The 2016 election in the United States has challenged traditional party views on foreign policy. Populist isolationism is on the rise in the fringes of both the left and the right. Within the debate, U.S. foreign policy regarding Russia has emerged as an important issue with some candidates expressing sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite recent Russian cyber-attacks targeting U.S. political institutions.
Much has changed since the party primaries. The once staggering number of Republican contenders has been reduced to one, Donald Trump, the businessman who rose to the top of the Republican ticket, ultimately capturing the GOP nomination. On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders continued to battle Secretary Hillary Clinton up until the Democratic National Convention, before eventually endorsing her in mid-July.
With less than 10 weeks remaining before the election, the race is essentially between two major candidates: Trump and Clinton. Notwithstanding, this unusual presidential cycle, with some of the least popular presidential candidates in U.S. electoral history, has paved the way for third party options. These include the Libertarian candidate Governor Gary Johnson, the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and the independent candidate Evan McMullin. It must be noted, however, that the chances that a third party candidate could actually become president are close to zero. Johnson and McMullin may be betting on the possibility that neither Trump nor Clinton will win 270 electoral votes, which would mean that the election would be decided in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Neither third party outcome is really plausible. Still, third party candidates can play a vital role in this election. If the American public remains skeptical about the major party nominees, third party candidates could become electoral spoilers.
As the world has focused on campaign trail theatrics and the Rio Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserts an aggressive foreign policy in Ukraine, Syria and around the globe. Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad continue to wreak havoc in Syria with incendiary airstrikes, chemical weapon attacks, and barrel bombs. The Syrian conflict has racked up a death toll of about 470,000, becoming one the most destabilizing conflicts of the 21st Century.
Meanwhile, Russia still illegally occupies Crimea and instigates conflict in eastern Ukraine using their proxies. Ukraine experts have become alarmed at the increased build-up of a Russian military presence in Crimea this past month. Little focus has been paid to the refugees of the Ukraine crisis, with estimates of 1.7 million internally displaced within the country, and over 1.3 million Ukrainians seeking asylum throughout Europe and Russia. Furthermore Russia continues to saber rattle with snap military drills on NATO’s eastern flank, threatening free nations once held captive by the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Putin is paying close attention to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as he should. The foreign policy platforms of some presidential candidates could fundamentally change the role of the United States in the world. The Kremlin surely has candidates that it favors. This is not only expressed by public praise of a candidate from Putin himself, but also through acts of cyberespionage like the hack on the Democratic National Committee. More recently, Russian hackers were behind a breach of two U.S. voter databases, and have targeted think tanks in Washington D.C.
DONALD J. TRUMP
Without a doubt, Donald Trump has repeatedly thrown the Republican foreign policy establishment into a panic. He has turned the tables on traditional conservative foreign policy thought in favor of populist isolationism, which has garnered criticism from his own party leaders.
Early in the Republican primary, when other GOP candidates criticized Russia, Trump praised Vladimir Putin as a leader.
“In terms of leadership, [Putin is] getting an A, and our president is not doing so well,” Trump said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly in September last year.
Putin has also returned praise of Trump, which Trump refused to disavow when pressed by the media.
“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” Trump said.
In response to Trump’s rhetoric, dozens of renowned Republican foreign policy experts signed a letter refusing to support him. Trump’s campaign decisions reflect his bombast as well, including the hiring of Paul Manafort as campaign chairman. Manafort resigned in August, after his financial ties to pro-Russian elements in Ukraine were unveiled. Many of Trump’s foreign policy advisors are uncomfortably cozy with Russia and its advocates. General Michael Flynn is a regular guest on the Kremlin state-sponsored media outlet RT and attended an RT conference in Moscow alongside Putin. Another campaign advisor on foreign policy, Carter Page, has strong financial ties to the Russian government-owned gas giant Gazprom, and recently made speeches in Moscow criticizing U.S. sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Crimea.
Trump’s warm stance on Russia is not only evident in his speeches at rallies, but this rhetoric matches his foreign policy platform. In a New York Times interview with David Sanger and Maggie Haberman, Trump controversially suggested that he would not come to the aid of NATO allies, specifically the Baltic states, if they did not fulfill supposed obligations to the United States.
SANGER: Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid, if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
HABERMAN: And if not?
TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.
Trump later doubled down on his NATO comments, suggesting that allies should pay the United States.
“I want them to pay,” he told a crowd at a rally. “They don’t pay us what they should be paying.” He added, “We have to walk. Within two days they’re calling back! ‘Get back over here, we’ll pay you whatever the hell you want.’”
Trump talks about the NATO 2% GDP spending guideline as if it were protection money owed to the United States. A major party nominee has never publicly suggested that the United States would abandon its allies by refusing to invoke Article V of the NATO treaty – that an attack on one member of NATO is considered an attack against all members. This treaty binding obligation is what cements the alliance together through credible commitment.
