Hang up the magical thinking and try strategic empathy on for size

The US approach to Russia hasn’t been working for years, mostly because it’s been spearheaded by alarmists in the blob.

US-Russian relations have resembled nothing so much as a seesaw in the time since President Joseph R. Biden took office last January. 

On the one hand, in April, Mr. Biden signaled that he intended to place relations with Russia on a more even keel when he said he wanted both “thoughtful dialogue” as well as “a stable, predictable relationship” with Russia. And indeed, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to have put relations on firmer ground at their summit in Geneva in June where the two presidents reiterated the pledge made over three decades ago by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.” 

On the other hand, the last few weeks have seen a perilous escalation in tensions between Russia and the Western-backed government in Ukraine. Putin has even gone so far as to draw a line in the sand: NATO’s expansion to include Ukraine is unacceptable to the Kremlin. The national security rationale for such a position seems rational enough since, as Putin remarked on November 30th, “If missile strike systems appear in Ukraine, the flight time to Moscow will be seven to 10 minutes, or five with hypersonic weapons.”

We believe Biden’s declared policy, to put US relations on a more stable and predictable basis, would be made easier if he and his foreign policy advisors undertook the hard but necessary work of fundamentally rethinking just exactly how we got to this point with Russia.

The career diplomat and current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, has written that the pattern of US-Russia relations hashinted sometimes at historical immutability. He has described it as “a fascinating, often depressing story.” 

From the vantage point of late 2021, it would be hard to disagree with that assessment. But we also need to ask why this has been so often the case over the past two decades. 

The popular (but only partially correct) answer in Washington can be summarized in two words: Putin’s Fault. It is true that Mr. Putin’s polarizing rhetoric, his decision to illegally annex Crimea, and his foray into American electoral politics, has played a deleterious role on US-Russia relations. 

But that is only part of the problem. The other part of the problem, and one that policy-and opinion-makers in Washington frequently ignore, is that too often our policy toward Russia has been marked by a kind of magical thinking.

Consider: Did our abrogating the ABM treaty, the INF, Open Skies, and expanding NATO up to Russia’s western borders with repeated assurances that Ukraine and Georgia “shall” become NATO members in the future make the U.S., its allies in Eastern Europe, and Russia more or less secure? Did it make Russia more or less inclined toward cooperation, dialogue and diplomacy?

Similar magical thinking shaped our approach to Ukraine in 2014 and informed the series of U.S.-funded color revolutions that took place in the 2000s. The late Zbigniew Brzezinksi and others believed it was important to support these movements because they would inspire pro-western Russians to pursue, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once put it to one of her aides, a “post-Putin” Russia. 

Were such expectations borne out? Why not?

Biden and his team would be wise to recognize that the problems with the U.S.-Russian relationship predate Russia’s election interference. Indeed, they predate Putin. As the International Crisis Group’s Olga Oliker has noted, “the foreign policy goals Putin’s Russia has pursued are not different from historical Russian, Soviet, and Imperial Russian foreign policy goals.”

Yet over the past two decades we have developed a sense of ourselves as being constantly “under siege” by Putin’s Russia. This is delusion, and a dangerous one at that. Here we might do well to recall the words of George F. Kennan who, as far back as 1961, observed in his book Russia and West Under Lenin and Stalin, that:

“There is nothing in nature more egocentric than the embattled democracy.  It soon becomes the victim of its own war propaganda.  It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision to everything else.  Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil.  Its own side is the center of all value.”

This is a pretty good description of how the U.S. foreign policy establishment has viewed Russia over the past several years.

For his policy of stability and predictability to succeed, the U.S. needs to abandon its “siege” mentality and come to a realization that our policy toward Russia has been too often marked by a lack of strategic empathy, a policy, while little used in recent decades, has deep roots in American history.

Perhaps the most eloquent proponent of strategic empathy was John Hay, a private secretary for President Lincoln who later went on to serve as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt. Hay envisioned an American foreign policy based on, in his words, the Monroe Doctrine and the Golden Rule. In our view, a policy of strategic empathy simply requires that the President and his national security team ask themselves: How might they react if the military and economic pressure the US routinely applies against designated adversaries was aimed in our direction? 

Even if we agree that Putin’s style of kleptocratic soft-authoritarian governance is objectionable by our standards, Biden and his team still might usefully engage in a thought experiment and ask themselves:

How would a U.S. leader react if Russia and/or China were to start building military bases in Mexico? Are the ideals enshrined in the UN Charter such as non-interference in the sovereign affairs of other countries only for Russia to follow?

As far back as 2005, Putin told Burns, then serving as U.S. Ambassador to Russia: “You Americans need to listen more…You can’t have everything your way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms.” 

In these most perilous of times, with US and Russian soldiers, sailors and pilots eye to eye over the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, in Eastern Europe, in Syria and in cyberspace, it seems clear that a relationship that takes the interests of both the US and Russia into account would better serve everyone’s interests.

Achieving “stability and predictability” with Russia will be made easier if President Biden breaks with the magical thinking that has so marked the policies of his predecessors and instead embraces a policy of strategic empathy.

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