In 1919, the US deported 249 alleged “radicals” on a military ship to the Soviet Union. It was a drastic measure, ordered by US president Woodrow Wilson’s administration as a Red Scare swept through the West following Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution.
Since then, especially during the Cold War but even after it ended, no American politician could risk being seen as “soft” on Moscow.
And then Donald Trump came along.
Over the course of his campaign and in remarks that have escalated in recent days, the Republican nominee for US president appears to have departed from almost a century of US policy on Moscow, along the way embracing almost the entirety of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategy for countering US geo-strategic influence in the world.
In his latest remarks, Trump today invited Russia to use its cyber-spying capabilities on his Democratic opponent. He said he hoped that Russia could find and release emails deleted from the personal server kept by Hillary Clinton during her tenure as US secretary of state.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump said. He also said he is open to lifting sanctions against Russia, imposed after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and recognizing Crimea, which Putin annexed.
The remarks may be an attempt to steal the limelight during the Democratic party’s convention this week in Philadelphia, or perhaps Trump is just stirring the pot in a way that he thinks will place the US in an advantageous bargaining position with allies and enemies. But against the backdrop of reports that Moscow hacked and released 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee, experts see a dangerously naive political amateur who is being snookered by Putin, who is a seasoned political poker player, and worry that a Trump presidency might surrender decades of hard-won strategic gain.
“This represents a pretty fundamental repudiation of decades of how the United States has handled” foreign policy toward Moscow, says Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at Georgetown University. “He’s gone off the reservation, unhinged.”
Over the last year, Trump has pilloried the Obama administration, and by extension all four post-Cold War presidents, for what he describes as a hyperactive foreign policy of exporting American-style democracy. He praises the US and its allies for winning World War II and the Cold War, but says they have gone wrong since then. Trump has called NATO passé, and says that if the alliance dissolves, “that’s okay, not the worst thing in the world.” He has suggested that under a Trump presidency, the US would not necessarily abide by its commitment to defend the Baltic republics.
While Trump explains his foreign policies as common sense, critics see something more pragmatic at work: that sympathy with Moscow serves the financial interests of Trump, certain advisors to his campaign, and their business ties to Russia. “There is an old saying that where you stand depends on where you sit, and he seems to be sitting pretty close to the Kremlin,” says Jeff Mankoff, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
In any case, until now, the type of language Trump has used to describe his stance toward Russia would have consigned any candidate to political purgatory. But having already broken numerous, seemingly axiomatic, rules of politics this election season, it is unclear that his latest remarks will do his campaign any harm.