U.S.-Russia Relations: What Would Henry Kissinger Do?

As President Obama meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the U.N., Obama should ask: WWKD – What Would Kissinger Do?

On an array of pressing global issues, there is reason to believe that Russia’s and America’s needs can be reconciled. In dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, for example, Kissinger recommends searching for a formulation in which Kiev would be militarily non-aligned, thus satisfying Russian concerns about a buffer, but also assuring Ukraine its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which would require withdrawal of all Russian forces from Eastern Ukraine and Kiev’s control of its borders.

Terrorism is another issue where Obama and Putin could find common ground, since both the United States and Russia agree about the threat posed by ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups currently operating in Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East. Russia’s recent movement of air and ground assets into Syria, as well as its newly announced intelligence-sharing program with Iraq, Iran and Syria, serves as another stark reminder to members of both parties in Washington that Russia is a player that does not require our permission to act. At this point, the Obama administration has no alternative but to engage in deconfliction talks with Putin about airstrikes and military operations on the ground in Syria. Better still would be exploring the possibility of coordinating or even cooperating in the campaign against ISIS as part of a larger effort to negotiate a political settlement that would set the stage for a post-Assad regime.

Most Republicans running to be their party’s nominee in next year’s presidential campaign, as well as many in the Obama administration, find the idea of trying to work with Putin appalling. In their view, the Russian leader is inherently hostile toward the West, and only interested in acting as a spoiler on the world stage.  But there is reason to believe President Obama does not entirely share that view. In announcing that the nuclear deal with Iran had been concluded, Obama went out of his way to give Putin a shoutout, noting that “Russia was a help on this…and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”

If the president were to ask “What Would Kissinger Do?”  and then follow America’s greatest living statesman’s advice, my bet is that he will find Putin ready to play a more constructive role than most of official Washington could imagine.

Graham Allison is director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans.