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Political scientist Francis Fukuyama about Trump and Putin, U.S. and Russia, nationalism and populism

Protestors on a demonstration at December 19, 2016 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

The founder of The Bell Liza Osetinskaya talks to Francis Fukuyama, American political scientist and political economist, the director of Stanford’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, about Trump and Putin, the U.S.—Russia relations and the future of the world with political populism on the rise. The interview was aired on the CDDRL podcast.

The obvious question that I couldn’t avoid to ask you. How do you see the current role of Russia in the international arena and especially in the United States?

Will go back a little way to say I’m a great admirer of The Bell, so thank you for publishing it. I think that Russia right now is playing a very destructive role in a number of ways. It has tried to position itself as the champion of traditional values but values that are not democratic, basically. So in Russia itself, Putin has used his position to dismantle many of the things that made Russia democratic at one point in 1990s. The independent media have been shut down, it’s very difficult to have any kind of political opposition. He’s running for president but there’s really not a serious opposing candidate.

In general, the government does not like any kind of opposition. That’s the image of strong leadership that he’s trying to project overseas I think he clearly sees both the European Union is and the United States as big competitors. He can’t do anything to truly undermine them but he can weaken them by increasing the distrust of citizens in Western countries for their own democracies. He’s tried to interfere in democratic processes In those places.

Finally, I think in terms of foreign policy it’s quite remarkable. I actually wrote my PhD on Soviet intervention in the Middle East, or at least threats to intervene. Throughout the entire period when the Soviet Union existed they were extremely cautious in using power. And all of that has been thrown out the window with this Syrian intervention where Russia really used its military power in a very direct way to change the outcome. It’s not the most important country in the world but its one that has created a great deal of instability in the region and I think that has not been helpful to long-term stabilization in the region.

What was, in your view, the true role of Russia in the past U.S. presidential elections?

I don’t think that anyone is ever going to be able to prove that it really had a big impact. The problem is actually that Donald Trump won the election by a very small margin. We have this funny institution – the Electoral College – and the reason that he’s president is not that he was more popular. He lost the popular election by 2.8 mln. votes. The reason he lost it was that there were three states that traditionally voted Democratic: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And enough voters switched from Democrat to Republican. He picked up those electoral votes and that’s what made him president. The margin was only 110 thousand in those three states, meaning that if 55 thousand Americans had voted the other way, Hillary Clinton would be president today. Now if the margin is actually only 55 thousand people out of a country of 330 mln then almost anything could explain that election result. It could have been the weather, it could have been the F.B.I. last minute intervention – all sorts of things. So I don’t think we will ever establish whether Russia actually had a decisive role in this. But we do know that they bought a lot of advertising on social media, there are a lot of bots and trolls that were active, so they were certainly trying to influence things.

But do you believe in any sort of collusion?

I don’t. If I had to guess I suspect that Donald Trump himself did not actively collude with the Russians. I think that was probably not true of his son Donald Trump Jr. who seems to be quite happy to work with the Russians. He was delighted when they said they had dirt on Hillary Clinton. His son in law Jared Kushner has also been part of that process so I certainly think that there were people very close to Donald Trump. Did he know that they were doing this? Well, he probably did. But I don’t think anyone is really going to ever prove whether that was the case or not.

Coming back to my initial question. When and why, do you think, the West lost Russia?

I’m not sure that the West lost Russia in the sense that Russia recovered from the economic depression of the 1990s.There were probably forces that would have pushed almost any leadership into a more oppositional kind of stance. I’m not sure that so many people blame NATO expansion for having driven Russia into this very hostile posture. What a lot of Eastern Europeans say is that even if they had not joined NATO, the Russians would still have wanted to have a sphere of influence and to dominate them. That’s one of those questions we are never really going to be able to fully answer. What I actually do believe is that the United States made a lot of really big mistakes in the way it handled Russia.

