Earlier this week, Donald Trump — again — expressed his admiration for the strong leadership of Vladimir Putin as compared to the current leadership of the United States. It is understandable why somebody who is the head of a closely-held family business would sympathize with the leadership style of Vladimir Putin. There is a lot of similarity in the ability of such individuals to make decisions for their company or country between such a business and a police state. The leader of a democracy, however, does not have the same ability.
The reality is that Vladimir Putin can unilaterally make decisions without worrying about serious opposition. He has brutally suppressed all opponents or would-be opponents. While the Russian Federation is nominally a democracy, the Duma will support any decision that Putin makes. Thus, the only questions that Putin has to ask before making a decision is: 1) can we do this; 2) what are the consequences if we do this; and) is doing this the right thing for me/Russia at the present time.
For the U.S., the U.S. Constitution places real constraints on the power of the President. As recent court decisions affirm, the President (and the executive branch agencies that answer to him) can only act domestically within the limits of statutes giving the executive branch power to act. In foreign affairs, the President has a little more authority, but many areas of diplomacy involve issues that will ultimately require legislation to implement. Even with the military, anything more than limited action will require Congressional authorization. In addition the questions that a dictator like Putin must act, a President must ask: 1) will the courts allow this without Congressional authorization; 2) can I get Congress to act; 3) if Congress is unlikely to act, is this something of such urgency that I can convince voters to pressure Congress. A President who tries to act boldly without considering these issues will soon find himself embarrassed by Congress and the Courts undermining his decisions, making him look even weaker than if he had given decided to take the smaller steps that within his authority.
Within the President’s limited authority, President Obama has taken decisive actions — ordering the raid on Bin Laden, giving military assistance to Libyan rebels, imposing sanctions on Russia after it invaded the Ukraine, and bombing ISIS. However, unlike the days after 9-11 when Congress authorized the President to take bold actions against Al Qaeda, this Congress has not given any additional authority to go after ISIS or to take actions against the Assad regime in Syria. In the real world, the President sometimes has to take half-steps because that is all that any President can do.
Additionally, Russia and the U.S. occupy different positions in global politics. Russia’s power is primarily military power. It has few friends or partners. It’s economic leverage is limited to being a source of oil and natural gas to it’s neighbors. Because it is a second rate power, Russia gets to pick and choose where it “needs” to be involved. While Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to Russia too, Russia’s involvement in the fight is mostly domestic and supporting its Syrian ally. Other than that, Russia mostly flexes its military and economic power along its border — invading its tiny neighbors and keeping the rest of Europe on the sidelines by threatening to cut-off pipelines going through and from Russia providing oil and natural gas to Europe. While actually carrying out the threat would hurt Russia, it has power because there is no easy way to get around the impact of Russia carrying out that threat.
The U.S. on the other hand is the preeminent military and economic power. As such, the U.S. really is seen as the responder to every international incident that threatens global stability or the global economy. However, while the U.S. may have the largest economy, it’s economy is mostly integrated into the global economy. In other words, while we may be able to put limits on direct dealings between U.S. businesses and an adversary, it is not impossible for an adversary to go through a series of intermediaries to work around an economic sanctions. As such, an effective use of our economic power requires that we work with our allies to have them impose similar sanctions. Likewise, there are limits to how many places the U.S. can be at once. At the present time, there are a lot of small splinter terrorist groups around the globe — Yemen, Somalia, Syria-Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya being some of the bigger locations. If being strong in battling terror requires U.S. involvement in suppressing all of these groups, our military is going to be stretched thin. It helps when we have assistance from our allies, but that requires consulting with them and getting them to go along with the plans and goals. The effort to get that groups support looks a lot less decisive (and often results in more limited actions) than the ability of Russia to go it alone.
In short, the number of times when the U.S. President can literally tell everybody to chill out and get out of the way are really limited. The demands for the President to do something are literally endless, the power is restrained by laws and the need for group effort, and the President is often limited to half-measures. The leader of Russia (not necessarily the President because Putin still exercised the real authority in Russia when he had to serve as Prime Minister for a term due to the Russian Constitution’s limits on consecutive terms) can act that way — at times — because he has absolute control over the agenda. Any problems that can’t be easily solved do not get any media attention in Russia. Having decided that a problem needs Russia’s attention, the Russian leader can unilaterally make the decisions that need to be made to address the perceived problem. Because dictators of isolated countries do not have to negotiate with domestic opposition and foreign allies, they can give a phony appearance of being strong and decisive. They simply ignore the problems that they lack the power to solve and keep them hidden on the back burner. The leader of a democracy is unable to prevent the opposition from focusing attention on the hard to solve issues and is forced to negotiate with domestic actors and foreign allies to solve those issues. The need to negotiate can give the appearance of weakness even when the democratic leader has the leverage to ultimately get most of what they want.
If Trump thinks that he can borrow aspects of Putin’s leadership style to get the job done as President, he is sadly mistaken. As a businessman, he may have had the leverage to get favorable deals as he always had the ability to walk away from the negotiations and find a new potential business partner. The U.S. President usually does not have that luxury. The U.S. will still have to deal with every country and negotiations are about getting something better than the status quo of our relationship with that country. Our leverage is limited by how much we can give that country what they want or persuade them that it is their interests to go along with what we want. As a businessman, he had the advantage of negotiating in private — without the world necessarily knowing that his organization was trying to buy site X for a new facility. As President, his proposals will be the lead story on the news, and every time that he has to accept a revision to his proposals will also get international attention. The need to consult first before announcing a plan or to revise a plan in light of objections from partners may look weak, but it is the nature of a limited government and the fact that the U.S. does not, in fact, have the power to force allies to do what we want.