If there is any doubt that the United States would come to the defense of the Baltics, it benefits Russia, whose strategic objective is to undermine and weaken the NATO alliance. Article V has been invoked only once, and that was by the Alliance in response to the 9/11 attacks, which kicked off a robust NATO response in Afghanistan. The Baltic states heeded the call to act. Soldiers from the small Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have since died in the defense of the United States.
Regarding Trump’s comments on NATO spending, he is most likely referring to a 2% defense spending guideline discussed as early as the 2006 Riga Summit. Trump is not the first prominent American politician to call on NATO to increase defense spending. President Obama urged NATO members to do the same. In fact, NATO members should increase spending on defense in order to deter a revanchist Russia. However, Trump would strong arm allies to spend more on defense by threatening to default on the alliance all together.
Here are the facts about the politics of 2%:
- The 2% spending goal was at least in discussion since the 2006 Riga NATO Summit, but is not stipulated in the NATO treaty of 1949.
- NATO members do not owe money to the United States, as suggested by Trump. The 2% goal applies to domestic defense budgets of NATO members.
- At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO members reaffirmed their commitment to set a goal to reach 2% GDP for defense by 2024.
- Five NATO members have met 2% defense spending, including Estonia.
- The other Baltic countries, Latvia and Lithuania, are set to reach 2% spending by 2018.
- The trajectory to increase NATO defense spending is clear. Spending has steadily increased for the past five years.
Trump has taken a muddled approach when it comes to supporting Ukraine in their fight for sovereignty. In the past, he has argued that the annexation of Crimea is a European problem, and not much of an issue for the United States. Trump has also controversially stated that Russia is not present in Ukraine.
“[Putin is] not going into Ukraine, okay? Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want,” Trump said in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
Trump then walked back on the comment, suggesting that the people of Crimea feel better off as a part of Russia. In another instance, Trump suggested that he would look into recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia, and lift sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Ukrainian territory.
During the Republican Platform Committee negotiations on foreign policy, Trump advisors swept in to alter the Republican Party’s platform position on Ukraine. The Trump Campaign stripped policy language that called for the United States to send defensive weapons to Ukraine. Trump has since denied that he was personally responsible for the changes.
Trump repeatedly asks “wouldn’t it be great, if we got along with Russia?” In his own words and campaign choices, Trump has shown that he is willing to get along with Russia, no matter what cost that might entail.
SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON
Secretary Hillary Clinton is a veteran of the Washington D.C. foreign policy establishment, having served as Secretary of State under President Barack Obama from 2009-2013. During her tenure in the United States Senate (2001-2009), Clinton served on the Armed Services Committee. Clinton’s positions on Russia are not atypical of a traditional U.S. foreign policy platform. She supports a unified NATO, expresses support for our Baltic allies, and understands the threat that Putin poses.
“Russia is trying to move the boundaries of post-World War II Europe,” Clinton said at the MSNBC Democratic debate in February. “The way that [Putin] is trying to set European countries against one another, seizing territory, holding it in Crimea, beginning to explore whether they could make some inroads in the Baltics.”
Clinton strongly supports the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), whose budget was recently quadrupled by President Obama, to send more military equipment and increase troop rotations on NATO’s eastern flank.
“We [have] got to get NATO back working for the common defense,” Clinton said. “We’ve got to do more to support our partners in NATO, and we have to send a very clear message to Putin that this kind of belligerence, that this kind of testing of boundaries, will have to be responded to.”
Clinton even splits with President Obama on Ukraine, arguing for greater assistance to help the embattled country defend its territorial integrity.
“It’s a difficult, potentially dangerous situation, but the Ukrainian army and ordinary Ukrainians who are fighting against the separatists have proved that they deserve stronger support than we have provided so far,” Clinton said last year.
Clinton has not expressed whether or not she would be in favor of sending lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, nor has she gone into detail on what that support would look like for Ukrainians on the ground.
Despite Clinton’s relatively strong platform on NATO, Russia and Ukraine, she is haunted by “the reset” during her time in as Secretary of State. This policy is often reported as a failed effort by the Obama administration to improve relations with Russia in 2009, a year after their invasion of Georgia. Following this effort, Russia annexed Crimea, fomented unrest in eastern Ukraine, and began intervening in Syria. In 2014, Clinton defended the reset in an interview with the BBC labeling it a “brilliant stroke.”
“We wanted to get Russia on board with tough sanctions against Iran. We wanted to have a new START Treaty to limit nuclear weapons. We wanted to get their help in transiting across through huge country to get things we needed into Afghanistan. We got all that done,” Clinton responded.
GOVERNOR GARY JOHNSON
Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, like Trump, takes a more isolationist stance on U.S. foreign policy. Johnson, like many libertarian thinkers, adheres to non-interventionism that diverges from the standard foreign policy platforms of both Democrats and Republicans.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Johnson was asked to clarify his policy position on NATO and the Baltics. This was specifically in reference to Trump’s comments on NATO commitments. Johnson gave a confused two-sided answer to the question.
