Reducing uncertainty is the only thing politics strives to achieve. While legislation might be written to address precise economic, political, or social grievances, the process is an exercise in uncertainty reduction, making sense of highly complex phenomena. The more certain we can be about the future, the less afraid we are to face it.
I was sitting in a cafe in Beirut when I got the news about Vladimir Putin’s re-ascendency to the Kremlin. Lebanon was split, half supporting a man they believe capable of maintaining order in the Middle East, and half criticizing a man they felt was fostering corruption in the Middle East. The days ahead were uncertain.
I was sitting in a cafe in Beirut a year earlier when I got the news about a civil war breaking out in neighboring Syria. Pro- and anti-Syrian fights broke out in Beirut, and I almost got caught a few times between brawls. The days ahead were so uncertain that the streets were all-but empty for a few nights.
I was sitting in a seminar on global order last Tuesday when I got the news that Donald Trump was probably going to be the next American president (at that time the New York Times gave him a 95% chance of winning Florida). I think we—political scientists—were among those most shocked. Particularly in my field. The years ahead are uncertain.
The Western World failed Russia following the end of the Cold War. Instead of bringing Russia into the fold, we alienated the Motherland, leading to Yeltsin’s infamous quip, “Russia isn’t Haiti… Russia will rise again.” Our status quo sense making reduced our Russian uncertainty, buying Russia time to fester and build. But now we have elected a man into office who has a real fighting chance at rekindling America’s relationship with Russia (don’t tell your Trump supporting family members that; they really, really hate it).
The one thing that is certain is that for the next year or two Russia and the US will become closer than ever, and the White House-Kremlin order will look more like a tea room than a war room.
But Trump is not the man Putin thinks he is, and Putin is not the man Trump thinks. Our newfound romance will be based on mutual selfishness, not mutual understanding. Our certainty about Russia is plagued by uncertainty about Russia, and there will come some times when the leaders realize this and butt heads.
Trump has said he supports committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. He has strongly implied he is willing to consider using nuclear weapons against Jihadists. Either of these two events will not only undermine American-Russian relations; they will certainly give Russia the upper hand (at best).
Let’s take nukes. Every sitting president starting with Kennedy has been pressured by military brass (the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Every sitting president has resisted such urge because they understand the concepts of mutual assured destruction and the escalation of force. If Trump uses nuclear weapons against Jihadists in Syria, he will invariably harm Russian interests. This leaves two options. First, Russia can retaliate, leading to a nuclear war (Russia is also rumored to have a doomsday device). This is unlikely, but it’s possible. And second, Russia would take this opportunity to offer an extension of the Russian nuclear umbrella to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other areas where there are overlapping interests. Certainly in such an event, smaller states will feel more secure under the protection of a benign hegemony than a malicious one. Russia will be the moral leader, and the US will be the maniac. I would even predict a Western swing towards Russia.
A nuclear first use scenario is unlikely, but war crimes and crimes against humanity are somewhat more likely. Trump as Commander in Chief has made it clear he’ll play the Dirty Harry cop, quick to temper and quick to violence, and he’ll break any law that restrains his ability to act. And if Abu Ghraib, My Lai, and No Gun Ri have taught us anything, our military service members in the theatre of combat are not immune from becoming monsters. War crimes delegitimize our position as a benign power, and they have long-lasting consequences, both of which will give Russia an increase in power commensurate to our reduction.
Normally I wouldn’t care about balancing. We’ve been building Europe for generations, even allowing Germany to wield considerable power when history tells us Germany can’t be trusted with power. But I don’t think a bipolar system, or a unipolar system with Russia as the only superpower, is likely to allay our uncertainty in a positive way.
Domestically, there’s the common fear among the LGBT community, environmentalists, and secular activists that a Trump Supreme Court will undo generations of progress. To be fair to Trump I don’t think he’s going to put creationism in the classroom, force conversion therapy on people, or allow Florida to be washed away by rising sea levels. Even if he wanted to stack the Supreme Court or pass anti-LGBT laws, the common voter won’t allow their senators and congressional leaders to draft or support such legislation. A Trump SCotUS can only consider laws passed.
But here’s the thing; we don’t know. Our future is certainly uncertain under Trump. I hope he turns out to be the best American president, upholding secularism and human rights, tackling global issues multilaterally, and providing for global stability in constructive ways, but I fear this will not be the case. No one reduced uncertainty when we elected Trump. We merely reinforced Time’s Cycle. Time’s Arrow rounded a bend on November 8, 2016.