And I think that is equally serious with the NATO expansion and the bad economic advice we gave Russia in early 1990s. When Boris Yeltsin was president this was the height of what was called ‘the Washington consensus‘, where Americans were advising transitioning economies to privatize on a massive scale and to do the transition to a market economy as quickly as they could.

I think that was a really big mistake because a market economy depends on the building of institutions like property rights, rule of law, impersonal legal system. All of that takes time. The reason there are so many oligarchs in Russia is that Russian state or Soviet state assets were privatized without a rule of law – meaning that the insiders were able to grab the assets that are valuable. They become billionaires, remain in control of their businesses and there is no so-called ‘level playing field’ for other investors. And in that respect, I think the United States, in particular, was giving bad advice. You could have done things more gradually and carefully, the way they were done in certain Eastern European countries. The Chinese have a much more cautious attitude towards this.

Do you have any thoughts about the list of billionaires that was recently released by Treasury as a way to manage Russia and to motivate it to cooperate with the world?

There are two separate questions. The actual list that was submitted was done in a terrible way because, as I understand, in the White House they had prepared a very careful list where they try to identify the real oligarchs that are close to Putin. But at the last minute, the White House wouldn’t allow that to be released.

Why?

Well, because I think Donald Trump does not want to do anything that’s going to offend Putin. I really think that’s the situation. On the other hand, Congress passed a law saying they had to submit a list. So at the last minute, they substitute it with this Forbes list which is not particularly well thought out. So from the standpoint of the competence of the American government, I think this is an extremely embarrassing incident. In principle if they had submitted a good carefully thought out list it would have been very effective because I think a lot of these oligarchs have lots of assets in Europe, in the United States and other places. And if you want to send a message to them, that’s probably a good way of doing it.

I used to be a Forbes editor, as you probably know, I worked on this list about 5 years ago. So I was very much surprised that our work was used in such a special way. But coming back to the more general issue: do you believe Russia still can be a democracy in the traditional Western meaning of this world? Or Russia is completely lost to the West?

I don’t think that anything is inevitable. I think that Russia, like other countries, can go through a social evolution. If, for example, you look at the attitudes of a lot of Russian young people, they’re different from that of the people who are 20-30 years older than them. I think they are better educated, they’ve had a chance to travel, they see the world on the outside more than earlier generations of Russians. So I think that would probably change their attitudes in many ways. So no, I don’t think that it’s inevitable that Russia remains a kind of closed dictatorship.

How to overcome the confrontation between Russia and the West? In principle, do you see any positive scenario?

First of all, the United States needs to develop a good relationship with the Russian people and not necessarily with the regime. I think that it’s going to remain very difficult to work with Putin. But we can certainly try to have contacts of various sorts – economic, cultural – with the Russians. And we just have to be patient in terms of the government to government relationship, because that will depend on decisions that are made on both sides right now. I think the central issue between us is Ukraine, the invasion of Crimea and then this war that’s ongoing in eastern Ukraine. And it was Russia’s decision to launch this war. As long as that is happening I think it’s pretty hard to have better bilateral relations between Russia and the United States. So my hope is that at some point, Russia itself will decide that this war is futile and they don’t need to pursue it. And at that point there could be a longer-term reconciliation.

Well, that’s of course possible. But I also believe it may be a movement from both sides and I wonder what Western democracies should do or shouldn’t do in order to pursue Russia to come back to the normal stable relationship?

I think that part of the problem is the way the United States was treating Russia. After the 1990s we continued to think of it as a country we didn’t take an account of. I think that wounded pride had built up a lot of the resentments on the part of Russians. Part of that could have been solved by more respectful kinds of conversations where we really did talk about our interests.

Let me just give you an example of that. Back in the Bush era in the 2000s, the way we treated Russia was we simply came with a list of demands and said: you must do this, this, this and this. You know, human rights, and you have to accept missile defense, and you have to accept Kosovo as an independent country, and so forth. And if you don’t accept all the items on our list, we can’t deal with you. Rather than dealing with Russia like a great power where you say: OK, we recognize you’ve got your own interests.

