Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US–Russian Cold War. (Previous installments may be found here.) Last week’s discussion revisited episodes of US–Soviet détente in the 20th century, from Eisenhower and Nixon to Reagan, and the lessons to be learned from them. One was a pro-détente president’s need for determination, leadership skills, advisers, and domestic allies to offset what is certain to be ferocious opposition to any truly reciprocal negotiations with (now) “Putin’s Russia.”
Such pro–Cold War opposition has quickly manifested itself even in response to President-elect Trump’s fragmentary and still elliptical indications that he may seek a strategic partner in Putin—opposition led by bipartisan Senators McCain, Graham, and Cardin and in the media by The New York Times and the Washington Post. Their thinking and goals are expressed by their Washington Post stenographer Josh Rogin, who tells readers that détente is both impermissible and unattainable because of Putin’s “long-term strategy to undermine the stability and confidence of liberal Western democracies.” There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that this is Putin’s goal, merely vilifying allegations, but the accusation recapitulates the existential language of the preceding 40-year Cold War. Rogin ends by telling readers that these American foes of détente are readying a campaign here and abroad in order to “stop the next Russian reset [the term Obama used for détente] before it even begins.” If Trump is determined to reduce or even end the new Cold War, another historic struggle over détente has thus begun, according to Cohen. He and Batchelor discuss the forces on both sides of the struggle. Cohen thinks that the enemies of détente are formidable but not insurmountable if Trump learns the lessons of the past.
There is, however, a new important factor, as Cohen emphasizes. Europe is playing a larger and more active role in the new Cold War than it did in the preceding one, and there the friends and foes of détente are more evenly divided. Socially, politically, and electorally, a growing number of European countries are increasingly opposed to confronting and trying to isolate Russia and are eager to end the economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by the West. Non-anti-Russian governments (not necessarily “pro-Russian” ones) have recently come to power in Moldova, Bulgaria, and Estonia, and more are possible within a year or so in Austria, France, and elsewhere, even in Germany. The Netherlands, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Spain have already expressed discontent with the sanctions and stalemated civil and proxy war in Ukraine in various ways. And one anti-Russian government, the United Kingdom, has left Europe via Brexit.
In effect, Cohen points out, in this regard Europe may be diminishing its political deference to the United States, currently the most anti-Russian, pro–Cold War of the great powers and finally edging toward its own independent foreign policy. Alternatively, if Trump reaches out to his natural pro-détente allies in Europe, the ever-heralded “trans-Atlantic alliance” may endure, at least for some time.
In a postscript, Cohen points out that the common wisdom that outgoing President Obama is warning Trump against détente with Russia may be wrong. Recently Obama stopped referring to the United States as “the indispensable nation” in world affairs and called it “an indispensable nation,” suggesting it might have equal partners. And whereas he once dismissed Russia as a weak “regional power,” he has revised that formulation considerably. Now, according to Obama, “Russia is an important country. It is a military superpower…. It has influence around the world. And in order for us to solve many big problems around the world, it is in our interest to work with Russia and obtain their cooperation.” This, Cohen emphasizes, is the traditional language of détente.