America’s Future Relations With Russia and China

A U.S. Army soldier during partnered live fire range training at Tactical Base Gamberi, Afghanistan. Flickr/U.S. Army

Are hawks prepared to level with Americans about the potential costs of our commitments?

Are the Russia hawks like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham prepared to level with Americans and “honestly tell them that Americans should die for Kiev and Tbilisi, and not even for Kiev and Tbilisi but to provide them with the privilege to be in NATO on their schedule?” This was the pointed question that Dimitri K. Simes posed at an event at the Newseum yesterday hosted by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Moderated by Kevin Ryan, the panel featured Fiona Hill from the Brookings Institution, Simon Saradzhyan from the Belfer Center’s “Russia Matters Project” and the president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, Dimitri K. Simes.

Simes’s question about Kiev and Tbilisi was meant to indicate that America often takes on commitments that it is not necessarily willing to fulfill. Is there a better path forward? Simes started off the discussion by observing that President Bill Clinton was also befuddled by the lingering question of how to improve relations with Moscow. He also expressed optimism that relations between Russia and the United States would improve, due to the fact that “Trump is a dealmaker” and “is not easily intimidated” and would not be hamstrung by stigmas in Washington for wanting to work with Russia. Simes expressed three reasons that Trump may have better luck in deals with Putin than his predecessors.

The first reason was that “democracy promotion is not going to be a priority” in his administration. He explained that this did not mean that Trump would not defend democracies around the world and encourage democratization, but that it would not focus on regime change. Second, he observed that Trump would not press humanitarian interventions. Third, he pointed to NATO expansion.

Simes mentioned that Trump focused a great deal of attention to the issue of NATO burden sharing and the mission of the organization, including the open door policy toward joining the alliance. Simes summed up that if these aspects were addressed, “the most fundamental disagreements would be removed automatically” between the two powers. Simes ended by saying that if Trump sees himself as a dealmaker he must understand the issues facing Russia and what their national interests are, as well as those that are critical to the United States. “If we have a president willing to challenge conventional wisdom, his Russia policy will have a real chance.”

Fiona Hill mentioned that skepticism is healthy and that Trump as president should see all the information about Russian interference in the U.S. election to make a level headed assessment of what happened. She stressed that while it is important to look at Russia’s national interest, we must also think if it works to America’s national interest. Hill brought up that “it is less clear what we want.” She pointed out that it is neither in America’s or Russia’s interest to continue the risk of military escalation in the relationship. She likened the approach to the relationship between Gorbachev and Reagan, in which they hoped to de-escalate international tensions. Hill said, “From a very pragmatic perspective … we need to look at this relationship and ask, where is it leading us?” The United States and Russia have and had very clear differences over what should happen in Georgia, Ukraine and especially Syria. She also stated that we need to find a way to resolve our differences, short of military conflict. Hill also mentioned that American allies, like Israel and Germany, have expressed concerns over Russian interference in politics, in the same way that she says the Kremlin is trying to influence U.S. politics. To do this, Hill thinks that Putin and Trump need to sit down; Trump should not be intimidated and figure out asking how to get out of the path to confrontation. Trump’s advantage is that he is “master of uncertainty.”

Simon Saradzhyan stressed that Russia during the Clinton years looked to the West and viewed it as a model. However, Russia is now stronger, militarily and economically than it was during the 1990s. He mentioned that Trump has the ability to improve U.S.-Russia relations, simply because they are currently “at rock bottom.” He thought that the two nations should seek to deconflict tensions in Syria and the Baltics to avoid potential confrontation. Saradzhyan did bring up the issue of NATO, and that despite Trump’s skepticism, Montenegro would likely still be admitted to the alliance under his watch. More importantly, the relationship between Washington and Moscow is precarious due to the “lack of solid economic foundation” between the two. Saradzhyan pointed out that there is no one in Congress worried about hurting trade ties with Russia, in the same way they are with China, and that Russia was not even on the top-thirty list of trade partners with the United States.


The next panel switched from focus on Russia, to the issue of Trump, China and North Korea. Moderated by the Belfer Center’s Graham T. Allison, the question was whether China and the United States were destined for war in a Thucydidean trap. Harvard’s Joseph Nye, James “Sandy” Winnefeld and Goldman Sachs’ chair of international advisors Robert Zoellick participated in the conversation. The question that Allison posed to the group was what their elevator pitch was if they only had four minutes to discuss China priorities with President-elect Trump.