Joe Biden had a brief summit in Geneva with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. Their meeting followed a G7 and NATO summit, where Biden was received warmly by Western European leaders. The earlier meetings did not produce much of substance, other than vague talk of American leadership and aspirational statements about challenging China and tackling climate change.
Biden’s one-on-one with Putin was more important because NATO and the American foreign policy establishment view Russia as a threat. The head of NATO said relations with Russia were the worst they have been since the Cold War. Even so, Putin described the meeting as “constructive” and business-like, and Biden agreed, saying it was “positive.”
Biden has been especially critical of Russia, having earlier mocked Putin as having “no soul” and describing him as “a killer.” More than a matter of foreign policy, anti-Russia sentiment was also central to the Democrats’ criticism of Trump’s 2016 victory—what became the Russian collusion myth. Everyone in the smart set is anti-Russian these days.
Mistaking Consensus for Good Policy
Good meeting or not, there is an anti-Russian consensus among the American foreign policy establishment that spans both parties. Unfortunately, this consensus provides no benefit to the American people.
We briefly had warmer relations with Russia after the end of the Cold War. During the 1990s, Russia was weak, and the United States provided substantial assistance to it, including advice on transitioning to a free-market economy. In addition to the peace dividend, we also received some specific commitments in return.
The former Soviet states agreed Russia alone would control the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union, avoiding the creation of several disparate nuclear powers, each with its own foreign policy. Soviet military forces also agreed to depart from the former East Germany. There was no repeat of the Prague Spring after the Eastern European regimes threw off Communism suddenly in 1989. Finally, Russia transitioned to a democratic, free-enterprise system and renounced its Communist ideology, along with the implicit threats that ideology posed for the United States and the world.
Biden has an idealistic, one might say cartoonish understanding of the Cold War and its aftermath. For him, it manifested the combination of American goodness and American power, which can only continue to do good in the post-Cold War era. This fairly common view overlooks the unique conditions that led to the Cold War in the first place.
America’s large military and worldwide commitments during the Cold War stemmed from an emergency condition following World War II: the consequences of Soviet victory and its Eastern European occupation. The Soviet army was powerful and substantially larger than the combined armies of Western Europe.
Not merely large, Soviet power also posed a real threat. Before and after World War II, the Soviet Union had shown itself willing to meddle in Spain, Greece, Korea, and China to expand Communism. The Soviet ideology had a messianic and missionary aspect. It purported to be the scientific, final destination of mankind. National borders were merely a transition phase, an obstacle to the unity of the proletariat. Eventually, Communism would rule the world, and this meant Soviet foreign policy would concern itself with the whole world, including Western Europe and America’s own backyard, where the Soviet Union supported rebel movements in Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
None of these conditions have arisen from a non-Communist Russia, both before and after Putin rose to power 20 years ago. Modern Russia has shown minimal interest in exporting an ideology with the fervor and resources of the Soviet state.
Rather, Putin’s Russia has shown itself very concerned with practical matters: its own sovereignty and its own near-abroad, particularly NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact and NATO’s attempted expansion into Georgia and Ukraine. This discomfort, of course, is completely natural and predictable, even while it may be problematic for the people of Ukraine and Georgia.
No nation likes its sovereignty threatened, nor can it like other nations expanding beyond their natural spheres of influence. America’s policies toward Russia over the past two decades—the CIA’s support for the Ukraine coup, the dispatch of military advisors to Georgia, and the formal inclusion of the former Soviet Baltic republics in NATO after promises of not expanding “one inch eastward”—are analogous to Soviet Union’s Cold War involvement in Cuba and Nicaragua.
But this time it is we who are acting like the meddlesome, ideological power seeking to control events halfway around the globe.
Foreign Policy Idealism Confuses Sentiment for Strategy
Biden and the foreign policy establishment have also expressed a cynical concern for Russian domestic affairs, highlighting its use of censorship, harassment of regime critics, and, most ideologically, Russian treatment of homosexuals. This is cynical because the United States has extensive security cooperation with other regimes that are far more restrictive on every one of these measures, including Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
While the West has grown more culturally leftist since the Cold War, Russia has grown more culturally conservative and undergone something of a religious revival. As the rest of Europe has embraced multiculturalism, secularism, and gay rights, Russia has deepened its commitment to a uniquely Russian culture, the Orthodox Church, and, like most of the world outside of Western Europe, finds the gay rights agenda repellent and harmful to family life.
While Biden waxes philosophical on democracy and appears to be channeling the spirit of FDR, the American people have grown skeptical of foreign policy idealism of this sort. After all, the Vietnam War also began with idealistic rhetoric about democracy, even though the South Vietnamese regime was notoriously corrupt. And, more recently, the Iraq War went from a quest to root out weapons of mass destruction to an ill-fated attempt to impose democracy. In both cases, the wars became unpopular, both at home and among the people we were ostensibly helping. Ultimately, the American people decided the high price in American blood and treasure outweighed the idealistic goal of expanding democracy and human rights.
