At last September’s G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China, Barack Obama put the fear of God into Vladimir Putin. Or at least he tried. Two months earlier, American intelligence officials informed the President they had “high confidence” it was Russian hackers who had broken into computer servers belonging to the Democratic National Committee and transmitted some 20,000 stolen emails to WikiLeaks, which posted the messages on its website. The internal correspondence, revealing institutional favoritism for the party’s eventual presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over her insurgent challenger Bernie Sanders, and released on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, threw the Democrats into disarray, swiftly leading to the resignation of party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz amid accusations that the nominating process was “rigged.” And they were seized upon by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who days later said he hoped Russia was “able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing” from Clinton’s private server.
Frustrated that Russian meddling might throw the presidential election to Trump and thus put his legacy in jeopardy, Obama confronted Putin at the sidelines of the conclave. “Cut it out,” the American President told his counterpart, or face “serious consequences.” It was not reported what, if anything, Putin said in response. But we can gauge the seriousness with which he regarded the titular leader of the free world’s threats by the actions his government took just weeks later, when WikiLeaks dumped a trove of emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, also pilfered by Russian hackers.
What had been hidden in plain sight throughout the campaign was later established with “high confidence” in a report issued by the Director of National Intelligence on January 6: that “Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” an “unprecedented” effort that utilized hacking and strategically-timed leaks, disinformation outlets like RT (formerly “Russia Today”), and internet troll farms devoted to amplifying false stories about the Democratic nominee. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” the Intelligence Community concluded. “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Obama did not wait for the public release of the report to punish Russia. A week prior he had expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives and shut down two waterfront properties owned by the Russian government in Maryland and New York. “All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” Obama said in a statement, adding that Washington’s actions followed “repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior.” But by then, obviously, it was too late.
As his critics never tire of pointing out, Donald Trump indeed won the American presidency with the open connivance of a hostile foreign power. This is a ghastly thing to contemplate, particularly as the Russians are now employing similar means of subterfuge to influence critical elections across the West, most importantly in France and Germany. Many of the president’s conservative defenders, when not outright denying Russia’s role, insist it had minimal effect. But the degree to which Russian meddling aided Trump’s victory is beside the point: the mere fact that Moscow even attempted anything so audacious, and got away with it, should alarm all Americans, regardless of party.
Equally worth considering, however, is a question the new President’s detractors, stricken with a case of highly selective amnesia regarding Obama’s eight years in office, are too blinded by partisanship to ask: What was it about the last President’s foreign policies and general approach to the world that led Vladimir Putin to believe he could get away with his shenanigans, even after a direct threat from Obama himself?
This obliviousness towards the role that Obama’s peculiar approach to leadership and power politics—the essence of which is captured in such well-known phrases as “leading from behind” and “the long game”—might have played in last year’s events manifests itself most blatantly in the anguished handwringing over the state of the “liberal world order”—the global architecture of alliances, treaties, norms, and institutions that America and its allies established after World War II to ensure free trade, the nonviolent settlement of interstate conflict, and the prevention of great power war.
Lamenting the fate of this international system—which has indeed ensured unprecedented global peace and prosperity under American hegemony—has become a key element in the talking points of Obama staffers as they make their way outside the corridors of power. “The new phase we’re in is that the Russians have moved into an offensive posture that threatens the very international order,” former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told the New Yorker. “Putin regime seeks disintegration of the EU, NATO and 70 years of [international] order,” he later tweeted. “GOP cannot look away from hard truth.” In her first public address as a private citizen, former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power warned of how Putin is “taking steps that are weakening the rules-based order that we have benefitted from for seven decades.”
Obama and his sympathizers are right to worry about the state of the liberal world order, and not only because of the boldness displayed by Putin and other authoritarians. On the campaign trail, Trump’s active disdain for the international system and America’s role upholding it—for NATO, for our allies, and for the shared values that link our nation with like-minded democracies around the world—was breathtaking. Even with the President modulating his stance in the past few weeks, the system has been profoundly shaken.
