The relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin has attracted much media interest. They are meant to have a mutual admiration based on personal similarities (and perhaps the size of their egos). They are both nationalists and like to style themselves as “strong men”. However are there deeper reasons which may drive their potential affinity?
Neoliberalism, or free market ideology, is based on the idea of the primacy of self-interest – “America first” in Trump’s terminology. His potential retreat from post-war American internationalism, by saying that NATO is obsolete for example, is a logical outgrowth of this self-interested world view. There is no margin in fighting with Russia, as he sees it, because the Soviet Union is gone, Russia is a largely market economy and not a direct economic competitor with the United States in many economic sectors. Trump has also said that he thought the European Union would break up. Getting trade concessions from individual European countries, such as Britain, would be easier than from a united and economically strong Europe.
Joseph Stalin famous talked about the Soviet Union seeking to have “socialism in one country”, rather than trying to promote revolution around the globe, as this served to reassure other great powers (although the practice was somewhat different). Many see Trump as “anti-neoliberal”, given his questioning of free trade agreements. However it might be more accurate to argue that he is trying to create a new class compromise in the United States based on a retraction of its overseas commitments – a kind of neoliberalism in one country, where deregulation will be further encouraged and public provision of services, such as healthcare, will be undercut domestically. He will, however, attempt to insulate the country from the impacts of the free market through economic protectionism and also try to “keep the world outside out” through immigration restriction and enforcement. Of course, he will likely continue to promote external economic liberalization to open up markets around the world for American exports, while practicing domestic protectionism, which is what China currently does.
Trump argues he will protect American workers from “unfair” trade practices by China, for example, through tariffs, and corporate tax reductions are meant to spur the economy more generally. A tax holiday or reduction of rates on American corporate profits current held overseas, to avoid taxation, will attract this capital back to the United States it is argued. Tax reductions will partly be paid for by reduced expenditure on foreign aid, “nation building” and overseas security. For example, Trump has tweeted that all American aid to Africa is stolen because corruption is “rampant”.
Trump’s policies fit very well with Putin’s vision for Russia’s role in the emergent new world (dis)order. One of Putin’s main geopolitical advisors, Alexander Dugin, has written numerous books spelling out what the Russian role in world should be, under the banner of “Eurasianism”. He argues that the world should be divided up into zones, with the American’s getting Latin America, in keeping with the so-called Monroe doctrine, and Russia dominating Eurasia, and China and Japan the Pacific Rim, for example.
He talks about the need for Russia’s leader to have a “warlike” attitude as such a strong man is needed to govern a sprawling country of mountain and steppe (grassland). Dugin styles himself as a traditionalist and argues that different cultures should have the right to choose their own method of organization, rather than conforming to an American-driven liberal ideal.
Trump also styles himself as a traditionalist. His vision is one of reverting to and recapturing a lost idyll, where manufacturing jobs were stable and one income families could live the “American dream”. This has a particular foreign lynchpin to it however. According to some Trump supporters the road to making America “great again” runs through Beijing.
Russia is not a direct economic competitor to the US in most sectors, with some exceptions such as arms and perhaps natural resource companies and finance. Trump’s focus is more geo-economic than political. He understands that global political and military power ultimately rest on an economic base. By making “peace” with Russia, he may also be trying to detach it from China and focus more of his attention on reconfiguring the economic relationship with that country. The Russian’s like the relatively isolationist thrust of Trump’s approach to foreign affairs, with Alexander Dugin declaring “in Trump we trust”.
The intelligence agencies in the United States agree that Russia engaged in state-sponsored hacking of the Democratic National Committee in order to heighten the chances of Trump coming to power. In fact during the campaign Trump had publically encouraged such hacking to try to recover emails that Hilary Clinton had deleted. Putin had developed a particular dislike for Clinton after she encouraged the protests against his rule in Russia in 2011.
Putin famously said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century – by implication worse than the Second World War for example. The kind of expansionist, militaristic policies he has pursued in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine, for example, could be seen as a kind of “ghost geopolitics”, which the Soviet Union, which did not have a market-based economy, would have been able to pursue without undermining its currency, for example. However investors dislike uncertainty. The rouble fell dramatically in the wake of Western sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Crimea. However partly through cyber geopolitics, Putin has been able to remake the context in which his actions take place, most notably through helping Trump get elected – hence the machine (information technology) is allowing the ghost (a more militaristic foreign policy) to be reanimated. Russia’s agreement with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to reduce output is also driving oil, Russia’s main export, higher in international markets.
When Putin recently said that the Russian Federation was “stronger than any potential aggressor” he challenged Trump’s ego and sought to proclaim Russia’s re-emergence as a great power, particularly after its recent “victory” in Syria. Trump quickly tweeted that if it had to be an arms race the United States would outmatch and outlast any potential challenger. In response Putin said this was “normal”, perhaps because he too engages in such public displays of military machismo.
More recently Putin has said it may take several months to organize a meeting between himself and Donald Trump; perhaps trying to play the senior partner in the relationship. However, it is difficult to imagine Trump being “out-egoed”. Furthermore Trump must show domestically that he is not subservient to the Russians. Whether the political imperatives of post-Soviet resurgence and the attractions of neoliberalism in one country are compatible and can survive a potential clash of personalities remains to be seen.