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How, if at all, should the new Biden administration engagement with Russia change in order to best meet American interests, contain the China threat and improve global security

By Raphael Lapin

When thinking about global security and balance of power, China’s 14th century novel by Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms comes to mind.  Today’s complex global security questions cannot be fully confronted without appreciating the “romance” of the “Three Kingdoms”:  Russia, China and the United States.  However, the United States’ status as part of the “Three Kingdom” triumvirate is becoming more threatened given her recent isolationist policies; the shift of global balance of power favoring China; and the United States’ eroded relations with both China and Russia who continue to increase their global reach, power and dominance.  The Biden administration’s primary challenges will be how to secure the United States’ venerated and rightful seat at the table of the “Three Kingdoms”; to restore equilibrium by asserting her weight in the global balance of power; and to neutralize the Chinese threat.

In examining foreign policy, it is helpful to use the two primary frameworks of international relations as a point of reference: Realism or Realpolitik and Liberalism.

Simply put, the realist framework is based on, and a reaction to the belief that countries, as individuals, are immutably selfish, egotistical, power-hungry, competitive and cannot be trusted. As such, the path to national security is exerting international power, dominance and hegemony to achieve self-interests at all costs, even at the expense of the destruction of other nations if necessary. It is the international equivalent of “Each man for himself” and “The Law of the Jungle”.  Niccolo Machiavelli, the 15th century Italian diplomat, is arguably the father of realism, which was propounded in more recent times by Hans Morgenthau, a world-renowned 20th century international relations academic.

The danger of a foreign policy based on the realism framework is what is known in international relations theory as the security dilemma.  Due to lack of trust, cooperation and communication, any state’s action is interpreted by other states based on perception and suspicion.  For example if one state benignly increases troops along a border to prevent human trafficking, the neighboring state might interpret this as an intention to attack and will respond by sending an even greater number of troops to her own borders. The first state will see this as a threat and increase mobilization even further as the vicious cycle continues and the danger of war looms.

It was a foreign policy based on realism and the resulting security dilemma that caused the almost catastrophic event during the Cold War. The USSR interpreted the deployment of U.S. Jupiter ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy as intent to attack and responded by sending their own missiles to Cuba. The U.S. in turn saw the Cuban-based missiles as a threat to its national security and sovereignty which it was ready to protect at all costs. This was the closest that the Cold War came to a full-scale nuclear war and illustrates the flaws of a foreign policy based on realism.

The liberalist view of international relations, on the other hand, is that global security is better achieved through engagement, transnationalism, economic interdependence and cooperation that serve mutual interests. Liberalists believe that nations will effectively collaborate and partner through authentic and genuine discourse, relationship-building, trust and negotiation.  This view of international relations is rooted in the thinking of the 17th century English philosopher, John Locke and the 18th century German philosopher, Immanual Kant. A paradigm of international relations driven by liberalist thinking in recent times is the European Union.

A stated foreign policy item on the Biden agenda is to restore alliances and build coalitions that will help to contain China. A key alliance without which we cannot counter China will be with Russia. This will require a swing of the international relations pendulum from the Trump realpolitik attitude back to a more liberalist approach, at least with Moscow, with whom unfortunately our relations have deteriorated over the last two decades.

The first step towards improving U.S. – Russian relations, is to acutely understand the genesis of the deterioration and to address the problem at its core.

The current strained relationship between the United States and Russia can be subtly epitomized by the somewhat comical meeting between Secretary of State Clinton and Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov in March 2009. At this meeting, Clinton theatrically presented Lavrov with a symbolic pushbutton with an inscription in Russian which was intended to say “reset” (perezagruzka).  This was to convey to the Russians that the U.S. was ready to reset the button on U.S.-Russian relations. Unfortunately, due to the similar etymology, the inscribed word was incorrectly translated and the Russian word for “exploit” or “overcharge” (peregruzka) was used instead.  Although Lavrov laughed politely, this blunder underscored how Russia perceived the manner in which they were being treated by the U.S.

This perception goes back to the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Russia believed that she had reached a deliberate, informed and independent decision to voluntarily restructure the Soviet Union due to economic and geopolitical self-interests.  Any involvement of the U.S to help facilitate this, Russia understood to be through mutual consent and accord, and not due to any U.S. influence, coercion or pressure. President Reagan understood how important this perception was to Russia when he told his aides at the first meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva in November 1985: “Let there be no talk of winners and losers. Even if we think we won, to say so would set us back in view of their inherent inferiority complex”. (Reagan & Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. Jack Matlock. pp 152-153).

Despite Reagan’s directive of which President George H.W. Bush was surely aware, he nevertheless later brazenly violated it when in January 1992, he declared: “By the grace of God, we won the cold war”.  This conveyed that the U.S. saw themselves as the victor and the Russians as the vanquished. Russia found this insulting and saw it as a belligerent assault on their sensibilities of national pride, sovereignty, history, dignity and identity. Russia’s determination to counter that U.S. perception significantly contributed to Russian foreign policy ever since, and many of their geopolitical moves can be reasonably interpreted through that lens. In fact as late as September 2013, in a speech at the Valdai Discussion Club, Putin stressed Russia’s desire for “independence and sovereignty in spiritual, ideological and foreign policy spheres”. He added that “the time when ready-made lifestyle models could be installed in foreign states like computer programs, has passed!” – An obvious reference to what he perceived to be American imperialism imposed by the victor. This was precisely the setback that Reagan referred to and feared in Geneva.

Russia’s sensitivity to being treated as the defeated was exacerbated by NATO’s expansion into Eastern Bloc countries such as The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999. This, they perceived, further demonstrated a U.S. expression of dominance and an assertion of supremacy.  This perception was further reinforced when NATO launched a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia the same year, despite Russian opposition and without authorization of the U.N Security Council – a flagrant condemnation of Russian eminence.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French diplomat wrote:   “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults”.  To improve U.S-Russian relations, we need to repair the faults at their very source. The U.S should magnanimously allow Russia to feel as a partner, not as the vanquished; as an equal, not as the defeated, while at the same time vigorously defending American interests. This means inviting  Russia  to negotiate and co-design a Pact of Partnership or a Charter of Cooperation that will identify  areas of common interests and policies while addressing differing ones; where and how we might collaborate or compete; how we will manage conflict regions of the world in ways that can meet our convergent and divergent interests; on which issues will we consult with each other and on which issues will we merely inform one another; and what operational protocols and channels of sustained communication will we establish.  This negotiation will take patience, persistence and perseverance, but engaging in the process itself with the necessary dialogue and exchange, will already contribute to a deeper understanding of each other’s needs, concerns and interests – a foundation for mutual respect, trust, cooperation and ultimately improved global security.

It is only with a strong U.S. – Russia alliance that we can then engage China and invite them to choose between being welcomed as a genuine partner in building global stability and security or to confront the formidable force of the U.S. – Russia alliance.

Raphael Lapin is a Harvard-trained negotiation and dispute resolution specialist, author and Professor of Law. He is founding principal of Lapin Negotiation Services, a negotiation and dispute resolution consultancy. He lectures in negotiation, mediation and international conflict resolution at Whittier School of Law and Southwestern School of Law in Southern California. He can be reached at: Raphael@lapinnegotiationservices.com

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