But what many defenders of the liberal world order would rather ignore is that this order was unraveling long before Donald Trump descended the escalator in his gaudy Manhattan tower. When exactly its collapse began will be something for future historians to decide, but the Obama presidency weakened it substantially—perhaps even fatally. Members of the last administration, far from the faithful custodians they imagine themselves to have been, set in motion some of the crises they now decry as threatening long-established agreements and norms. Indeed, Trump’s posture of global retrenchment and coolness towards alliances is in some ways just an outgrowth—a more pungent, nationalistic outgrowth—of Obama’s own doctrine, passive-aggressively described by him as “don’t do stupid shit.”
Today’s liberal sleuths, who prior to this summer could not have told you the difference between Putin and Pushkin, are beside themselves speculating about Trump’s relationship with Russia and how it threatens to undo several generations’ work in structuring the postwar world. And yet paradoxically it’s the Obama Administration’s irresolute relations with Russia that have more than anything else shaken the foundations of the global order.
The Obama Administration’s first major diplomatic initiative upon assuming power in early 2009 was the Russian “reset,” a rapprochement aimed at repairing relations with Moscow in the wake of the August 2008 Georgia War. Predicated on the assumption that its “unilateralist” predecessor, and not the territorially expansionist and increasingly authoritarian Russian regime, was chiefly responsible for a deterioration in relations, the reset’s main plank was a nuclear arms reduction treaty, negotiated with Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev. Many Obamans saw Medvedev as a “modernizer”, and they sought to bolster him, hoping that if he succeeded, Russia could perhaps turn some sort of corner. They failed to see the extent to which Putin was still pulling all the strings from his position as Prime Minister during the much-discussed “tandem” period.
To be sure, every new American Administration comes into office thinking it can “fix” relations with Russia. In this respect, Obama’s efforts were of a piece with his predecessors since the end of the Cold War. But it wasn’t long into the reset when it became painfully apparent that its high aspirations would not be met. Just months after the policy was announced in Geneva with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressing a gimmicky red button (with the wrong Russian word printed on it), the FBI rolled up one of the largest Russian espionage networks in the United States. The Kremlin continued to harden its position in the occupied parts of Georgia as the Obama Administration looked the other way, and it secretly began testing cruise missiles in contravention of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Putin’s return to the Russian Presidency in 2012, following massive demonstrations against his rule, was reportedly greeted with dismay inside the White House. But Obama seemed intent on not revealing these feelings too broadly in the hope that he could still make things work, especially on the question of nuclear disarmament, Obama’s own pet cause. Caught on a hot mic with the lame duck Medvedev in Seoul that March, he asked that he be given some “space” by Putin through the end of the year. “This is my last election,” Obama pleaded. “After my election I have more flexibility.” “I understand,” Medvedev responded. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Putin got a good read of Obama, and decided that he would withhold his cooperation. He forbade USAID from operating in Russia by September, and in a deliberate kick at Obama’s priorities, he backed his country out of a bilateral accord on nonproliferation assistance by October of the same year. In early 2013, Putin instructed his government to start strictly enforcing a draconian law about foreign funding of NGOs in Russia. By June, he offered asylum to Edward Snowden, the greatest pilferer of American national security secrets in history, and his government initiated a crackdown on the LGBT community.
Throughout all this, Obama’s responses were half-hearted at best. Case in point: in late 2012, Congress finally passed the Magnitsky Act, slapping travel and financial sanctions of various Russian officials thought to be connected with the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was imprisoned as part of a larger plot to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from a Western investment fund. Though Obama signed the bill in December, it wasn’t with any enthusiasm; his staff had fought its passage every step of the way because the White House judged it would interfere with bilateral relations. By the second half of 2013, the best Team Obama could muster was a “postponement” of a U.S.-Russia Presidential summit, citing the Snowden asylum as an important precipitating factor.
