By Sarah Oates
Philip Merrill College of Journalism
July 19, 2018
Editor’s note: Sarah Oates, professor and senior scholar at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, has studied Russian media, elections and political communication for the past 25 years. After U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Oates offered this analysis of the meeting.
Putin and Trump both lie, but Putin is better at it. This is why:
1. Words matter in international relations, a point Trump seems to fail to understand or just ignore. In the 21st century, power and influence come from more from negotiating skill than the battlefield. At this meeting, Trump demonstrated no skill in international agenda setting or narrative.
2. Putin sticks to a narrative. A narrative is the story you construct about something. In the case of international relations, leaders use “strategic narratives” such as “America is the land of democracy” or “Russian fortitude brought down the Nazis in World War II.” The current Russian strategic narrative is that this democratic country is under siege from the West and fails to get the proper respect due a world nuclear power. The reality is that Putin leads an authoritarian regime. Russia is in a proxy war with the United States in Syria. Russia has seized territory in Ukraine, a Western ally, and has been instrumental in an armed rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. By sticking to his narrative of Russia as a wronged democracy, Putin can effectively ignore these inconvenient facts. He lies consistently, which makes it more convincing.
3. Trump could have used the conclusive evidence about Russian meddling in the campaign to attack the Russians or at least put Putin on the defensive. He could have discussed Russian military operations in Syria or Ukraine. He even could have forced Putin to try to again deny that a Russian missile shot down Malaysian Airlines 17 in 2014 and killed all 298 aboard. Instead, Trump attacked the Democrats and the FBI, which is not useful in the international politics game. He should have used this meeting to strengthen America’s position, not least because the Russians should be on the defensive. It doesn’t seem that Trump has established an international strategic narrative for his presidency, not even one that is like “Make America Great” again. Without a script, he seems to just improvise and fall into agreeing with Putin.
4. Both leaders routinely attack the media in much the same way, but it would seem with a different goal in mind. Putin constantly attacks the notion of truth itself, while Trump more selectively denies particular facts. In Russia, the purpose is to completely disempower any kind of fact-based dialogue in Russia or about Russia. This works particularly well for Putin, as there are no longer free elections in Russia (they have elections, but they’re rigged). For Trump, this seems an odd policy. The media were instrumental in creating his persona and he needs some aspect of the media to continue to promote his “brand” in order to gain re-election (if that is what he seeks). Putin denies certain facts that don’t fit his strategic narrative. As it doesn’t seem that Trump HAS an international strategic narrative, it’s just confusing. He may want to discredit the democrats, the FBI, and even the U.S. legal system, but that does nothing to advance American power and influence. In fact, it does the opposite.
5. A free media is not part of the Russian political tradition. Media have worked in the service of the Kremlin almost since the Russian Revolution more than 100 years ago. But a free media is part of the U.S. tradition, so it’s puzzling that a U.S. president would try to play the Russian propaganda game with a free press. It’s like playing chess with a checkers set. For Putin, disinformation is about nation building. For Trump, disinformation seems to be all about Trump, which helped him become president but won’t do much for America.
The meeting underlined the power of a free press, particularly as Chris Wallace from the Fox News Network asked Putin questions that were in America’s strategic interest, such as whether the Russian government was behind the U.S. election interference and why there were so many political assassinations in Russia. This demonstrates how the media are critical to democracy.