In particular, missile defense and Kosovo were issues where we didn’t have a strong interest in pursuing this. And it would have been perfectly possible to go to Russia and say: OK we’ll take a different attitude on both of those but we want something in return. And that’s the way great powers deal with each other: they don’t necessarily agree, but you can actually have a negotiation. So I think that would have been better – that’s in the past now, I don’t think you could resurrect that kind of a conversation – but in principle the relationship we have where we’ve got differing interests, we acknowledge that but talk frankly.

The problem is that on our side I don’t think there’s anyone that can have that conversation because I absolutely do not trust Donald Trump. He keeps saying: wouldn’t it be nice to have a good relationship with Russia and with Putin, and I’m really good at negotiating, so I had to do it. This is where his personality, his character, and his past history absolutely prevent him from being the right person to have that conversation. Because to this day, there’s something very strange about him and Russia. It feeds these theories that the Russians really do have some kind of dirt on him. Because in his own self-interest, you would think, after all this revelation of the Russian meddling in the election he said that was really bad we condemn Russia for it, let’s move on. But yet he’s not able to do that because he doesn’t want to admit that he got any help in the election. And so his vanity prevents him from saying something that actually would be in his own self-interest in terms of American politics but it certainly makes him completely incapable of being a real negotiator with Russia because he’s always going to feel that. He owes them something.

He’s obliged in some way. I’m a foreigner, I’m not in a position to criticize your president, but I tend to agree with you about respect and the point of respect that Vladimir Putin is definitely seeking. I mean, for him respect and the way how the United States treats him is very important and he stressed that many times. And I think when we discuss what is in Putin’s mind – it’s very popular question and matter in the United States now – I think this is definitely one of the important points on the Russian news agenda.

I think that Americans are very used to lecturing other countries about their behavior and so forth. Russia was weak during the1990s so we got into the habit of lecturing Russia a lot and that became inappropriate. I mean, it was never really appropriate, ever, but it was especially wrong when Russia began recovering in the 2000s. So I think the respect issue is there.

Francis Fukuyama. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Let’s turn a little bit from Russia to the issue which is more important to the US listeners. So what is the future over the Western democracy itself given a lot of nationalism and populism trends in the world and particularly in your country.

We’ve been seeing a populist upsurge in many countries in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Russia and now in Britain and the United States where you’ve had popular movements to reverse globalization, to cut these countries off, to stress more narrow form of national identity. These are driven by a number of forces: partly it’s economic because not everybody benefited from globalization. Partly it’s political as people in many countries feel they want a strong leader that’s decisive and going to make decisions and really get things done. Then, finally, there’s the issue that I am currently writing about. This is identity and a cultural issue.

And again, what drives people into politics very often is lack of respect. If people think that they are being ignored, or condemned, or looked down upon, they get very angry because I think all human beings have this basic desire for at least equal dignity and many people, who have not profited from globalization both in Europe and the United States, feel that the elites who have benefited from it are looking down on them, are designing policies that are not helping them and actively hurting them. Immigration then becomes a really big issue, because they feel that this is being imposed on them and it’s taking jobs away, but it’s not. It benefits the elites but it doesn’t benefit them.

Whether that’s true or not is a separate story. But I think that’s you know that’s the feeling and I think that many ordinary Americans who do not live in New York, or San Francisco, or Chicago feel that people that do live in those cities don’t understand their problems, don’t appreciate their way of life. The same thing is true in Britain, outside of London if you go to smaller towns or rural areas people feel disconnected from what goes on in the capital – and so that’s where a lot of the populist resentment is coming from.

Do you think it’s permanent? Or is it just temporary?

It reflects a deeper social condition that has been produced by globalization and in that sense I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon and in fact you can imagine it getting much worse. We’re living here in Silicon Valley with self-driving cars. In another ten or fifteen years they become safe, effective, everybody starts using them. You’ve got three million truck drivers and maybe the same number of taxi and limousine drivers all of whom stand to lose their jobs because of this advance of automation. Along with their families and the people that depend on them – provide service for their cars, feed them lunches and dinners, and all that sort of thing – so this is a continuing problem and it’s not going let up anytime soon. As a result, this is actually going to be a crisis, that may actually deepen rather than just get better over time.

