U.S. politics can mystify foreigners

America can appear unpredictable at times

By Dale R. Herspring

Figuring out America’s presidential election campaign, sometimes challenging for U.S. citizens, is more difficult for foreigners.

Embassies in Washington spend considerable time and effort trying to figure out what the United States “really” thinks or intends to do on a given policy. This is especially true for a leader like Russian President Vladimir Putin and his diplomats. 

Putin understands foreign policy far better than either major U.S. presidential candidate does. This is because he served abroad as a KGB officer and because foreign connections are critical for Russia’s economic lifeblood. 

Not that a U.S. president can ignore foreign policy. A president does so at his peril.  Still, in the United States (as in most countries), internal politics often trump foreign policy when there is a clash. After all, Americans, not foreigners, elect U.S. politicians. 

Only once in my lifetime has a foreign policy issue played a major role in an American presidential election; that was Vietnam. Normally, “It’s the economy, stupid,” sums up the key issue in our presidential elections.

The Department of State can invest considerable time and money working out an arrangement with Russia or another country only to see all the work go up in smoke the minute a key domestic interest group raises a stink. Especially upsetting to diplomats is that the concern may be misguided and actually work against U.S. interests. However, if the individuals expressing the concern can swing votes one way or another, forget foreign concerns. It’s all about votes. 

So what does this mean for Putin, who on the outside looking in? Putin is first and foremost a problem solver. He expects to confront matters directly: “Here is what I propose. You agree? Good, let us seal the deal.”

That sounds fine until the Americans for some domestic reason decide to march in the opposite direction. Consider, for example, the dispute over U.S. defensive missiles in Europe. For a time it looked as if we were making progress. There was a suggestion, which I supported, that Russian missile officers be assigned to the proposed missile bases in Poland and Romania. This would provide Moscow the means to assure itself that the missiles were not aimed at the Kremlin.

However, someone on Capital Hill as well as some on the military side of the Pentagon objected. That was the end of the proposal. From Putin’s vantage point, this was a subterfuge: the United States was not serious about making progress.

Putin also has difficulty understanding the role of Congress. U.S. Sen. John McCain, for example, is a constant thorn in U.S.-Russian relations.  Russian diplomats have often asked how influential this or that senator or representative was. In Russia, it is different. During the Soviet era, members of the Supreme Soviet were nothing more than parrots for the party-government leadership.

Now that has changed.  Members of the Duma or the Federation Council have more authority and autonomy than their predecessors. However, members of parliament are unlikely to speak publicly on important issues unless their comments are cleared with the Kremlin.

I can imagine what the Russian Embassy goes through trying to gauge the importance of a policy statement by a member of Congress. It is hard enough for many Americans involved with policy to figure out where a member of Congress will come down on a certain issue. At least we’re familiar with the culture.

In short,Putin sees the United States as unpredictable. It matters little whether this is the result of internal politics or a leader who cannot make up his mind.

Despite its flaws, I like the American system, even if I do get frustrated with it from time to time.  My purpose is simply to explain what the situation looks like when you walk in someone else’s shoes.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Rela-tions, is a retired U.S. diplomat.

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