The next year, things kicked up a notch, but the pattern remained. Russia stealthily invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and proceeded to launch a war in Eastern Ukraine that continues to this day. In response, the Obama Administration did manage to slap a suite of sanctions on Russian officials, but it pointedly refused to do much more—namely, provide defensive weapons to the Ukrainians. For a President who had staked so much of his legacy on denuclearization, he did nothing to live up to U.S. commitments under the Budapest Memorandum—a set of security guarantees made to Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine on the occasion of their giving up their nuclear stockpiles in 1994.
Then, in 2015, Russia intervened military in Syria, ostentatiously claiming it was launching a campaign against the Islamic State in what was the first battle in a global war on terrorism, but instead devoting most of its efforts to bombing the Assad regime’s moderate opponents (some of whom were CIA-equipped and trained). It was a transparent bid to preserve Russian basing in the country, as well as a signal to the region that Moscow was ready to fill the power vacuum left by the Obama Administration’s slow recessional from the region. All the Obama Administration could bring itself to do was have Secretary John Kerry issue toothless demarches against Moscow’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets and humanitarian aid convoys and gravely intone that Russia’s intervention would eventually drag it into a Vietnam-style “quagmire” in Syria.
With Donald Trump holding out the possibility of a strategic alliance with Russia and possibly even the Assad regime to fight ISIS, Obama partisans have engaged in some serious historical revisionism, acting as if it was not until 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, (and thus well into Obama’s second term), that the Russian leader had revealed his true face. “When the history books are written, it will be said that a couple of weeks on the Maidan is where this went from being a Cold War-style competition to a much bigger deal,” Rhodes told the New Yorker. “Putin’s unwillingness to abide by any norms began at that point. It went from provocative to disrespectful of any international boundary.”
This, like the “echo chamber” Rhodes admittedly created among compliant journalists and supposedly non-partisan “experts” to sell the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, is self-serving spin. Putin’s viciously anti-American speech delivered at the 2007 Munich Security Conference—before Barack Obama even announced his presidential candidacy—clearly signaled a sea change in Russian foreign policy. And while Western leaders could perhaps be excused for thinking it all bluster coming after more than half a decade of relative quiescence, the next year’s attack on Georgia should have dispelled any illusions.
And while any Administration can perhaps be forgiven for thinking it could pull off a reset that has steadfastly eluded all of its predecessors, there were no shortage of warnings from friends and allies who clearly knew better. Consider the 2009 open letter penned by 22 Central and East European worthies (including Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa), published shortly after Obama’s reset kicked off, warning that “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.” A prescient paper published the following year by the late Clinton official Ronald Asmus and several of his European colleagues reported on the security concerns of NATO’s new member states in Eastern Europe. “Many of them feel that NATO has been neglecting the possibility of ‘old fashioned’ conflicts like ethnic strife or a clash between states, possibly involving Russia,” they wrote.
The Obama Administration, undeterred by these warnings, pressed on with its reset, cancelling plans to build missile defense capabilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, drastically reducing the American military footprint in Europe, and proclaiming, in the words of Obama, that, “The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world, nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War”—an unsubtle dig on the Atlantic Alliance. And yet now, in their analysis of Trump and Russia, Democrats and liberals who for years ridiculed their critics as provincial “Russophobes” are beginning to sound like Joe McCarthy. Similarly, it is a bit rich to read of former German Foreign Minister (now President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s “astonishment and agitation” at Trump’s repeated dismissal of NATO, this being the man who just a few months earlier had derided NATO training exercises in Eastern Europe as “loud sabre rattling and warmongering.” When pop international affairs guru Ian Bremmer tweets that “Trump’s Russia policy is his single greatest departure from Obama foreign policy,” it is an attempt to whitewash eight years of being soft on Russia.
