Trump and Putin: After Helsinki

July 22, 2018

Former CIA Director John Brennan, numerous pundits and a large part of US public opinion are accusing Trump of treason on the basis of what happened in Helsinki. The accusation is that Trump betrayed his country by endorsing Putin’s denial of meddling over FBI’s and CIA’s view that Russia interfered in the US elections.

This is a highly charged field of discussion. “Anything you say can be used against you.” Unless one is committed to black-or-white view about Putin and his regime as evil, one is in danger of being accused of being an apologetic. “Either you are on our side, or theirs.” But to be silent would only serve to reinforce relations of enmity. A critical theorist must always be, first and foremost, focussing on the “Self” in Self-Other relations and, secondly, on systems of interactions. The Finnish public opinion has been overwhelmingly siding with the US mainstream press. In Russia, as a peace researcher, I would be deconstructing enemy-images about its Others.

Let me now start by making a simple point about the rule of law. Only few of those shouting “treasonous” seem to be concerned that the rule of law requires suspending judgement until there is evidence beyond reasonable doubt. Russian interference in the US election is supposed to have consisted of trolling social media and hacking Democratic National Committee emails. As far as I can see, strong and clear evidence for either remains scant.

The narrative of Russian interference appears to be constructed on the basis of a few facts that may or may not be relevant, anecdotal evidence, and insinuations. In addition, there is the document that tries to provide evidence of Russia’s coordination with Carter Page. And finally, there is the charge of 12 Russian intelligence officers on allegations that they carried out cyber-attacks, but to my knowledge the evidence for these allegations has not been published.

A possible interpretation is that the accusers are confident that the FBI and CIA know the truth and that there are good reasons to trust these bodies and their truthfulness. Episodes such as Iraq 2003 (non-existence of nuclear weapons) may occur but they are exceptions, not the rule. An alternative interpretation is, however, that what we are actually witnessing is politics in the post-truth era. The issue is less about truth than about loyalty to the United States of America. Whether the federal police and “intelligence community” know the truth is thus not the most important thing. What really matters is that the US president (and, by implication, the whole nation, and perhaps the whole Western world) should stand loyal to the FBI and CIA.

From the point of view of international politics, accusations of treason presuppose that Russia is an “enemy” of the US. This is evident in the numerous media statements; the idea is also written in the US constitution:

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.

Being an “enemy” is a social construction – and typically it is a mutual construction in systems of interactions – that has far-reaching consequences to international relations. The standard interpretation of the US constitution is that someone can commit treason against the US in favour of another state only if the US is at war with that state. I.e. only those countries with which the US is at war can be its enemies. Because the US is (at least not yet) at war with Russia, Trump is unlikely to be prosecuted on the basis of criminal law unless the established interpretation changes (for instance in terms of reference to “cyber-war”). This does not prevent him from being impeached in the Congress. In politics, the meaning of “enemy” can be much wider.

Throughout its history, but especially during and since the Cold War, US foreign policy has been constituted by Manichean myths (epic struggles between good vs. evil) and rituals of enemy-construction. I.e. there has been a tendency to first imagine a morally pure ideal: “free market, human rights and democracy”. Secondly, the actuality of the real world is counterpoised to the ideal. There is totalitarianism, tyranny, un-freedom, violation of fundamental human rights and violence. Less radically, there is also the corrupted and sinful world that leans towards state-centrism, collectivism and socialism, although this partially deviant part of the world may be strongly committed to human rights and the principles of liberal democracy (think about the rhetoric of criticising public healthcare system as “socialism”).

Now, even when Trump is accused of “betrayal” rather than “treason”, the implication is that Russia is an enemy (perhaps the enemy of the West). The consequences of this rhetoric can be explored for instance in terms of Alexander Wendt’s well-known “three cultures of anarchy”. In a Kantian culture, other states are friends and there is some we-feeling. Disputes are settled without recourse to violence and often by means of peaceful changes. In our interconnected world, Kantian culture enables common actions and institutions. A Lockean culture is characterized by rivalry and occasional use of force in disputes, but also by respect for others’ sovereignty and for institutions such as diplomacy and international law. In a Hobbesian culture the relations to other states are characterized by enmity. Mistrust dominates. Threat of violence is ubiquitous; and violence may hit without any limits.

From this perspective, what it means to classify Russia as an “enemy” is to slide down toward Hobbesian anarchy and, possibly, war. This is what many of the critics of Trump are in effect instigating, whether they understand that or not. Loyalty to the US (or to the united West) means enmity and possibly war with Russia. With a dose of luck, we survived the Cold War; but will we survive also this conflict?

A further problem is that Trump’s own story is no less enemy-centred. As Matthew D’Ancona puts it in his book on post-truth, the whole point of Trump’s campaign was “to offer the great mass of white voters a series of enemies against whom they could unite, a story in which could play a part, and a mythical man to ‘Make America Great Again’”. Enemy-constructions are occurring simultaneously within the US and internationally and these two processes are interwoven in complex ways.

Some 18 months ago I wrote that “however unlikely it may still be, a ‘civil war’ in the US is not anymore an excluded possibility”. This likelihood seems to be growing as the drama of Trump’s dysfunctional presidency unfolds.

At another level, the problem of the allegations about Russian interference lies with double standards and hypocrisy. The US has been interfering in the domestic politics of dozens of countries, including through meddling with elections, also within the former Soviet Union. In the Helsinki press conference, Putin proposed co-operation in investigations about these matters in both countries. From the American point of view, this proposal is of course scandalous, because the US is good and Russia is evil. If you are on the side of Good and God, you can do no wrong.

A yet further problem lies in the implied idea that Russia played an important causal role in the US 2016 elections. The suggestion is that Trump would not have won without Russia. Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that Russia did try coordinate activities with the Trump team and succeeded in getting a few pieces of fake news into circulation. Did these make any difference? It is of course possible to speculate about a few hundred thousand US voters being influenced by Russian activities, deciding the outcome of the US presidential elections (in 2016, 63 million voted for Trump and 66 million for Clinton). In any election, voters for X can be divided into subgroups in terms of what the decisive issues or reasons for that vote were. If a subgroup is bigger than the margin by which X won, then the issues and reasons especially important for that subgroup can be singled out as “the cause” of the victory. Perhaps just the right group of voters were convinced by the leaked e-mails and Russia-originating fake news to vote for Trump?

A problem is that dozens if not hundreds of issues and events would have been similarly “decisive”. Moreover, this approach to election-analysis draws attention away from those major political and political economy processes that made Trump’s victory possible. Jobs and incomes matter, and there is an intrinsic relation between unemployment-related uncertainty and anxiety. Also, for many Trump voters the main issues seem to have been community and a sense of fairness.

Given the protest nature of Trump’s victory, it is paradoxical that Trump personifies long-standing pathological tendencies in US politics in terms of both what he represents (e.g. replacement of reasoned arguments with entertainment spectacles and “alternative facts”, fortune-making by means of dodgy financial deals) and what he does (e.g. privatisation and deregulation, widening socio-economic inequalities, constructing enemies, strengthening the military, putting US above generalizable rules and principles). The intensification of these pathologies is itself a process.

The situation is dangerous also because the allegations of treason/betrayal, especially if shown to be largely unfounded, might result in strengthening Trump’s autocratic tendencies. Amidst concerns over Latin-Americanisation of US politics, the Trump team may start to see “enemies of people” also within US state institutions, threatening the mythical project of “making America great again”. For Trump and his allies, it may appear necessary to make further exceptions to the rule of law in order to ensure that the President can realise his project without undue interferences from the former political elite or mainstream media. A new era is about to start.

Relations with Russia might become somewhat better, at least temporarily, but at the expense of further erosion of international and global institutions. Sadly, this is also what Putin seems to want. The two men tend to view the world in the same way.

Heikki Patomäki

PS. For a political economy analysis of how we ended up in this mess, see my new book Disintegrative Tendencies in Global Political Economy: Exits and Conflicts (Routledge 2018; chapter 3 discusses Putin and chapter 4 Trump).