In June of 1996, I was interning on Capitol Hill for Nebraskan Congressman Jon Christensen. After the first round of the presidential elections in Russia, Boris Yeltsin led by only a 3 percent margin over the Communist leader Gennadiy Zyuganov. The second round was set for July 3.
Many experts feared that the Communists would win the elections in Russia. The debate quickly unfolded in Washington with the main question directed at President Bill Clinton by the members of the Republican-dominated 104th Congress: “If the Communists win, who will be responsible for losing Russia?” By “losing,” the critics of Clinton meant Russia would go back to Communist rule and becoming again a foe of the United States.
Today I believe the questions before us are no less dramatic: How did we, Americans and Russians, manage to lose each other as long term allies and partners? What is next: continued isolation or some kind of rapprochement?
The daily negative news on relations between the two countries is plentiful and detailed. And often it dislodges the importance of rethinking the long term common agenda between the U.S. and Russia.
At the moment, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are too enthusiastically engaged in playing the short-term zero sum game discarding the critical importance of solving acute long term problems.
I am a proponent of the realpolitik approach that proved credible during several international crises in the 20th century.
The non-zero-sum game and its positive value, especially in trade relations, have been promoted by such economists as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Eli Heckscher, Paul Samuelson and others. In politics, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s strategy during the Nixon’s administration with regards to the USSR and China — known as “bilateral trade accord” and “shuttle diplomacy,” respectively — are good examples of the non-zero-sum game reaching concrete results.
I later witnessed Kissinger argue in front of Congress for the conditional extension of the “most favored nation” status to China in 1997, when I was an intern for Sen. Chuck Hagel. Kissinger’s arguments were straightforward: “To change the human rights record in China, first, we need to engage with the Chinese, to find common ground, to agree to disagree and to move on the projects of common interest and applicability to both.”
Today, I think that the decision-makers in Russia and the U.S. need just this exactly: to “agree to disagree,” compromise and find a common agenda to move on. In this regard a recent joint statement by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on the Syrian crisis at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam is an important step forward.
The North Korean crisis, the war in Syria, the continued instability in Libya, acts of terrorism abroad and at home. All these problems are geopolitical in nature and they should form the basis for the revived realpolitik approach between Russia and the U.S.
We are also facing a serious issue of questioning sovereignty of existing states. Catalonia is a good example. Kurdistan is another. Conflict between territorial integrity, the people’s right to independence and sovereignty will continue to be a dividing issue for the foreseeable future.
Thomas Friedman called the world flat a long time ago. The rapid development of technology, the speed of information exchange, the instant influence of events in one country on the situation in others are of paramount proportions. And these processes will only become faster.
To summarize my position: First, both Russia and the U.S. have multiple issues to cope with at home and on the global stage.
Second, every country has national interests and its own agenda. And these should be always respected.
Third, when differences are evident, issues should be carefully chosen for discussion. They should be of equal importance for Russia and the U.S., and they should unite both sides rather than divide.
Fourth, common issues where interests converge should not be packaged with sticky topics that divide. Problems should also be discussed but in a separate setting without bundling them with issues where success may be reached via compromise.
And fifth, if we fail to engage each other in the nearest future, the world will definitely become a less safe place for everyone to live in, with terror, violence and instability gaining ground over life, reason and pursuit of happiness.
I am a Russian, a citizen of the great country where I live with my family. And knowing the Russians and the American people I can clearly state: We are not adversaries, we have more in common than apart, and we are more alike rather than dissimilar.
We must sometimes remind politicians of these similarities and to build on them in order to untangle the critical problems while there is still time.
Oleg Kalinskiy is a professor of economics at the Moscow National Technological University for Steel & Alloys. This column is based on his lecture on the future of the Russia–U.S. relations given by him on November 6, 2017, as part of the MacMillan Center Russian Studies Program. Contact him at email@example.com .