the EU.
America’s presidential system has made it difficult for women to be elected. In a parliamentary system citizens tend to vote for parties that may emplace a woman as premier after elections. A female victory in a direct presidential election is much more impressive, as it demonstrates a broad public mandate.
Paradoxically, Clinton is facing an alleged misogynist as her Republican rival for the presidency. Numerous politicians have condemned Donald Trump for insulting women because of their gender and some analysts speculate that he is afraid of women who compete against him and are mentally stronger.
Clinton consistently criticizes Trump’s positions on issues important to women. She has highlighted not only his opposition to abortion, but also his ambiguous statements about equal pay, paid family leave, and the qualifications he would consider in a nominee for the Supreme Court.
Although Clinton is not a highly popular candidate nationwide, in recent opinion polls 51% of women view her favorably, with 47% having a negative opinion. In stark contrast, 67% of respondents have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. The gap between the two candidates is even bigger when it comes to trust in handling issues that concern women: 66% trust Clinton while only 23% trust Trump.
Since clinching the Democratic Party nomination, Clinton has received a significant boost in opinion polls. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll, she leads Trump by 11 points after being level following Trump’s Republican nomination. The poll shows that 46% of likely voters support Clinton while 34.8% back Trump. Clinton’s support may further grow after winning the endorsements of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and other senior party leaders. They will now be campaigning for Clinton and attacking Trump on a host of defects.
Clinton’s biggest weaknesses are the scandals that continue to bedevil her. Trump is digging up controversies that have revolved around her since the 1980s – from suspect financial dealings to allegations of marital infidelities by Bill Clinton that his wife allegedly covered up by threatening the women involved.
She is currently facing an FBI investigation over her handling of Emails when she served as US Secretary of State. Her use of a private server could have jeopardized national security by enabling the penetration of classified information. Clinton also continues to face questions over the Benghazi incident, when on September 11, 2012, terrorists overran the U.S. mission in Libya, killing the Ambassador and three other Americans. Republicans charge that Clinton failed to adequately protect U.S. installations and depicted the attacks as spontaneous rather than a planned terrorist operation.
Despite these potential landmines, Clinton is fortunate that she is facing Trump, as he has accumulated even more extensive business scandals. The latest controversy revolves around Trump University – widely considered a swindle in which hundreds of students were defrauded of a total of $40 million on the promise of learning the secrets of getting rich. New York city is currently suing Trump, as many students complained that the university was a scam.
In another recent media investigation, Trump has been exposed as an exploiter of workers. Since the 1980s, Trump has allegedly reneged on hundreds of contracts by refusing to pay workers and contractors what they were owed. The list includes waiters, electricians, builders, and plumbers who have worked on various Trump projects.
While claiming to defend workers, Trump in effect defrauded hundreds of employees and small businesses. In some cases, even the lawyers Trump hired to defend him sued him for failing to pay his bills. Such scandals will embolden Clinton’s attack on the billionaire. Instead of fighting for the working American, as he claims in his election campaign, Trump evidently defrauds them.
IS TRUMP A FASCIST?
Janusz Bugajski, June 2016
Donald Trump has come under consistent fire not only as a demagogue but much more seriously as a fascist. A dispassionate assessment of the Republican candidate for US President requires an examination of the political evidence for and against Trump’s alleged fascism.
Fascism traditionally consists of three core elements. First, it contains a comprehensive ideology that combines exclusivist nationalism, institutionalized racism, and highly centralized state power. Second, it necessitates a tightly organized party machine that aims to control all state institutions and key economic and social networks. And third, it operates according to the “fuhrer principle,” in which a cult of personality is built around the untouchable leader of the party depicted as the embodiment of the nation.
On the first count, Trumpism contains no coherent ideology, but is more of a protest movement based on socio-economic resentment and utopian restorationism. It therefore resembles several nativist and populist movements in contemporary Europe. It focuses on two main issues – economic stagnation and cultural xenophobia – and scapegoats specific targets such as Mexicans, immigrants, and Muslims.
In this sense, the Trump movement resembles parties in the EU who oppose multi-culturalism and an open economy and seek to restore a national culture that predates the influx of foreigners. In the worst-case scenario this could develop into forms of discrimination against minorities and even embrace the idea of ethnic or racial separation and expulsion. Although Trump flirts with racism, his diatribes against Muslims and Mexicans lack coherence and may be moderated during the national election campaign so as not to alienate a wider electorate.
