Trump Could Remake U.S.–Russian Relations, but Will He?

By Nicolai N. Petro

The Trump administration has a unique opportunity to change the American foreign policy debate about Russia and move beyond the outdated policy of containment.

Obama’s foreign policy legacy is marred by the failure to improve relations with Russia. This failure is due primarily to his administration’s inability to envision Russia as anything but an obstacle to U.S. interests. Time and again, at key junctures, his administration failed to provide innovative leadership that might have moved Americans beyond the assumptions of the Cold War, and instead fell back on conventional stereotypes about Russia.

Why the Reset Failed

The “reset” serves as a model for the failure of the entire Russian-American relationship. From its inception the Reset rested on the flawed assumption that there was a rift between the values of the Kremlin and the Russian people that West could exploit. Its object was not to engage Russian officials in an open dialogue about values but instead, as the policy’s chief architect Michael McFaul explained, “to establish a direct relationship with the Russian people” over the Kremlin’s head. [2] As a result a golden opportunity to change the tenor of Russian-American relations by engaging in a real dialogue was lost.

In its fundamental assumptions about Russia, therefore, the Reset was really little more than a variant of containment, the policy that has guided American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union for more than half a century, and that has not been fundamentally challenged in the twenty-five years since its collapse.

Ever since that collapse U.S. administrations have been searching for an alternative to containment that would offer a similarly compelling explanation for Russian behavior. They have failed because, with few exceptions, America’s foreign policy elite cannot truly imagine a Russia that is no longer driven by an ideology that propels it to global confrontation, or that is trying to integrate into the global economy. Our attempts to reach a modus vivendi with Russia consistently fail because they seek to prevent what Russia does not want, while discouraging what America should want.

The failure of the Reset therefore illustrates a failure of imagination, which persists to this day. Two recent examples of this are our failure to see Russia as a partner in bringing to an end the horrific bloodshed Syria by combating ISIS together, and our failure to work together with Russia to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which risks undermining the entire security architecture of post-war Europe.

The never-ending crisis in our relations with Russia is therefore also an intelligence failure, though why we failed is a matter of contention. Some argue that our failure is the result of taking too sanguine a view of Russia, while others say it is because we have been too quick to blame Russia for everything.

The reset tried to “split the difference” between these two entrenched views by setting values aside. This is precisely why it failed. By pretending that U.S. foreign policy could be conducted without addressing what previous administration had identified as the fundamental reason for our disagreements—the “values gap”—the Obama administration undermined its own rationale for improving relations with Russia.

One can only surmise how different things might have been had the Obama administration partnered with the Russian government to promote a common post-Cold War values agenda, instead of clinging to the notion that a “yawning divide” in our values made partnership impossible. [3] The net result has been to alienate Russia which, regardless of what one thinks of its political system, has prevented the resolution of issues around the globe where American interests are directly affected.

The next administration should not make the same mistake.

We have tried assuming that our values differ (George W. Bush). We have tried pretending that values do not matter (Barack Obama). The only thing that has never been tried before is assuming that our fundamental values are the same, and this is where the Trump presidency can have a historical impact.

What Can the Trump Administration do Differently?

Each new administration conducts a comprehensive review of key U.S. foreign policy objectives. Of course, if one decides a priori that the objective is to contain a hostile Russia, then such a review is merely an exercise in confirming our preconceptions, not in exploring ways to move beyond them.

I therefore think it would be useful for the Trump administration to start its review with the basic question that needs to be asked, if we truly want to improve relations with Russia—what actions could America take that would end the Cold War in our minds, and eventually turn Russia into an ally? This is the question that candidate Trump implicitly posed when he asked, rhetorically, “Wouldn’t it be great if we actually got along with Russia?” [4]

An honest approach, one that does not assume that the only answer is regime change in Russia, would find that we already cooperate with Russia in many areas vital to U.S. national security. We cooperate in the peaceful exploration of the Arctic, we rely on Russian rockets to explore space, we have even worked together quite successfully to preserve the environment, combat terrorism, and limit nuclear proliferation.

But previous administrations have failed to utilize these areas of practical cooperation to shape the tone of overall policy. As a result, instead of seeing them as a part of a vital network that can be expanded and deepened to create opportunities for better relations overall, each instance becomes unique, isolated, and even anomalous. Senior government officials are often simply unaware of just how much our two nations are already cooperating — a good illustration of this is the attempt by Congress to end the use of Russian rockets that are vital to the U.S space program.

It is also important to bear in mind that the incoming president will still be surrounded by many in his own party who have very little desire to understand contemporary Russia, and by an embittered foreign policy elite that is eager to capitalize on his failures.

To succeed in establishing his own agenda, therefore, he will need to assert personal control over the government’s narrative about Russia, or risk seeing it slip into the hands neo-cons, both Democrat and Republican. If this happens, it will inevitably undercut funding for any domestic agenda the president may harbor. This happened to both president Truman, who saw his ambitious “Fair Deal” domestic agenda sacrificed to fund NSC-68, and to president Carter, whose  domestic agenda suffered after his administration’s focus shifted to combating Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Mr. Trump would therefore be wise to use the presidential “bully pulpit” quickly and often to reshape the public’s view of Russia, in the same way that president Nixon reshaped the public’s view of China. Without such personal intervention, his administration will be unable to rewrite even the first chapter of what president Obama derisively called “Washington playbook,” which has traditionally been devoted to the Cold War.

When former Secretary of State Dean Acheson tasked the head of his policy planning staff, Paul Nitze, to craft NSC-68, he told him to write something that could “so bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’ that not only could the President make a decision but that the decision could be carried out.” [5]

Something similar is needed today, only this time instead of providing the mass mind of government with a rationale for containment, it should provide a rationale for finally putting containment behind us, and reclaiming the once bright promise of the end of the Cold War.Φ

[2] Nicolai N. Petro, “Mired in a Yawning Divide,”The Moscow Times (July 13, 2009).

[3] Ibid.


[5] Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation, New York: W.W. Norton, 1969, p. 374.
Nicolai Petro is a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island specializing in Russia and its neighboring states. He has written widely on Russian democratic development and foreign policy, and previously served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. Department of State.

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