You sound pretty depressive.  I have two follow-ups on that: first, do you think that populism as a way of political life could answer these challenges? And the second one is: how the populism will shape the world?

I don’t think that populism really has an answer, certainly not to the underlying economic problems. The answer that many of them give is protectionism: let’s cut ourselves off, withdraw from the European Union, put up tariff barriers against China or Mexico or other foreign competition. And that’s always been a formula for economic collapse. That’s what happened in the 1930s. And today we’re even more tightly integrated economically, so if we start down that road we’re going to hurt those very people that are unhappy right now. In that respect they don’t have an answer.

What’s troubling from a political standpoint is that populist use popular political support to undermine basic institutions of democracy like the rule of law, like the independent media so Orban, Kaczynski. Putin, Trump – all of them attack the mainstream media. Trump has actually said that mainstream media are enemies of the American people. So I think that in terms of maintaining the health of basic democratic institutions this is this is a very bad thing and we will have to see how much lasting damage is done to our democratic institutions because of this kind of activity

Why exactly is populism dangerous?

There is a lot of different reasons. Socioeconomically it could lead to economic nationalism and therefore a global recession and everybody getting poorer. Again, that happened in the 1930s. There was this famous Smoot-Hawley tariff that was imposed by the United States and as a result, the Great Depression got worse. That’s one possibility.

But I think the populism danger is really in individual liberties because populists don’t like opponents. For example what’s happened in Turkey over the past year and a half is terrible. Tens of thousands of journalists, civil servants, military officers, teachers, academics have been arrested, they’ve lost their livelihood, some of them have been forced to flee the country. So Turkey is really undermining its own elite, the people that it really depends on to make the country run, are being forced out.

Similarly why an intelligent investigative journalist like you is not living in Russia today? Because that political environment doesn’t like critical journalism. Russia needs people like you, but you’re not able to live there and exercise your own profession.

I have to admit that Russia doesn’t have free media as an institution that supports the system of decision making and political competition. It’s sad news for me, but I also look at this in a more systematic way. And I understand that media is not the fourth power in Russia as it is in the U.S. But I want to ask you a tricky question: how would you explain that American economy is significantly growing under leadership that you’ve called populist?

So actually Donald Trump has not carried out a lot of the things he’s threatened to do: he’s not done these big tariffs against Mexico, and China and so forth. Actually, he has behaved more like a traditional conservative Republican in terms of tax cutting and that sort of things.

So in that respect, he hasn’t been as bad as people fear, although we’ll have to see: this is only the end of year one of his administration. Some of the things that he did probably did help: cutting regulations, we were over-regulated. I think in the short run the tax cut that has just passed by Congress is a big stimulus to the economy. But I think in the long-run it’s also very dangerous because it’s like a sugar high: you stimulate a lot of growth but then it creates long deficits and long term problems. And then, when the final slowdown comes it’s much more catastrophic than it would be otherwise. But until that happens, everything looks good — just like it looked good before the Great Crash and in 2008.

In your view, what is Putin and Trump policies? Are both of them populists?

Well, both of them are nationalists. So they don’t like this international liberal cosmopolitan order, where people are able to move freely and mix. This is an issue that Putin has emphasized more than Trump, but they are both at least pretending to defend traditional values: the family, they don’t like gay rights and all kinds of liberal practices that have taken root in Europe and in the U.S. They both think that a strong military is important. They are more interested in projecting hard power that soft power. So in those respects, they have something in common.

What differences do they have?

