Don't Rule Out Russia

February 5, 2013 Topic: Security Region: RussiaUnited States

Don't Rule Out Russia

A strategic dialogue with Moscow might reveal new areas for cooperation.

Andranik Migranyan has published in these spaces a serious critique of the article by Dmitri Trenin and myself in the International Herald Tribune advocating a high-level U.S.-Russian strategic dialogue. I find myself in agreement with many of his observations about the current state of U.S.-Russian relations. But his narrow focus on the current state of relations only underscores the need for such a dialogue.

Migranyan's three arguments against a U.S.-Russian strategic dialogue are less than persuasive.

First, such a dialogue does not need to focus on a "troublesome third country" to succeed, as he argues. To be sure, that focus was critical to the spectacular success of the strategic dialogue the Nixon administration launched with China. But the U.S.-Indian strategic dialogue begun over a decade ago has not been focused on any single third country, and still it is reshaping the equilibrium in South Asia and the Indian Ocean and fostering cooperation on nuclear, counterterrorism and environmental issues. And the long history of U.S.-Israeli strategic dialogue and cooperation has not precluded American efforts to maintain constructive relations with key Arab countries opposed to Israel.

Second, U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation belies the second of Migranyan's contentions--namely, that two countries can only have convergent strategic interests if they are roughly equal in resources and power. Anyone who has followed U.S.-Israeli relations over just the past few years would be hard put to argue that "the weaker one experiences a loss of sovereignty as a result of its smaller economic and military-political potential, and that negates the strategic character of the relationship," as Migranyan writes. Indeed, one key issue in the current debate over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense is the extent to which the United States should defer to Israel's strategic choices.

Last, strategic cooperation requires considerable trust between two major powers, but that same level of trust is not necessary to launch a strategic dialogue, as Migranyan implies. Imagine the level of trust between Nixon and Mao when they first met. One key task of the dialogue is building the trust needed for closer strategic cooperation.

But the larger problem is that Migranyan misunderstands the goal of a strategic dialogue. It is not to eliminate all significant sources of tension between two major powers. That would be an impossible task. Relations between any two major powers is always a mix of cooperation and competition. Rather, a strategic dialogue seeks to expand the strategic opportunities of each country to advance its interests, while mitigating the consequences of the inevitable continuing differences. And, in that way, it seeks to alter perceptions of current issues in ways that foster greater cooperation now.

In broad terms, a strategic dialogue would address three issues: (1) each country's vision of where it wants to be in the long run; (2) the factors that will shape the global environment over the long run and the ways they will constrict or enlarge opportunities and facilitate or complicate each country's achievement of its goals; and (3) the possibility for strategic cooperation, given (1) and (2). In other words, is there sufficient overlap in goals and perceived challenges to justify extensive cooperation?

With regard to U.S.-Russian relations, one issue that Migranyan suggests makes strategic dialogue impossible in fact would figure large in any such discussion: the need to create sustainable balances of power in various parts of the world. Both the United States and Russia have a strategic interest in the nature of such balances all along Russia's periphery—in Europe; Southwest, Central/South, and Northeast Asia; and the Arctic.

To take one example: Migranyan suggests that Russian and Chinese interests converge "on the matter of containing Washington’s arrogant and unilateral foreign policy that attempts to dominate the world." Beyond questioning the accuracy of his characterization of U.S. foreign policy, the point is that he focuses narrowly on the current state of affairs. But will Russian and Chinese interests converge over the long run? Can Russia feel strategically comfortable with a country with which it shares a long border that has been historically contested (even if now fully demarcated)? With a country whose economy is four times, and population nine times, as large as Russia's, with the gap only likely to grow? With a country that could eventually replace Russia as Central Asia's leading commercial partner and seek to capture the resources of Siberia and the Russian Far East for its markets? I do not pretend to know how Russian leaders would answer, nor how they would assess the strategic implications of their answers for Russia's national interest. But I do presume American policy-makers would want to know the answers to such questions, just as Russian leaders presumably want to know U.S. thinking about China.

The two countries might find they have grounds for strategic cooperation, and not necessarily in an effort to contain China, as many might suppose. After all, both countries have an interest in building constructive relations with China, and neither is likely prepared to sacrifice relations with it to advance U.S.-Russian cooperation. But it is possible that they both have an interest in creating the type of balance that sufficiently satisfies the interests of China, Russia, the United States and other relevant powers so as to provide an enduring foundation for security and economic progress in Central Asia and Northeast Asia.

Analogous forward-looking questions might suggest that there are grounds for U.S.-Russian strategic cooperation in other regions along Russia's periphery and on other issues. Of course, as Trenin and I note, a strategic dialogue will not necessarily lead to strategic cooperation. It could reveal unbridgeable differences. We may find that the balance in U.S.-Russian relations tends toward competition for sound strategic reasons. But shouldn't we at least engage in the dialogue to explore the grounds for strategic cooperation, rather than dismiss the possibility out of hand? We might surprise ourselves.

Thomas Graham was senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff, 2004-2007.