Did Russia get its money’s worth?
Vladimir Putin got taken for a ride: That’s one view. A year after Putin did his best to tip the U.S. election to Donald Trump, economic sanctions remain in place on his regime and U.S.-Russia relations have hardly thawed.
But I think to grade Putin only on that bilateral measure is to sell him short. When he ordered his KGB successor agencies to intervene in the election, he had much broader aims. Let’s look at a fuller report card, one year in, based on three goals he likely set himself — remembering that we’re not even one-quarter of the way through this course.
Goal: Diminish U.S. leadership in the world.
Here Putin must be delighted. The Trump administration in one year has undermined U.S. leadership in ways Russia in a decade couldn’t have accomplished on its own.
Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 nations desperate for U.S. protection in confronting Chinese dominance. This month we saw some results: eleven nations signing a TPP agreement without the United States. China strutting across the Asian stage as the undisputed kingpin. Trump finding no takers for his offer of bilateral trade deals.
Meanwhile, the administration is withdrawing from the Paris accord on climate change, making the United States the only nation in the world to do so — again allowing China, despite all its coal burning, to pose as the global leader on the environment. Trump seems close to blowing up the nation’s most successful economic alliance, the trade accord with neighbors Mexico and Canada.
The administration has not withdrawn everywhere — Afghanistan being a notable counterexample. But in much of the globe, polls show respect for and trust in the United States falling sharply. Last week, in a telling development that few Americans even noticed, 23 European countries signed a U.S.-excluding defense pact.
Goal: Undermine faith in democracy.
Here again, Putin must be pleased. With minimal investment, he influenced voters in ways sufficient to cast doubt on the results of a presidential election. Perhaps more remarkable, the incumbent administration has taken almost no steps to prevent him from interfering again, and the majority party in Congress is ambivalent. So the country may be no better protected in 2018 and 2020.
The president’s former campaign chairman and his deputy are under indictment, a former foreign policy adviser has pleaded guilty, and a special prosecutor is, presumably, just getting started. The president, his attorney general, his former national security adviser, his son-in-law and other advisers all have been caught misinforming or giving incomplete information about their relations with Russia.
And if you are thinking, oh, Putin must worry about being caught out? No. The more suspicion falls on the U.S. system, the better it serves his purpose, which is to say: Yes, I may be sleazy and undemocratic, but so are you — only you are more hypocritical.
Meanwhile, the world sees a U.S. president who admires dictators more than democratic leaders. He talks about human rights where convenient (Cuba, Iran, North Korea) and laughs them off elsewhere (Saudi Arabia, the Philippines). As an authoritarian wave washes across the globe, he says: Not our concern.
At home, his government is understaffed, accomplishes little and is proudly underinvesting in research, education and infrastructure — hardly an exemplar for other democracies.
Goal: Turn Americans against each other.
What’s most striking about the fake news planted by Russians is its total cynicism: There’s no belief in anything, only a feeding of suspicion and hatred, an effort to turn religions and ethnic groups against each other and to undermine faith in institutions and in the idea of truth itself.
Putin could hardly have found a better accomplice for this effort than the current White House occupant. From his first-day fiction on inaugural crowds, he has been untethered to the truth. Many of his policies have continued his campaign themes of division: the travel ban, the prohibition-by-tweet of transgender troops, the abandonment of the “dreamers” — and his sudden discovery of judicious evenhandedness when it came to white supremacists in Charlottesville.
Polls show mistrust and partisanship growing, faith in most institutions declining. On the other hand, in the first major electoral test of Trumpism since Trump’s election, voters in Virginia rejected a campaign that relied too heavily on racial division and fear of immigrants and crime.
That Virginia result leads to a bigger point: Russia can do to us only what we allow it to do. Putin is exploiting fissures and tensions that already existed, not creating them. If Americans decide that our country is better than Putin’s vision of it, we can make it so. We can buttress our democratic institutions, reject bigotry and reach out to dreamers, as so many Americans already are doing.
And we can bring his grade-point average down.
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