Well, I think actually Putin is a lot smarter than Trump is. I must say in Putin’s favor that he really does not have that strong hand in terms of his underlying assets, the economy is weak and it’s very dependent on oil. The military is 1/10 the size of the American military – and yet he’s used the assets that he has very effectively. Trump has kind of done the opposite: we’re less effective than we could be. And certainly, in terms of his own domestic political standing, he seems to want to do everything you can to reduce the size of his support base.

You could have reached out to Democrats and independents and built a much broader coalition of people but for some reason, he doesn’t want to do that. So I think that’s weakened him as a president. Ultimately internationally a leader is only as strong as the kind of support that he or she receives back at home. Putin has still got a fairly broad base of support while Trump has an extremely narrow one, so everything he does internationally will be criticized very severely. So that’s another really important difference.

Also, I think they have a very different attitude to migration issues. Compared to the opposition leader Alexei Navalny who says that we need visa regime with the Middle East and Central Asia, Putin kind of behaves in favor of emigrants.

That’s right, that’s one of the things I would not blame Putin for. Russia’s a multicultural country with a reasonable amount of tolerance. He has exploited terrorism as an issue, but not in the way certain other demagogic populist leaders have, including Trump.

I think this is his ideological legacy from the Soviet Union. Because although that was not true and we know that a lot of Jewish people had issues applying to universities, on words the Soviet Union claimed to be a multicultural state. But turning again to the issue of populism. It’s an interesting phenomenon for me that populists appear in any sort of state, either democratic, authoritarian or tyrant. How would you explain that? Do in any way you believe in the greater good of populism, that it could save the country?

Populism is not necessarily bad. It just means that people in a democracy are upset about something. And I think it really depends on how leaders use that anger and channel it. So during the 1930s, you had the Great Depression. Unemployment in the United States was like 20%. A lot of people were suffering, there was a lot of justifiable anger and Franklin Roosevelt used that anger and channeled it towards policies that created the modern American welfare state, which I think was a very important step forward.

But other populists use that same kind of passion for destructive purposes. So, for example, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia was a good case of this. You had a lot of populist nationalism in Serbia. And he saw that he could make a political career by exploiting it and making it more extreme and Serbia and the rest of the Balkans paid a terrible price for it. So I think leadership really matters a lot as well as choices that individual leaders make.

Sometimes you get Nelson Mandela and other times you get  Milosevic.

Did you call Nelson Mandela a populist?

No. But he had a tremendous amount of popular support. And he turned that to very good use.

Do you see any reason for optimism?

Sure, there are reasons. The U.S. institutions thus far have held up pretty well. So they’re not really being destroyed by the current administration. We’ll have to see because the more time goes on,  the more vulnerable they become. But so far they seem to be relatively good. In Europe, voters have rejected the ‘National Front’ in France and ‘Freedom Party’ in the Netherlands. So all of those are positive developments.

I think, there are other things that could be done to get at the underlying some of the causes of this discontent. But for the time being, I think it’s not a completely negative picture. The other thing that’s happening in the world is that there is for the first time in some years coordinated economic growth everywhere. And whatever the discontents of populists, it’s much worse if there’s no growth.

In what way the technological shift will change democracy?

It already has. It plays into people’s sense of identity when you can communicate with people that are just exactly like you, whatever your interests, or ethnicity, or their particular proclivities are. Social media has allowed you to create this little world in which you don’t have to listen to anyone else, you don’t have to deal with people that disagree with you – that had a negative impact on democracy. Automation is behind a lot of the job loss that’s also driving some of the populism.

But it’s good in other ways because the technology allows people to communicate, to organize, to get information. It’s just that we thought at the beginning of the Internet age that it would be all just good, and now we see that there’s a bad side also.

Do you think the blockchain technology could change democracy in any way?

I am not a big fan of the blockchain. You can see certain advantages, but I am still a little bit skeptical that it’s going to be as revolutionary as people say.

That skepticism of the person who sits in the middle of Silicon Valley!

Liza Osetinskaya, The Bell

The podcast was produced by Djurdja Padejski, CDDRL Stanford University, in partnership with The Bell, February 2018.