“We need to honor our treaty obligations.” Johnson said in the interview, before continuing. “But that said, should they be reexamined, and do we really want to go to war with Russia over the Baltic states? And Russia did become democratic, tearing itself away from the USSR. And the states that we are talking about used to be part of the USSR. So honor those obligations but, going forward, Russia doesn’t have to be our ally but they don’t necessarily need to be a military threat to the U.S. either.”
The answer is conflicting. On one hand, Johnson clarifies the need to honor Article V commitments, however, he suggests uncertainty about fulfilling treaty obligations to NATO members that were formerly a part of the Soviet Union. This leaves an open ended answer on collective defense, which has helped maintain peace in Europe since its inception.
In 2014, the midst of the Ukraine crisis, Johnson was interviewed by RT. The topic of the RT interview shifted to the Ukraine crisis, and Johnson argued that the United States should not be involved in the conflict whatsoever.
“When you look at Ukraine right now, I think that would be analogous to Russia getting involved in Puerto Rico. They’re not going to do it. We shouldn’t get involved in Ukraine,” Johnson said. “There’s no national security interest here at stake.”
Jill Stein has repeatedly taken an anti-NATO stance with a soft platform on authoritarian governments like the Putin regime. Her foreign policy ideas are often viewed through the lens of a conspiracy theorist, arguing that the United States plotted a coup against a “democratically elected” government in Ukraine.
“We helped foment a coup against a democratically-elected government, [resulting in a government] where ultra-nationalists and ex-Nazis came to power,” Stein said in a phone interview with OnTheIssues.org. “Imagine the inverse: if Russia did that in Canada–installed a government hostile to us–we saw something like that in Cuban Missile Crisis–that would not be acceptable to us.”
On supporting NATO allies in Eastern Europe, Stein is sympathetic to Russia.
“It’s important to understand where [Russia is] coming from. The United States, under Bush 1, had an agreement when Germany joined NATO–Russia agreed with the understanding that NATO would not move one inch to the east,” Stein said. “Since then NATO has pursued a policy of basically encircling Russia–including the threat of nukes and drones and so on.”
Not only is this comment concerning, it’s factually incorrect. There is no evidence that the U.S. came to an agreement with Gorbachev to halt eastern NATO expansion. This fallacy is often used as a talking point by Putin himself, to justify the illegal annexation of Crimea.
Stein’s foreign policy positions are also reflected by her choice in a running mate, Ajamu Baraka. Baraka, like Stein, peddles in conspiracy theories. Stein’s VP pick referred to NATO members as “gangster states” while calling the 2014 Syrian elections democratic. Baraka, a self-described “human rights defender,” is arguably sympathetic to dictatorships like the Assad Regime. He has suggested that coverage of Assad’s brutality is exaggerated and propagandized by the West.
“The dominant narrative on Syria, carefully cultivated by Western state propagandists and dutifully disseminated by their auxiliaries in the corporate media, is that the conflict in Syria is a courageous fight on the part of the majority of the Syrian people against the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad,” Baraka wrote.
Baraka echoes Stein, arguing that the Euromaidan in Ukraine was a U.S.-supported coup, and that the United States collaborates with neo-Nazi elements. Baraka also made concerning remarks suggesting that the shooting down of MH17 might be a false flag attack.
“I think that [MH17] is a, I was trying to find the citation, I remember reading, I can’t remember who it was, someone wrote about three weeks ago that we should expect false flag, a major false flag operation in eastern Ukraine that’s going to be blamed on the Russians. And that’s exactly what has happened,” Baraka said in an interview.
Division in the Republican primary led to a third party independent candidate, Evan McMullin. McMullin is often described as an anti-Trump conservative, who maintains an ideological strand of mainstream Republican tenets on foreign policy. McMullin’s view on Russia differs considerably from the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. His time as a senior advisor for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, as well as his background in counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency have provided McMullin significant experience on foreign policy and national security.
On Ukraine, McMullin takes a much stronger position than many of his opponents, and he is the only presidential candidate that has a detailed platform on Ukraine. In particular, McMullin advocates for lethal defensive aid to Ukraine, deviating from both Democratic and Republican platforms on this issue.
“Even though Ukrainian troops are fighting bravely, President Obama refuses to provide Ukrainian forces with the weapons they need to defend their freedom,” McMullin said on the 25th anniversary of Ukrainian independence.
McMullin was not shy to criticize his opponents on their Ukraine policies.
“Shamefully, Donald Trump has defended Putin and his brutality,” McMullin said. “For her part, Hillary Clinton was the architect of this president’s failed policy of reconciliation with Moscow, known as the ‘reset’.”
McMullin calls for a new “Welles Declaration” of non-recognition for the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. The Welles Declaration was a statement by the then-Acting U.S. Secretary of State in 1940, condemning the annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union and refusal to recognize the occupation as legitimate.
“As America did with the illegal Soviet annexation of the Baltic states in during the Cold War, the McMullin Administration would issue a ‘Welles Declaration’ of non-recognition and diplomatic isolation for Crimea,” McMullin’s press release stated. “Crimea’s annexation was illegal, and its Russian-controlled government is illegitimate.”