After the Soviet collapse, Russia was faced with a colossal challenge and went through a real “time of troubles.” When Russia became independent in 1991, it had to create a new political and economic system and a new national identity, anthem, set of symbols—a new present, future and even a rewritten history. I remember in the early 1990s when leading Russian public intellectuals and philosophers were engaged in a government-sponsored search for a “new national idea.” It is hard for those in the United States to have empathy for something that we have not gone through ourselves—though America is now facing the loss of its primacy on the world stage as the Asia-Pacific increasingly becomes the epicenter of the international system and we see an accompanying rise of nationalism, nativism and a president elected to “make America great again.” Putin was elected on a promise to restore greatness, but first “to lift Russia from its knees.” So perhaps empathy could be in the cards.
THERE IS another side to the story. The United States did invite Russia into the G-8 economic alliance, and to be a partner in NATO. The newly sovereign Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries in the region wanted protection. Russia was a mess following the Soviet collapse, struggling to develop a civil society with its entrenched authoritarian Soviet and Russian traditions, and not ready to be integrated into Europe or NATO, though there was some early cooperation with the alliance. The United States had little to work with, even if there had been will to develop a shared vision of mutual security. As one Russian economist put it, “We engaged in ill-conceived reforms. We deceived ourselves and held you accountable.” Russians argue that the United States then became part of the problem by uncritically supporting policies and economic reforms in Russia that led to most people losing out. What is clear is that Washington made Moscow swallow a lot when it was down. As Bill Clinton said of his relationship with Yeltsin, “We keep telling ol’ Boris, ‘O.K., now, here’s what you’ve got to do next—here’s some more shit for your face.’ And that makes it real hard for him, given what he’s up against and who he’s dealing with.” Yeltsin expressed his brewing resentment:
I don’t like it when the U.S. flaunts its superiority . . . Russia’s difficulties are only temporary, and not only because we have nuclear weapons but also because of our economy, our culture, our spiritual strength. All that amounts to a legitimate, undeniable basis for equal treatment. Russia will rise again! I repeat: Russia will rise again.
Yeltsin’s impassioned vow helps clarify what many have considered a riddle: why pliant, democratic “Ol’ Boris” hand-picked steely Vladimir Putin as the one to lead Russia into the future.
Ultimately, the point here is not to relitigate the past or lament lost opportunities. The point of negotiation is to facilitate a meaningful dialogue in an emotionally deadlocked situation, to name grievances and the critical differences in perception, helping both sides to see more clearly how the other side thinks and acknowledge any positive humanizing elements that can create a minimal sense of connection, some healthy introspection and willingness to listen further. In our joint sessions, when we reached an impasse, we often quoted great leaders for inspiration. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Even at the height of the pain and agony of our own Civil War, Lincoln found it in himself to humanize Southerners, to speak of them as fellow human beings who were in error. An elderly woman objected that they were enemies who must be destroyed. “Why, madam,” Lincoln replied, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Lincoln did not attribute moral equivalence to his opponents, yet he still was able to speak of them as human beings and envision a union.
We also cited JFK’s speech in May 1963 at American University. Shaken and enlightened by the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK expressed profound disagreement with the Soviet system; called for introspection on both sides; put himself in the Russians’ shoes, acknowledging their heroism—“no nation in the history of battle suffered more than the Soviet Union in World War II”; and called for concrete policy agreements. The speech was hailed by Khrushchev as the “greatest speech since Roosevelt” and has endeared Kennedy to the Russian people for generations. The Partial Test Ban Treaty, which had been under negotiation for eight years, was signed in August 1963.
There are a number of other tools to assist us to “think like a Russian,” understand the drivers of their behavior and lead to a more effective U.S. foreign policy in the future. In 1990, we held sessions with the prime minister of Estonia. We asked him and his staff to write the speech that Gorbachev would have to give to his own parliament announcing the independence of the Baltic states. Asking a party to write the “victory speech” for the other side forces it to identify the obstacles facing its opponent and, by exploring how to “solve the other guy’s problem,” how to deal with his constituencies, you improve your chances of getting what you want. Believe it or not, Putin does have constituencies, as Russian journalist and insider Mikhail Zygar has documented. Putin is far from a czar. Americans have a very poor understanding of Russian domestic politics. For many Americans, there are many surprises—as when they are forced to think twice upon learning that historically pro-Western Mikhail Gorbachev gave his full support to the Russian annexation of Crimea.
A critical avenue is off-the-record Track II and Track 1.5 conversations, in which representatives of the two sides can speak frankly, explore options and seek to define shared interests, as in the Nobel Prize–winning Pugwash conferences or the current Elbe Group. Such exchanges remind us through personal contact that no country is a monolith. Russian politics is based on personalities, ego and ambition—as is politics in the United States—not just on policy, strategy and ideology.
ONE FINAL avenue involves shifting the narrative from sheer transactionalism to conflict transformation, which involves creating a shared identity and experience of common meaning. Gorbachev sought to inspire the creation of a shared “all-human” identity and new mutual security system. At present, this seems to be a bridge too far. Yet, as Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Party ideologues in the Soviet Union focused on the shared history of victory in the “Great Patriotic War” as a unifying force to try to create a sense of common identity among the many ethnic groups spanning their country’s eleven time zones. Some states focus on Islam, Christianity or Judaism, as a source of shared meaning and identity. In the Middle East, there is an effort to inspire hope and develop a sense of common identity by focusing on the fact that all three great religions of the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which encompass four billion of the Earth’s seven billion people—have a basis for shared meaning in their shared reverence for the ancient prophet Abraham. Early in their relationship, Gorbachev asked Reagan whether America would cooperate with the Soviet Union if aliens attacked Earth. Mandela created a sense of common human identity among both whites and blacks through a “negotiated revolution” that did not dehumanize the whites, focused on truth and reconciliation, and reached a compromise agreement on their shared and opposed political and economic interests.
A dramatic example of an individual in an agonizing conflict who pointed to the ultimate truth of our common humanity was Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s slain former prime minister. Having been a warrior all his life, Rabin made a moving plea at a 1993 meeting at the White House with Yasser Arafat:
Enough of blood and tears. . . . We, like you, are people—people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side-by-side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings.
It is a platitude and yet profound that we are all human beings. We are all mortal, as JFK underlined in his 1963 speech. We all need a healthy biosphere to live. Yet it has been great transformational leaders who have found the strength to inspire others to experience the profundity of this truth rather than dismiss it as a meaningless cliché. But most assume it is asking too much to find a shared identity and common meaning right now in U.S.-Russia relations. It would take a leader like a Lincoln in the middle of the hellish Civil War, a Mandela after twenty-seven years in prison, a JFK after the Cuban Missile Crisis, or a Rabin at the end of his life when he had exhausted his ambition and wanted most of all to savor peace and the simple joys of life.
Today, we have to reexamine the very meaning of strategic stability in a world that is now multipolar and less multilateral.