The Georgian and American electoral calendars are aligned this year, just as they were in 2012. This has led many in Georgia to speculate about who the next American president will be and what that might mean for Georgia. It is not yet possible to answer the first question. The Democratic primary is much more competitive than many expected; and there are about five Republicans who still have a chance of winning their party’s nomination. Moreover, 2016 is shaping up to be a competitive general election as well.
The second question is also difficult to answer with any certainty at this time. Many in Georgia’s political class believe that Republicans are always tougher on Russia, more aggressive on foreign policy and thus better for Georgia. This may be true in some cases, but it is also an oversimplification of how partisanship effects foreign policy that is particularly misleading this year. It has long been true that foreign policy divisions as strong within each major party as they are between Democrats and Republicans. That is very evident in this primary season. Moreover, despite the right wing talking point that President Obama is weak and has not provided enough support to key American allies, including Georgia, actual American policy towards Georgia has remained relatively constant over the course of the last three American presidencies.
It is also likely that between now and the election, there will be talk in Georgia about which American presidential candidates would be more friendly to the United National Movement (UNM) and which would be more sympathetic to the Georgian Dream (GD). This kind of speculation is silly. While it is true that the UNM continues to have substantial influence, largely through the media, on how Georgia is perceived in the west, and enjoys support mostly on the far right of American politics, this will have little bearing on policy regardless of who becomes President. Even Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, the two most hawkish candidates, should they win the election, will not support any move to destabilize Georgia or move away from constitutional processes there, regardless of how charmed they are by UNM rhetoric.
In the bigger picture, Georgia-US relations could change after the next election, not based on which party wins, but upon which candidates win their parties' nominations. The Democratic frontrunner, albeit barely, remains Hillary Clinton. Ms. Clinton along with several of the Republicans including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Jeb Bush share a common view that the US should be actively involved throughout the globe and that American military force can help solve many of the world’s problems. The difference between Ms. Clinton, the Democrat, and Republicans like Mr. Cruz, Mr. Rubio, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Bush with regards to foreign policy, and Georgia in particular, are largely ones of degree rather than kind.
The same cannot be said of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders, the candidate who has made the Democratic primary much more competitive than many expected. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders have taken foreign policy positions and approaches that are distinctly different from the foreign policy establishment represented by the other candidates. Both candidates, despite being from different parties have argued for an American role in the world that is less engaged and less aggressive. Mr. Trump has augmented this position by calling for draconian, and deeply bigoted, policies toward Muslims in the US or those seeking to enter the country. Mr. Sanders, it should be noted, has not engaged in the demagoguery that comes so easily to Mr. Trump.
Winning the New Hampshire primary is not the same as winning the presidency, or even the Democratic or Republican nomination. While Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump must be viewed as legitimate candidates with a real shot of being the nominee of their respective parties, the importance of their victories in New Hampshire should not be overstated, and should not cause panic in Tbilisi. However, their victories reflect trends in the electorate of both major parties that cannot be ignored, and may, in fact, grow in coming years, as well deep divisions around foreign policy in both parties. Additionally, while it is wrong to think that foreign policy drove either Mr. Sanders or Mr. Trump’s strong showings in the primary, their foreign policy views are a key component of the battery of positions and postures that are so appealing to many Democrats and Republicans.
Thus far, Georgia itself has not been an issue in the presidential election, other than peripherally in relationship to Russia. That is unlikely to change unless something dramatic, such as another Russian invasion of Georgia or substantial political instability occurs in Georgia sometime during the next nine months. Accordingly, few relevant policy divisions are based around how Georgia itself is viewed by the different candidates, but the predispositions of those candidates to an active and engaged, militarily and otherwise, American foreign policy.
On questions of Russia policy in particular, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump would both be a significant departure from the bipartisan American policy towards Russia that has been in place more or less since the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Last September, Mr. Trump said, regarding Putin, “I would talk to him, I would get along with him.” In the months since that comment, Mr. Trump has not sought to move away from that position.
Senator Sanders is closer to the political establishment, and to President Obama, on issues relating to Russia than Mr. Trump is. However, Mr. Sanders has also made some comments about Russia that suggest he would take a different approach than the more hawkish candidates in both parties. For example, in October he suggested, somewhat cryptically, that the Russian people would pressure Mr. Putin to reduce Russia’s presence in Syria and Ukraine. It is not clear how that might happen given Russia’s domestic politics.
Continuity is rarely as exciting as the notion of change, but with regards to US-Georgia relations it is a more useful explanatory approach, and will remain so after the next election as well. Even if Mr. Sanders or Mr. Trump wins the election there will be no abrupt volte face but rather a gradual reduction of US involvement in, and concern about, Georgia. The continuity reflects the consensus in the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that has been so powerful in Washington for decades, but it also reflects the paucity of options facing the US with regards to Georgia.
In recent years, US policy towards Georgia could be described as providing political, financial and military support, with some minor variations, regardless of who is in power, offering strong rhetorical support for Georgian goals such as restoring territorial integrity or joining NATO, while doing little to concretely help make those things more likely, and refusing to allow Russia to dominate Georgia. Within this basic framework, there has been some variation. For example, the personal dynamic between Presidents Bush and Saakashvili was unlike that between any other American and Georgian leader, but the basic dynamic of the bilateral relationship has not changed dramatically since Bill Clinton was in the White House.
Nonetheless, the broader trends in the American electorate should be something to which Tbilisi should pay attention. It is certainly possible that both parties will nominate somebody who is committed to an expansive American foreign policy-Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and any leading Republican candidate other than Donald Trump. However, it is also apparent that the energy for both parties lie with outsider candidates, Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders, who have a very different vision of the US in the world, including in Georgia’s region. Regardless of who wins the nominations this year, it is apparent that their remains a significant proportion of the American population who, at least for the moment, is not comfortable with the role the US plays in global affairs. However, it is possible to read too much into that, as the the current presidential campaign should also be seen in the context of oscillation between a foreign policy that is deeply involved in the rest of the world and one that is more disengaged has characterized American foreign policy for more than half a century. Nonetheless, if the US is entering a period of less engagement with the rest of the world, whether that begins with this coming election or four years from now, that is not good news for Georgia.
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.