Russia and America: Toward a New Détente

June 9, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Tags: RussiaDetenteAmerica

Russia and America: Toward a New Détente

It is totally unrealistic to think that the West can gain desired Russian restraint and cooperation without dealing with Moscow as a great power that possesses real and legitimate interests. 

Dealing with China is more complicated. The very fact of Détente Plus will unnerve Beijing. Nothing can be done about that; indeed, it might have a salubrious effect on China. Both Russia and the United States worry about Chinese economic and military muscling, and it wouldn’t be bad for Beijing to consider Moscow and Washington as a counterweight. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s and America’s interests coincide more with one another’s than with China’s.

To be sure, all of these calculations about Détente Plus have an abstract quality. No matter the potency of the arguments for cooperation, it will be very difficult for both sides to adopt a Détente Plus strategy. Formidable segments of the policy communities on both sides will not reconcile themselves to such a relationship. The American right wing will never believe the Russians are negotiating in good faith, and vice versa.

Since the early twentieth century, no country has so consistently roiled Americans as has Russia. Apart from Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the Bolshoi Ballet, almost everything about Russia has inspired revulsion: czarist dictatorship and the secret police, horrid anti-Jewish pogroms, atheist totalitarianism, the Stalinist tyranny over Eastern Europe, and now military force against its weaker, peaceful neighbors by a Dracularized Vladimir Putin. Now, as ever, Americans seek to cure Russia with democracy and fail to understand that societies have their own special roots and must change from within. And most certainly, all these American attitudes and moves drive Russian leaders insane.

Though the benefits of Détente Plus are so tangible, it’s hard to imagine overcoming generations of mutual mistrust. It’s harder still since realists in both capitals seem to be in short supply. But if there is any one move that can relieve the flood of crises worldwide, it is the reality of Washington and Moscow combining their powers. Détente Plus could do this. Mounting Russian bad behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere does not preclude this approach. It makes it essential.


Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former columnist for the New York Times, and a former senior State and Defense Department official. He gives special thanks to John T. Nelson, his research associate, for his excellent research and expertise.