In 1972, exactly 43 years and four months ago, newly elected President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger visited China. They met with Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. The stakes were high; easing our recognition of Taiwan as China was on the menu, as was building consensus with ending the Vietnam War and inserting a wedge in the close relationship between Russia and China, our two major adversaries.
It was a brave and highly risky move, but it worked.
"Nixon going to China" has since become a metaphor for an unexpected or uncharacteristic action by a politician (Wikipedia). It’s long past time to make a similar conciliatory move toward Moscow. We need another American president willing to make a ‘brave and risky move.’
Nations move slowly. Their mistrusts are deep and generally well-founded, but they do move and America’s relationship with China today is that of a major trading partner. They remain a communist country, but we are learning (painfully slowly) that variances in political philosophy do not necessarily preclude mutually beneficial relationships. We work with monarchies and dictators, left as well as right-wing nations when it suits our purpose. Aggressive acts between China and America are increasingly unlikely and our mutual political future looks more bright than dim.
Contrast that with America’s unrelenting isolation of Russia since the days when we were allies in WWII.
Yet there were hopeful times. President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had opened a back-channel dialog during his presidency, agreeing that the cost of intransigence was unsustainable.
(Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963 Volume VI, Kennedy-Khrushchev Exchanges, Document 116, September 10, 1963)
“The Soviet Government considered that things had recently taken a turn for the better in the international situation and in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. With the signing of the Test Ban Treaty and the exchange of views with Secretary Rusk, there had developed a relaxation of tension and the prerequisite for the settlement of other questions had been established. This could lead to a real turning point, and the end of the cold war.”
A month later those expectations were shattered by Kennedy’s assassination.
A half century later, Soviet Premier Vladimir Putin helped President Barack Obama escape disastrous confrontations in both Iran and Syria. The two men were becoming close and a sense of mutual trust was building.
That sense of intimacy was shattered by the Ukraine Uprising and its follow-on military confrontations. Retaliatory economic sanctions against Russia ensued. Once again a chance had been lost and we can no longer abide a half-century between opportunities to bring Russia close to Europe and the West.
Vladimir Putin may not be our wished-for choice in negotiations, but neither was Chairman Mao and Putin is probably the best we can hope for in Russia at the moment. He’s highly popular within his country and in full control, both of which are necessary attributes to negotiation. On our side, Barack Obama enjoys neither of those benefits, so his day is past and it will be up to a newly elected president—some nineteen months from now—to strike the bargain. But the bargain must be struck. Too much is at stake for more time to be lost.
Allow me an opinion, if you will:
Putin’s overriding goal is for Russia to regain the stature it once held as a world-power. The dissolution of the USSR in 1989 was both humiliating and debilitating. He desperately wants Russia to be respected. There are those (and I am among them) who feel that was inevitable in lieu of Russia’s expansion after WWII without the economic resources to sustain it. It had (and has) enormous natural resources, but its industry and agricultural base was (and is) creaky and dated. Russia never recovered from its consecutive revolutions in 1905 and 1917, followed by the creation of the USSR in 1922.
Staggering and without adequate financial resources (to say nothing of an economic or industrial history) Hitler turned on Russia in 1941 with a fury that absorbed 25 million Russian casualties before it ended. Russia was barely habitable and Stalin, in a breathtakingly short-sighted and ego-driven hissyfit, refused Marshall Plan aid. So Stalin threw all its limited capital into nuclear arms and eventually Russia flushed itself down the economic toilet. That was not Putin’s doing, but was most certainly the legacy left to him.
Given the choices, he’s doing what he feels must be done to restore Russia and has been remarkably restrained (until Ukraine) in his relations with the West. Granted, that includes letting Russian oligarchs run off with state institutions, but the same happened in the Czech Republic where I live and Vaclav Havel remains the darling of the Western world.
But Czechs had a ‘Velvet Revolution’ and Putin’s reward has been anything but that—dissolution of the USSR and shrinking back to Mother Russia. That’s very understandable historically, but a hard pill to swallow.
Since Ukraine, Russia had its assets frozen and economic sanctions applied. Sanctions seldom discipline those they were designed to control and usually trickle down (to use an ironic Reagan term) to the already poor. They drive nations apart rather than together. Simply look at Greece and witness the influence of Germany’s insistence on austerity.
Anyway, my point is that we need to lend a hand (rather than the back of it) to Russia. We must end this vicious and dangerous cycle with a huge, wounded and nuclear powered country. The chips are high but the costs of bringing Russia into the game are low. Cooperation is cheap and isolation is terribly expensive, both socially and economically.
Ships of State move slowly and sometimes awkwardly—but they move. Far better to help Russia in that direction and sooner is immensely more profitable (politically, socially and economically) than later. We’re already late by half a century.
Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton or any of the other wild-card candidates, are you up for that? Nixon was a newly-elected president when he went to China. He dubbed his visit "the week that changed the world" and was not far wrong.
Wal-Mart and IKEA can thank him for that and perhaps you and I as well.