Former Obama officials like Rhodes like to paint Ukraine as a game-changer—the moment when the Administration stiffened its spine against Moscow. But it wasn’t. Illustrative was its response to Russia’s hacking and leaking of a phone conversation between Victoria Nuland, then the State Department’s top Europe official, and the American Ambassador to Ukraine, in which Nuland said, in passing, “fuck the EU.” Moscow didn’t even bother to wipe its fingerprints; an aide to a Russian Deputy Prime Minister was the first person to link to the clip on Twitter. While wiretapping conversations between diplomats is hardly a new (or rare) element of intelligence collection, publicizing them is. And in retrospect, Moscow’s leak of the Nuland phone call was a foretaste of the tactics it would deploy two years later in the U.S. presidential campaign. Asked if the Administration penalized the Russians for this unprecedented breach of diplomatic protocol, reset architect and former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told the New Yorker “To the best of my knowledge, there was none. I think that was a mistake.”
Of more consequence was the decision not to supply Ukraine with defensive weaponry against its much more powerful neighbor. “We just ignore everything the Russians do in Ukraine because, well, that’s Ukraine and the stakes are so high for Russia there,” is how Evelyn Farkas, the Pentagon’s senior policy official for Russia, characterized the White House reaction to her arguments in favor of arming the Ukrainians in an interview with the New Yorker. Nor was it just in the realm of conventional weaponry where Washington allowed Russia to have the upper hand. “Cyber was an area where we were trying to work with Russia,” Farkas said. “That’s the irony. We were meeting with their big spies, trying to develop some kind of arms control for cyber,” all the while Russia was honing its cyber weapons to be used against the West. This is the context in which Putin would just shrug his shoulders at Obama’s imploration to “cut it out.” Farkas quit the administration in October 2015.
As was the case with Russia, when the United States overlooked a raft of nefarious behavior in order to protect its “reset,” the Obama Administration sacrificed several constitutive components of the liberal world order on the altar of the Iranian nuclear deal. Liberals who criticize Trump’s reluctance to endorse the NATO mutual defense clause, rightly noting how this weakens the alliance’s deterrent credibility against Russia, do not like to be reminded of Obama’s “red line” fiasco, when he explicitly swore to take action against Iran’s client, the Assad regime in Syria should it use chemical weapons and then failed to do so. Nor do they like comparisons of Trump’s castigation of NATO allies for not “paying their bills” with Obama’s calling them “freeloaders. In the failure to back up words with action, Obama’s red line moment did more harm to American credibility than anything Trump has said with regard to NATO. When Iranian hackers launched a series of distributed denial of service attacks on American banks and financial institutions from 2011 to 2013, the United States did not respond because it didn’t want to risk its deal with Iran. “If we had unleashed the fury in response to that DDoS attack, I don’t know if we would have gotten an Iran deal,” the director of cybersecurity at the National Security Council at the time told the New Yorker.
Trump is reaping the whirlwind Obama sowed. The two men may have come to their worldviews from utterly different ideological perspectives—for Trump a belligerent nationalism, for Obama a utopian universalism—but both in their own ways reject America’s traditional role as upholder of the international liberal order. Obama was hesitant to act in Syria or in defense of Ukraine because his ultimate concern was extricating the United States from the Middle East and finding a modus vivendi with Moscow. That it took a direct intervention on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s opponent to wake so many liberals up to the threat Russia poses suggests that their newfound hostility to the Kremlin is a form of partisan special pleading—that they only see Moscow as a problem insofar as it affected their ability to retain the White House. This does not discount the gravity of Russian subversion of American democracy. But it’s become frankly tiresome listening to people who joined in Obama’s mockery of Mitt Romney (the 1980s “want their foreign policy back”) now attempting to outdo each other with Scoop Jackson impersonations without any acknowledgement of how naive and wrong they were.
This inability to draw the proper lessons from the past eight years—to recognize that it was the Obama Administration’s mistaken assumptions and failed policies and not a sudden, 11th-hour transformation on the part of Putin that is to blame for the deterioration in relations between Moscow and Washington—goes a long way toward explaining the penchant for Russia-related conspiracy theorizing among so many liberal Trump critics. To paraphrase a certain someone, “lots of people are saying” that “there’s something going on” between President Trump, his acquaintances, and the Russian regime. The term “Manchurian candidate” is being bandied about quite a bit, as are accusations that the Russians began cultivating the Manhattan real estate developer as far back as his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1987. An ongoing FBI investigation into alleged contacts between Russian intelligence services and several Trump associates, as well as a dossier compiled on Trump by a former MI6 officer, has provided fodder for no end of lurid hypotheses.
