America Is Becoming Increasingly Dangerous for the World and Trump Has Nothing to Do with It

One can only guess how many conflicts, tragedies and even wars the traditional political elite’s desperate fight for their blissful if no longer possible past existence will eventually entail, writes Valdai Club programme director Dmitry Suslov.

No matter how the Trump administration and the key US allies objected to this development, the new anti-Moscow sanctions bill that requires Congress to endorse the lifting of almost every single formerly introduced sanction against Russia and actually includes Russia in a new “axis of evil” along with North Korea and Iran is something more than the formalization of a new Cold War between Washington and Moscow. Although the new sanctions will not inflict any more damage on the Russian economy than the earlier package did, this move marks a watershed in US home and foreign policies and the international system as a whole.

It shows what a dangerous and stability-wrecking actor the United States has become both for Russia and the world at large in the process of its inevitable and forced adjustment to a polycentric world that has been developing for 10 years contrary to the US ideological mantras and is increasingly slipping out of control. The traditional US establishment is desperately unprepared to accept this and think about the real reasons of its defeat in November 2016, or even make allowances for something going wrong in their domestic and foreign agendas.

At the same time, they are burning with desire to turn the tables on Trump, to appoint and, most importantly, to punish the culprit who has “stolen” their “victory,” and to prevent if at all possible America’s departure from their beloved “end of history” paradigm. In so doing, they completely disregard relations with allies, global and regional governance, the consequences for US security and economic development, and even the decades-old mechanism of US foreign policy. Neither Capitol Hill, nor the mainstream media will stoop to analyze the likely outcome of what has happened. One can only guess how many conflicts, tragedies and even wars the traditional political elite’s desperate fight for their blissful if no longer possible past existence will eventually entail.

Smart Policy: How Should Russia Respond to US Sanctions? Ivan Timofeev
Despite the huge gap in potential, Moscow is fairly capable of disrupting life for the US government from time to time even at the expense of its own interests. All this raises important questions: what do Washington and Moscow hope to achieve with their sanctions? Can sanctions produce the expected results in both capitals?

The anti-Russian law is primarily an attempt at the exoneration for the November 2016 defeat, simultaneously an aberration as well as a universal disaster. The establishment wants to get something like moral, political compensation. It was quick in answering the question about what went wrong: A “hostile” power, Russia, interfered and things went haywire. Logically, if Trump’s victory was both “wrong” and unlawful and the “well-deserved victory” was stolen from the establishment, then the latter doesn’t have to change.

Moreover, it is not important from a political and psychological point of view that a six-month inquiry has provided no proof what so ever of Russia’s “interference,” let alone of its collusion with the inner circle of the current incumbent. The main thing is to take revenge and punish the “culprit.” But if he has already been punished, there is no point in arguing any further.

The second reason is that they want to hit Trump, speeding up his delegitimation and thus their retaliation. The traditional establishment sees Trump’s election as something like a foreign-aided coup. The “usurper” must be weakened, stripped of legitimacy, forced to leave (of his own will or through impeachment), or at least bind him hand and foot, making it impossible for him to implement his “wrong” policies.

The anti-Russian law is an inalienable part of this process. Hitting a country that has allegedly brought the “usurper” to power will hit back at him. Their logic is simple: since the “usurper” is unwilling to punish the “culprit” who has perpetrated his “coup” for him but on the contrary is talking about the feasibility of improving relations with him, the “patriots” will take the matter into their own hands and make decisions instead of him, while depriving him of an opportunity to pursue a foreign policy of his own, cornering him (it made no sense for Trump to veto the bill, for this would have triggered off even more attacks), and demonstrating the erroneousness of his original intentions. What has happened is a low-key counter-revolutionary coup or, from the point of view of the establishment, legitimate restoration: Control over foreign policy – so far, this little – has been wrested from the “usurper’s” hands and returned to the “right” elite.

Some analysts, including myself, hoped that the House discussion would take longer and the bill’s final wording would be less painful for the administration. There were grounds to believe that the president’s allies in the House (who are rather numerous) would not allow his opponents to restrict his foreign policy freedom so dramatically or weaken his political positions. Compared with the text the Senate approved back in June (many new sanctions included in it were accompanied with reservations that made them non-mandatory), changes of this kind really occurred, but they were not as sweeping as one would like them to be. But it took the Senate one month to approve the bill.

The is in a new wave of Russiagate. With charges of “collusion” with Russia levied at Donald Trump’s family members and his closest allies, even his House supporters decided against taking risks. They did not want to be branded “defenders of Russia” or jeopardize the White House. The latter in the meantime made no attempt to work with Congress the way administrations seeking to modify a bill or bury it usually do. This would have only made impeachment a greater probability.