Traditional fascism supported corporate capitalism in the service of the state and conflicts with the core values of US Republicanism that favors free markets. There are elements of such a doctrine in Trump’s statements that tap into public disillusionment with the economic results of globalization. In fact, his position on trade protection overlaps with the leftist populism of the “progressive” or socialist wing of the Democratic Party, even though it falls short of supporting an expansive welfare state.
Unlike many of his European counterparts, Trump is unpredictable and eclectic on social issues, sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, and he does not fit into the traditional Republican Christian conservative mold. Fascism by contrast is socially conservative, stressing traditional families and gender inequality in promoting the nation over the individual.
In the second measure of fascism, Trump has not created any institutional structures either within the Republican Party or outside it that would mirror a fascist movement. In America’s two party system, populists organize and mobilize within the two major parties in an attempt to capture them rather than creating their own structures. This moderates their impact, as they have to appeal to a wider party base and helps prevent the formation of extra-institutional structures.
Trump flirts with the idea of a stronger state, but is constrained by core Republican beliefs about limiting the role of government and decentralizing decision-making from federal to state and local level. America’s right wing has historically opposed political strongmen and does not support Trump’s idea of a more intrusive government combating the forces of disorder and ensuring domestic security. He is riding on the fear of terrorism to gain support for a stronger state, but will face significant opposition even within the Republican Party.
The closest that Trump comes to fascism is in the leadership dimension and a fixation on his own role in transforming America. He continually berates voters to trust him, claims that he possesses all the solutions to reconstruct the country, and asserts that his political opponents are failures or “losers.”
Trump boasts about an almost divine mission to “make America great again” by overturning the political establishment and dealing more forcefully with foreign governments. There are clear echoes of Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler in such pronouncements. Indeed, Trump is celebrated among neo-fascists in Italy, especially by leaders of the Northern League.
In sum, although Trump has fascist characteristics and Trumpism includes elements of fascism it lacks the entire package. Even more importantly, America’s political system seems to be sufficiently protected with checks and balancers to disable attempts to mutate the country into a fascist state.
However, some US legal scholars are ringing alarm bells about Trump’s evident contempt for the Constitution, especially the separation of powers and the primacy of the rule of law. Even conservative and libertarian legal scholars are warning that a Trump presidency could presage a constitutional crisis.
Trump has claimed that he would “loosen” libel laws to make it easier to sue media organizations that issue unfavorable reports about him. He has threatened his critics with prosecution, challenged federal judges about their impartiality because of their ethnic heritage, and questioned religious freedom and equality under the law by proposing to ban Muslims from entering the country. If he is elected President, Trump may feel empowered to push for such measures, thus propelling America into unchartered political waters.
TWO UNPOPULAR CANDIDATES
Janusz Bugajski, May 2016
Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton are the two most unpopular nominees for US President in recent history. A majority of Americans are deeply disappointed over the choice they have been offered in the November elections and many will vote simply to keep out the candidate they dislike more.
Major opinion polls for many months have consistently indicated that Trump and Clinton have the highest unfavorable ratings of prospective nominees since the 1970s. In a recent poll issued by the Associated Press 55% of Americans say they have a negative opinion of Clinton, while 69% dislike Trump and will not vote for him.
Clinton’s problems are deep rooted, dating back to her days as First Lady in the White House, when she was seen as interfering too much with policy questions even though she was not an elected official. She has been a polarizing figure between Democrats and Republicans and does not project a compassionate persona, with about half of all Americans viewing her as dishonest and untrustworthy. Her experience and competence are less in question, as she has served as US Senator and US Secretary of State.
Trump’s problems are more recent and obvious. He is widely perceived as arrogant, ignorant, and inexperienced. His base of support, as evident in the primaries, are angry white voters, predominantly male, poorly educated and older, who are dissatisfied with the political establishment and with economic conditions. However, there are not enough of such voters to guarantee electoral victory.
Since June 2015, about 60% of Americans have stated an unfavorable opinion of Trump, with only 35% favorable. In recent polls, 80% of respondents do not find Trump compassionate or likable. And unlike Clinton, even members of the Republican party do not trust him. In particular, religious conservatives see him as a liberal, while Republican internationalists view him as an isolationist. Only 53% of Republicans have a favorable view of Trump.
