“The Russia question.”
Diplomacy must not die.
6 MAY—Last week, the Biden administration announced plans to stop processing travel visas for most Russian citizens. In tandem, the embassy in Moscow plans to cut consular staff, State Department officers whose duties include visa processing, by 75 percent.
We greet these decisions with dismay. They are blunt instruments, the work of Manichean-minded people wanting in all subtlety and any understanding of the responsibilities of statesmen or stateswomen.
In taking these crudely provocative steps, the State Department has needlessly squandered an opportunity open to every administration: the chance to write a new, more productive, and less antagonistic chapter in U.S.–Russian relations.
By effectively closing off America to Russian citizens, the Biden administration chooses to hold Americans captive to an outdated and unnecessary Cold War consciousness.
There are sensible alternatives to this ill-chosen path. We note them here to urge the new administration to consider them carefully.
But we cannot do so in wide-eyed fashion. The obstacles to a turn toward anything resembling the détente achieved in former times are numerous and formidable. It is in part with an eye to the record that we propose a range of policy options that would re-route U.S.–Russian relations to all of humanity’s benefit. There are indications Moscow would be open to this project. President Putin made this point, and hardly for the first time, in his state-of-the-nation speech two weeks ago. More specifically, Moscow has proposed severally to negotiate accords covering cybersecurity and political noninterference—proposals Washington has left unanswered, we must add.
The ongoing hostility between two of the world’s nuclear powers puts nothing less than the future of planet at risk. The opportunities for miscalculation are abundant: The United States and the Russian Federation have thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other; U.S. and Russian military forces are face to face in theaters in Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and in Syria. This is a 21st century replay of the tensions that blighted American and Russian life—indeed, much of human life altogether—for the dreadful four decades during which the Cold War endured.
We would do well to remember that we were fortunate to survive the first Cold War, years during which there were multiple nuclear “false alarms” that could have inadvertently set off a nuclear exchange. Anyone who lived through that time cannot be other than bitter that we appear now on the brink of repeating it.
Indeed, in some respects the situation we find ourselves in today is yet more fraught: Recall that even during the height of the Cuban missile crisis the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. kept their ambassadors in place. And good thing: The back channel Robert Kennedy, then his brother’s attorney-general, established with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin was one of the keys to solving the crisis peacefully. This was the statesmanship the moment required—sophisticated, intelligent, cognizant of what was at issue well beyond matters of geopolitical rivalry.
Now look. The embassies in Washington and Moscow sit vacant, and people-to-people contact, the importance of which in the long run is never to be underestimated, is foreclosed. We count this a sad reflection of how we have come to belittle and demonize—in recent years criminalize, some would say—the hard work of diplomacy. In our read this is a measure of our policy cliques’ descent into incompetence, their gradual repudiation of intellect and skill in favor of power, coercion, and threat as the age of America’s post–1945 hegemony fades and said cliques grow desperate in their efforts to salvage it—their forlorn efforts, this is to say.
One can fairly trace this decline in the general direction of barbarity to the Indochina defeats of April 1975—events from which our leadership (and many, many Americans, truly) learned nothing because they refused to face defeat and so forewent what defeats always have to teach. This said, we must not miss the extravagant damage done by the wave of Russophobia the Democratic Party, working with intelligence agencies and the press, purposefully incited to excuse the loss of the 2016 election to a grossly unqualified right-wing populist, property developer, and reality-television personality.
A few commentators, including the signatories of this essay, warned then of the wider consequences for U.S.–Russian ties of the reckless fabrications conjured of thin air by the three-sided alliance noted above. We write now of these consequences, to put our point plainly. It was during these past years, indeed, that diplomacy was effectively criminalized. It was during these years that the U.S.–Russian relationship was turned into something resembling a John Wayne movie, a field upon which know-nothing pols (Tom Cotton, et al.) and opportunistic officials throughout Washington (too many to name) proved their virtue by way of expressed hatred and paranoia.
Our present problem is that diplomacy can’t win out given the emergence of a domestic political economy that has become increasingly addicted, like a junkie on crack cocaine, to the narcotic of military spending. Today's perpetual wars and the even more dangerous emergence of the Second Cold War are reflections of the desperate need to rationalize and sustain a level of defense spending that dwarfs that of any conceivable adversary or combination of adversaries.
This addiction has been building up for more than half a century. President Eisenhower famously called Americans’ attention to the malign influence of the military-industrial complex in his farewell address in January 1961. Scholarly investigations since, making use of Eisenhower’s drafts and the recorded remarks of his advisers, indicate clearly that he was not warning of a future danger but of the disturbing reality that had already taken shape during his eight years in office. In this connection, we draw readers’ attention to James Ledbetter’s Unwanted Influence: Dwight Eisenhower and the Military–Industrial Complex, which Yale published 10 years ago and which remains in print.
Twenty-six years after Eisenhower spoke, in 1987, one of the founding fathers of the First Cold War, an anguished George Kennan, presciently predicted the political-economic reality of this addiction:
Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy. [Kennan, At Century’s Ending: Reflections, 1982-1995. New York: Norton. 1996. 118.]