Trump’s detractors, for their part, focused on passing the bill immediately after his personal meetings with Vladimir Putin. In all likelihood, there were apprehensions that in Hamburg the presidents had come to terms on something greater than had been officially announced (supporting a de-escalation zone in southern Syria, launching a cybersecurity dialogue, and resuming the dialogue on Ukraine) or that cooperation with Russia, if it grew stronger, would reinforce the legitimacy of the current incumbent or would even lead to a partial alleviation of the anti-Russian sanctions.

The third reason is to make it maximally difficult for the “usurper” president to conduct the “wrong” foreign policy and to thwart any possible US departure from the globalist and messianic mainstream. The bill, inspired by the establishment, is depriving the White House even of the slightest chance to evolve a policy of its own vis-à-vis Russia. It was assumed that this policy would emerge step by step after the presidents’ personal meeting and would then reflect the administration’s general foreign policy approaches: de-ideologization, promotion of interests rather than values, renunciation of regime change policies, and cooperation where it can bring material and tangible benefits directly to the United States.

Disagreeing with many of these principles, the establishment thought it is important to prevent this. The act cements the pre-Trump Russia policy and forcibly reinfuses it with a value component. In the entire post-Cold-War period, the present administration is the first to think better of remaking Russia (at least outwardly): It is not lecturing Russia on democracy and human rights, nor making it a target of regime change policy, nor saying that Russia’s internal regime is the reason behind its foreign policy behavior. However, the new act forces the administration to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs by drawing up reports on corruption, oligarchs, including those who cooperate with the system, and in general on how “wrongly” the Russian elite behaves.

In so doing, the traditional establishment would not even muse on the consequences of their revanchist actions for America’s political system, its international standing and the world order as such, about which the establishment is allegedly so much concerned. In the meantime, these consequences are immense.

As they seek to get their own back, while chasing even the thought that they must change something in themselves, the traditionalist elite are turning the United States into that, from which, as they say, they are trying to save it and to which, in their opinion, Donald Trump has been pushing it, to wit, a loose-cannon egoistic power with a ruined system of checks and balances, which disregards the interests of all others and considerations of the common good for the sake of safeguarding its own interests and undermines the system of reciprocal commitments and relations underlying the US “global leadership.”

First of all, by depriving the White House of a chance to conduct its own policy with regard to Russia, the new bill is pulling down the decades-old system of foreign policy checks and balances. It is possibly the most massive (and rather successful) attack on a US president’s foreign policy powers since the failed Bricker Amendment (1954) that suggested restricting the presidential right to sign executive (not requiring congressional ratification) agreements with other states. Trump was right in many ways when he said in a statement that the measure "improperly encroaches on Executive power.” Foreign policy has remained the prerogative of the executive at least since the 1940’s, a prerogative that gave it the needed flexibility.

From now on, however, the conduct of the US policy towards a nuclear superpower, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a state involved in settling some of the most important international conflicts and disputes will be taken over by Congress that regards the Russian Federation and relations with it primarily as a tool to help the traditionalist elite take back its own. This is creating a dangerous precedent for Congress to engage in a tug-of-war with an incumbent administration, when the latter’s foreign policy approaches are seen as wrong. Prospectively, Congress can act in an identical manner on other foreign policy issues. In this case, one can forget about flexibility of US policy.

This is particularly characteristic of the policy of sanctions that has become one of the most actively used foreign policy tools in recent years. As is common knowledge, its efficiency is entirely dependent on flexibility. As soon as the lifting of sanctions falls within Congress purview, the sanctions, as clearly shown by the history of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, cease to be a foreign policy tool and come to determine foreign policy. Everything is thrown upside down.

In effect, Congress has put a time bomb under the next administrations, including the “right” ones. They will be from the start deprived of any opportunity to pursue an independent foreign policy, particularly a policy of sanctions. At the same time, it will not be easy to recover the traditional foreign policy powers.

Secondly, in its revanchist zeal the traditional elite has dealt a blow to relations with US allies in Europe and Asia as well as to America’s international prestige and status as a whole. In passing the anti-Russian bill, Congress has ignored both the open warnings made by Germany, Austria and the EU Commission and more covert displeasure shown from Japan and a number of other US allies. For them, this is a watershed. Previously, the new battle cry, America is Above Everything, was associated solely with the non-system troublemaker Trump. But now it is clear that this principle is no less, or even more characteristic of the traditionalist establishment that was earlier perceived as committed to multilateral policies, respect for the interests of US allies, and a favorable image of the United States. On the contrary, Trump’s reservations make him look quite a responsible and, to some extent, “traditional” president, who cares about the interests of American companies and US allies. It is all upside down once again. It is not Trump but the traditionalist Congress and the Democrats, the self-styled supporters of Atlanticism, that have easily hit the interests of their allies and partners in Europe and Asia for the sake of home policy expediency and the US commercial energy interests. For the first time since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the key EU countries lodged resolute protests over a US priority foreign policy issue. It’s the first time for several decades that the United States and the EU are split over the sanctions (before that Washington and Brussels scrupulously coordinated their policies in this area). Moreover, the EU is bracing up to introduce sanctions against the US. But even if there are no US sanctions against European companies, nor EU retaliation (the White House has already said that it would not introduce sanctions it deems threatening to national security), the emergence of the problem itself indicates that the trans-Atlantic sanctions solidarity, one of the pillars of Western influence in global economy and politics, has collapsed.

