Only Biden Can Go to Russia

Putin Biden
Voiced by Amazon Polly

The new Biden administration can disrupt the second Cold War by disengaging Russia from China. 

First, a mea culpa. Heck, mea maxima culpa. I apologize for the current state of relations between the United States and Communist China. I am guilty of an offense that occurred maybe 50 years ago. 

As a young know-it-all with a BA in history and political science, and as a very junior Navy officer, I was allowed to take a senior officers’ correspondence course from the Naval War College.  In an essay on International Relations, I suggested that—given the Sino-Soviet bloc—the United States might do a diplomatic equivalent of the sailing Navy tactic of breaking through the enemy line. In this model, one fleet would break through the enemy line, and defeat both segments in turn.  The United States, I argued, should detach China from Russia, then deal with each individually. 

This prescription ran contrary to the prevailing wisdom since Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in 1946, with America standing for freedom against Communist totalitarianism. 

But sometimes idealism needs a dose of realism.  A year and a half after we declared our independence from the King of England, we became an ally of the King of France.  In 1941, while we were at war with one totalitarian power, Germany, we were allied with another, Soviet Russia. Also in 1941, President Roosevelt announced that the preservation of freedom of speech, worship, and from want and fear (the Four Freedoms) throughout the world was our goal.  Geopolitics may require the compromise of a moral absolute or two, plus a toleration of irony.

Imagine my self-satisfaction when it was revealed that Henry Kissinger, that most celebrated practitioner of realpolitik,  had gone to China in July 1971, and President Nixon followed with a state visit to the PRC the following February.  I supposed that somebody had seen my paper and forwarded it to the White House, causing dozens of staff papers to be written for and against the proposal. 

Actually, Nixon may have been thinking in such terms even before 1969. Despite his reputation as an anti-Communist crusader, having been General Eisenhower’s vice president grounded him in thinking strategically.

Being in the dark about such matters, I almost threw out my right arm from patting myself on the back.  At that time, I had a graduate school reading assignment: Kissinger’s masterful study of the 1815 Congress of Vienna, A World Restored.  He tells how the diplomats of that age—Metternich of Austria, Castlereagh of Britain, and Talleyrand of France—negotiated a settlement that ended a quarter-century of war, and ushered in a century without a major European conflict.

Once the United States, by implementing my strategy, helped bring the Cold War to an end, it failed to hold another Congress of Vienna. The result: something of a second Cold War, with Russia and China again both seeing the United States as an adversary, if not a common enemy. 

Perhaps it is time to revive the diplomatic strategy which, in the arrogance of youth, I had suggested far in the past. 

Frederick G. Hartmann (1922-2015), a professor at the Naval War College, was author of The Relations of Nations, one of the International Relations course texts. There, he proposed the principle of “the conservation of enemies.” He stated that “prudent states do not seek to amass more enemies than they can effectively counter or handle at any one time.”  Hitler, in 1941, failed to conserve enemies: already fighting an inconclusive war with Great Britain, he invaded Yugoslavia in April, Russia in June, and declared war against the United States in December.  From 1941, at the very latest, National Socialist Germany was not among the ranks of “prudent states.”

Because today’s relations with Communist China and post-Communist Russia make little sense from the “conservation of enemies” perspective, there is an opportunity to tilt towards Russia. 

Beijing’s ambiguous role in the COVID-19 crisis, plus its increasing hand in our economic, social, and political institutions, should lead the United States to reconsider the state of US-PRC relations. 

Today’s Russia, on the other hand, is not the USSR. It is smaller in GDP, autocratic rather than totalitarian, and is no longer controlling territory from the Elbe to Kamchatka.  Christianity is no longer persecuted (at least to the extent that it was under the Communists) and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (Orthodox) in Moscow, dynamited in 1931 under Stalin, has been rebuilt under Putin. About 50% of Russians felt free enough to identify themselves in surveys as Christians. About 41% of those surveyed were Russian Orthodox, but only about .1% were Catholic.  Also, Orthodox-Catholic relations in Russia are less than stellar.  But, two hundred years ago, the same applied to Protestant-Catholic relations in the United States.  

