Russia and America: The World Is Big Enough for Both of Us

There's room for Moscow in the global order.

U.S. foreign policy over the coming decade is likely to focus on the task of managing relations among a collection of tough, ambitious great powers that are determined to shift at least some of the global balance of power away from the United States. The list includes not just China and Russia but also countries like Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and India—emerging democracies and fully “responsible stakeholders” in the current system, but states that nonetheless demand a more prominent voice in its operations. Such a challenge is just what a realist would expect from an increasingly multipolar, and persistently competitive, world order. Yet it is important to realize just how novel a challenge it will be for the United States; there is no modern parallel to this sort of kaleidoscopic relationship management among a crowd of ambitious great powers.

The challenge offers two dominant, and opposing, dangers. One is that the United States underplays emerging rivalries, particularly with China and Russia, and fails to balance those two states’ regional ambitions. The other is that Washington, accustomed to running a world order of its own making, exaggerates the threat from China and Russia while growing increasingly resentful of the unwillingness of other leading powers to toe the U.S. line.

Thomas Graham’s recent TNI essay on managing relations with Russia is a welcome antidote to such extremes. He offers a nuanced way forward and sensible policy advice. He does raise one issue that deserves more discussion: the value of nesting U.S. policy toward Russia within a rules-based international order. For his part, Graham is pessimistic; integrating Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community is now “beyond reach,” he contends, because Russia is “sharpening its challenge to the U.S.-led world order.” To be sure, the prospect of Russia joining Euro-Atlantic institutions as a full-fledged member remains far off. But the United States can nonetheless use the structures of the postwar order to recognize Russian concerns, provide Moscow with a voice and ultimately shape Russian behavior. Its approach to Russia—and any other great power—will ultimately be more effective if grounded in the rules, norms and institutions that have come to characterize the postwar global system.

That order was a product of the idealistic World War II hope for a rule-governed postwar world. It represented a wide range of elements that in some cases applied globally (such as the United Nations system), in other cases were open to any who would accept a specific rule set (such as the World Trade Organization) and in still others provided for a deepening of the order among value-sharing democracies (such as the European Union and NATO). The essential idea of the order was to learn the lessons of the 1930s and avoid the economic chaos and geopolitical confrontations that gave rise to the war by shaping the preferences and behavior of states.

This order became the architecture for U.S. grand strategy and has played an important role in supporting the pursuit of U.S. goals. It has not produced peace or prosperity on its own, but that is holding it to an unfair standard; its components were always designed to work alongside global economic integration and U.S. military and diplomatic power. Viewed this way, the elements of the postwar order fit easily within an important strand of realist thinking. States can pursue self-interest in many ways—including cooperation, sometimes institutionalized with international organizations and expressed in the form of generally followed norms.

Such orders also reflect a classically constructivist idea about state goals: great powers seek more than material objectives. They also crave recognition, prestige and status in a shared global system. An institutionalized order can provide a convenient means of granting such status, by creating clear signals of membership and mutual respect. Norms of behavior gain traction in part because of states’ desire to remain part of the “club,” and avoid the stigma and shaming that goes with breaking the assumed rules.

All of which points to the potential value of building a nuanced U.S. strategy toward more ambitious and sometimes belligerent rivals within the context of a rules-based order.

Increasingly, the default line of thinking in Washington is to view Russia—at least Vladimir Putin’s regime—as a prospective enemy, and a hard-hearted opponent of the U.S.-led order. There can be no doubt that Russia has turned some sort of corner, after years of flirting with the idea of becoming more integrated with Western institutions. Putin has intensified his critiques of U.S.-led institutions and expanded Russia’s efforts to destabilize key organizations like NATO and the EU. His actions in Ukraine have violated central norms of the order.