Donald Trump’s affinity for Russia has been the one constant throughout his campaign and the transition. He’s said nice things about Mexicans after calling them rapists. He’s said bad things about various GOP leaders within hours of praising them. But his stance on Vladimir Putin never seems to change: He’s “very nice,” “very smart,” and—“unlike what we have in this country”—a “strong leader.”
Trump’s romance with Putin is so striking that observers have understandably been tempted to look for a concrete motive. Perhaps, they suggest, his businesses are being held afloat by loans from Russian banks. Or, they speculate, Trump has been the victim of the longstanding KGB tactic kompromat and is now being blackmailed by the Kremlin.
The fact that we can’t rule out either scenario with confidence is in itself scary. Even so, the best explanation still seems to me to be the simplest one. Trump likes Putin because he admires his strong (read: autocratic) leadership. And he sees him as an ally because he shares Putin’s disdain for the liberal order, preferring a world in which strong powers do what they like in their spheres of influence without having to worry about obeying—much less enforcing—international norms or human rights.
With America’s complicity, the Kremlin will be able to dominate its immediate neighborhood, crushing democracies from Ukraine to Georgia. It will hold a protective hand over autocrats in its wider neighborhood, helping Bashar Al-Assad stay in power in Syria. And it can give Western democracy a destabilizing push by raising fears of a Russian invasion in Central Europe, or the Baltics, and hacking email accounts in Germany and France. All of this has the potential to darken the lives of millions of people.
But it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. As Slate’s Joshua Keating has argued, Russia can engage in a lot of dangerous and disruptive adventurism. In my view, however, it cannot rival America’s (or China’s) bid to shape the world in its own image. For all its recent muscle-flexing, Russia has the 12th biggest economy in the world—just a little bigger than Australia’s, a good bit smaller than South Korea’s. Its neighbors, having suffered from Russian subjugation for many centuries, harbor no particular sympathy for the country. Beyond the Russian-speaking world (and apart from a few world-class ballet troupes), its cultural influence is negligible.
Even Russia’s evident tempering with the U.S. elections hardly changes the fact that it is a diminished nation. Yes, the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta harmed Hillary Clinton. And yes, some of the fake news that influenced voters was directly or indirectly supported by Russia. We will never know for sure, but it’s perfectly possible that these efforts swayed the few thousand voters in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that cost Clinton the presidency. But they don’t even begin to explain how a candidate as extreme as Trump could come within striking distance of winning the election in the first place.
So we shouldn’t fear Putin himself so much as the fact that unprecedented numbers of voters in the United States—and so many other democracies around the world—now long for a Putinesque strongman. If illiberal democracy is on the march everywhere from Warsaw to Paris; if Americans are suddenly willing to cast aside basic political norms to gain partisan advantage; and if more Republicans now have a favorable view of the Russian leader than they do of their own president, all of this has less to do with Vladimir Putin himself than it does with democracy’s fading hold over ordinary citizens.
The same goes for the future of the liberal world order. For the past quarter century, that order was largely shaped by the United States. Unsurprisingly, America’s foreign policymakers rather liked this situation: They could seek to spread the country’s values—and yes, protect its interests—without having to reckon with any great power rival.
Surprisingly, the most vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy—both on the American left and among the foreign policy communities of countries like India, Nigeria, Argentina, or South Korea—rather liked that state of affairs as well: They could push back against the supposed cravenness, corruption, and hypocrisy of the liberal world order without having to think seriously about what (if anything) they might put in its place. Their opposition to institutions like NATO or the World Trade Organization won them occasional, and at times important, concessions. But since America was so dominant, they never worried that other countries might commit worse sins if they usurped America’s status as a hegemon. The election of Donald Trump, and his threatened alliance with Vladimir Putin, changes that. The widespread opposition to the liberal world order may finally have a real impact.
Trump, of course, is not the first American president whose commitment to the liberal world order is less than thorough. Some of his predecessors have been critical of aspects of existing international institutions, like the bureaucratic dysfunction of the United Nations, or were opposed to creating new ones, like the International Criminal Court. All of them have at times been willing to prop up authoritarian regimes when they saw them (rightly or often wrongly) as the only alternatives to communism or theocracy.
