Why Trump Should Seek Détente With Russia

Rather than amp up its aggression, the U.S. should use the kind of “soft power” that Trump espouses.

President Donald Trump avoided any mention of Russia during his address to Congress this week, perhaps because his previous talk of possible rapprochement with Vladimir Putin’s government has met resistance from Democrats, some Republicans and even a few members of his own administration. But a new détente with Russia is in the best interest of both countries, as well as the rest of the world.

Russia is not a rising power, as some wrongly assume, and President Vladimir Putin isn’t foolish enough to challenge the U.S. unless he feels like he’s being pushed into a corner.

In today’s world, power should no longer come from the barrel of a gun, but from the churning wheels of a strong economy. Russia’s oil-based economy has been floundering for years, and no amount of posturing on the world stage will revive it.

However, many among the U.S. foreign policy establishment who love to hate Russia seem ignorant of the dire economic and political circumstances there and still espouse cracking down on the Russian Bear. They argue that any concessions to Russia would embolden Putin to broaden his sphere of influence and encourage him to confront the U.S.

Anatol Lieven of The New York Times sees it differently:

“Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has not opposed the United States out of blind anti-Americanism. In the former Soviet countries, Russia has defended what the Russian establishment sees – rightly or wrongly – as vital Russian national interests.”

To understand their perspective, put yourself in Russian shoes. In 1990, NATO General Secretary Manfred Woerner said, “The fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.” Today, however, Russia claims NATO is trying to encircle it with military bases in places like Afghanistan, Kosovo and at sea off the Horn of Africa.

There’s no doubt that the 21st-Century Russian czar is a despot, and it’s easy to see why some are nervous. In Putin, you have an authoritarian leader with questionable motives, while in Trump you have a president without diplomatic experience.

In Putin, you have an authoritarian leader with questionable motives, while in Trump you have a president without diplomatic experience.

But President Trump, for all his shortcomings, has surrounded himself with military minds who understand better than anyone the apocalyptic consequences of nuclear brinksmanship.

Rather than amp up its aggression, the U.S. should use the kind of “soft power” that Trump espouses when he says, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be friends with Russia?”

Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in his book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He wrote,

“When one country gets other countries to want what it wants, [it] might be called co-optive or soft power, in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.”

The term is now widely used in international affairs by analysts and statesmen. Nye defines power as the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants, which can be accomplished by coercion, payment or attraction. The soft power of attraction is the metaphorical carrot, whereas coercion is the stick.

Imagine Trump’s wish for friendship with Russia along the same lines as the United States’ détente with Russia that began with another flawed and controversial president, Richard Nixon, in the early 1970’s.

Trump could push for a symbolic, Reagan-esque “tear down this wall” project between Russia and the U.S., with the “wall” being the culture clash between citizens of the two nations. He may be the only U.S. politician capable of accomplishing that; during and after the U.S. presidential election, Trump got remarkably favorable press in Russia, and Russian millennials seem captivated by U.S. culture and technology.

U.S. values are attractive to people all over the world. Through music, movies, television, books and most importantly the internet, we communicate directly to eyes and ears across almost all borders. This is a soft power we have been using – inadvertently and without focus – for decades.

If Trump and Putin decided to see each other’s government as a potential ally, it could even lead to more productive mutual efforts to eliminate ISIS and the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism.

Consider the alternative: if Russia and the U.S. go the other way and become more antagonistic, it could lead to a belligerent alliance between Russia, Iran, North Korea and China, in conflict with the U.S. and NATO nations.

The head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, told Newsweek that if Trump proceeds down the “destructive” path of the past three U.S. presidents, whom he accused of killing millions and of being responsible for the formation of both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), “the whole world will curse him.”

“Today, we are neither friend nor foe to Trump, because we do not know him,” Kadyrov said. “And it is only up to him if we in Russia become his reliable friends or not. We wish him good luck in good deeds.”