Let’s Talk About Russia (and China)
Russia, everyone has opinion about Russia in the wake of the 2016 election despite most not being able to tell the difference between archangel (lowercase ‘a’) and Archangel (capital ‘A’). One of the people who has an opinion on Russia is Fox News host Tucker Carlson who recently said about that country’s relationship with Ukraine, “And I’m serious. Why do I care? Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.” He later claimed, “of course, I’m joking.” Given his record, you can decide whether you buy his “joking” explanation for yourself.
I have written before one of the biggest problems that has become clear in the Trump era is that foreign policy establishment, for lack of a better term, is quite lousy at explaining things. They are really good at talking at people, but not at talking with them. To them, Russia is so clearly the enemy, that anyone (such as Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump) who fails to see things the way they do is either stupid or is “doing Putin’s bidding” or something like that. But, in the spirit of talking with people, rather than at them, here is why Tucker Carlson is wrong about Russia.
First, we should give those who want to mend with relations with Russia the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are sincere, because while Carlson and Trump are not the best intellectual voices for such a policy, it is not nearly as outrageous as it may seem. Sure, there are some laypeople who subscribe to this policy because they think of Putin as an ally against the Democrats, but putting political hackery aside, the argument for a reproach with Russia would look something like this: it is unrealistic, especially with a $23 trillion national debt and politicians unwilling to greatly increase defense spending, with many of Trump’s Democratic rivals wanting to cut it, for the United States to try to take on Russia, Iran, and China, especially as those three increase cooperation with each other.
Therefore the United States should try to drive a wedge between those three powers and of the two major powers, Russia would be the easiest to break off. This was Michael Flynn’s logic before he got unceremoniously run out of town in the early days of the Trump Administration. In the same way the United States opened up to China to counter the Soviet Union in 1972, the United States should open up to Russia in 2019 to counter China. After all, the long-term threat to U.S. influence and the U.S.-inspired world order over the next 20, 50, even 100 years is not Russia, but China.
So, why wouldn’t this work?
The short answer is that the Russians have essentially said “thanks, but no thanks.” Beyond that there are more practical concerns when you leave the world of the abstract and enter the world of reality. To begin, Richard Nixon could go to China because nobody doubted his anti-communist credentials. Donald Trump does not have the same anti-Russian credentials and to be quite blunt, neither do any of the Democrats running to replace him. The liberal idea that Vladimir Putin was scared of Secretary of State Reset Button or is worried about any of the current bunch of Democrats is ridiculous.
Only a lifelong Russia hawk could gather the trust that Congress and the public at large would need to have to perform such a sea change in American foreign policy, especially when one considers the politically and morally unpopular concessions that an American president would probably have to make to even get the conversation started. Such concessions probably would at minimum include the recognition of Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate and rightful ruler of Syria and the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia as well as the repeal of all related sanctions. Even if an agreement could be reached, the biggest problem is that Putin has done nothing to signal to the West that he is a man that can be trusted.
But, it is not inevitable that a Russia-China alliance doom the United States. Despite much hysteria about a Russian return to the Middle East and the usual concerns about NATO’s eastern flank, of the three main powers in the world today (the U.S., Russia, and China) Russia is the one that will have the most difficult time maintaining that level of power and influence. Putin may have as his grand vision a return to the glory days of the Soviet Union or Russia under the tsars, but his ways to achieve that are limited. Russia has an aging population and a GDP roughly equal to that of Texas to achieve this revanchist dream, not to mention a series of historical animosities among the countries of Eastern Europe.
China can pour money into international development as well as into ships, planes, missiles, and other platforms at a high rate to try to bully and intimidate its neighbors, pushing the U.S. out of the Indo-Pacific in the process, on its way to attempting to replace the U.S. as the dominant world power. Russia can’t or at least not to the same extent, only its roughly 6,500 warheads keep it on the same level. In addition, there’s no Asian equivalent to NATO to keep China in check.
It is here that the U.S. and Russia might be able to come to some understanding. Not today, not tomorrow, but maybe 10–20 years from now. Russia is bound to be the junior partner in any relationship with China. The question for Russian officials is are they willing to accept this fact, especially if Chinese influence gains at their expense in Eurasia. If not, that opens the door to the West and since Russia will be more desperate then, the West will not have to make previously mentioned concessions and will be more able to trust any prospective Russian partner.
Ultimately Carlson’s view of the world has one fatal shortfall and it is by no means unique to him: it forgets that it takes two to tango. Russia has showed no sign of wanting to tango with the United States. If the United States is to shift our attention to Asia to address the raising Chinese challenge, as this administration wants and the previous tried to do, than instead of abandoning NATO as Carlson or Trump from time time suggests, it becomes even more important.
Granted tradition foreign policy types do have a bit of a self-imposed problem here. We will need to have very difficult conversations both with ourselves and our European friends about what the roll of the United States in the alliance is going forward. If we are to re-shift our focus, then the Europeans must do more. Not because we want them to do to more, because we feel like they’ve exported their defense to us for the past seven-and-a-half decades, been ungrateful, and taken us for granted, but because our own self-imposed and self-inflicted budgetary restraints will force us to prioritize theaters of operations in a way that does not match the rhetoric coming from the traditional foreign policy types who expect the U.S. be everywhere while the Navy and Air Force cannibalize themselves.
Better relations with Russia is something that every post-Cold War president has desired, but despite their best efforts, hasn’t materialized. That should tell us something about what the Russian government sees as its priorities. However, nothing is forever and the geopolitical landscape inevitably changes with time, so maybe one day Russia and the United States can be friends again like we were during the Civil War, but today is not that day.