The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, Russia and omnibalancing

What happens if Trump views his domestic threats as more dire than any foreign threat?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson enter a hall during a meeting in Moscow on April 12. (Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has not been working nearly as hard as the Post’s real reporters. They broke quite the story last night:

The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said….
The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump’s conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said….
Mueller is overseeing a host of investigations involving people who are or were in Trump’s orbit, people familiar with the probe said. The investigation is examining possible contacts with Russian operatives as well as any suspicious financial activity related to those individuals.

The New York Times offered up a similar point about looking into the Trump team’s finances:

A former senior official said Mr. Mueller’s investigation was looking at money laundering by Trump associates. The suspicion is that any cooperation with Russian officials would most likely have been done in exchange for some kind of financial payoff, and that there would have been an effort to hide the payoffs, most likely by routing them through offshore banking centers.

And finally, the Wall Street Journal offers up this tidbit:

While Mr. Ledgett was still in office, he wrote a memo documenting a phone call that [NSA Director] Adm. Rogers had with Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. During the call, the president questioned the veracity of the intelligence community’s judgment that Russia had interfered with the election and also tried to persuade Adm. Rogers to say there was no evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russian officials, they said.

All of this came out on the same day that:

A) The Senate voted 97-2 to reinforce U.S. sanctions against Russia despite the lack of any support for the Trump administration; and

B) The Pentagon agreed to sell $12 billion in fighter aircraft to Qatar, a move that seems not exactly harmonious with the White House’s rhetoric.

So, to sum up: We now know that the special prosecutor is investigating President Trump and checking to see whether anyone on Trump’s team was paid off. Oh, and also, the White House is losing its grip over swaths of foreign policy.

What does this all mean? It might amount to nothing — there’s a big difference between Mueller looking into something and actually finding evidence. But I want to step back and suggest that an international relations theory that used to be applied to the developing world might wind up being applied to the United States.

In 1991, Steven David published an article in World Politics titled “Explaining Third World Alignment.” Going beyond realist balance-of-power theory, David suggested that because leaders in the developing world face acute domestic threats, they might pursue a strategy called “omnibalancing.” His argument in a nutshell:

Whereas balance of power focuses on the state’s need to counter threats from other states, omnibalancing considers internal and external threats to the leadership, and, as a result, it fundamentally alters our understanding of why Third World leaders align as they do and also provides insights that explain a wide range of Third World behavior….
As with the leaders of great powers, Third World leaders, too, seek to appease secondary threats in order to counter those that are more pressing. But in the Third World, this often means appeasing other states (which often pose less pressing threats) in order to counter the more immediate and dangerous domestic threats. They seek to split the alignment against them and focus their energies on their most dangerous (domestic) opponents. To do this they appease the international allies of their domestic opponents. This superficially appears to be “bandwagoning,” that is, a case of a state accommodating a threatening adversary in the hope of appeasing it or sharing in the spoils. But it is better classified as balancing; the accommodation, made to conserve strength for the battle against the prime threat, is part of a general policy of resistance.
Finally, since the dominant goal of Third World leaders is to stay in power, they will sometimes protect themselves at the expense of the interests of the state.

David published this paper in 1991, a year when it would have been laughable to think that omnibalancing explained American foreign policy. In 2017, God help me, I think we need to entertain this possibility. Simply put, my fear is that the Trump White House will choose to tighten its relationship with foreign adversaries because they are viewed as less immediately threatening than either Congress or the special prosecutor.

Senators introduced a provision on June 12 meant to punish Moscow for its alleged meddling in the 2016 election. (Video: Reuters)

Consider that we know, in their post-Comey-firing White House meeting, that Trump told the Russian foreign minister, ““I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” If Trump thought the pressure was great before, one can only imagine how hot he thinks it is in his kitchen now. Furthermore, as Josh Marshall noted, any investigation into the finances of the Trump team will be likely to dredge up something:

Even with my own limited reporting, it is quite clear to me that there are numerous people in Trump’s entourage (or ‘crew’, if you will) including Trump himself whose history and ways of doing business would not survive first contact with real legal scrutiny. It sounds like Mueller sees all of that within his purview, in all likelihood because the far-flung business dealings of Trump and his top associates are the membrane across which collusion and quid pro quos could have been conducted.

My concern is that Trump, a man prone to conspiracy theories, views Congress, the courts and the special counsel as his “more immediate and dangerous domestic threats.” This has already led him to befriend powerful external allies to preserve his standing. This helps to explain why Trump has appeased China, Saudi Arabia and wants desperately to do the same with Russia.

All of this was before Trump found out that he is personally being investigated for obstruction of justice. What does he do now? How far would he and his acolytes pursue an omnibalancing strategy?

Even as divided as 2017 America is, I am not convinced that foreign allies can do much except to sow as much confusion as possible  But just because this would be a futile effort does not preclude Trump from trying to use external allies to defenestrate his local allies. All of the reporting this past week suggests that Trump is in fact that stupid.

This is probably just crazy talk on my part. One of the most frustrating aspects of the Trump presidency is how his administration turns everyone into conspiracy theorists.

Still, the very fact that I can plausibly apply a theory designed for developing countries to the United States, is, to use the language of political science, not good. It is not good at all.