U.S.-Russian Relations in a New Era

January 6, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: StrategyGeopoliticsWarRussiaPolicy

U.S.-Russian Relations in a New Era

Washington and Moscow are on the verge of a confrontation that has not been seen since the early 1980s.

Russian leaders understand the need for reform but see significant risk. Because economic and political power remain closely intertwined in Russia, as they have been throughout history, economic reform requires political adjustment that can have far-reaching consequences for the configuration of political power and, at the extreme, erode the foundations of the state itself. That indeed is what happened during the last great period of reform under Soviet leader Gorbachev in the 1980s, which ended in economic depression and the collapse of the state. That cautionary tale acts as a serious psychological barrier to reform today. Whether Russia can overcome it and successfully reform, and thereby generate in the long term the power needed to sustain great-power ambitions, remains to be seen.

With the United States, the situation is reversed. There should be no doubt about its power potential. It is today the world’s preeminent power by almost any measure, even if China is narrowing the gap. Deep capital markets, a political and business climate that fosters innovation and creativity, and a vast domestic consumer market continue to fuel an unparalleled socio-economic dynamism. The United States is home to the lion’s share of the world’s leading universities and centers of scientific learning. It outspends China, the European Union, and Russia on R&D, both absolutely and as a share of GDP. Its technological prowess supplies its military with unique capabilities that outclass those of any other military in the world. 

But in recent years serious questions have surfaced about the country’s willingness to bear the burden of global leadership. The retrenchment began under President Barack Obama, as the American public wearied of the activist—and less than successful—foreign policy of President George W. Bush. President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, most notably his protectionist economic policies and questioning of the value of alliances, has taken this retrenchment to another level.  Although these policies have encountered considerable elite resistance, they enjoy support from a substantial part of the public, which finds appealing the isolationist attitudes that prevailed in the United States before the Second World War. A return to pure isolationism is unlikely—the world has become too interconnected for that—but a less active role in global affairs and a deepening preference for bilateralism over multilateralism are well within the realm of possibility. Nevertheless, the United States would remain a major influence on global affairs, even if it forfeited its role at the pinnacle of the global hierarchy, given its power and integration into the global economy.

Grand Strategy

The geopolitical trends and the domestic challenges will inevitably influence American and Russian views on the requirements for security and prosperity and on their own forms of exceptionalism.

The United States will be confronting a multipolar world for the first time since the end of the Second World War. It will be impossible for the United States to identify, as it has in the past, an overwhelming existential threat, such as the Soviet Union, around which it can fashion its foreign policy into a Manichean struggle between good and evil. The United States will also find it increasingly difficult to forge the domestic consensus needed to mobilize the resources to play the role of the sole leader in global affairs. The situation calls for a more subtle balancing of interests among competing powers in setting the global agenda, maintaining stability, and advancing national interests than America has been accustomed to for the past seventy years. As a result, the United States is likely at a minimum to fall back to seeing itself as a leader rather than the global leader. And if Trump’s “America First” mentality endures, the United States will have abandoned the pretense of working for the benefit of the global community, and not simply for the promotion of its own parochial interests.

Bur these evolving conditions should change little in America’s long-standing grand strategy for advancing its security and prosperity and preserving liberty at home. The geopolitical requirements will remain the same as they have been historically: U.S. preeminence in the Western hemisphere; neither Europe nor East Asia—the two major zones of productive economic activity outside of North America—dominated by a hostile power; and reliable, safe maritime trade routes. In addition, a more recent requirement—that the Middle East as a vital source of global energy supplies not be dominated by a hostile power—will continue to be relevant to the United States’ global position, even as that region’s relative strategic importance declines.

Beyond these geopolitical goals, the United States will also seek to secure and preserve strategic stability in the broadest sense, to encompass nuclear, advanced conventional and cyber weapons and the growing number of countries with significant capabilities in those areas in addition to the United States and Russia. Because it will remain a trading nation, America’s security, prosperity, and liberty will also require building coalitions to deal with international terrorism, climate change, and other major transnational threats. Finally, the United States will continue to promote democratic development abroad, in the belief that democracy strengthens the forces of peace in the world, as well as opens up regions for beneficial commercial interaction. The only issue is how, by active proselytizing or by offering an attractive model for emulation.

For Russia, the breakup of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical and psychological cataclysm that undid three centuries of geopolitical advance and cast in doubt Russia’s standing as a consequential power.  But, if anything, the breakup, along with the broader geopolitical trends, has reinforced traditional Russian views on security and prosperity, witness the continuing efforts to maintain Russia’s preeminence in the former Soviet space, its security buffer, against encroachments by the West and China.  At the same time, Putin has continued to portray Russia as a leading advocate of a just world order in line with traditional notions of exceptionalism as a way of enhancing Russia’s global appeal.

In this light, there is little reason to expect significant change in Russia’s grand strategy to ensure its security and to protect its unique way of life. The geopolitical goals include Russian preeminence in North Central Eurasia, roughly the former Soviet space; the prevention of the emergence of a unified Europe that would dwarf Russia in population, wealth, and power potential as the United States does today; economic integration with both Europe and East Asia while seeking to balance between those two regions commercially and strategically; the erection of a reliable barrier against the spread of extremists ideologies out of the Middle East into Russia; and resistance to the rise of a single dominating power in global affairs.

Beyond these geopolitical goals, Russia, like the United States, needs to create and sustain the conditions for strategic stability. But, less integrated into the global economy than the United States, it will not have a similar stake in joining coalitions to manage transnational problems. In this regard, its strategic need lies only in coalitions to deal with those transnational problems that have direct negative consequences for Russia. It is not necessarily in Russia’s interest, for example, to counter climate change (which could bring some benefit to Russia by opening up the Arctic for exploration and exploitation) or to counter terrorists organizations that do not operate directly inside Russia.

Competition or Cooperation

Assuming that both the United States and Russia will continue to matter in global affairs, do the dominant global trends and the challenges they pose to the two countries reinforce today’s strategic competition or forecast a shift toward strategic cooperation? A definitive answer is hardly possible, but a review of the strategic issues that now face the two countries—geopolitical challenges, world order, and values—offers a sense of the possibilities.

Geopolitical Challenges: At the top of the list is China. Both the United States and Russia have an interest in ensuring that its rise does not undermine their global positions. The immediate challenge for the United States is in the Western Pacific, for Russia in Northeast and Central Asia. Beyond that, both countries will monitor closely the growing Chinese presence in the Middle East and Europe, and the United States will be concerned by Chinese commercial penetration of the Western Hemisphere.

Strategically, both countries would benefit from closer relations that would enable the formation of coalitions with other countries along China’s periphery that could give each one of them greater leverage in dealing with China. This is not a policy of containment—which is neither possible nor desirable—but of fostering Chinese restraint. Indeed, both Russia and the United States would seek constructive relations with China from, they would hope, an enhanced bargaining position. At the same time, the United States does not have an interest in pushing Russia into a strategic alliance with China and thereby strengthening a strategic competitor. Nor does Russia have an interest in close partnership between the United States and China, which would diminish its influence in global affairs.

The second priority is Europe. Its impact on the United States and Russia will depend on the direction in which it moves, toward greater cohesion or greater fragmentation. If it moves toward greater cohesion, Europe will threaten to overshadow Russia as a great power by an order of magnitude. But it will also inevitably gain a degree of strategic autonomy from the United States, and ironically a values gap of some dimensions will open up with regard to not so much the foundations of political systems as socio-economic matters, akin to the cultural war now raging in the United States. In this situation, the United States and Russia will both have some interest in working together to balance European ambitions.