Seven out of ten registered Democrats have a favorable opinion of Clinton and only 17% of Democrat voters say they would not vote for her. In contrast, 31% of Republicans claim they will not vote for Trump. Even more starkly, a majority of voters have consistently asserted that they would vote for Clinton over Trump regardless of their opinion of her. Out of 67 polls conducted during the past year, in 58 polls respondents chose Clinton, while Trump narrowly won only in six.
Both Trump and Clinton have poor ratings among the numerous Independent voters, who do not identify with either major party. The percentage of Americans defining themselves as Independent now stands at 42%, while 29% say they are Democrat and 26% Republican.
For Trump, two more categories of voters remain extremely problematic – women and ethnic and religious minorities. Trump is widely viewed as as sexist who has made insulting statements about women throughout his campaign. Unfortunately for him, records demonstrate that it is impossible to win the presidency without a sizeable bloc of women. In fact, no candidate has been elected without winning at least 43% of the female vote.
The turnout rate for women has been higher than that for men in every election since 1980. In 2012, 63.7% of women voted compared to 59.8% of men, and in the previous six elections women have largely voted Democrat. A recent CNN poll reveals that 73% of women have a negative view of Trump. Unlike in the primaries, in the November election about 54% of voters will be women.
Trump’s second biggest demographic problem is the growing Latino vote – people he has largely alienated during the primary elections because of his attacks on immigrants. It is becoming increasingly difficult to win the White House if you cannot secure Latino votes, as they make up 17% of the population and form much larger minorities in states such as California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida.
Trump is calculating that his populist anti-establishment message will resonate in north eastern states with large working classes that have traditionally voted Democrat. Of the 18 states that provide the majority of Democrat votes, Trump claims he can gain New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin and cut into Clinton’s base. He is banking on attracting a high turnout among white workers formerly known as “Reagan Democrats.”
On the other hand, Democrats believe they can become more competitive in some traditionally Republican southern and western states, especially those with growing minority populations that feel under attack from Trump’s pandering to racism and xenophobia. These would include Florida, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and Arizona.
One additional indicator also needs to be carefully watched in the upcoming elections. It remains to be seen whether the passion of keeping one of the candidates out of office prevails over the disillusionment with both choices. If not, then turnout in November could be exceptionally low and the outcome will be less predictable.
US FOREIGN POLICY CHOICES
Janusz Bugajski, April 2016
The US primary elections are heading toward a climax in the next two months. And unless there is a dramatic reversal of voter trends, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton will be the presidential candidates at their respective party conventions in July. The real election race will then begin in earnest and both contenders will need to clearly present and debate their foreign policy positions.
Whereas Trump is an unpredictable character, Clinton is a known factor on the international stage having served as US Secretary of State during the first Obama administration. She is likely to continue Obama’s low-key approach to foreign policy and favor prolonged diplomacy. Critics will charge that she focuses too much of her time on social issues such as women’s rights rather than on more threatening strategic questions. Nonetheless, she will reassure America’s allies than no risky initiatives will be undertaken and America will not withdraw from its global responsibilities.
In contrast to Clinton, Trump has generated severe anxiety around the globe in his foreign policy pronouncements. Trump appears to be a mixture of isolationist and aggressor who has lambasted numerous foreign powers, from Mexico to Japan. He has also dismissed NATO as irrelevant, pledged to withdraw US troops from Europe, Japan, and South Korea, favored the development of nuclear weapons by various allies, praised Vladimir Putin as a stellar leader, and threatened to renegotiate or terminate various international free trade agreements.
Some leaders are angered that they have been portrayed as useless freeloaders by Trump, living on the American tax payer. In reality, although the Europeans fail to adequately contribute funds to NATO, all US Allies help finance America’s long-term troop presence in Europe and Asia. Indeed, American generals have recently testified in Congress that it would be more expensive to bring the troops home than to keep them abroad.
During his recent trip to Europe, President Obama tried to reassure foreign leaders that Trump will not become the next US president. They responded skeptically, by pointing out that the White House has been wrong on Trump’s successes for the past six months. World leaders are urgently seeking explanations from Obama as well as Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and Trade Representative Michael Froman on guidance about what they are supposed to say about future US policy.
While Obama spent the last two years reassuring the Central Europeans against aggressive Putinism, he is now reassuring all Europeans against the specter of Trumpism. Some leaders are afraid that if they say anything negative about Trump he will extract revenge when he is elected President. But the biggest fear in Europe is that the U.S. will turn more isolationist, fully withdraw its troops from Europe, and refuse to participate in any security operations to defend its NATO allies.