As a result, the transformation of trans-Atlantic relations, which, in fact, began even before Trump, is likely to accelerate. For Russia, this opens a window of opportunities for improving relations with the key EU countries and even the EU as a whole, while the Western sanctions policy will be even less effective in a situation where the US and EU are no longer united.

Thirdly, the traditional establishment’s revenge-seeking is affecting global governance, most of which, particularly in the security area, hinges on Russia and Russian-US cooperation. In a situation where Moscow is included in a new “axis of evil,” the anti-Russian sanctions last for decades and the White House feels it his duty to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs, their cooperation in such areas as counterterrorism, WMD proliferation, or settlement of international crises and conflicts will be, mildly speaking, less productive. And generally, a United States committed to the America Above Everything principle is a poor producer of “global public goods.”

But this begs the question: What is next? If the establishment’s defeat in 2016 produced such a destabilizing eruption, what actions and flip-flop behavior should we expect in the future? In this context, it must be kept in mind that America’s further relative weakening and its adjustment to a world changing contrary to its wishes and in defiance of its ideological perceptions is inevitable. It is equally important to take in the fact that the waves of nationalist populism will continue to rage throughout the United States, because the reasons for it have not been removed. Neither will they be removed in the foreseeable future.

This suggests a discouraging conclusion. On the one hand, the United States’ evolution from the “global leader” to a “great power” is quite natural and is required by the logic of development of both the international system and America itself. On the other hand, the weaker the positions of the establishment are and the further the United States evolve in this direction, the more desperate, irresponsible and, consequently, dangerous the traditionalist forces’ retaliations will be. Of course, this will only accelerate the transition.

Two years ago, a well-known US international political scientist, Randall Schweller, wrote in his Valdai paper “Rising Powers and Revisionism in Emerging International Orders” that an enfeebled hegemon was more revisionist and dangerous for international stability than the rising powers. The anti-Russian bill is clear confirmation of this assertion. Faced with unfavorable and uncontrolled processes both in the world and at home, the US establishment, instead of analyzing the reasons, is turning the US into a player who is dangerous for the world. And this will only get worse in the future.

What should Russia do in this situation? By and large, it can do four things.

First of all, a conclusion should be drawn that the confrontation with the USA will not be overcome in the coming years. The new law, whose abolition is not guaranteed even if Russia has a different political regime, is institutionalizing a new Cold War in the long term. The current administration is unable to replace the present Russia policy by a more constructive one. Nor is a relevant opportunity likely to present itself any time soon. Judging by Moscow’s decision to demand that the United States cut the number of its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 persons (an unprecedented figure for peacetime), this conclusion has been made. After Trump, when the establishment will be actively reinfusing the US foreign policy with interventionism, messianism and regime change agendas, while still regarding Moscow as a system-wide enemy, their policy will be even more confrontational and destabilizing.

Secondly, as the United States makes its difficult transition from the “global leader” to a “great power,” everyone should be prepared for new – and even more onerous – surprises than the present-day anti-Russian bill. America will be in a frenzy, as will, by extension, the rest of the world. Direct military clashes or even wars between the United States and other great powers are likely.

Both propositions require that Russia maintain an AMD capability with regard to the US and an overwhelming nuclear superiority over all others. It should also be less dependent on the West in the financial, economic and technological area.

Thirdly, it is important to put Russian policy towards America’s allies and partners in Europe and Asia on a qualitatively new level and use the emerging window of opportunities. In the first place, this refers to the EU grandees like Germany, France and Italy, as well as to Japan, with which strategic dialogues should be relaunched. But, of course, this must not be done at the expense of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership and the policy to create a Greater Eurasian Partnership, which needs to be continued.

Fourthly, relations with the United States should be primarily dedicated to confrontation governance and to cooperation where its lack is fraught with a direct military clash and a qualitative rise in international instability. This primarily concerns cybersecurity, strategic stability, and the Syria conflict. It is also worthwhile to continue a discussion of other topics on the agenda (such as Ukraine), but with an understanding that hardly anything can be achieved with regards to this.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.