Thursday, May 31, 2012

An American in Moscow: Reporting on the American Elections from Russia

Moscow State University
Arbat street (Арба́т) Moscow

I file this blog from Moscow, Russia. I am attending a conference entitled “Public Administration in the XXI Century: Traditions and Innovations,” sponsored by the School of Public Administration, Moscow State University, May 29-31 (2012). The conference theme was advice to the new Russian authorities after the election of President Putin. I was asked to give a paper about the American elections and US-Russian elections. My paper was entitled: “The 2012 American Elections and Beyond: Explaining the United States to Russian Authorities.” I have provided an excerpt of the paper below which describes the context of paper along with some of my conclusions.

The conference was very high profile this year. The opening session featured several Russian officials and the US Ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael McFaul. I had a chance to meet him on Tuesday. My talk was the first paper of the conference on Wednesday morning and it was well received with significant discussion. Russians are keenly interested in the USA and out elections.

In case you are wondering, I speak very little Russian and rely on my student interpreters.

This was my fourth trip to Moscow and my third to this conference. I have grown to love the city and its people. I have many former students here and enjoy simply walking the streets, sitting in cafes, or walking the streets with them. I have been to the Kremlin, Red Square, the Bolshoi Theater, and many more places.  I returned yesterday to Arbat street (Арба́т) located in the historic center of Moscow. It is a wonderful street of shops, sidewalk cafes, artists, and just fun.  This is a definite recommendation for anyone. Whatever stereotypes you have of Russia, let me say the people are warm and dear.

Here are my remarks from my paper.

The 2012 American Elections and Beyond: Explaining the United States to Russian Authorities
  1. Introduction
    Changing domestic conditions within the Russian Federation present a challenge to its newly elected leaders. These challenges include economic growth and development and responding to changing national demographics and political demands from various constituencies, both old and young. The elections of March 4, 2012 sent important signals to the Russian government regarding the peoples’ expectations for the future, and interpreting and reacting to these electoral demands will be an important task for the authorities.

    But the Russian Federation does not live in isolation. It exists in a global economic-political system where it has to react and interact with other international actors such as other states. These states can have a significant impact upon both the international behavior of Russia but also upon domestic politics. For example, a renewed global recession, a decision by Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, or a fluctuation in global energy prices, could impact the domestic Russian economy.

    Thus, the 2012 Russian elections are not the only ones the authorities should be concerned about. On 6 November 2012 the United States will be holding national elections. In that election voters will select a new president as well members of it national legislature or Congress. The results of these elections could have a significant impact upon Russia. But for many Russians, the American elections are perplexing (the same may be said for many Americans too!). Even though they do not take place until November 2012, many may wonder who will challenge Barack Obama for president, or what political party will control the Congress, or simply more generally, what the election will mean for the future of the United States and with that, the Russian Federation?

    This article briefly describes the current state of American politics and what the 2012 elections may signal for the future of the United States. It seeks to explain the way the American elections operate, the political and economic factors affecting party politics and the elections, and describe possible electoral scenarios and what this might mean for the United States and Russia in 2013 and beyond.  The basic thesis is twofold. First, regardless of the election results in November 2012 there will be significant continuity in American foreign policy, but different election scenarios could produce important changes in American domestic policy that have international consequences, even for Russia. Second, regardless of the election, the United States faces certain long term challenges that will impact it internationally.

  2. Possible Political Scenarios
    Barack Obama will not have an easy election. However, polls again suggest that if he were to run against one of the four current Republican presidential candidates, he would win.  But because the economy or gas prices could change quickly, these factors could affect his reelection. The same is true were Israel to bomb Iran. The best prediction right now is the Obama wins reelection.

    It seems unlikely at this time that the Democrats will be able to win enough seats to regain control of the House of Representatives. It will probably remain Republican. The partisan or party control of the Senate could rest with either the Republicans or Democrats.

    The most likely prediction is that Obama remains president of the United States with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. This would be divided government. Other scenarios are that Obama wins and the Democrats control one house of Congress and the Republicans the other. The third scenario is Republicans win the presidency and take control of one or both houses of Congress. The least likely scenario is that the Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress.

    Regardless of whichever of these scenarios occurs, there will be minimal changes in U.S. foreign policy toward Russia. Moreover, unless Republicans win the presidency and both houses of Congress, there will be minimal change in defense and international policy. If Republicans did take control of Congress and the presidency, there might be more willingness to use military options against Syria or to support Israel. Most of the major changes that might occur after the 2012 elections have an impact more on domestic as opposed to foreign policy. However, failure to agree on budget reductions might also impact the US military budget.

  3. Conclusion:  America in 2013 and Beyond
    It is impossible to predict the outcome of the 2012 American elections. Yet regardless of the results, there will be more continuity than change in American foreign policy. There is no expectation that the United States will change its commitments to Israel or Europe. Relations with Russia will not experience a significant change, although with both the Russian and American elections over and campaign rhetoric done, the two countries may be able to work more constructively on common interests, perhaps including Syria and missile defense in Europe. However, if the Republicans do take control of the presidency and Congress, the United States might increase its military budget and take a more militaristic stand on terrorism and reaffirm military commitments in Afghanistan and take a tougher line against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States might also take a more aggressive stance on missile defense in Europe.

    But the biggest challenges facing the United States are economic. As noted, the country has a very large national debt and budget deficit that needs to be addressed. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the highest ranking military officer in the United States, describes the national debt of the United States as its “biggest security threat”. Reaching agreement on solutions to address this problem may lead to significant budget and spending cuts, including to the military budget. Moreover, America’s relative economic decline in the world and the potential for China to outpace it as the largest economy in the world may compromise the country’s hegemonic political, military and economic status. In short, whoever takes political power in the United States after the 2012 elections; they will face many challenges to the ability of the country in the long term maintaining its military and political status. Yet despite these challenges, the United States will still remain a major geo-political player that the Russian Federation must address for the foreseeable future.

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