In Defense of a Strategic Approach to Russia
By Thomas E. Graham, former NSC Russian Director
Reviewed by John Handley, Vice President American Diplomacy
In this article Thomas E. Graham responds to a series of recent articles by David Kramer, president of Freedom House, and Lilia Shevtsova, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Moscow Center. Both have been sharply critical of the Obama administration's Russia policy and advocates of a strategic approach toward Russia, as opposed to their preferred normative one.
According to Graham, Kramer and Shevtsova miss-characterize the strategist’s approach to any deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations claiming strategists wish to avoid subjects that irritate Russia and seek only cooperation on "big" issues. Strategists purportedly call on the United States to change its policies without making similar demands on Russia, implying that the fault for worsening relations lies in Washington. The strategists thereby legitimate Russia's authoritarian regime and erode Russians' support for a more open, democratic order. What Kramer and Shevtsova call for instead is a "normative" approach, not articulated here but generally anchored in principles and values that both avoid the appearance of appeasing authoritarian Russian leaders and allegedly bolster the Russian effort to build a more democratic polity.
Graham devotes the remainder of his article to outlining and defining the strategist’s approach to U.S.-Russian relations based on national interests (theirs and ours), the possibilities of creating a balance of cooperation, ways to circumvent obstacles, trade-offs coupled with incentives and disincentives, making adjustments based on current global turbulence, linkage, and a healthy skepticism of shared interests. Quoting George Kennan, Graham notes that the strategist also embraces normative values such as democracy while maintaining an ethics of responsibility and avoiding declarations of moral outrage, such as Congress’ ill-advised Magnitsky Act, which actually reduced the space for Russia’s democratic reformers.
With no new agenda for U.S.-Russian relations, there is no clear way forward. Graham opines such a way forward could be found in a high-level strategic dialogue focusing on three broad issues: “(1) drivers and trends that will shape the global environment over the next 10–15 years … ; (2) the implications of those trends and scenarios for the national interests of each country; and (3) an examination, based on (1) and (2), of the overlap in strategic challenges that each country confronts.” With sufficient overlap, “Russia and the United States can mesh their interests so that each country advances its own strategic interests. The end result would be a strategic framework to guide leaders as they make decisions on current matters and to provide indications of the policies that should be developed and launched now to advance strategic cooperation.” With sufficient overlap, “Russia and the United States can mesh their interests so that each country advances its own strategic interests. The end result would be a strategic framework to guide leaders as they make decisions on current matters and to provide indications of the policies that should be developed and launched now to advance strategic cooperation.” Without a strategic framework, competition may inevitably define U.S.-Russian relations more so than cooperation, but we should at least make a good-faith effort to determine whether there is a basis for strategic cooperation before resigning ourselves to competitive relations.
As Graham points out, “the nature of the challenges we face in an increasingly globalized and multi-polar world—maintaining strategic stability; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; combating international terrorism; managing (if not resolving) regional conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and Asia; guaranteeing energy security; countering piracy on the high seas; containing pandemic diseases; and so on—would suggest that cooperation with Russia, given its location, nuclear arsenal, natural resources, and human capital, would bring greater benefits than competition. Those two factors—our challenges and Russia's potential—are also the reason we cannot ignore Russia, even if the intensity of engagement overall and on specific matters varies depending on circumstances.”
Graham puts forward a well-reasoned and detailed explanation of the strategist’s approach to dealing with US-Russian relations, which includes appropriate normative values and ideals. His purpose appears not so much as to discredit Kramer and Shevtsova and their normative approach but to show that normative values are actually a sub-set of many aspects of the strategist’s approach and that a normative approach alone will not work with today’s Russian leadership. I found the article insightful, informative, and persuasive.