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.
Exploit indirect system effects. In dealing with wicked problems, the path to success is seldom straight. Just as ill-considered actions can trigger negative feedback loops and cause a damaging cascade of unintended effects, there are other moves that can do the opposite. What can seem to be lateral or even regressive steps can counterintuitively kick off processes that help the United States to reach desirable destinations not attainable through frontal assaults or incremental moves forward. The U.S. deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe in the early 1980s was decried at the time for stoking Soviet fears of nuclear “decapitation” and heightening the dangers of war, but it helped to initiate a virtuous circle that brought Moscow to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiating table and eventually led to improved U.S.-Soviet relations. Similarly, the 1975 Helsinki accords were accused of being “the biggest hoax in postwar history” that would entrench Moscow’s domination of Eastern Europe, but they unexpectedly wound up playing a large role in undermining Soviet control in the East, improving humanitarian conditions and providing a common reference for improved East-West relations.
One area where a step backward might produce forward progress lies in the goals that Washington and Moscow articulate for their bilateral relationship. To arrest the downward spiral in relations, the two sides should acknowledge candidly that they are competitors and declare that their goal is not to build a partnership but to keep their competition within safe, mutually respected bounds. Rather than focusing on what little Washington and Moscow can agree on, we should enumerate our many areas of disagreement and expose our contrasting perceptions.
Why would such a step backward help? Its biggest virtue is that it both reflects reality and resonates with the domestic politics of both countries. The United States and Russia are not partners, nor is there much remaining desire in either country to pursue this goal given their deep mutual suspicions and bitter disappointments over the past two and a half decades. Explicitly acknowledging this reality keeps expectations for progress sensibly low. It does not require quixotic efforts to change perceptions of the other side’s hostility, and it does not make progress contingent on resolving intractable problems that have torpedoed past efforts at cooperation, or on grand bargains that neither side is in a position to consider. But at the same time, it also forces the sides to reckon with the danger of inadvertent conflict, to make clear that they do not desire war, and to lay the groundwork for discussions on how to keep their competition within safe and mutually acceptable bounds.
Another opportunity lies in Central Asia. Putin’s help in establishing American military bases in Central Asia in 2001 was an important indication of his desire at the time for strategic partnership with the United States. Washington’s insistence that these allegedly “temporary” bases would remain firmly in place for an extended period, even after the initial American success in driving the Taliban from power, contributed to Putin’s growing disillusionment with that partnership. This played a small but significant role in poisoning Russian perceptions of American intentions and trustworthiness. The continuing U.S. military presence in the region has also served as a unifying factor in cooperation between Russia and China, encouraging them to subsume what might otherwise become a growing bilateral competition for influence in the region to their shared concerns about Washington’s activities. U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan might not only encourage regional players to take greater responsibility for combatting extremism and maintaining order, but also allow the forces of Russian-Chinese rivalry for Central Asian influence gradually to re-emerge. This might begin subtly to rebalance the triangular U.S.-Russia-China relationship, currently tilted heavily toward cooperation between Moscow and Beijing against the United States. It might also prompt Russia to appreciate anew the role of Washington as an off-shore balancer in Central Asia, as Moscow lacks the economic muscle to compete with Chinese dynamism in the region, and the legacy of Soviet-era ties with the Central Asian states is fading.
A third lies in Europe. As Chinese power waxes and Russian assertiveness grows, Europe must play a key role as a systemic counterweight to establish and maintain international equilibrium. It cannot play that role, however, if fissiparous forces continue to rend NATO and the EU, threatening to hasten European disintegration and trans-Atlantic decoupling. A situation in which Russia sees itself as locked out of European security decisionmaking, incentivized to exacerbate the continent’s divisions and widen its fissures, reduces the chances that a strong and healthy Europe can play that balancing role. The threat of American disengagement from Europe has a similarly damaging effect, exacerbating divisions on the continent by stoking fears in eastern European states that NATO might not be willing or able to defend them against Russian aggression, while resurrecting old fears of German hegemony.
Within what appear to be discouraging European trends, however, lies potential for gain. Whereas not long ago, both NATO and the EU thought of themselves figuratively as sharks, requiring the forward motion of expansion to sustain their functions in the absence of a unifying external threat, such expansion is no longer viewed as necessary or even desirable. The illusions that Russia can be integrated into European institutions on Western terms, or somehow transformed into a variation of Sweden, a once-formidable military power now focused on creating a great standard of living for its people, content to defer to American stewardship of a rules-based international order, have disappeared. Moreover, the appetite in the United States and other NATO members for using the alliance in expeditionary activity has long since dissipated. These changes open the door to new approaches that until recently were impractical.
A renewed NATO focus on its original purpose, collective defense, might produce several advantageous effects. It would reassure Poland, the Baltic states and other NATO members fearful of Russian aggression that the alliance is committed to their security, and in so doing, reduce intra-alliance tensions. It would also provide a secure basis for sending a nuanced message to the Russians about NATO’s intentions, underscoring resolve to defend member states and drawing a firm line against Russian involvement in internal alliance affairs, while at the same time signaling reluctance to stray beyond current NATO borders to add members or undertake out-of-area missions. The corollary to these signals would be that Europe and Russia share an interest in working to contain and manage instability in the unaligned states in-between NATO and Russia, to minimize these states’ incentives to seek an alliance that might threaten either side and to reduce the chances of being drawn inadvertently into direct conflict. Such signals would facilitate bilateral and multilateral discussions of the ground rules for interaction in these in-between states, a prerequisite for any progress in settling the volatile ongoing conflict in Ukraine and frozen conflicts in Moldova and the Caucasus.