World leaders are worried what a Trump victory would mean on a range of important issues, including arms negotiations, trade deals, and international funding. Obama administration officials try to assuage such concerns by claiming that Trump will be unable to follow through on his most provocative pronouncements if he enters the White House. The Europeans are not convinced and are seeking to speed up talks on the developing Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) aggreement. There has also been an accelerated level of engagement by foreign capitals at the US Department of Energy, in dealing with climate change, boosting the security of nuclear weapons, and cooperating on several civilian power projects.
In Europe’s east, fears are palpable that Trump would hand Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic region, and other former Soviet territories to Moscow in exchange for alleged cooperation in counter-terrorism. He would end the policy of reassurance and withdraw funding from new NATO initiatives designed to give the Alliance a more effective forward presence on the eastern front. Putin is a master at manipulation and will endeavor to exploit Trump’s naivety.
America’s East Asian allies are especially concerned that Trump will withdraw from US security commitments and initiate a full-scale military evacuation. This would boost Chinese influence in the region, lead to Beijing’s takeover of Taiwan, precipitate an armed conflict between North and South Korea, and potentially provoke war between China and Japan. Trump’s comments that Japan and South Korea should opt to develop nuclear weapons to defend themselves have further heated up the atmosphere.
Many Europeans believe that Trump is arrogant, unscrupulous, and prepared to say and do anything to maintain his populist vote. Some are also becoming anxious that a Trump victory will empower demagogues, populists, and nationalists in their own countries. Several nationalist groups have already reached out to the Trump campaign to offer their collaboration, including France’s National Front, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and Italy’s Northern League. They will feel especially emboldened if Trump actually wins the November elections.
AMERICA’S POPULIST UTOPIAS
Janusz Bugajski, April 2016
All elections involve promises by candidates that they will improve economic conditions and bolster national security. However, America’s current presidential race revolves around two populist candidates who are pledging to deliver some version of utopia, whether of a rightist or a leftist variety.
In the rightist or conservative corner stands billionaire Donald Trump, the leading contender for the Republican Party. His campaign slogan, which promises to restore an imagined historical utopia, is to “Make America Great Again.” Trump appeals to those who feel left behind in global competition and yearn for a simpler past when America was the undisputed richest and strongest global power.
Trump poses as the national savior who will deliver an even more perfect past and his loud and aggressive cult of personality exudes confidence and strength. He is not an egalitarian and does not claim to be a common man, but an anti-establishment elitist, asserting that he is better than any current politician.
Trump proclaims that he can deliver the Promised Land based on his successful business enterprises – studiously avoiding mentioning those businesses that went bankrupt. He asserts that soon after attaining office he will create millions of new jobs, eliminate the national debt, and eradicate the threat of terrorism.
In the leftist or progressive corner stands self-declared democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. One of his key campaign slogans, “The Revolution is Coming,” promises a future egalitarian utopia to the American masses. Sanders, unlike Trump, poses as the common man and has not developed a strong personality cult. Nonetheless, he pledges that his revolution will deliver happiness and prosperity to the vast majority of citizens.
These two utopian visions are underpinned by populist agendas where the similarities overshadow the differences. Although Trump and Sanders boast of being political “outsiders,” in reality both are part of the national elite. Trump is an entrepreneur who has funded numerous politicians over the years to bolster his business interests. Sanders has been in politics for over three decades and has served as a US Congressman for Vermont for almost a decade.
Unlike their communist and fascist predecessors, neither of the current populists focuses on the “working class.” They understand that society today is more diverse and multi-layered than a few decades ago; hence, “the people” is the catch phrase. Sanders disguises the fact that he is a former fellow traveller who tacitly supported various communist regimes from Havana to Moscow. And Trump camouflages the fact that he has been exploiting migrant workers by paying low wages for many years.
Trump’s campaign is a populist insurgency within the Republican Party, consisting of an anti-Washington message designed to mobilize the estranged masses. He focuses in particular on one one aspect of populism – anger at the allegedly corrupt establishment and claims that Americans have been betrayed by their political elites.
Because of his TV shows, Trump is a familiar celebrity to people who feel more comfortable with him than other politicians. He taps into a real fear among poorer whites that they are losing their country, both economically and culturally. Hence, he panders to xenophobic, nationalist, and even racist undercurrents in American society. Trump’s populism is nativist with a core issue of stopping illegal immigration, which allegedly leads to job loss and terrorism.