There are indeed many unanswered questions about Trump and Russia. (As to the possibility that the Russians have kompromat on Trump related to his 2013 escapades in a Moscow hotel room, how do you sexually blackmail a person incapable of shame?) But all this speculation as to how many times then-Senator Jeff Sessions or Jared Kushner met with the Russian Ambassador obscures the fact that what we already know—what is not disputed—about Trump and Russia, indeed, what we have known since he started running for President in the summer in 2015, is bad enough. Every public statement Trump made about Russia on the campaign trail, from calling Putin a “great” leader to speculating that the annexation of Crimea could be legal, was horrifying. His erstwhile campaign manager Paul Manafort spent years on the payroll of the corrupt, mobbed-up, pro-Russian President of Ukraine. Trump more or less begged the Russians to leak Clinton’s emails, and he repeatedly praised WikiLeaks, a Russian intelligence front, for publishing pilfered DNC communications. What the Intelligence Community revealed to the public in its unclassified report earlier this year should be enough to make anyone who supported Trump pause and reflect upon their unwitting collaboration with a Russian “influence campaign” directly ordered by Vladimir Putin.
The real scandal, the real cause for concern, is what has been staring us all in the face. Donald Trump, regardless of whether or not he is “the Siberian candidate” (as the Times’ Nicholas Kristof labeled him), represents an authentic strain of American politics going back centuries. It is a neo-Jacksonian populist nationalist isolationism, one that harbors a ruthlessly unsentimental view of the world and America’s role in it. It is also, incidentally, a worldview broadly consonant with Russia’s chief foreign policy objective of carving out a regional sphere of interest in its near abroad, something to which neither Ronald Reagan nor Harry Truman nor John F. Kennedy nor Richard Nixon would have acceded. Trump’s attacks on American alliances, indifference toward NATO, contempt for the European Union and disregard for the promotion of human rights and democracy—sincerely held views dating back decades—align closely with Kremlin objectives. One does not need to entertain claims that Putin had Andrew Breitbart killed (one of the more fantastic tales to emerge from the Trump-as-secret-Russian-agent genre) to divine Moscow’s intentions in the 2016 presidential election.
But this reading of Trump also implicates Obama. Because if the former’s Jacksonian isolationism can accommodate Russian revanchism, so too can the latter’s “interconnected world” without American power to back it up. For Obama also sought a reset with Russia, tried to improve relations with adversaries at the expense of allies, oversaw a reduction of American influence in the world, and generally weakened the vaunted “liberal world order.” Democrats have difficulty making the grand strategic arguments about Russia that need to be made because they spent so many years refuting them when Obama was in office.
And it should not go unremarked that in just over three months as president, Trump has managed to launch a missile strike at Putin’s client regime in Syria, approved Montenegro’s accession to NATO, rejected a request from Exxon-Mobil (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s former haunt) to grant a waiver on energy exploration in Russia, and have a senior U.S. military officer call out Moscow for arming the Taliban. In just 100 days, President Trump has arguably done more to frustrate Russia’s global ambitions than Barack Obama did in eight years.
The West won the Cold War because leaders of both parties convinced Americans that we were engaged in a twilight struggle with a strong ideological component. During his two terms in office, Barack Obama repeatedly told the American people that the very notion of inter-state conflict was a thing of the past, and that only small cabals of “hardliners” – foreign and domestic – stood in the way of enduring global harmony. Many Americans, conditioned to believe Obama’s lofty rhetoric that “alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War” were, to use a word favored by his successor, “obsolete,” thus had little understanding of how or why Russia would favor Trump and why that was even a bad thing. And so only by spinning yarns about a Manchurian Candidate can the last administration’s partisans exempt themselves from blame for the shambolic world order they bequeathed.