But Trump is a departure from the old order in two important ways. First, American leaders have always understood that real responsibility comes with their great power. As Hans Kundnani put it, as a hegemon, the United States set the norms of the international order. But to serve its own interests over the long run, it was also willing to shoulder serious burdens for the globe. This involved straightforward assistance to other countries, as when the United States helped to fortify Western Europe against the threat of communism through the Marshall Plan. It also involved taking on the lion’s share of the financial and military responsibility for projects which might otherwise have been unfeasible because of collective action problems—which explains why it was smart for America to invest vast resources into key public goods like the creation of a system of international law, the protection of its NATO allies, or the fight against piracy in the Indian Ocean.
Trump, unlike his predecessors, does not seem to recognize that any responsibility comes with his great power and is unlikely to tolerate short-term costs for long-term payoffs. That is why he is evidently befuddled by the great lengths to which the United States has historically gone to create international public goods, holds international law in open disdain, will seek restrictions on trade even when these alienate key allies, and has repeatedly undermined America’s longstanding commitment to NATO.
Second, America has, on the whole, been a great boon to the globe’s other liberal democracies. It is true that the list of America’s foreign policy failings is long. There is Vietnam and there is Iraq. There was complicity with the fascist regime in Franco’s Spain and complicity with the autocratic regime in Pinochet’s Chile and complicity with the theocratic regime in today’s Saudi Arabia. And yet, it is just as clear that America’s closest allies are liberal democracies, and that even the most cynical of recent presidents preferred to work with governments that protected human rights and held free elections.
The problem with Trump, then, is not just that he is willing to prop up an authoritarian regime when the alternative seems worse; it is that he seems to dislike many democracies precisely because they are committed to liberal values, and to feel warmly about Putin’s Russia precisely because it is autocratic. The same attitude is likely to guide Trump’s foreign policy in other parts of the world: Under his leadership, and in collaboration with its new Russian ally, America might happily promote any autocracy over any democracy for the smallest of reasons.
Trump’s ascent to power marks the first time in living memory that the liberal world order no longer has a powerful defender. This puts America’s traditional critics in a strange position. To their own surprise, they now have an actual opportunity to topple the system they profess to hate. But if, giddy with their sudden power, they conspire in its destruction, they will quickly discover that the consequences are rather less liberating than they have told themselves.
Many far-left critics of the liberal world order are motivated by an honest rage against the many human rights violations the United States has perpetrated. But their willingness to ally themselves with any enemy of their enemy has left them in the strange position of cheerleading regimes that jail homosexuals, murder dissidents, stone unbelievers, and drop barrel bombs on civilians in Aleppo. The idea that a world that plays by the rules of Russia, China, or Iran would better respect human rights is laughable.
Similarly, in many countries around the world, skepticism about the liberal world order is motivated by honest revulsion at the painful memories of colonialism and the fear that America’s pious talk about liberal values just serves as an excuse to undermine their sovereignty. But the thought that Indian interests would be better served, or the integrity of South Korean territory better protected, or the Middle East more likely to enjoy tolerance and stability if Russia, China, and Iran got to dominate their geographical neighborhoods is delusional.
Left-wing critics like Glenn Greenwald or Noam Chomsky have developed a nice little stand-up routine riffing on liberals who are supposedly chomping at the bit to replay the Cold War. I agree with them that a confrontation between the United States and Russia neither will nor should shape the first half of this century in the way it shaped the second half of the last century. Cold War II is not on the horizon.
And yet, there is one specific way in which I am happy to own the analogy. We once again find ourselves in a global competition of ideas, in which the fate of the world depends in good part on our ability to convince people both at home and abroad of the urgency and nobility of liberal values. Yes, our political system has real failings at home. And yes, the West has at times abused its power abroad. But the right response is neither to abandon democracy nor to dismantle the liberal world order—but to help both live up to their noble aspirations.