Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton raises many questions for Georgia both about US-Georgia policy and about the US more generally. The bilateral relationship between the two countries has been strong through many administrations in both Washington and Tbilisi, but many in both places are not sure of the future of that relationship. I would like to be able to add words of comfort and assurance, but am not sure that I can. We simply do not yet know what the Trump administration’s policy towards Georgia will be.
Trump’s Georgia policy will follow from his Russia policy; and that is a reason for concern. During the campaign, Trump had kind words for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, seemed more or less fine with Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and surrounded himself with people like Paul Manafort and Carter Page who have complex and close ties with Russia. Additionally, due to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, questions remain about his financial ties to Moscow. Moreover, the general isolationist thrust of Trump’s foreign policy campaign program resonated very well with his strongest supporters. Given all this, if Trump takes a personal interesting in Russia related policy, it could be very bad for Georgia. A Trump driven Russia policy would almost certainly mean a very different Georgia policy as well, one that would bend much more to Moscow’s will.
Before panicking too much, another possibility should be raised. As Trump begins to staff his administration and prepare to become President in January, he will increasingly turn to more traditional Republicans who hold more traditional conservative views. This is largely because he has nowhere else to turn, particularly for qualified people, but also because his running mate Mike Pence is now leading the transition team. Pence has conventional Republican views on most issues, albeit usually in a more extreme form. Trump and Pence, as many remember, articulated very different views of Putin during the campaign. The mainstream of the Republican Party remains hawkish on Russia and very supportive of Georgia.Therefore, if Trump does not take a personal interest in Russia and Georgia policy, the bilateral relationship between the US and Georgia will remain largely unchanged. A shorthand way to understand this is that if Trump makes Georgia policy it could be a problem for Tbilisi, but if Pence does, Georgia should be ok.
There is, however, another aspect of Trump’s victory that should be of concern to Georgia. The relationship between the US and Georgia should not just be one sided with the US providing assistance and support for Georgia, rather the two countries, and the people as well, should care about each other. This is what defines America’s strongest and most enduring alliances like those, for example, with Australia or the UK. Georgians who care about the US, and its people, must be aware that this is a moment when many Americans are concerned.
Some are concerned for the future of our democracy as they see Trump’s threat to revisit libel laws, crack down on civil liberties and disrespect for institutions like our judiciary system as very troubling. Others are concerned for their physical safety and rights. Muslims who have been through a campaign where the candidate has proposed enhanced scrutiny, banning entrance for all Muslims and the like, Jews who have seen Trump’s team do nothing when supporters have greeted the media with fascist salutes or chants of “Jew S.A.”, while running campaign commercials that cribbed heavily from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, women and girls who have seen their President Elect boast of sexual assault, Mexican Americans who have been called rapists, African Americans who have seen a president whose campaign embraced the ugliest of our America’s white supremacist culture, and LGBT people who are anticipating dramatic rollback of their rights are among those people. These fears are real and are exacerbated by the climate of violent threat that surrounded Trump’s campaign, and should not be dismissed by those who are on the wining side and who belittle fears of those who may look, worship or love differently than they do. Georgians should understand that many Americans are shaken up. I have seen my party lose before, but what we liberal Democrats thought and felt in 1980 or 2000 is something totally different that what many Americans feel today.
Others are concerned that President Trump will continue to exploit racial division as a way to preserve support among his political base. The appointment of Steve Bannon to a senior position in the administration suggests these concerns should be taken seriously. There are many easily imaginable scenarios where a racially incendiary Trump administration makes the US less stable, more violent and less safe. This could easily be exacerbated by deliberate efforts to weaken the institutions that seek to limit executive power. A less stable America obviously will be much less able to help Georgia, but would also raise broader problems for global stability.
On the human level, this means that Georgians would be well served to be know that many Americans today are frightened and will appreciate understanding on that point. On a policy level, Georgia should also be prepared for a US that may be less stable and unified than any time in at least 40 years. An unstable America is one that cannot help its allies and that will turn inward. That is not good for Georgia either.
A tangential point is that many will be tempted to flaunt their poor understanding of American, and for that matter Georgian, politics by comparing Trump and Bidzina Ivanishvili. The similarities are obvious, they are both extremely wealthy, have personal tastes that could be generously described as quirky, and surprised the global political establishment with their victory. The differences however, are more significant. On the personal side, Ivanishvili is a committed family man who built his fortune from nothing, while Trump is a twice divorced hedonist who, in financial reality, is essentially an heir. On the political side, Ivanishvili charted a less confrontational foreign policy course while continuing the fundamental objectives of Georgian foreign policy, while Trump, at least in his campaign, did the precise opposite. Georgia has become more free under Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream while Trump has pledged to make the US less free. Both ran hard fought campaigns, but Trump’s was built around bigotry in a way that none of the major Georgian political parties have embraced in recent years. There are many grounds on which Ivanishvili can be criticized, not least the role he continues to play in governance in Georgia, but to compare him to Trump is to highlight one’s ignorance of both men.
The days since the election on Tuesday have not been like the days following any other election in recent memory. The fear is palpable, the possibility of the erosion of democratic institutions is not just partisan rhetoric anymore. Thoughtful people, some of whom have a deep understanding of Putin’s authoritarian style have warned the American people of what may lay ahead and even the usual calls to support the new President have rung hollow, with some respected members of the political establishment deciding not to join in that chorus.
Even if, as I deeply hope, America’s democratic institutions hold and President Trump is constrained, it is also clear that the US is no longer able to model democratic behavior for the rest of the world. The racism and bigotry of other kinds that were so nastily wielded by one of the campaigns, that patent undemocratic nature of the electoral college and the broad international perception that Donald Trump is axiomatically unqualified to be president of a golf club, let alone the United States of America can on longer be hidden from the rest of the world. These are words that I write with great sadness and assume my fellow Americans will read them with the same sentiment, but they are true.
The real meaning of this election for Georgia will not be known for a while, but people trying to read those tea leaves will badly miss the point if they do not look beyond the Georgia-US relationship. Something very significant has just happened in the US. We do not yet know how this will play out, but the early signs are not good. The outcomes of these domestic questions of stability, racial harmony and democracy will have enormous bearing on what the US will look like, not just for the next four, but potentially much longer. Dramatic changes to the US may not happen, but more imaginable now than ever and would have a big impact on the US relationship with every country and the whole world.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.