Much of the criticism of Russia’s dealings with dissidents or its own media is a distraction. The chief problem the United States has with Russia—and one the West perhaps has always had—is its obstruction of American power, including the American preoccupation with other nations’ internal affairs. Russia is a large country, with a large nuclear arsenal, and substantial natural resources. It is proud of its sovereignty and touchy about its reduced power following the fall of the Soviet Union. As such, it can affect events, and it has a different agenda.
Whatever our policy is toward Russia, its internal affairs should count for very little in our calculations. The primary aspect of Russia, or any other country, that should concern us is how it treats our country and our interests.
A Real Strategy Is More Than a Laundry List
The anti-Russia obsession of the foreign policy establishment is part of its broader “magical thinking,” which imagines America has not reduced the size of its military substantially, is economically independent, and does not suffer from significant domestic challenges.
In the real world, strategy requires the setting of priorities and is realistic, acknowledging what may be impossible in light of economic and other limitations. The verbose National Security Strategy documents of recent years, however, do not list priorities but instead announce multiple priorities, laundry-list style, including everything ranging from Colombia and the India-Pakistan conflict, to the Korean peninsula and smaller nations in between. This failure to prioritize in general, and the high priority given to NATO and Russia in particular, are obstacles to focusing on the biggest foreign policy challenge in the years ahead: China’s emergence as a global power.
China and Russia have cooperated more on defense matters in recent years, as each perceives itself threatened by U.S. power. This is not a completely natural development. Even at the height of the Cold War, when both China and the Soviet Union followed a Communist ideology, their mutual suspicions drove them apart, leading to border clashes in the late 1960s.
Exploiting this tension, Nixon pried Beijing away from Moscow as a critical step toward weakening Soviet power in the early 1970s. Then, as now, China and Russia have naturally conflicting interests and perceptions, stretching back to Russian fears of “invaders from the East” that originated with Genghis Khan in the 13th century.
In spite of these age-old prejudices, the American objective of retaining its status as the “sole superpower” has driven China and Russia closer together. Russia, after all, also fears invaders from the West, having fought both Napoleon and the Nazi regime in very costly wars of national survival.
Henry Kissinger, who was the architect of American cooperation with China in the 1970s, has recently counseled that a reverse of Nixon’s China policy could be employed today, appealing to Russian fears of a growing China. Instead, our diplomatic organs preach to Russians about gay rights (an unpopular form of cultural imperialism to which our ruling class is blind), inserts themselves into conflicts between non-NATO neighbors of Russia, and our naval vessels routinely patrol the Black Sea.
If we had better relations with Russia, even at the expense of NATO, it would make our China problem more manageable. Times and threats change; our strategy and our alliances should change with them.
Preserving U.S. Interests in a Multipolar World
Today, the world looks more like it did in 1900 than how it looked in 1945. Conflicts arise less from grand ideological struggles and more from control over resources, geography, and questions of respect.
After a century of aloofness from world affairs, and in spite of the misgivings of the American people following World War I, the United States became a true superpower during and after World War II. Thereafter, the United States maintained this status during the Cold War for the exceptional reasons outlined above.
When the Cold War ended, instead of returning to its historical neutrality, America continued its expansive international role, now astride the globe as the “sole superpower.” Every nation on earth that would attempt to chart its own course, increase its power, or control its neighborhood became a potential enemy. From this precarious position at the peak, the only way forward entailed some kind of decline.
American foreign policy today maintains the fiction that the United States is the sole superpower, even though we cannot realistically defeat Russia, China, or even non-nuclear powers like Iran. There is no cost-effective way to accomplish this expansive goal, and, unlike the empires of old, we do not receive tangible benefits, like trade preferences or tribute. Nonetheless, the foreign-policy mandarin class persists in its dangerous fantasies, largely unchecked by an incurious media and a distracted public.
Where Joe Biden is slow, thinks in clichés, and does the bidding of managerial experts, Putin is energetic, surprisingly clever, and is now exploiting American political strife to his advantage, citing the plight of the January 6 protesters in response to American criticism of his government.
Biden’s lecturing of Putin did not reap any dividends, and one can expect a surprise or two from Putin in the near future. Rather than this pointless exercise, Biden (or some wiser, future leader) should chart a way out of this artificial and unnecessary conflict. This journey begins by setting aside sentimental concerns for an outdated alliance or Russia’s internal affairs and focusing on the United States’ and Russia’s shared foreign policy interests, to include containing China.
Most important, this requires some willingness to limit our demands of other countries and share power on the world stage—necessary steps, which the supposed internationalists of the Democratic Party find completely anathema.