How Trump Can Avoid War with Russia

August 12, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: RussiaDonald TrumpWarDiplomacyForeign Policy

How Trump Can Avoid War with Russia

Our Russia challenge does not fit neatly into either the “offensive Russia” or “defensive Russia” schools of thought, but the tangled set of issues crisscrossing the U.S.-Russian relationship does reflect the complexities of a classic wicked problem.

Broaden our focus. One common cause of failure in dealing with a wicked problem is to treat it as if it were a narrow linear problem, rooted in a single or primary cause that can be resolved through a focused and determined effort. The United States has repeatedly crashed into this shoal in its attempts to deal with Russia since the Cold War’s end. We have habitually sought to compartmentalize issues, preferring to focus on disputes that are salient to U.S. domestic politics and on selective opportunities that we hope will advance American goals. We have tended to look for primary causes of bilateral maladies, recently attributing the growing dangers in the U.S.-Russian relationship to the nature of Putinism and Russia’s endemic expansionism, believing resolute counter-pressure will quell Russian appetites for aggression. We have attempted to seek progress through incremental steps, in the hope that making headway on such issues as counter-terrorism can build momentum toward larger U.S.-Russian success.


This incremental and compartmentalized approach makes abundant sense intuitively. Why complicate things, when one can break the problem down into its component parts and focus on what is most salient or easily achievable? It is also driven by the bureaucratic silo effect, which encourages narrow specialization while discouraging cross-organizational integration. But it has not worked in practice. Despite our best efforts, the U.S.-Russian relationship has spiraled ever deeper into dysfunction and distrust from administration to administration since the end of the Cold War. As planning expert Russell Ackoff has observed about “messes,” his term for wicked problems, “if we do the usual thing and break up a mess into its component problems and then try to solve each one separately, we will not solve the mess.’’

Dwight Eisenhower often counseled that the best way to tackle a seemingly insoluble problem is to enlarge it. An enlarged, more holistic approach to dealing with our wicked Russia problem would make for a greater challenge in managing the U.S. interagency process, necessitating a larger number of players and deeper integration of regional and functional issues, but without one we are likely to continue slipping backwards as we struggle for progress. Ending the bloodshed in Ukraine will require addressing the barbed issue of Russia’s role in Europe’s security architecture. Reducing Russian cyber aggression will require agreeing on rules to govern U.S. as well as Russian involvement in the internal affairs of other states. Punishing Moscow’s transgressions must be complemented by rewards for good behavior, or we will simply reinforce perverse incentives for Russia to defy American policies, deepen security cooperation with China, and subvert NATO and the EU. None of these individual steps will be effective absent a broader détente with Russia that keeps our great power competition within manageable bounds.

Recognition that our problems with Russia are not linear has other implications, as well. It suggests that we should approach our ambitions with a good deal more humility, acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and our capabilities, while remaining alert to the risks of unintended knock-on effects from our policies. This has particular relevance to the question of promoting democratization, an issue that has plagued the U.S.-Russian relationship for nearly the entire post-Cold War period. Advancing the causes of liberty and justice in the world is an inherent part of what America is and what it represents. But how we advance these ideals matters immensely. If liberalization is not a linear process, but one shaped within the contours of a complex, interacting set of factors, most of which we do not and cannot control, then a humbler, less intrusive approach might minimize the prospects of counter-productive actions while improving our dismal results in encouraging the spread of democracy abroad.

Build shock absorbers into the system. Our interwoven and dynamic world makes shocks—surprise developments that diverge sharply and suddenly from the trends preceding them, sometimes producing disastrous outcomes, sometimes not—all but inevitable. In recent decades, these shocks have included the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the 2008 financial crisis, and the Arab Spring, all discontinuous “black swan” events resulting from complex systems dynamics. The exact form and timing of these shocks are nearly impossible to predict, but their impact can be cushioned, their effects managed. If the first order of dealing with wicked problems is to avoid treating them as if they were linear problems, susceptible to piecemeal resolution, the second is to build resilience into the system, rendering shocks, when they come, less damaging than they would otherwise be.

