Cornering Trump on Russia

26 Feb , 2017 Op-Ed

The scandals and allegations regarding the presumed covert relationship between Donald J. Trump and the Kremlin have become almost a normal part of the daily news cycle and with the resignation of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, after he lied to vice-president Pence about the content of his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the US, the scandal keeps getting traction as more leaks appear on the alleged connections between his administration or campaign with agents of the Russian government.

I don’t know if the allegations are true, but I doubt that Trump systematically or actively engaged with FSB/GRU or other agents of the Kremlin during his campaign. Yes, the Russian Federation was clearly involved in the elections but as an active bystander and Trump’s campaign, as the major beneficiary of Russian involvement was just pleased with the result and used what the Russians published. This post is not about the Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, but about the (potential) effects on the U.S. foreign policy of the narrative that is built around the alleged relationship between Trump and Russia. I argue that the truth is irrelevant *wink wink* in this case and what matters is how this narrative impacts Trump’s administration foreign policy towards Russia and its interests. I contend that by constructing a persuasive and credible narrative on an existing Trump-Russian meddling, one can (1) limit the policy options available to the current administration and the State Department when engaging with Russia on a multitude of topics and (2) can potentially successfully securitize Trump’s engagement (and any potential deal) with Russia as a threat to the U.S. national security.

If Donald Trump is serious about his desire to restart the U.S. relations with the Russian Federation on pragmatic basis, then we could legitimately expect a change in (1) the U.S. foreign policy discourse regarding Russia’s status as a power in the international system, (2) a transactional relationship between the U.S. and Russia on a large variety of current issues, and (3) a relaxation in the U.S. rhetoric regarding the Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria. But this would be considered to be a legitimate shift from the previous administration’s policies on Russia only if the U.S. security and intelligence establishment (including here the security policy-makers in the Congress) would believe that the administration new policies are implemented to benefit the United States. However, if the U.S. security, intelligence, and foreign policy establishment would start to think that the new administration has some troubling connections to the Russians that could impinge upon what is considered to be the legitimate interests of the U.S., then we could reasonably expect that (1) the administration will try to calm down its detractors by adopting a tougher approach and rhetoric towards Russia or/and (2) the Congress and the security establishment would press for a stronger foreign policy towards Russia.

By constructing a compelling narrative that there is reasonable doubt that officials in the Trump administration are (or even the president himself is) working for pro-Russian interests that have the potential to threaten the national security and interests of the United States, then a potential securitizing actor could convince an audience of policy-makers, foreign policy officers, and intelligence officials that the foreign policy of Trump’s administration towards Russia constitutes an existential threat to U.S. national security and subsequently make the audience to systematically and maybe subversively undermine such policy or actions that are perceived as helping Russia. First, I think that such a narrow and sectorial securitization is possible (e.g. securitizing only the policy towards Russia and not the entire Trump foreign policy) due to existing beliefs, ideational predispositions, and historical antipathy of major security policy-makers, intelligence, and State Dep. officials that would be just reconfirmed by allegations of meddling between Trump’s administration and the Kremlin. Second, contrary to most of the existing literature on securitization, I argue that the securitizing actor could use the audience itself to undermine and confute Trump’s policy and discourse on Russia. The existing literature doesn’t consider the possibility that the audience itself (and only the audience) could have the tools to implement measures in response to the perceived “existential threat,” I argue that in fact, this is possible and that in some cases it could be the only possible option available to the securitizing actor.

By doing so, an actor could corner Trump’s foreign policy on Russia, limiting the available policy options, and force the administration to maintain the status quo. At the same time, the Congress authority on foreign policy could be emphasized by limiting (by legislative ways) any potential unwarranted changes in the US foreign policy towards Russia. Finally, I am in no way saying that this is what is happening currently in the U.S. with the Trump-Russia scandal, but what I’ve hypothesized in this post sounds possible and credible enough to be taken into consideration when we analyze what’s happening. We’ll just need to wait and see.


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