On the Washington Post op-ed page in October 2017, Mikhail Gorbachev urged “reversing the downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations” that now dangerously imperils world order. He entreated our leaders “to return to sanity” and initiate a “full-scale summit on the entire range of issues,” focusing especially on controlling weapons of mass destruction.
Gorbachev’s clarion call harkened to a very similar plea by President Dwight D. Eisenhower almost sixty-five years ago when U.S. relations with the USSR were even more fraught with danger than they are today with Russia. In a remarkable speech titled The Chance for Peace, which he delivered on April 16, 1953, six weeks after Stalin’s death, Eisenhower urged the two superpowers to radically change direction. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired,” Eisenhower declared, “signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” He advocated a reduction in “the burden of armaments now weighing upon the world,” and offered to negotiate with the Soviet Union over the size of both countries’ military forces. For Eisenhower, “this [current massing of armaments] was not a way of life at all” and he challenged the Kremlin to wage “a new kind of war, . . . a total war, not upon any human enemy, but upon the brute forces of poverty and need.”
The historic context in which this speech was delivered made this a true act of political courage. McCarthyism was assuming increasing virulence, the Soviet Union’s repressive domination of Eastern Europe was at its height, and Cold War tensions remained very high, with the Korean War still ongoing. As noted by scholar Joshua Rubenstein in his book, The Last Days of Stalin , “[f]or many of Eisenhower’s admirers this speech remains among his most politically significant, ‘certainly one of the highlights of his presidency,’[quoting a top aide]. . .The American press responded [to Eisenhower's proposals] with deep enthusiasm. Newsweek said that it ‘lifted hearts in the entire free world.’” (pages 173–74)
Like Eisenhower six decades earlier, President Trump also advocated during his campaign that this nation should adopt an entirely new approach to Russia. Citing the trillions of dollars expended in the Iraqi war and other foreign initiatives, President Trump argued that the U.S. should jettison the foreign policy of his predecessors which so antagonized President Putin and his cohorts. Instead, monies devoted to wasteful wars and attempts at regime changes should be redirected to U.S. domestic needs, including modernizing infrastructure and assisting U.S. workers adjust to new economic realities. Indeed, when candidate Trump became president-elect last November, many hoped for the emergence of a new, constructive and amicable relationship with Putin’s Russia.
Sadly, as the first anniversary of his election approaches, relations with Russia continue to deteriorate and no near term improvements appear possible. In the view of many, the July vote in Congress (419 to 3 in the House and 98 to 2 in the Senate), stripping President Trump of discretion to reduce sanctions against Russia, effectively freezes the U.S.-Russian relationship. There is the real possibility that the United States will only regain the ability to reverse the current debilitating “downward spiral,” as Gorbachev wrote, when the Department of Justice concludes its inquiry; and even then, only if Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation vindicates President Trump of complicity with Russian operatives or of any other alleged illegality relating to Russia. The resulting paralysis in the relationship could last for many more months, if not years.
We believe that such a stalemate must be avoided at all costs, and is not preordained. There is too much to lose by failing to address the consequences of a continuing drift in U.S.-Russian relations, allowing menacing problems to fester. These include: the real potential for accidental war inadvertently triggered by the lack of effective government-to-government dialogues at military and civilian levels, with catastrophic results; military confrontations in Ukraine involving the U.S. or its allies, with unforeseen escalations; destabilizing measures by Russia to further lower the threshold of its own planned use of nuclear weapons; and a host of other very significant matters that require priority attention. Even entirely peaceful collaborations may fall by the wayside, as evidenced by the Russian Duma’s recent threat to prohibit the United States from accessing the International Space Station on Russian space vehicles, the only means now available to do so.
The following path is offered as a way out of the present—and very ominous—impasse:
First, the White House should actively and creatively reach out to congressional leaders of both parties and forge a consensus on proposals to be advanced in negotiations with President Putin. The distrust that now exists in Washington can be assuaged, at least in part, by means of a jointly conceived program for approaching the Russians. From the perspective of the United States, the various parties are generally on the same page respecting U.S. objectives—or can be led to that point—on most of the substantive issues to be resolved.