Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com). This installment focuses on an existential question: Will, or can, a President Trump enact a policy of détente—replacing elements of conflict with elements of cooperation—in US relations with Russia? Cohen explores the question historically and in the context of current Cold War conflicts, making the following points:
§ Détente had a long 20th-century history, with its major episodes having been initiated by Republican presidents, from Eisenhower and Nixon to, most spectacularly, Ronald Reagan in 1985. This history teaches that at least four prerequisites are required: a determined American president who is willing to fight for détente against fierce mainstream political opposition, including in his own party; one who can rally at least some public support by prominent American figures who did not support his candidacy for the presidency; who has a few like-minded appointees and aides at his side; and who has a pro-détente partner in the Kremlin, as Reagan had with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
§ Trump seems determined. During his primary and presidential campaigns, he alone repeatedly called for cooperation with Russia for the sake of US national security and he alone refused to indulge in the rampant fact-free vilification of Russian President Putin. Trump also seems little impressed by the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment, even contemptuous of its policies and record during the preceding two decades. Its certain opposition is unlikely to deter him. Less clear is whether or not many of his previous opponents in either party will support détente under Trump or whether or not he will find in his inner circle—particularly a secretary of state and ambassador to Moscow—who will wisely advise and assist him in this vital pursuit, as Reagan did. As for a partner in Kremlin, Putin is certainly ready for détente, as he has said and demonstrated many times, contrary to what is said about him as an inveterate “aggressor” in the mainstream American media.
In many respects, the new Cold War is more dangerous than was the preceding 40-year Cold War. Three of its current fronts—Ukraine, the Baltic region, and Syria—are fraught with the possibility of hot war. Détente succeeds when mutual national interests are agreed upon and negotiated. The Ukrainian civil and proxy war has become a disaster for Washington, Moscow, and the Ukrainian people themselves. Ending it is therefore a common interest, but perhaps the most difficult to negotiate. NATO’s ongoing buildup up in the Baltic region and in Poland, and Russia’s counter-buildup on its Western borders, is fraught with accidental or intentional war. Avoiding war, as Reagan and Gorbachev resolved, is an existential common interest. If Trump is determined, he will have the power to end the buildup and even undo it, though the new eastern-most members of NATO will loudly protest. On the other hand, despite claims to the contrary, Putin’s Russia represents no threat whatsoever to these countries, as wise Trump advisers will assure him. Agreement on Syria should be the easiest. Both Trump and Putin have insisted that the real threat there is not Syrian President Assad but the Islamic State and other terrorists. The first major step of a new détente may well be the US-Russian military alliance against terrorist forces in Syria that even President Obama once proposed and abandoned.
§ Cohen adds that there are, of course, many other new Cold War conflicts, large and smaller ones, but some could be easily and quickly negotiated in order to build elite and popular support for détente in the US. This could begin with the “banomania” both sides have enacted since 2014. For example, Putin could end the ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans, which wrecked the hopes of scores of American families and Russian children. Such a good-will humanitarian step would give détente a human face and soften opposition to it in the US. The largest example of bans is, of course, the US and European economic sanctions on Russia, which Putin wants ended. A more complex issue, this is likely to come to the fore only if or when détente progresses. On the other hand, a number of European countries, which have suffered from Russia’s counter-sanctions, also want them ended, so Trump will not be without allies if he moves in this direction.
§ Finally, Cohen makes some more general points. History shows that successful, stable détente requires the give-and-take of diplomacy, something not practiced by the White House for several years. The standard version of why Obama’s détente (“reset”) failed is untrue. Putin did not wreck it. Instead, the Obama Administration took Russia’s major concessions and made almost none of its own. In this regard, Trump’s businessman model of negotiations may be an asset. Businessmen understand that a mutual interest (profit) is gained only when both sides make concessions. There is also a larger question. Détente rests on what was formerly called “parity,” in the sense that both sides have legitimate national interests that can be reconciled. For many years, due largely to the demonization of Putin, the American political-media establishment has implied that Russia has no legitimate national interests of its own conception, not even on its borders. Trump seems to think otherwise, but as with many of his other elliptical statements, time will tell. There is also this. Reagan and Gorbachev began with nuclear and other military issues. Trump and Putin might do so as well—for example, by agreeing to take nuclear warheads off high-alert and adopting a mutual doctrine of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. But considering current toxic relations between the two countries, more political steps may be needed first, although here too time may be running out. Finally, whether or not Trump vigorously pursues détente with Russia may tell us much about his presidency more generally if only because an American president has more freedom of action and less constraints on him in foreign policy than in any other policy realm. And no issue is now more important than the state of US-Russian relations.