Let me add that Putin won’t be there forever.  He is no George Washington, he is no saint, but he’s no Joe Stalin either.  He seems to have had some opponents murdered, but not several million of them.  There has been no Holodomor, as in the early 1930s, under Putin; no purges with their show trials and automatic executions, either.  As in 1778 and again in 1941, so in 2021: sometimes it is necessary for us to enter a modus viviendi with one unsavory regime, when the alternative is hostile relations with two.  Those politicians who have demonized Russia—nuclear Russia—might do well to consider prudential remarks to the House of Commons by Lord Palmerston (March 1, 1848): “Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that [country] is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Those who fail to recognize the changes in Russia in the last thirty years should consider the words of Palmerston and Hartman, and the actions of Nixon. 

On December 6, 1971, U.S. News and World Report, reporting a conversation with Senator Mike Mansfield where he discussed the president’s China initiative, said: “Only Nixon could go to China.”  Likewise, only Biden can go to Russia.

Given suspicions that many Democrats—and Republicans as well—have been the recipients of largesse from the PRC, such an initiative from President Biden would be as dramatic as that of Nixon almost fifty years ago.  

Although President Obama said in 2012 that his re-election would bring improved relations with Russia, in the past four years that country has been called perhaps the worst conceivable enemy of American democracy.  In truth, however, there is no such existential conflict between Russia and America as in 1945-90, and the failure to hold a Vienna-style conference after 1990 is at least partly to blame for the problems that do exist.

Relations with a nuclear-armed hostile Russia can be dangerous, but with a nuclear-armed friendly Russia could be no more dangerous than those with nuclear-armed Britain and France.  Danger level is a function of policy, not of weapons.

One consequence of the failure to hold a Vienna Conference was the eastward rush of NATO: post-Communist states feared even a weakened Russia, and helping them by advancing NATO troops to Russia’s borders was not, in diplomacy-speak, a “confidence-building measure.” 

A Vienna-style settlement, better late than never, could include Eastern Europe building on the existing Visegrád Pact of Central European states, founded after the Cold War and which now includes Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.  Strong enough to defend against Russia, it would not be an offensive threat to Russia.  It would also give Eastern Europe leverage against autocratic policies of the EU.  In September, Pact members came out in opposition to EU mandates that would compel them to speed up procedures for accepting migrants from outside of Europe.  It is not inconceivable for the existing Pact to expand its membership further, to become a second, noncommunist Warsaw Pact. 

Also, Eastern Europe could well be the bulwark where Western Christianity makes a stand against the aggressive secularism to the west, and militant Islam to the south.  In due time, as this vision of Eastern Europe, as well as a post-Putin Russia, become accustomed to each other, we might see a world come about where Christianity is allowed to thrive from the Oder to Kamchatka.  This optimism might well be unwarranted but, if based on hardheaded diplomacy, such détente is at least possible.

Diplomacy involves horse trading.  What horses could we trade? 

How about the guarantee of a market in Western Europe for Russia’s fossil fuel exports?  The profits would build Russia’s GDP.  An economically healthy, hostile Russia is dangerous—but not a friendly one.

How about a guarantee of Russia’s borders?  Russia also must conserve enemies, and China can be an existential threat: Siberia is vast, possessing immense resources, but few people.  China is overflowing with people and could use Siberia’s land and resources.  It could, at will, overrun Siberia by force of arms, or it could unleash bands of civilian migrants and send them towards Russia, whose border is far more permeable than ours with Mexico.

It would be of great value for Russia to have friends who could counter a hostile PRC.  A global boycott of China, reinforced by a distant blockade by every non-PRC naval and air squadron on the face of the earth, could well restore the status quo ante without firing a shot. The Cuba quarantine of October 1962 is a precedent.

Donald Trump could not have implemented such a proposal; the noises that he was in Putin’s pocket would have been ear-splitting.  But here Joe Biden could do what Donald Trump could not.

[Photo Credits: Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP and Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images]


Walt Johanson, retired from the Navy and from teaching, is writing Towards Self-Evident Truths: Sources of Revolution-Era Political Thought.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.