Welcome to the Era of Oligarch Foreign Policy

Victor Boyko/Getty Images Europe

The news that Rudy Giuliani is headlining a pro-Putin oligarch-funded conference in Armenia today made me think again of something that occurred to me yesterday when I was writing about the Turks, the Saudis and the Trump family: in a phrase, oligarch international relations.

In this case I don’t only mean Russian oligarchs. I mean oligarchs as they exist in many countries. Let’s define them as extremely rich individuals whose wealth either originated with or requires the continued assistance or forbearance of the government in power. With the Giuliani story, to a degree, Rudy’s just slimy. But I do think there’s lots of this stuff going on behind the scenes that we’re not hearing about. With the Rudy story, a source put me on to it. It’s not the hugest deal in itself. But I don’t think there’s been any other mention of it in the US press. I am pretty sure it’s just the tip of the iceberg of Russian and post-Soviet money ties to Trump and people in the Trump entourage.

But let’s go back to the Turks, the Saudis and the Trumps. Foreign relations are complicated and messy enough as it is. But with most Presidents you don’t need to worry that the President is either getting money from or being blackmailed by the leaders of another state. We clearly don’t have that luxury today. We know the suspicions with Russia. We’ve seen them vividly on display with Saudi Arabia over the last two weeks.

We don’t know the full story with the Saudis and the Trump family. But we know a lot. We know that Trump benefited from big flows of Saudi money before he became President. We know because he told us. We know he was twice bailed out from possible bankruptcy by Saudi princes. We know his son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner has built a close relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince. We know Kushner has used that relationship to at least solicit private funds from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which runs in regional foreign policy lock step with the Saudis. We know finally that both countries were working to support and move money to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

My point here is not to say that we know the particular relationship between the Trumps and the Saudis. For these purposes, I don’t think we need to. My point is that whenever there are high stakes decisions to be made in the US-Saudi relationship, there’s really no way to know what is done for policy reasons versus the personal and/or financial interests of President Trump and his family. The same applies to Russia. The same applies to a number of other Gulf states which are either allies or enemies of the Saudis. Even with Turkey in this case, it’s hard to know just what President Erdogan is doing vis a vis the United States because we don’t know what he knows about the relationship between the Trumps and the Saudis.

The possibility, really the probability, of corruption is the most obvious and immediate problem with this situation. But everything also simply becomes more opaque. Foreign relations are by their nature secretive. But in usually we can have a relative confidence that the President and his or her top advisors have a general view of foreign policy, an ideological position or way of approaching foreign relations, and they are using that map to make decisions which they believe are in the best interests of the United States.

That doesn’t mean things are hunky-dory. That can lead to all sorts of terrible decisions. There’s the Iraq War, the Vietnam War, various scandals and failed interventions. Many suspected both President Bushes of friendliness to the oil industry because of their family’s history in the oil business. The same with James Baker. People rightly suspected that Vice President Cheney’s push for privatizing government functions in the national security arena was tied to his being the former Chairman of Halliburton. But these examples are just qualitatively different from what we’re looking at today with President Trump – because of the pervasiveness of his family’s business dealings, his refusal to disclose what they are and his personal history of corruption.

Our suspicions should be heightened by the fact that President Trump seems to gravitate toward world leaders who run autocratic regimes and run oligarch-type states. If you develop a close relationship with Angela Merkel, she has no real way to steer millions or billions of dollars to your private company. It just doesn’t work that way. She’s not the state. Sure, corruption is always possible. But she’s just a temporary occupant of the leadership of her country. The same applies to most reasonably non-corrupt democracies. The Gulf States are very different, as are the post-Soviet states. China is different but it has significant similarities. The fact that Trump is an oligarch-type figure, maintains an opaque private company while serving as President and is notoriously corrupt fundamentally changes US foreign policy and what we’re able to know about it. Because we can’t know what is happening our ability to affect it through democratic means is diminished.

What is important to remember is that this isn’t just about President Trump. Strongman rule – and the oligarchification of economies that is almost always part of it – are the trend across the globe. China was never a transparent democratic state. But it’s become more authoritarian and more focused around the power of one man, the current President. Saudi Arabia is notoriously repressive and corrupt. But it used to operate largely by consensus within the upper reaches of the al Saud clan. Crown Prince Mohammed has fundamentally changed that.

We know that the rise of inequality on a grand scale is a global story. Wealth is transnational. Many states have been bought or suborned by oligarch-type figures and that process has generally gone hand in hand with politics that are nationalistic and autarkic. Oligarchs or oligarch-strongman figures tend to see relations between states much as Trump does: zero sum relations in which each player jockeys for the best possible deal, using inducements, threats or personal relationships, often secured by exchanges of money and preferment. The conflation of leader and state, intermixed with flows of money and general opacity all run together.

This is a global story we can see all around us. It’s about the global political economy. It’s about the receding dominance of democratic states on the world stage. It all precedes Trump. Trump himself is an extreme example. He is the head of state of the world’s dominant military and economic power. By that fact he is rushing the trend forward across the globe.

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