Sanders has focused his attacks on the economic elites even more so than on the Washington establishment. According to him, 99 percent of the population is exploited by the super rich who brazenly buy out politicians such as Hilary Clinton. Sanders insists that the “billionaire class” has rigged the political and economic systems and he mobilizes the anger of young people against the wealthy while promising free and comprehensive health care and college education.
In terms of national security and foreign policy both of the populists are isolationists. Trump wants to withhold spending on NATO and reduce the defense of allies such as Japan and South Korea. He will only intervene internationally if American interests are directly threatened. Sanders is a pacifist isolationist who would also rather disband unnecessary alliances and withdraw militarily from various regions. And both support curtailing free trade and adopting a more protectionist economic agenda.
Trump and Sanders do not exist in isolation. Both are part of a dramatic populist surge occurring within most Western democracies. Protest parties are spreading throughout Europe and often defy any clear ideology. Their core divers are a sense that the current economy does not work for ordinary people and that immigrants are threatening their culture and identity.
Populists speak directly to the populace and appear authentic and honest unlike the established politicians. Populism can evolve into authoritarianism where it capitalizes on public alienation from political institutions and exploits social anxiety about globalization and multi-culturalism. Some observers believe that growing populism could portend a new era of dictatorship and even violence across Europe and the US.
AMERICA’S UNCIVIL WAR
Janusz Bugajski, March 2016
The presidential election campaign is entering a critical period. The disruption of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago by protestors could be the start of major public confrontations, as the leading Republican candidate continues to radicalize the population.
Trump is a polarizing and divisive figure. He deliberately incites fear, hatred, and anger, and condones violence against protestors during his rallies. He thrives on conflict and draws out the dark side of human behavior. Instead of toning down his rhetoric after the cancelled Chicago event, Trump further inflamed the environment by threatening to disrupt the rallies of his Democrat rivals.
His persistent attacks on immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and other scapegoated groups have provided an aura of legitimacy to racists and xenophobes at Trump gatherings. He has created an “us against them” mentality that can degenerate into violence, while numerous other groups can be targeted for his next verbal assaults. As with all demagogues, Trump deflects responsibility by blaming others for his own divisive tactics, particularly President Barack Obama.
Not surprisingly, Trump has received the endorsement of both White supremacists and Black separatists for his presidency. These marginal but vocal radical groups view Trump as the best political hope for generating a race war that they have fantasized about since the 1960s. Trump’s rhetoric is incendiary and we are beginning to witness a growing public reaction uncontrolled by either party.
Trump’s verbal attacks have also mobilized opposition protestors across the country. What began as small demonstrations have evolved into larger movements that will be encouraged by extensive media coverage and the successful cancellation of a Trump rally.
Although disrupting authorized public meetings is illegal, some people are now asking whether Trump’s free speech can be defined as “hate speech” that can be prosecuted. Regardless of the legal interpretations, the number of protestors is growing and includes a diverse mixture of students, Latinos, African Americans, and outraged Whites of various age groups.
Thus far, we have witnessed fairly well organized and orderly protests, sparked by frustration with Trump’s constant baiting of Muslims and Latinos and anyone who disagrees with him. However, on both sides of the Trump divide there are elements who thrive on violence and will wait for the opportunity to strike.
If the two movements are not better controlled, the hard-core radicals of both left and right variety could escalate from verbal abuse to outright violence. They are a reminder of the violent fascist-communist battles in the streets of Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Some fear that an incident at a rally or street demonstration could turn into a wider conflagration.
Trump’s fellow Republicans have blamed him for encouraging conflict and demanded that he take responsibility to prevent any outbreak of violence at his rallies. All three of his rivals for the party nomination linked Trump directly to the growing conflicts. Ohio Governor John Kasich accused him of creating a “toxic environment” at his rallies.
Trump has also stirred a fierce political debate on America’s relations with the Muslim world and the place of Islam in American society, in which over three million people or one percent of the population declare themselves as Muslim.
If Trump moves nearer to the White House, the US risks an internal campaign against Muslims and the alienation of numerous foreign allies. This will also boost global jihadism against Washington because Trump’s rhetoric plays directly into terrorist hands and is an effective means of recruitment.
