U.S.-Russia Relations and the U.S. Presidential Election

Less than four months remain before America elects its President; the dramatic struggle has entered its final phase. Judging by the latest polls, Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party is well ahead of GOP’s Donald Trump. If no unforeseen circumstances interfere with the election campaign before November, we can expect that the forty fifth president of the United States of America – for the first time in its history – will be a woman.

As the polls show, it is widely assumed in Russia that the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House would benefit this country more than victory by Hillary Clinton. A populist and fierce opponent of the Washington establishment, Trump could, they say, turn the page in U.S.-Russia relations, which have seen better times, and open a new chapter without regard to the ‘legacy’ of Democrat Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton is known to invoke mixed feelings among Russians. Some know her as a relentless and at times inflexible negotiator. Others view her as a politician obsessed with human rights. And still others say that Moscow has always gotten along better with Republicans than with Democrats.  

My experience over the years – and I have talked face-to-face to the leaders of many a country – is telling me that there is hardly any substantial ground for such fears or hopes. It is usually easier to achieve an agreement with experienced professionals, even if they are inflexible negotiators and difficult partners. They are predictable, rational, and they are well aware of their limitations. A ‘newcomer’ in international politics is usually harder to work with: the lack of experience often translates into inconsistent and unpredictable behavior; it leads to subjective, emotional and at times erroneous decisions that can be very hard to rectify later on.

Speaking on June 17 at the Saint-Petersburg International Economic Forum, President Putin recalled his positive experience of working with the forty-second President of the United States, Bill Clinton. I was Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time and remember those days very well. There was more than enough disagreement and difference between our countries back then too. But, unlike recent years, mutually respectful dialogue was never broken off and there was an understanding of how important U.S.-Russia relations were in terms of international stability.

Naturally, Mrs. Clinton has her own view of American foreign policy. However, there is evidence that the ‘family experience’ will to a certain extent influence her actions if she wins the November election. 

This is not, however, the most important point. It would be naïve to believe that the state and dynamics of our relations with the United States are defined exclusively by who sits in the Oval Office, and that there is some easy and painless way to overcome the deep crisis in our bilateral relations. Miracles don’t happen in international politics. U.S. foreign policy has always been bipartisan, greatly inert, and the outcome of the presidential race alone cannot overturn the existing state of affairs.

It is hardly realistic to hope that the new administration will ‘come to its senses’ and be easy to deal with. No matter who wins the presidency, the strategic goal of preserving global leadership will remain unchanged, though certain adjustments to the international agenda are, of course, possible.

U.S.-Russia relations have entered a phase where the negative attitude that has accumulated over recent years has essentially grown into full-blown confrontation. This runs counter to our national interests and those of the United States as well. So it is important to take steps that would help reverse this dangerous trend. If we decide to wait and see what the new U.S. President and his or her team do, we lose time, and with it we lose the initiative.

Frankly speaking, we failed to create a solid foundation for U.S.-Russia relations after the end of the Cold War. We did not try hard enough, engrossed in solving current international problems. This, in my view, makes the launch of a new negotiation process between Washington and Moscow the key goal, a process that would help develop common principles for our relations and jointly developed mutual commitments reflecting the interests of both sides.

What should we do first? This is the hardest part.

In my mind, we first need to start working on arranging a bilateral summit. The longer it takes for such a meeting to happen, the more negative feelings will pile up.

The meeting must be thoroughly worked through and it must have a strategic and future-oriented outcome. In today’s situation, to meet just to ‘look into each other’s eyes’ is not enough anymore.

Clearly, such a meeting will not solve all the numerous controversies we have at once. But this should not be the goal either. The meeting must set the course for the development of bilateral relations and form the necessary mechanisms for cooperation, which would help gradually overcome the present situation where cooperation in matters of strategic importance is held hostage by existing differences.

Interaction at the presidential level will of course continue to remain the key element of the U.S.-Russia dialogue.

But such interaction has to be complemented with a wide range of bilateral mechanisms, each devoted to a key area of cooperation. We need to breathe new life into the Strategic Stability Group, where our two countries are represented by the leaders of the foreign and defense ministries. Dialogue between intelligence agencies has to be institutionalized as well. This would enhance mutual trust and create an atmosphere conducive to cooperation in fighting terrorism and in other fields. Particular attention needs to be paid to economic cooperation. Business-to-business cooperation has not become the shock-absorber that would limit or at least reduce the negative impact of differences in other areas. There is need for a mechanism that would stimulate economic cooperation at the governmental level, which would in turn promote better relations between our two countries in general.

Another consultation mechanism should be created at the level of civil society. It should involve political and public figures, representatives of the media, science and culture – all those who influence public opinion in Russia and in the U.S.

The proposed streamlining of U.S.-Russia dialogue might seem cumbersome and unrealistic at first. Unfortunately, it is the very lack of such a tight framework for dialogue on a wide range of pressing issues that has brought us to where we are today.

In his telegram to President Obama on the occasion of Independence Day on July 4 this year, President Putin emphasized that ‘the history of US-Russia relations shows that when we act as equal partners and respect each other’s lawful interests, we are able to successfully resolve the most complex international issues for the benefit of both countries' peoples and all of humanity.’

Let us hope that Washington would take this invitation to dialogue seriously.

The article was originally published by the Russian International Affairs Council.