The next presidential election is still 22 months away, but potential candidates for the Democratic Party nomination have already begun floating their foreign-policy visions. Major statements thus far from leading contenders are deeply troubling, especially in regard to relations with Russia. Fortunately, there is time for those who hope for a more peaceful world and a greater ability to focus national resources on domestic problems to challenge prospective candidates’ tired, conventional ideas and demand more positive and constructive approaches.
A year ago former vice president Joe Biden was first out of the blocks with an article in Foreign Affairs that outlined “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin.” To his credit, Biden was relatively level-headed about Russian interference in the 2016 election: In contrast to those who hyperbolically likened it to the Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attacks, he treated Russian efforts to influence foreign elections as a problem to be managed, not an existential threat. However, Biden also presented a nightmarish view of “tyranny” in a Russia allegedly facing drastic demographic and economic decline. Popular support for Putin’s “kleptocracy” is so shallow, Biden claimed, that it would quickly disappear if the regime did not maintain “a choke hold on society.”
That kind of caricature, which encourages notions that Washington does not need to think seriously about how to engage with Russia, was soon challenged by a high-turnout election in March, when more than 70 percent of voters marked their ballots for President Vladimir Putin. Many American commentators dismissed the election as a sham because of the Kremlin’s domination of television coverage and its exclusion of some potential challengers. But the election result basically reflected genuine popular approval of Putin (ranging between 60 and 80 percent), which is rooted in beliefs that he is a strong leader who restored stability after the chaos of the 1990s and revived Russian national pride. The stereotypical notion of Russia as a backward land of totalitarian repression was also contradicted in June, when more than 80,000 Americans who visited for the World Cup saw for themselves Russian cities that are clean, modern, friendly, and lively. Many American politicians, including Biden, have wished for years that Putin was not the leader of Russia, but the reality we must face is that he will be president until 2024.
What to do? Biden’s recommendation boils down to long-term containment, deterrence, and vigilance. Although he recognizes a need to “keep talking to Moscow,” the sole purpose he indicates is to avoid dangerous miscalculations. Thus, Biden’s grim vision offers little hope for any improvement in the future from the present tense stalemate.
Much like Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders envisions standing up to and telling off Putin. In Where We Go from Here, published in November, Sanders marries a pacific vision of the future to a militant policy in the present. He is rightly critical of how “the arms merchants of the world grow increasingly rich as governments spend trillions of dollars on weapons of destruction,” and he dreams of a world in which swords will be beaten into plowshares. At the same time, Sanders vows “to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia,” and in an aggressively Wilsonian vein he declares that “in the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.”
The trouble with that combative stance is that it disregards how crusades under the banner of democracy against autocracy have led to catastrophic wars from Iraq to Libya and have had counterproductive effects in Russia. As former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s vivid recent memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace, amply shows, his confrontational championing of democracy failed: While antagonizing Putin, it made it easier for the Kremlin to depict the small minority of Russian liberals as clients of America and led some prominent Russian democrats to distance themselves from the emotional and ideological ambassador. (During McFaul’s 2012–14 ambassadorship, the percentage of Russians with positive views of America fell from 52 to 23.)
The flourishing democracy McFaul and Sanders would like to see in Russia is not likely to spring up in the harsh glare of foreign denunciation and exhortation; it is more likely to grow in the softer light of reduced international tension. Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratization of the USSR began after summit meetings with Ronald Reagan eased Soviet fears and warmed superpower relations. Aware of that precedent, McFaul recognized at the start of the Obama administration in 2009 that “a more benign international environment for the Russian government would create better conditions for democratic change internally.” Unfortunately, McFaul later forgot his insight that “confrontation with the Kremlin would impede democratization.”
The most effective way to advance democracy around the world is not to grandstand about support for democrats in countries where the United States has very little credibility but to make our democracy at home truly a model others will want to emulate. That will require facing problems such as racism, inequality, police brutality, and paralyzing partisanship that plagued America long before the 2016 election. Pugnacious preoccupation with Putin is a distraction from that goal, not a way to pursue it.
Although Sanders recognizes that “the global war on terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership,” he champions a different kind of war, a global battle against “oligarchy and authoritarianism.” To mobilize support for that fight, Sanders makes Putin a symbol of all the “demagogues” and “kleptocrats” who “use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.” While Kremlin officials and loyalists have indeed indulged in self-aggrandizement, that began in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, whom Americans lionized as a great democratic reformer while tycoons pillaged the economy. Loudly calling for a worldwide struggle against oligarchy and making Putin the locus of that evil, as Sanders does, will make it much more difficult to engage in quiet and effective diplomacy—a lesson Ronald Reagan learned in the 1980s. It also will complicate the quest to turn spears into pruning hooks that Sanders extolls.
