Events this past week make clear that Trump was serious about changing US policy toward Russia, and the enemies of détente know it. Lessons from the past.
By Stephen F. Cohen
The three main episodes of attempted détente in the 20th century—under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and (most expansively and successfully) Reagan—taught several lessons that President Trump (and Putin) must heed. Powerful enemies of détente exist on both sides, in Washington and in Moscow, and they will not only oppose the diplomatic process but try to sabotage it surreptitiously. An American president must therefore be determined and ready to fight for his policy. For this, he needs an able, like-minded team, particularly a national security adviser in the White House, Secretary of State, and ambassador to Russia. He also needs support for détente among American elites and voters that did not support his election, which will be much harder for Trump than it was for Reagan. And the occupant of the White House needs a strong, mindful détente partner—not a “friend”—in the Kremlin, as Putin certainly is, notwithstanding the mindless demonizing of him by the US political-media establishment. In this historical context, Cohen discusses recent developments, first on the part of President-elect Trump.
§ Trump seems to be evoking memories of Reagan’s détente, proposing Reykjavík, Iceland (where Reagan meet with Gorbachev), as the site of his first summit with Putin; giving nuclear reductions and controls a top priority at the outset, as Reagan and Gorbachev did, and thereby shifting the linking of sanctions from negotiations over Ukraine (largely blocked by Kiev) to progress on nuclear weapons (about which Kiev has no say); appealing to British Prime Minister Theresa May as Reagan did to Margaret Thatcher, while diminishing the role of German Chancellor Merkel, the main opponent of easing European sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, Trump has begun to assemble a strong pro-détente team in the White House and at the State Department, while continuing to refuse to vilify his would-be partner, Putin. In addition, Trump has suggested that the CIA leaked allegations (without any supporting facts) that Putin abetted Trump’s election victory, possibly with the CIA’s intention of sabotaging détente before it even got under way.
§ American enemies of détente are no less aware of Trump’s intentions in this regard, as is clear from their recent activities. They are trying in several ways to delegitimize Trump as president, especially by more than implying that he will pursue treasonous policies toward Russia. (MSNBC, CNN—whose paid contributor called Trump a “fifth columnist” without any protest by his fellow panelists—and New York Times columnists now do this almost daily.) Political leaders of the anti-détente bipartisan “party” insist that Putin’s Russia is the number-one threat to the United States and indeed to all Western democracies, however preposterous this is. American enemies of détente have escalated their demonization of Putin in order to disqualify him as any kind of US partner, warning, as do Times columnists, that détente would be “calamitous” for America. And even outgoing President Obama, his Russian policy in shambles, seems to want to leave behind additional obstacles to détente, by enacting new sanctions on Russia, speaking derisively of Putin, and quickly moving NATO/American troops and tanks to Russia’s Western borders.
§ Not to be overlooked, Cohen emphasizes, are the enemies of détente in Moscow, with whom Putin will have to contend, and who are already grumbling. Their opposition is partly traditional anti-Westernism, but mainly derives from two more contemporary and compelling complaints. That détente, first under Reagan-Gorbachev-Bush and then Clinton-Yeltsin, resulted in catastrophe for the Soviet Union and Russia both at home and abroad. For this reason, Cohen points out, Putin dare not be seen at home in the détente tradition of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Second, it is widely believed in high-level Moscow official circles that Washington repeatedly broke its promises to Putin himself during détente-like or “reset” episodes since he became leader in 2000, and will certainly do so again under President Trump.
§ Batchelor and Cohen end with a brief discussion of the new détente-negotiating agenda, which numbers the obvious conflicts over nuclear weapons (including the crucial issue of US missile-defense installations), NATO expansion, international terrorism, Syria, Ukraine, and other regional conflicts. Pointing out that successful détente has always meant reciprocal concessions, he asks what concessions Putin might initially make to help Trump build support for détente in the United States. Cohen suggests four: ending the ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans; restoring the program, legislated by then Senator Bill Bradley, that brought thousands of Russian young people to live and study in the United States; restoring the Nunn-Lugar program that helped safeguard Russia’s materials of mass destruction; and replacing failed European leadership of the Minsk process to negotiate a settlement of Ukraine’s civil/proxy war with a joint US-Russian-Ukrainian group under UN auspices.
Whatever the issues, Cohen concludes, the enactment of a new détente, no matter how imperative, will be fiercely opposed, and the fight has clearly begun.