Despite claiming that he is a “unifier,” Trump continues to add fuel to the flames by claiming that “Islam hates us,” drawing little distinction between the mainstream religion and radical Islamic terrorism. He asserts that “tremendous hatred” helps to define the Muslim religion, thus casting Christianity as its polar opposite.
In December, Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims from entering the US, “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He has defended these comments despite widespread condemnation from his political opponents. He also asserted that he would target and eliminate the families of terrorists and use torture to extract information from prisoners.
Trump demonstrates a remarkable ignorance about the principles and practice of global Islam. Indeed, his lack of foreign policy knowledge is only matched by his simplistic or non-existent policy prescriptions. Unfortunately, many of his supporters are also poorly informed and are looking for simple solutions to the country’s problems.
Ultimately, Trump’s violent and scapegoating rhetoric will rebound against him whether in the primary ballots or in the general elections in November. Although it may mobilize his angry and gullible supporters, the majority of the American public does not want to see their country descend into ethnic and religious division, and spiral down into conflict and chaos. It is up to them to vote for his Republican and Democrat rivals if they want to avoid any nightmare scenarios.
Janusz Bugajski, March 2016
A series of primary election victories for oligarch Donald Trump has stunned the Republican Party leadership. Trump’s successes have exposed the deep divisions in the Republican Party and threaten a major fracture before or during the party’s national convention in July.
Although the US has a two party system, both the Democrats and Republicans are coalitions of various political interest groups and diverse ideologies. The primary elections are intra-party contests in which the most popular faction prevails or where compromises are reached between them. In the case of the Republicans, such compromises appear remote because Trump is a polarizing figure at war with the traditional Republican establishment.
Trump was allowed to run as a Republican because party leaders and senior statesman calculated that he would bring in an army of new voters due to his populist style. They also believed that he would be overtaken during the primary contests by a more respectable Republican candidate.
However, it did not work the way the leadership had planned. Instead, Trump’s fortune has enabled him to finance his own campaign and his popularity has soared among frustrated American voters. He has mobilized a committed regiment of the electorate that has appeared in every primary. Instead of yielding to the party hierarchy, Trump continually insults them as failures unable to beat the Democrats in national elections.
Republicans fear that Trump’s populism, xenophobia, and economic protectionism will inevitably hand victory to the Democrats who will appeal to a much wider electorate in November. Current public opinion polls indicate that Trump will lose to Hillary Clinton. Moreover, there is a danger that Republicans could also lose many Senate elections in November and fail to emplace their candidate for the key vacancy on the Supreme Court.
In fear of failure, Republican leaders are scheming on how to prevent Trump from gaining the Republican nomination for President. A group of prominent conservative national security experts including Arizona Senator John McCain issued a statement that Trump lacked understanding of foreign affairs and was not qualified to be President. The last Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has blasted Trump as a phony and immoral fraud.
Marko Rubio, one of Trump’s key rivals for the nomination, has attacked him for not being a true conservative and for constantly changing his positions simply in order to get elected. His main current rival for nomination, Ted Cruz, has also denounced Trump as an unpredictable demagogue.
Both moderate and conservative Republicans view Trump as the antithesis of Republicanism. He is an economic nationalist, opposes free trade, favors isolationism, is a hardliner on immigration, and has unclear or flexible positions on social issues that are important for conservative Republicans. This is in stark contrast with Republican traditions of pro-globalization, internationalism, interventionism, and a commitment to small government.
Paradoxically, attacks by Republican leaders may actually harden support for Trump among his core followers. With Trump continuing to accumulate delegates in various states but with no candidate gaining the required majority of 1,237, the July convention promises to be a confrontational showdown.
In 1912, the Republican Party split over its rejection of a comeback attempt by former President Theodore Roosevelt, who subsequently decided to establish a new party. As a result, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the White House. Indeed, the Republican Party itself emerged after a schism in the Whig Party in the 1850s over the question of slavery.
There is a danger in the war against Trump that if he gains the required majority of delegates by the time of the convention, he will be able to change the party itself, while the Republican leadership would be powerless. Such a scenario could dramatically alter the party base, with many moderates and conservatives leaving to form a new organization.
The most likely scenario is that none of the three main Republican candidates, Trump, Cruz, or Rubio, will gain over half the delegates. This could result in a brokered convention in which the candidates will compete for delegates to gain a majority. Ironically, second placed Cruz is also disliked by party leaders. They view him as an ideologically polarizing figure, too conservative for the majority of American voters, and unlikely to defeat Clinton.
