Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and radio-show host John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, can be found here.)
Cohen reiterates a general theme he has developed in recent years: The exceedingly dangerous nature of the new Cold War makes détente—that is, negotiating areas of US-Russian cooperation to replace or offset perilous areas of conflict—imperative for American and international security. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly declared, “Wouldn’t it be great to cooperate with Russia!” Cohen interpreted this as a proposed policy of détente, one that should be supported regardless of whatever else Americans think about Trump. Unrelenting widespread charges that Trump or his “associates” had colluded with the Kremlin in securing his victory over Hillary Clinton—an alleged scandal sometimes called “Kremlingate,” although Cohen thinks what should be investigated are the related activities of US intelligence services, which he terms “Intelgate”—are said to have precluded any détente policy, or even the will for one, on Trump’s part. The May 2 phone conversation between Trump and Putin suggests otherwise. In this connection, Cohen makes the following points, which he and Batchelor discuss:
- The phone conservation, which the Trump administration characterized as “very good” and “very constructive,” was wide-ranging but focused on two pressing issues: the war in Syria and international terrorism, which Trump had always emphasized as the priorities of a new détente; and on the possibility of a meeting between Trump and Putin as early as July. There were earlier signs that détente remained a Trump commitment, including ongoing discussions between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov; and formal reining in of United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who had continued the loud vilifying of Russia practiced by her Obama administration predecessor. No less significant, even following Syrian President Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons and the further downturn in US-Russian relations that followed, Trump and Putin refrained from vilifying each other personally, a sign both continue to hope for a diplomatic partnership.
- Cohen here returns to another of his familiar themes: Much is to be learned from the history of détente policies in the 20th century, of which three are relevant, all conducted by Republican presidents with Kremlin leaders—Eisenhower with Khrushchev, Nixon with Brezhnev, and Reagan with Gorbachev. Of special significance today, each was the target of fierce opposition in Washington (and sometimes in Moscow), even outright sabotage by shadowy but powerful forces. “Kremlingate,” for which no actual evidence has yet been publicly produced, has been animated and perpetuated by two powerful political forces. One is the Clinton (and still majority) establishment wing of the Democratic Party, for its own particular political reasons. The other is an even larger bipartisan pro–Cold War alliance in the American political-media establishment. That President Trump has again openly defied this looming “Kremlingate” threat to his presidency suggests—again, whatever else one may think about him—considerable commitment to a principle: in this case, détente, and the requisite political courage. As Trump must have known would be the case, within hours of his talk with Putin, leading Democrats and their media allies were denouncing him again as “Putin’s puppet” and now, for “appeasement.” (The Democrats, including liberals and progressives, Cohen adds, are now, officially, and with few dissenters, the party of cold war and possible actual war with Russia, the other nuclear superpower. They will certainly continue to use “Kremlingate” investigations in Congress for that purpose.)
- Looking ahead, and on the assumption that Trump and Putin will continue to seek ways to enact some kind of détente, Cohen points to other current Cold War fronts where its enemies may attempt to sabotage it: Syria, where the charge that Assad used chemical weapons has yet to be proved; in the Baltic region, where NATO continues its unprecedented military buildup on Russia’s borders; in Ukraine, where the US-backed Kiev government’s multiple crises continue to grow, along with its political desperation; and even in Washington, where, it will be remembered, President Obama’s own Department of Defense sabotaged a 2016 agreement between Obama and Putin for joint military action in Syria. In short, in this exceedingly dangerous new Cold War, with its multiple fronts and protagonists, anti-détente opposition in the form of murky sabotage is not only possible, but likely. Cohen advises listeners to interpret “breaking news” in this connection critically, even skeptically.
- Finally, Cohen concludes, détente has always been essentially a leader policy, not a legislative one. Pro-détente American presidents (again, all of them Republicans in the 20th century) always encountered some degree of opposition inside their own party. But none has been as isolated as President Trump in this regard. His détente initiatives are widely, indeed vociferously, opposed in both parties and in the mainstream media, where there prevails, to borrow a formulation by the former Canadian diplomat Patrick Armstrong, a Putin-Trump Derangement Syndrome. Trump has some support from Republican conservatives who dream of recapturing Reagan’s claim to have ended the Cold War forever. Ultimately, though, Trump will need much broader support for any further moves in the direction of détente with Russia. It must come both from within the two political parties, including the Democrats, and from the general public. Even more, ultimately, Americans at both levels must decide whether to put the demonizing of Trump and Putin—which is often irrational—above the risk of a nuclear war that as President Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Perry, warns is now greater than ever before.