Judging by the jolly photos published by Russian media of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s Oval Office meeting with President Trump, it didn’t look as though Trump and Lavrov were discussing the tough topics: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Crimean annexation, attacks on Russian opposition leaders Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, Aleppo’s obliteration or Russia’s violation of our sovereignty during last year’s presidential election. In his subsequent news conference, Lavrov seemed extremely pleased with both his Oval Office chat and his bilateral meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. I’m sure Lavrov was pleasantly surprised by Trump’s decision to release highly sensitive, classified intelligence to him, a radical departure from the Barack Obama years.
It remains too early to tell how many items on President Vladimir Putin’s wish list Trump will deliver. Trump continues to echo Richard Nixon in his quest for a new détente with Moscow, but other senior members of Trump’s foreign policy team seem more skeptical. One present to Putin, however, has already been delivered — the denigration of American democracy — and it far outweighs any specific ask or intelligence shared. Tragically, this gift could keep on giving well after the end of Trump’s presidency.
Well before Trump, Putin has argued that the United States is no different from any other country in the world, including Russia. Putin rarely tries to celebrate Russia’s democracy. Instead, he cynically suggests that other governments, including American democracy, are similar to Russia’s system of government. Putin and his Kremlin-controlled media outlets propagate to Russians and the world the idea that our democratic institutions are just as flawed as theirs and that our press is not free or impartial, but rather, controlled by oligarchs and the White House. Likewise, Russian propagandists claim that our Congress, political parties and courts are not really independent. In their view, a so-called “deep state” — anchored by the CIA and the military-industrial complex — really controls policymaking, especially foreign policy. And individual American politicians are not bound by norms or ideals, but motivated only by their personal interests. (The Netflix show “House of Cards” became a huge hit among Russian elites when I lived there last.)
It has become much more difficult to argue that the United States’ democracy is unique, admirable or an example for other countries. When I served in the U.S. government, we argued in Moscow, Beijing and Budapest that the United States was a nation governed by laws. Last week, our president fired FBI Director James B. Comey, the most senior government official responsible for investigating the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia during our presidential election. The president did not violate the letter of our Constitution but most certainly violated its spirit. Try explaining this in Moscow, Beijing or Budapest. How does this decision look any different from when autocratic leaders do the same to impede important investigations? Similarly, images of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers removing immigrants from courthouses, airplanes and factories fuel the impression that we have no greater respect for human rights than other countries do.
Every time Trump tweets “fake media,” the Russian state-controlled media applauds. That is exactly its argument. There is no truth, only media manipulation for political purposes. Trump’s own loose commitment to the truth (more than 60 percent of Americans think he is not honest) further reinforces the argument that we Americans are no different from anyone else. Trump said Obama tapped his phones. Putin said he didn’t send troops into eastern Ukraine. What’s the difference between the two of them?
As for “whataboutism,” Trump himself champions these kinds of cynical arguments about our country — not Russia. Harmfully, Trump asserted that “our country does plenty of killing,” when asked about Putin’s actions. When given the chance to correct the record more than a year later, Trump doubled down, saying, “We have a lot of killers … you think our country is so innocent?” That’s exactly the kind of argument that Russian propagandists have used for years to justify some of Putin’s most brutal policies.
Few abroad are inspired by American democracy today. American ambassadors cannot speak credibly about our country as “a shining city upon a hill.” American nongovernmental organizations promoting democracy abroad often include American politicians sharing their democratic experiences in their workshops. Who overseas wants to hear from an American senator these days about the virtues of American democracy? And maybe that’s the outcome Trump wants. Our new president seems decidedly allergic to discussing, let alone promoting, democracy and human rights abroad.
As I’ve argued here before, American democratic institutions remain resilient and will survive Trump.
But the perception of Russia and America’s sameness — that American democracy is no better than any other political system in the world — will linger. That gift to Putin is greater than any other.