Following Cruz’s recent victories in several primaries, it appears that nobody will enter the convention with enough delegates. Assuming that Trump has a plurality, but not a majority, of delegates, Cruz or Rubio can take the nomination away from him by convincing delegates not to support Trump at the national convention.
However, a brokered convention in which Trump loses to another candidate, could also trigger a split in the party. Trump’s supporters will feel cheated and betrayed by the Republican hierarchy and Trump has already indicated that he would be willing to form and fund a third party. In any scenario of fragmentation, only the Democrats would benefit in November.
US ELECTIONS OFFICIALLY LAUNCHED
Janusz Bugajski, February 2016
America’s presidential elections have been officially launched with a series of state primaries for both Republicans and Democrats in the coming weeks. And the race is already heating up with the leading candidates seeking to denigrate their rivals.
The US primaries, held in each state and territory in the country, decide who will be the two candidates in the race for the White House in November. In addition, there is still a possibility that an Independent representative can enter the race to challenge the two party favorites.
The primary elections select state delegates for each candidate depending on the latter’s share of the popular vote. Whoever gains more than half the total number of delegates on a national scale becomes the party choice for President and is formally endorsed at the two national conventions in the summer. The Republican candidate needs 1,237 out of 2,472 available delegates, while the Democrat needs 2,382 out of 4,763 delegates for nomination.
The early primaries are unlikely to determine the ultimate winners but they help to eliminate weaker candidates and better define the choices facing voters. Over the coming month, the primaries come in quick succession in numerous states. In particular, on “Super Tuesday” on 1st March, fifteen states and US territories will hold elections with 29 more by the end of March.
Both the Democrat and Republican fields have narrowed in recent weeks. For the Democrat Party only two candidates are left standing; former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley dropped out of the race after the Iowa Caucus on 2nd February.
The battle between Clinton and Sanders is getting hotter each day after they tied the vote in Iowa and Sanders won the primary in Vermont’s neighboring state of New Hampshire. The core dispute revolves around the question of political purity versus policy pragmatism. Clinton and Sanders have been disputing what it means to be a “progressive” – a euphemism used by liberal Democrats to denote a social democratic agenda.
Indeed, the Democratic Party appears more divided than at any point in its recent history. Sanders charges that anyone, including Clinton, who takes money from Wall Street and has a well-funded PAC (Political Action Committee) does not qualify as a progressive, while Clinton claims that Sanders’ purity would disqualify the majority of Democrats including Obama from being progressive in any way.
The Republican battle is even more fierce. Five Republicans candidates have already dropped out of the race and more are expected to fall away in the coming weeks. Although real estate billionaire Donald Trump has been leading the field for several months, he lost in Iowa to Ted Cruz, an ultra-conservative maverick detested by the Republican establishment.
One winner so far has been Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Senator from Florida. He has benefited from high-profile endorsements and his campaign funds are booming. Rubio has been polling in third place nationwide and could become the prime candidate for moderate Republicans as well as the Republican political establishment, which both Trump and Cruz have deeply alienated. However, Rubio’s youth and lack of policy accomplishments may ultimately work against him.
After disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie from New Jersey may drop out of the race. The three remaining state governors Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich will be looking at Super Tuesday to decide whether to continue in the campaign.
Jeb Bush, brother and son of two former Presidents, has proved the biggest disappointment despite having a massive campaign war chest and declared as the natural Republican nominee. His lack of charisma and muffled message has cost him throughout the campaign and he has gained only 11 percent of the Republican vote thus far. In addition, Bush has been attacked by Trump and Cruz as a Washington insider who is out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Nonetheless, unlike the other two governors, Bush has more viability in larger states, especially in the South and Midwest and he is counting on both Trump and Cruz being seen as unelectable by mainstream America because of their radical positions on a range of domestic issues.
Indeed, the question of “electability” will figure most prominently in the race for the White House. On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders is a self-professed “democratic socialist” – a concept that is anathema to most Americans. He has benefited from votes from idealistic young people and anti-establishment protestors. But this is unlikely to carry over to the large battleground states where moderates, centrists, and independents are unlikely to agree with his statist and big government prescriptions.
Likewise on the Republican side, mainstream moderate America is highly unlikely to vote for a xenophobe such as Trump who has even been castigated by senior members of his own party as a populist demagogue. That said, election season is always full of surprises and this year more than in previous ballots one should expect the unexpected.