America's Russia Policy: Will the Zero-Sum Game Continue?

11.11.2016

Players in US politics often seek to play hardball in the hopes of winning it all. This is a zero-sum game, in which the loser, though not knocking himself off like in Russian roulette, forfeits the chances for a rematch. He fails to score points on the domestic political scene and, as a rule, no longer puts forth his candidacy. In foreign policy, the loser is either sidelined as a serious rival, or has to fit into the US global agenda as a follower who has chosen the “right side of history.” A third option – a compromise – is not given. A compromise solution can only emerge from severe crises akin to the Cold War.

In our day and age, these crises, regrettably, are the rule rather than the exception. As demonstrated by the recent presidential election in the United States, US politicians are ready for a tough game. To discredit a rival, the nominees were capable of throwing any accusations at each other. Hillary Clinton built much of her campaign on charges that Donald Trump betrayed national interests by having disreputable ties with the Kremlin and conniving at Russian espionage and hacker attacks. She portrayed Trump alternatively as a paid agent and a “useful idiot” at the beck and call of the cunning “aggressor” and “dictator” Vladimir Putin. Trump, in turn, said bluntly that Hillary should be jailed for contravening the rules of secret correspondence, rather than running for president, adding that, if elected, he would have her imprisoned. In terms of dirt, mud-slinging and mutual recriminations, this election can hardly be compared with any other.

The desire to win it all is particularly dangerous in international politics. America is no longer able to rule the world by force or impose its values. Other powers are now strong enough to increase their gain and share responsibility for global governance. There is a growing list of differences between the United States and China, which is defending its own sphere of military and political influence in Asia and is reluctant to join the US-sponsored system of trade and economic agreements. Russia has even more grievances against US global domination. The ousting of Russia from Europe through the expansion of NATO, Washington’s globally-applied regime change strategy and Ukraine-related economic sanctions are just a few manifestations of an all-embracing crisis in Russian-US relations.

The new US administration can be expected to make an attempt at restarting a dialogue with Russia. In the post-Cold War period, there were three such attempts, each launched by a new administration. Currently, we are witnessing a fourth cycle. Even though Russian-US relations are at the lowest point in the last 30 years, the list of issues that cannot be resolved without Russian involvement is still long. Specifically, Washington prioritizes nuclear non-proliferation and the fight against cyberthreats, terrorism and regional instability. Given political will, diplomacy can work out conditions conducive to dialogue.

Aside from the importance of Russia in dealing with a number of issues, there are two circumstances that will dispose Washington favorably towards a dialogue. First, America’s international capabilities are not what they once were, due to considerable domestic problems. The main social strata demonstrate a low level of trust in the political class, and this level continues to fall. The economy is sluggish. The American system needs reforms and a new social contract. It is these problems that are behind Trump’s phenomenal success, and he will have to launch structural reforms if he wants to be reelected.

Second, the only country that the US regards as a challenge to its global dominance and security, China, continues to grow. The overwhelming majority of US politicians operate based on a perceived need to contain China’s international ambitions, and some of them openly call for enlisting Russian support for this purpose. Even those who are convinced that Russia is too weak to be regarded as a partner are apprehensive about the progress of Chinese-Russian military and political cooperation. Washington will closely follow the progress in Russian-Chinese ties promoted in response to Western sanctions with more anxiety the more it resembles a movement towards an alliance on Chinese terms.

However, there are important objections against the dialogue as well, mostly regarding the immense distrust the two establishments feel for each other. The recently-concluded election campaign in the United States has demonstrated that the Kremlin is not the only one to think that the other party is out to weaken its rival by engineering a regime change and erosion of its political system. The US political class has a vague understanding of Russia’s foreign policy goals and it is no longer confident of its firm standing at home. Both parties are convinced that their basic world order priorities are incompatible. Their interests are indeed different. Moreover, both parties' allies are egging them on towards further polarization of views. For example, Poland, the Baltic states and others are urging America to act tough with Russia, while Syria and Iran are grudging of any attempt on the part of Moscow and Washington to come to terms.

The psychological compatibility of Russian and American leaders is a crucial problem typical of the countries’ bilateral relations. Public altercations between Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton are a well-known fact. But the lack of anything like this in Putin-Trump relations is encouraging. Both politicians have repeatedly spoken about each other sympathetically, and certainly hope to find a common language and style of relations. But this does not yet guarantee success. It should be recalled that there was rapport between Putin and G.W. Bush too, but it was Bush who authorized a number of what Russia saw as unacceptable steps in the area of nuclear security, NATO expansion and global regime change.

Trump’s stance on a number of issues will also be a serious problem for Russia. In particular, he criticized the Russian-US agreements on Iran and nuclear arms control. Moreover, Trump is impulsive and politically unpredictable. The possibility that he will revise the favorable positions toward Russia that he presented in the course of the election campaign cannot be ruled out. He may well be a difficult partner. Even if the first steps toward finding a common ground are taken, it is quite likely that they will not be perceived fittingly or with the appropriate measure of responsibility.

Until now, the striving to contain the other party’s ambitions has clearly prevailed over the desire for pragmatic cooperation in Russian-US relations. That said, this leads to the conclusion that the dialogue will be difficult and is likely to be short-lived and followed by a resumed show of force. Time will tell whether the parties have hit the bottom or will continue to fight for Ukraine and the Middle East, for control over the information space and the like. A new roadmap for movement towards a new world order is needed to prevent the world from nose-diving into new severe crises. A long transitional period is ahead and we need to shape a “negative” agenda based on the “do no harm” principle, identify the “red lines” and promote confidence-building measures. This is all we can strive for at this moment.

Andrei Tsygankov is professor at the University of San Francisco
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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