Attack of the Revisionists
Walter Russell Mead engages in some revisionism of his own here:
The geopolitical consequences of a weakened Trump administration will also be significant. Revisionist powers large and small are more likely to take risks and challenge American power when they believe the U.S. is distracted and divided. Russia’s attack on Georgia came in the summer of 2008 when George W. Bush was an unpopular lame duck and the building financial crisis was beginning to distract Americans from international news [bold mine-DL].
As he often does, Mead is using bad history in the service of a weak argument. It is possible that some foreign governments will see Trump’s domestic political problems and foreign policy failures as an opening to take more aggressive actions than they normally would, but the 2008 example is a bad one to use and Mead misrepresents what happened back then in an attempt to make it fit his interpretation. Mead’s description is absurdly American-centric on one level (Russia acts aggressively when we have a lame duck president) while also completely missing the real role that the U.S. had in contributing to the outbreak of the August 2008 war (backing for Georgian membership in NATO and strong rhetorical support for Saakashvili).
What Mead inaccurately calls “Russia’s attack on Georgia” was the result of Georgian overconfidence, reckless Western encouragement of Saakashvili, and Russian hostility to the expansion of NATO. The August 2008 war happened when it did because that was when Saakashvili chose to escalate the conflict on the mistaken assumption that the U.S. would ride to the rescue when Russia retaliated. He gambled heavily on the trustworthiness of George W. Bush and predictably lost. In other words, the war happened because the Georgian government misread the extent of U.S. support for their ambitions. The problem then was not that the U.S. was perceived as being “distracted and divided,” but that the relevant actors were all convinced that the U.S. was determined to push for NATO expansion and back up Georgia’s efforts to take control of separatist territories. It is a lousy example for the point Mead wants to make, and the fact that he doesn’t understand that should make us very skeptical about the rest of his argument.
Mead sets up a test for his interpretation:
Russia, far from seeking any kind of special relationship with Mr. Trump, is likely to revel in his weakness. In the western Balkans, in Syria, and in hot spots like Venezuela, Russia must be expected to move more aggressively.
This is possible, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think this will happen except for a very shaky assumption that foreign governments are just waiting for a weakened American president to seize opportunities abroad. Just because Trump is weakened doesn’t mean that Russia will necessarily start behaving any more aggressively than it has been. If Russia does happen to behave more aggressively in one of these places, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is doing so because of Trump’s weakness. Since many of Russia’s most provocative actions have come in response to perceived threats, it is just as likely that their response to a “distracted and divided U.S.” will be to consolidate their position and not take any big new risks. Like a statement from a carnival fortune-teller, Mead’s prediction is just vague enough to make it sound plausible to people willing to believe what he is selling, but on closer inspection there is nothing to it.