One of Sanders’s major rivals, Senator Elizabeth Warren, set out her vision of “A Foreign Policy for All” in the January/February 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs. While her sharp criticism of how American post–Cold War foreign policy has served the interests of large corporations is bold and vigorous, her alarmist depiction of Russia is ill-informed and unwise.
According to Warren, “Russia became belligerent and resurgent” in response to the US promotion of rapid privatization and a wild form of capitalism in the 1990s. That inaccurate statement disregards how, in his first years as president of Russia at the start of the 21st century, Vladimir Putin eagerly pursued a strategic and economic partnership with the United States as he sought to revive Russia after the deep depression of the 1990s. When terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001, Putin was the first foreign leader to call the White House to offer support. He then ordered the Russian military and intelligence services to provide important assistance to the American war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. When the George W. Bush administration announced withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2001 and then encouraged NATO expansion into the Baltic states that had been part of the former Soviet Union, Putin expressed only mild opposition, because he still prioritized a partnership with Washington.
Politicians and journalists who vilify Putin ignore that history because it contradicts their claims that he is innately anti-American and aggressive. The truth is that Russia gradually reacted to US policies that repeatedly threatened its interests and security, including the war against Iraq in 2003, the drive to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and the placement of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. If Warren and other prospective presidential candidates are to develop a sound strategy toward Russia, they must first have an accurate understanding of the origins of contemporary Russian foreign policies and attitudes toward the United States, which have been strongly affected by US military interventions from Kosovo and Iraq to Syria and Libya.
Warren’s foreign-policy vision is disappointing in several other ways. Although her desire to reduce defense spending to “sustainable levels” will be welcomed by many progressive Americans, she does not appear to have thought through how she will be able to do that after stoking fears of “a revanchist Russia that threatens Europe” (a view that disregards how key European leaders have continued to see Russia as a partner in dealing with issues such as the the maintenance of the nuclear agreement with Iran). Warren declares that Washington should “impose strong, targeted penalties on Russia” as if that had not already been done, repeatedly, with no positive effect. She categorizes Putin as one of the dictators who remain in power “because they hold unwilling populations under brutal control”—disregarding how surveys of Russian public opinion have shown persistent high support for Putin and conveying a terribly distorted view of Russia as if it were one of the “captive nations” of the Cold War.
The senator from Massachusetts invokes the memory of President John F. Kennedy in connection with her vision of how to “project American strength and values throughout the world,” but she appears to have forgotten Kennedy’s speech at American University in June 1963. In that courageous address, delivered less than eight months after the Cuban missile crisis brought the United States and the USSR to the edge of nuclear war, Kennedy urged Americans to reexamine their attitudes toward the Communist Soviet Union. Making a dramatic shift from his earlier posture as a militant Cold Warrior, Kennedy implored Americans “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side” and he reminded them that “history teaches us that enmities between nations…do not last forever.” Instead of demonizing the Soviets, Kennedy argued, Americans should focus on promoting a gradual evolution toward peaceful relations and problem solving. Kennedy’s farsighted speech helped to clear the way for a limited test-ban treaty that he hoped would help to “check the spiraling arms race.” By the fall of 1963, when Kennedy authorized the sale of wheat to the Soviet Union, US relations with the USSR were more hopeful than almost anyone could have anticipated a year earlier. Warren and other prospective presidential candidates should remember Kennedy’s wise leadership on relations with Russia in the last months of his life as a model of the kind of thoughtful, articulate president we need in the third decade of the 21st century.
Biden, Sanders, and Warren, in contrast to Kennedy, have exemplified how not to talk about Russia by portraying the country as a perpetual enemy, distorting its people’s attitudes, exaggerating the threats it poses, and failing to consider how constructive dialogue with Russian leaders could promote common interests such as curbing costly spending on the modernization of nuclear arsenals, countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and combating Islamist terrorism. (As California Governor Jerry Brown has recognized, such common interests, along with addressing climate change and promoting mutually beneficial economic development, are much more important for the long term than the political conflicts that have marred relations in the last few years.) While Kennedy envisioned the possibility of moving beyond Cold War confrontation, the three senior prospective Democratic candidates have embraced wrongheaded establishment perspectives that are holdovers from the Cold War, even though they have sensibly challenged failed conventional wisdom in other areas. With almost two years left before the presidential election in November 2020, they have time to reconsider their approaches; other potential candidates have opportunities to present more promising visions; and educated citizens have the chance to influence the charting of a brighter course for the future.
Campaign rhetoric matters: It sets trajectories that can be difficult to alter. Democratic candidates should not reflexively compete over who can be tougher in confronting Putin. They also should not simply continue recent efforts to isolate, demonize, and punish Russia. That would be fruitless. As Obama explained in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “sanctions without outreach—condemnation without discussion—can carry forward only a crippling status quo.” Instead, progressive candidates should outline intelligent strategies for how to manage relations with a huge, resource-rich, nuclear-armed, highly educated nation that presents both challenges and opportunities for cooperation.