What Set the Stage for Current U.S.-Russia Relations

president nesting dolls

An employee displays traditional Russian wooden nesting dolls depicting US President-elect Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gift shop in central Moscow just days ahead of Trump’s inauguration. ( Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Frank Costigliola is a professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and former president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. He is a specialist in U.S. foreign relations and the U.S. in the 20th Century. His most recent books include “Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 3rd Edition, and “Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War. He spoke with UConn Today about the current state of U.S.-Russia relations.

Q: What is the background of relations between the United States and Russia and the Cold War?

A: Franklin Roosevelt was committed to trying as much as possible to keep the World War II alliance going after the war. He realized it would be difficult because the strongest thread between the Russians and the United States was defeating Germany. Once that was gone, it would be more difficult because Joseph Stalin was intent on controlling Eastern Europe, an ambition that he had explained to the British Foreign Secretary a few days after Pearl Harbor. Stalin wanted the Soviets to predominate in Eastern Europe and the British and Americans to predominate in Western Europe. After Roosevelt died, Harry Truman refused to buy into the deal. Truman and his advisors didn’t think the U.S. needed to accept the Russians’ view of their national interests in the countries bordering the Soviet Union. Thus we had the nearly half-century long Cold War. When the Berlin wall finally came down in 1989 and Germany was reunited a year later, the agreement between Mikhail Gorbachev and the George H. W. Bush administration was that the Americans would not take advantage of Moscow’s weakness and particularly not expand NATO into Eastern Europe. But the Clinton and the George W. Bush Administrations decided they no longer had to adhere to that agreement not to extend NATO eastward. Such veteran foreign policy strategists as George F. Kennan warned that taking advantage of this temporary Russian weakness was dangerously short sighted and could even restart the Cold War.

Q: This brings us to the challenge presented by Vladimir Putin. Why is Putin popular in Russia?

A: For two reasons: During the oil boom, he was able to deliver a higher standard of living for the Russian people. Secondly, Gorbachev is regarded as having given away the empire of the Soviet Union. This is the Russian perspective — that Russia has not been treated with respect by the United States. Another important aspect is that, as Putin sees it, the United States has interfered in many elections around the world, including the Russian parliamentary election in 2011. Back then American non-government organizations and the U.S. embassy encouraged groups that were opposed to Putin. These resentments have set the stage for where we’re at now.

nesting dolls

Russian nesting dolls picture President-elect Donald Trump (right), Vladimir Lenin, a Soviet politician and statesman (center) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (left). (Photo by Danil Shamkin/NurPhoto/ Getty Images)

Q: Today U.S.-Russia relations are tense following the 2016 Presidential election and the apparent involvement of Russia in them. Are there still areas of possible cooperation?

A: There are some important matters on which we do cooperate on with Russia, such as the Iran nuclear deal. There is also potential cooperation with Russia regarding Syria. It’s a complex relationship. There are some things you cooperate on and some you don’t. I think Russian interference in the U.S. election is a terrible matter because it threatens our democracy. The sanctity of our electoral system is far more important to the U.S. than is what happens in Poland or the Baltics. Defending our democracy is a core interest, and is quite unlike what some could see as our meddling in Russia’s backyard in Eastern Europe. In terms of the future, we need to insist the Russians back off such intervention in our elections. We should also pledge not to interfere in Russian elections.

Q: Foreign relations in general entails balancing our national interests and the interests of other nations. When you’re looking at the relationship between U.S. and Russia, and keeping an eye on China, what historical lessons are there that we can follow with a reset of the board in foreign relations?

A: The U.S. and China are the first and second largest economies in the world, and these economies are intertwined in many ways. U.S. manufacturing depends on components we get from China. If you stop the ships or planes coming from China, American manufacturing would be paralyzed. It’s a complicated situation because Russia and China have a common interest in trying to reduce the influence of the United States. Henry Kissinger’s policy [as Secretary of State] under Richard Nixon was to play the China card: play the rivalry between China and Russia to the advantage of the United States. No matter what you think of Kissinger’s morality, it remains undeniable that he usually was thinking several steps ahead, and he had a broad conception of national policy and world affairs. In dealing with the complexity of world affairs, it’s essential to think problems through. It’s one thing to be inexperienced, as Donald Trump is, in foreign policy, but it’s quite another to claim that expertise is not necessary, that you can pursue the nation’s interests without having at hand the detailed, nitty gritty information.

Q: You talk in “Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances” about the “messy way history happens.” Stalin wanted to prevent invasions of Russia as the Germans and French had launched in the past. Putin watched the Soviet Union fall apart and he seems to be trying to put it back together. Can he do that without creating the problems of the past?

A: To a large extent, the state of U.S. relations with Russia depends on whether Washington is willing to recognize in a quiet kind of way that Russia does have vital interests in areas immediately beyond its borders. I think it’s always a good corrective to say: How would we react to those circumstances? We Americans tend to regard ourselves as exceptional. We like to think that as the only “good” or moral country in the world, we are working only for the good of humanity. People in other countries, however, see the United States as a global informal empire, an expansive nation that uses its power to advance its own interests. Respecting that Russia also has legitimate national interest and giving allowance to Russian pride can mitigate unnecessary conflict with the world’s second largest nuclear power. Such enlightened self-interests is necessary to keep our nation and our children safe from the not-to-be-discounted threat of nuclear war. No one wants such a war, but it could start from miscalculation and high tensions.

Q: How do you demonstrate that respect given the circumstances right now?

A: Part of it through words. That’s how diplomacy works. You consult with other countries before you take steps. Even if you’re not going to let them influence your decision you let them know ahead of time. When there are chances for cooperation, you try to pursue them. As is the case with any relations among people, you show consideration. That goes a long way with the Russians, who for decades have craved respect from the United States. This does not mean giving in to every, or even most, Russian demands but showing respect is a relatively cheap price to pay for better relations.

Q: The threat of terrorism continues to hang over the world. Is this an area for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate?

A: In terms of Islamic terrorism, the U.S. and Russia have common interest. One of the reasons why Russia has had problems with Islamic terrorism is that Russia has been very repressive of its large Muslim population and ethnic minorities in general. There is common interest there in combating terrorism. Trump’s strategy of identifying not just Islamic terrorists but Islamic people in general is potentially dangerous and is counterproductive. The strength of the United States and the future of American society – and it’s always been this way — is that we can integrate diverse cultures and corrode that [immigrant] identity and make immigrants into Americans in one or two generations. That’s the power we have as a society and as a culture that Europe doesn’t have, where people remain immigrants. Trump’s singling out Muslims is dangerous. The integration of different groups into American society as much as possible is the safest, smartest way to go. Most of the acts of violence that have been committed today are by people who claim to have been inspired by ISIS. You can style yourself after anything. That’s a very hard thing to combat. It has very little to do with international relations. That’s why suggesting that all Muslims are potentially a threat is a mistake. You want, as much as possible, to integrate immigrants into American culture and not have them feel alienated.

By: Kenneth Best | Story courtesy of UConn Today

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