Kissinger’s Vision for U.S.-Russia Relations

Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium.

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In this way, paradoxically, we find ourselves confronting anew an essentially philosophical problem. How does the United States work together with Russia, a country which does not share all its values but is an indispensable component of the international order? How does Russia exercise its security interests without raising alarms around its periphery and accumulating adversaries? Can Russia gain a respected place in global affairs with which the United States is comfortable? Can the United States pursue its values without being perceived as threatening to impose them? I will not attempt to propose answers to all these questions. My purpose is to encourage an effort to explore them.

Many commentators, both Russian and American, have rejected the possibility of the U.S. and Russia working cooperatively on a new international order. In their view, the United States and Russia have entered a new Cold War.

The danger today is less a return to military confrontation than the consolidation of a self-fulfilling prophecy in both countries. The long-term interests of both countries call for a world that transforms the contemporary turbulence and flux into a new equilibrium which is increasingly multipolar and globalized.

The nature of the turmoil is in itself unprecedented. Until quite recently, global international threats were identified with the accumulation of power by a dominating state. Today threats more frequently arise from the disintegration of state power and the growing number of ungoverned territories. This spreading power vacuum cannot be dealt with by any state, no matter how powerful, on an exclusively national basis. It requires sustained cooperation between the United States and Russia, and other major powers. Therefore the elements of competition, in dealing with the traditional conflicts in the interstate system, must be constrained so that the competition remains within bounds and creates conditions which prevent a recurrence.

There are, as we know, a number of divisive issues before us, Ukraine or Syria as the most immediate. For the past few years, our countries have engaged in episodic discussions of such matters without much notable progress. This is not surprising, because the discussions have taken place outside an agreed strategic framework. Each of the specific issues is an expression of a larger strategic one. Ukraine needs to be embedded in the structure of European and international security architecture in such a way that it serves as a bridge between Russia and the West, rather than as an outpost of either side. Regarding Syria, it is clear that the local and regional factions cannot find a solution on their own. Compatible U.S.-Russian efforts coordinated with other major powers could create a pattern for peaceful solutions in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere.

Any effort to improve relations must include a dialogue about the emerging world order. What are the trends that are eroding the old order and shaping the new one? What challenges do the changes pose to both Russian and American national interests? What role does each country want to play in shaping that order, and what position can it reasonably and ultimately hope to occupy in that new order? How do we reconcile the very different concepts of world order that have evolved in Russia and the United States—and in other major powers—on the basis of historical experience? The goal should be to develop a strategic concept for U.S.-Russian relations within which the points of contention may be managed.

In the 1960s and 1970s, I perceived international relations as an essentially adversarial relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the evolution of technology, a conception of strategic stability developed that the two countries could implement, even as their rivalry continued in other areas. The world has changed dramatically since then. In particular, in the emerging multipolar order, Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States.

I have spent the greater part of the past seventy years engaged in one way or another in U.S.-Russian relations. I have been at decision centers when alert levels have been raised, and at joint celebrations of diplomatic achievement. Our countries and the peoples of the world need a more durable prospect.

I am here to argue for the possibility of a dialogue that seeks to merge our futures rather than elaborate our conflicts. This requires respect by both sides of the vital values and interest of the other. These goals cannot be completed in what remains of the current administration. But neither should their pursuits be postponed for American domestic politics. It will only come with a willingness in both Washington and Moscow, in the White House and the Kremlin, to move beyond the grievances and sense of victimization to confront the larger challenges that face both of our countries in the years ahead.

Henry A. Kissinger served as national security advisor and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford. This speech was delivered as the Primakov lecture at the Gorchakov Foundation in Moscow.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum.