Lincoln Mitchell

In early 2016 in Georgia, if you had mentioned that you thought the election would be rife with drama, rumors of Russian involvement, accusations of election fraud from both sides for weeks following the election and would usher in enormous potential instability and possibly a different foreign policy course, many would have agreed with you. However, if you had explained that you were speaking of the American elections, rather than the Georgian ones, people would have either looked at you quizzically, or thought you were a little bit meshugenah.

The bizarre nature of the American presidential election and the unexpected victory of Donald Trump has raised many questions for Georgia. Some of these are very specific. Former Georgian President Mikheili Saakashvili has a blustery friendship with Donald Trump going back for many years. The two have not been close recently, but it is not hard to see the similarities in their personalities, styles and tenuous understandings of the meaning of democracy. This may end up meaning nothing for Georgia, but the prospect of the former President, whose party’s defeat in Georgia’s elections this year was yet another blow to his legacy, having a political comeback of sorts due to his friendship with the new American President cannot be ruled out entirely.

Similarly, Donald Trump’s murky relationship with Russia was never fully probed or explained by the candidate during the campaign. Since the election, President-elect Trump has sent very mixed messages about Russia. Some of his appointments, notably Defense Secretary designate James Mattis are Russia hawks with views similar to those of Hillary Clinton, John McCain or others of that foreign policy. Trump himself, and his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, have expressed very different views of Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is too early to tell in what direction President Trump will go with regards to Russia, but it is clear that we are entering a period of uncertainty where Georgia can no longer depend on the US as a solid and unequivocal voice against Russian aggression in countries like Georgia and Ukraine.

There is nothing profound in noting that Trump’s views on Russia and unclear and likely different from the rest of the American foreign policy establishment. The more significant impact of the American election, particularly with regards to Georgia, is that it has the potential to change the central dynamic of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. For decades, the implicit foundation of the relationship was that Georgia was struggling to build a functioning state and democracy and that the US was a stable democracy that could provide technical, political and financial support to Georgia. The second half of that assumption can no longer be taken for granted.

It is possible that Trump will serve out his term, pass a few conservative pieces of legislation and lose in 2020, but there is no guarantee that will happen. It is also possible that Trump will make good on his campaign promises to limit freedoms of speech, will accelerate the Republican Party policy of creating obstacles for nonwhites seeking to exercise their right to vote, run the country with an eye towards his business interests and continue to bully and threaten his political opponents. That will weaken American democracy, exacerbate the instability that is already brewing in the US and render the US a much less valuable ally for Georgia.

Outside of the most cynical corners of the Kremlin or various radical Jihadist movements, most policy makers and planners, in Georgia and elsewhere, would have assumed at almost any point in recent history that US stability was guaranteed, and that although the world was increasingly multipolar, the US would remain the most powerful country in the world for the foreseeable future. Even those who have long predicted American decline, did not see this coming in this way or at this pace.

It should also be remembered that many in Georgia were concerned that the Obama administration would be less supportive of their country than George W. Bush had been. This proved to be baseless, but the situation now is different. Concerns about policy exist, but the impact of a changing America is more significant and has the potential to radically change not just Georgia-US relations, but America’s role in the world more generally.

It is also possible that American political institutions will magically rejuvenate and check the more authoritarian tendencies of the new President, but it is apparent that if the US continues down this road to greater instability and erratic leadership, it will raise enormous challenges to global instability. It is easy to lose sight of this once unthinkable notion as we await announcements about the new cabinet, speculate about what Democrat will be the presidential nominee in 2020, or get distracted by the most recent Tweet from Donald Trump [1]. However, countries like Georgia cannot afford to this as they must determine how to chart a new course in what quickly become a very different world.

[1] Ed., the article was written at 2016 year-end.

Lincoln Mitchell is a writer, pundit and specialist in political development based in New York City and San Francisco. Lincoln has worked on democracy and governance related issues in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He also works with businesses and NGOs globally, particularly in the former Soviet Union.