Twenty-six years ago at a national policy conference in Los Angeles co-hosted by his foundation, Richard M. Nixon observed that one of America's most fundamental foreign policy objectives was to build a new international order after the collapse of the Soviet Union which included the newly-democratic Russia as a partner. He stated,
In discussing Russia, it is first necessary to dispel a myth. The Russians did not lose the Cold War. The Communists did. The United States and our allies played a crucial role in containing communism and in rolling it back, but it was democratic Russia that gave the knockout blow to communism on December 14th in 1991. So therefore, we should treat Russia today not as a defeated enemy but as an ally and a friend who joined with us in defeating communism in Russia. Nixon warned that if Russia's experiment with democracy and association with the West were to fail, Russia could fall victim to, "a more authoritarian, aggressive nationalism, which, shorn of the failed faith of communism, might be an even greater threat to the West than the old Soviet totalitarianism." Subsequently, in the book Beyond Peace, which served as the last political message of his life, Nixon made a strong case that, while ending the Cold War on American terms was a historic accomplishment, the lasting legacy of this feat would be determined by America's success in incorporating Russia into the community of democratic free market nations. "It would be contrary to our interests to give Moscow the impression," Nixon wrote, "that we are prepared to help only as long as Russia remains on its knees. Russia is a great country that deserves to be treated with appropriate respect." Nixon's observations were prophetic. They make it clear that the turn that contemporary events have taken was not inevitable even if it was foreseeable. Nixon not only sought reconciliation with Russia, but was also convinced that given sufficient foresight and diplomatic tact Washington could achieve it.
Today, it can be stated with certainty that America has failed at this task. America's new strategic doctrine views Russia as a major threat to the United States due to its military prowess, hybrid warfare capabilities, and global drive to undermine the American-led liberal world order. As with every divorce, there are contrasting narratives about who bears what responsibility for the dissolution of this once promising relationship. However, it is clear that America's foreign policy establishment, including members of both Congress and the Trump administration, is currently plagued by the tension between its habitual desire to assume the worst of Russia and its simultaneous reluctance to respond to the magnitude of Moscow's challenge in a serious fashion.
When I hear media pundits and members of Congress describe Russia as a major adversary and, at the same time, speak and act as though America is immune to the threat posed by the Russian military, I often wonder whether they know something that I do not. The same experts who are terrified of confrontation with North Korea, with its rudimentary nuclear arsenal, or Iran, which has no nuclear arsenal at all, take a remarkably cavalier approach towards the prospect of a clash with Russia. While this view is common among the national security establishment, it reflects a serious misunderstanding of Russia's military strength, its national character and, above all, the way its history continues to shape its foreign policy decisions. It also runs the risk of inadvertently creating a new danger in the form of providing additional incentives for Moscow and Beijing to cooperate with each other against America. As a recent Pentagon white paper observed, Russian president Vladimir Putin could try to play the "China card" to the detriment of America.
Yet when Donald Trump spoke during his presidential campaign about the prospect of improved relations with Russia, the establishment's indignation was difficult to overstate. The conventional wisdom was clear: by questioning whether America might be dangerously eroding its relationship with Russia, Trump was by definition undermining America's alliances with its European partners. Some went so far as to question whether he was an enemy agent controlled by Russian president Vladimir Putin, while more sober-minded analysts argued that Trump was simply a victim of his inexperience in world affairs. How else could one explain why Trump could not see that America's allies, despite their numerous imperfections and questionable loyalty, were an indispensable source of our strength? How could Trump fail to see this self-evident truth unless he was a traitor, an idiot, or both?
Much of the domestic criticism surrounding Russia is valid, particularly the accusations that it is autocratic, increasingly assertive in its foreign policy, and that it suffers from endemic corruption reaching high levels of the government, including law enforcement agencies. But Russia is no more autocratic than Saudi Arabia, and Israel has similarly demonstrated a willingness to use force outside its borders, including its alleged assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Nor is it more corrupt than Afghanistan and Ukraine, both of whom receive massive amounts of U.S. aid. Yet friends' faults are easier to forgive due to their willingness to walk in lockstep with the United States, which we believe ultimately puts them on the "right side of history." Russia, in positioning itself as an alternative center of global power to the United States, is often considered by definition guilty of violating good international conduct.
Russia also happens to be the only country capable of destroying the United States as a modern, prosperous and democratic society, a reality that much of the discourse surrounding Russia seems to ignore. Many Americans now believe that the threat posed by Russia's vast nuclear arsenal is no longer relevant, and the United States and its allies, with their economic preponderance and superior conventional forces, can deter Russia as long as they can persuade the Kremlin...