Enhancing systemic resilience does not imply a quest for stability. Although well-intentioned, such an aim can produce postures too inflexible to withstand shocks, too unimaginative to adapt to challenges, too protective of the status quo to accommodate change. The pre-World War I system in Europe grew increasingly rigid, unable to adjust to new geopolitical challenges and shifting social forces. Europe devolved into a system of rival alliances focused on reinforcing the bonds within each camp rather than making the adjustments necessary for maintaining broader equilibrium on the continent. Diplomacy lost touch with new technologies and their implications for warfare, and proved unable to cope with the imperatives that were driven by the advent of the railroad and the advantages that would flow from preemptive attack. As a result, the system amplified rather than buffered disturbances, and became highly susceptible to shocks generated by relatively minor disputes.

Communications are a critical part of resilience in crisis situations. In the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, the United States and Soviet Union established the so-called “Hot Line” linking leaders in Washington and Moscow, because it was evident that direct and timely communications were vital to avoiding inadvertent war. A similar recognition about the need for American and Russian military commanders in Syria to avoid accidental clashes between their forces led them to establish an official deconfliction channel there in 2016. Extending this narrow channel into broader U.S.-Russian discussions of how we might handle possible security crises in Europe and beyond would be an important preparatory step toward reducing the prospects of escalation. There is much potential danger to discuss in Ukraine, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere, in our parallel efforts to battle terrorists, and in how we cope with the thorny issue of cyber operations, including false-flag attacks designed to deflect blame or even spark U.S.-Russian conflict. The time for discussing how to handle such problems is now, however, not in the suffocating heat of a crisis.

Another part of designing resilience into the system involves identifying technological “single points of failure” and building back-ups that can compensate for their damage or loss. 

America’s Global Positioning System, space-based assets, electoral systems, and public and private utilities are all examples of systems on which numerous critical military, political and commercial functions depend, but which are highly vulnerable to disruption. Too few of them have independent alternatives in place that could function in the event of an emergency. In the age of cyber vulnerability and anti-satellite weaponry, technological redundancy is a necessity, not a luxury. It both reduces our fears of single-point failures and disincentivizes the targeting of critical infrastructure by our adversaries.

Resiliency requires establishing and enforcing a set of rules that both friends and foes view as legitimate. The U.S.-Soviet relationship was most vulnerable to instability during the early Cold War period when rules to govern it had not yet been clearly established. The crises over Berlin and Cuba had their roots in Soviet probing of the limits of America’s tolerance and of its willingness to run risks. As those limits became evident, a set of formal and informal rules began to take shape that reduced the chances that Third World proxy wars and other forms of superpower competition in the 1970s and 1980s might escalate into broader conflict. Today, both the cyber world and the space domain are in an analogous state to the early Cold War period, with no consensus among the great powers on rules that might contain dangers.

But a system with rules that are too rigid can fail to adapt to change and manage shocks. The arms control regimes and “Helsinki rules” that characterized the mid- to late-Cold War world have crumbled in recent years because they failed to adjust to the stresses of emerging multipolarity, new technologies and political change. Europe’s security architecture and the governance of international financial institutions are current examples of areas in which America’s preferred norms are under challenge by Russia, China or other emerging powers. Finding a balance between too much rigidity and too little structure is critical to building international consensus around a set of rules that enhance systemic resilience in the twenty-first century.

Skeptics in both the United States and Russia scoff at the notion that rules might somehow limit the actions of either side, which they see as having little respect for rules or treaties, while harboring deadly intent toward its adversary. And it is indeed true that when states believe their vital national interests are at stake, neither treaties nor political agreements will stand in the way of actions that they regard as necessary. But history shows that even deadly enemies can reach understandings that encourage mutual restraint and reduce the likelihood of a crisis arising from misinterpretation or miscommunication. Moscow and Washington certainly viewed each other as untrustworthy adversaries during the period of détente, yet both saw their interests served by understandings that limited and contained the dangers of their rivalry. Even if rules ultimately carry little weight in a conflict, they can reduce the chances of winding up in that conflict, particularly if they are bolstered by strategies to incentivize their observance.