During his August 5-9 trip to Southeast Asia on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) regional forum in the Philippines, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did what diplomats are supposed to do: he shook hands and talked. And he did so even with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a private meeting that took place at a very acrimonious time in the U.S.-Russia relationship.
It was clearly a tough discussion for the two men, a sentiment quite evident when Tillerson told the assembled press about the many disagreements that are tearing Washington and Moscow further and further apart. But Tillerson was absolutely right to meet with Lavrov during the ASEAN conference, however politically dicey it may have been for his personal standing in Washington or for the Trump administration’s credibility with its European allies.
Managing turbulence, responding punitively, and boycotting or downgrading diplomatic relations are certainly not new phenomenon for the U.S. and the Russian Federation. By virtue of being two large behemoths on the world stage with their own ideologies, world outlooks, and foreign policy priorities, interactions between U.S. and Russian officials will inevitably get heated. Indeed, it was only 54 years ago when the two nuclear superpowers were literally on the brink of nuclear conflict over a small island in the Caribbean. For over six decades, everything that the Soviet Union did was countered by the U.S., and which nation proved victorious helped move the geopolitical contest closer to a final judgment.
But amidst it all, Washington and Moscow were consistently able to de-escalate tensions so that a war–– potentially involving nuclear weapons––could be avoided. There were general rules of the road that neither country was willing to cross––and in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, secret backchannel diplomacy and level headlines from the American and Soviet political leaderships stopped a confrontation that could have turned intolerance terrible catastrophe.
In 2017, Russia’s power is not even in the same ballpark as the Soviet Union. And yet the Russians still retain enough power, cleverness, and ruthless pragmatism that they can frustrate U.S. foreign policy goals in certain areas of the world. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its crucial financial and military support to separatists in Eastern Ukraine have eliminated whatever hope Kiev had in become a full member of the western club. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to bomb Syrian rebel groups may have been the decisive factor in the Assad regime’s survival. Each of these decisions frustrated what Washington was attempting to accomplish at that point in time: in Ukraine, a pro-western government turning away from Russia’s sphere of influence; and in Syria, the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.
The nature of the U.S.-Russia relationship, however, is so important for stability and for the interests of both countries that it would be the height of foolishness and irresponsibility for U.S. policymakers to pull the plug on dialogue. Sounding strong and promoting economic sanctions against Moscow is a great political move for officeholders seeking re-election every two years, but it doesn't have a place in global states craft.
Politics is often a black-and-white, good vs. evil affair; states craft is anything but. When an elected official does something illegal, he or she can lose their position. Not so with countries. The world doesn't operate based on those moralistic rules; indeed if it did, there would have been no diplomacy between President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev, nor would there have been any arms talks between President Ronald Reagan and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
Secretary Tillerson said it best himself, “I don’t think it is useful to just cut everything off on one single issue. These are two very large countries [the U.S. and Russia] and we should find places that we can work together...Places we have our differences, we’re going to have to continue to find a way to address those.” The Americans and Russians don't have to like each other, but they can't ignore each other either.
In a perfect world, a U.S. administration wouldn't need to worry about any of this. Moscow would act like a responsible member of the international community and open up its politics to the glories of democracy. The perfect world, though, is ever elusive. The best we can do is manage our differences, ensure that misunderstandings don't escalate into conflict, fiercely resist Putin’s foreign policy when it would negatively impact U.S. national security interests, and be ever vigilant for opportunities that may unexpectedly arise.
Americans who are given the work of running U.S. foreign policy should do everything they reasonably can to separate themselves from the domestic politics of toughening up against the Russians merely for toughening up. The first priority: defend America’s best interest––even if it happens to be unpopular.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.