Events subsequent to the date of this observation proved Kennan’s point: On 26 December 1991, after agreeing in 1990 to (1) the reunification of Germany within the context of Germany remaining in NATO and (2) withdrawing from Eastern Europe, with the unwritten understanding that NATO would not expand eastward, President Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union, and it sank under those waters Kennan had imagined.
This account has been challenged repeatedly by NATO’s apologists, many of whom, including former president Bill Clinton, insisted there was no such promise, that this pledge had all been “myth” or “misunderstanding.” However, recently declassified documents show the contrary. Stephen Cohen, the late Russian scholar:
All of the Western powers involved—the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany itself—made the same promise to Gorbachev on multiple occasions and in various emphatic ways.
Paradoxically, we can understand the demise of Cold War I as the starting point for the death of bilateral diplomacy. At that moment, Washington and its Western alliance partners had a dramatic opportunity to recreate a very different kind of global security framework, featuring Russia as a potential strategic partner after the end of the Soviet Union.
This was a road not taken, sadly. By 1996, Bruce Jackson, a vice-president of Lockheed Martin, the largest U.S. defense contractor, formed the Committee to Expand NATO. This organization aimed to build political support for opening up Eastern European markets to U.S. defense contractors. On 22 October of 1996, just two weeks prior to the 5 November election, President Bill Clinton joined his Republican challenger, Senator Bob Dole, in calling for expanding NATO, in effect hijacking the issue from Dole. (The contemptibly cynical term du jour for Clinton's caper was “triangulation.”)
As former Pentagon analyst Franklin “Chuck” Spinney noted just after Donald Trump took office in 2017, Clinton's gambit had nothing to do with Russia; It was pure domestic politics, namely his desire to appeal to nearly 20 million American voters of East European descent in 14 states that possessed 194 electoral votes, of which Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey were pivotal in his strategy to win the 1996 election.
American arms manufacturers, who stand to gain billions of dollars in sales of weapons, communication systems, and other military equipment if the Senate approves NATO expansion, have made enormous investments in lobbyists and campaign contributions to promote their cause in Washington.
But expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—first to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, then possibly to more than a dozen other countries—would offer arms makers a new and hugely lucrative market.
Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. They were followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, and Slovakia; and followed again by Albania and Croatia in 2009 and Montenegro in 2017. In 2003, President Bush (George W.) unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty as a precursor to basing missile-defense systems in new NATO countries close to Russia's borders.
The concern we voice here is that the forces of militarism are so deeply embedded in the American polity that diplomacy, at least what is left of it, might well whither on its poorly tended vine.
This perverse Cold War logic now finds new manifestations in the area of what the press laughingly calls “vaccine diplomacy.” A truly absurd illustration was recently featured in The New York Times, which posted a podcast episode entitled “Why Russia Is Exporting So Much Vaccine.” According to Andrew Kramer, a correspondent in the Times’s ever-compromised Moscow bureau, Russia’s vaccine diplomacy is driven by geopolitical imperatives, as opposed to genuine efforts to mitigate the pandemic. The aim, argues Kramer, is to entrench Moscow’s influence among its traditional allies while expanding its reach in “battleground countries” that stand between Russia and the West. (We used to call these “nonaligned,” but that is another conversation.)
Somehow when the U.S. exports vaccines (which, incidentally, it is not yet doing in significant quantities to countries such as India), this is done for reasons of global health considerations. But the assumption seems to be that when a “bad actor” such as Putin does this, it is being done solely to further Russia’s geostrategic aims.
Preposterous is our term.
Kramer capitulates to the prevailing mentality of “the Blob” and concludes that the U.S. ought to respond in likeminded realpolitik terms. His solution effectively means that vaccine “diplomacy” consolidates and becomes a derivative of the newly emerging Cold War mentality, rather than alleviating it. This goes even further than we went in the 1980s, as the journalist Robert Wright has argued:
Kramer states matter-of-factly that, as a result of nefarious Russian actions over the past few years, there is now “no question of collaboration” between Moscow and the West… Even Cold Warrior extraordinaire Ronald Reagan managed to set aside his hatred for the “Evil Empire” to negotiate arms control treaties with the Soviet Union.
To break the Cold War mentality that has a vise grip on both capitals, we respectfully propose the following:
⁋ Presidents Biden and Putin should establish a high-level commission headed by the American vice-president and the Russian prime minister to rebuild diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Russia.
⁋ This commission should take a whole-of-government approach, establishing working groups at the ministerial level that would seek to mend ties and open both countries to people-to-people exchanges.
⁋ As a first step, the two sides should establish a Working Group on Consular Services with the goal of reopening the Russian consulates in the U.S. (San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Washington) and closed American consulates in Russia (St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok). In the meantime, we urge a reversal of the U.S. decision to cut consular services in Moscow.
⁋ Further working groups might be established in the areas of public health, sports and education, environment, emergency management, and science, technology, and space.
The above would constitute small yet necessary steps toward a proper post–Cold War settlement—which we note, has never been achieved. We must recognize that the crisis in Ukraine, as well as efforts at election interference, to whatever extent these were made, do not take place in a vacuum.
We must redouble our efforts to overcome the Cold War mentality that afflicts both governments by first restoring trust between the two powers. The steps we propose we mark as preliminary. Once taken, we must then take on the hard work of diplomacy.