How much should be read into a new president’s Oval Office decor is impossible to say, but much may hang on the meaning of Donald Trump’s. I refer not to the fresh gold drapes but to the restoration of the Churchill bust that so famously went missing during the Obama years.
It could be its reinstatement is merely a nod of thanks from President Trump to Nigel Farage or a gesture of goodwill toward his Scots-born mother’s homeland. Perhaps it is meant as a foot-high bronze ice-breaker for Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, who visits today.
Yet those of us who believe the future of global security depends on Mr. Trump thawing the permafrost with Russia will prefer to see it as a ray of tentative sunshine in a very dark sky.
Winston Churchill was no more an unreconstructed admirer of the Soviet Union than Mrs. May — who apparently plans to warn Mr. Trump against dealing with Vladimir Putin — is of modern Russia. The man who described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” and later foresaw a curtain of a baser metal than gold falling across Europe, was no naif. But he was willing to form an alliance with Stalin to overcome an existential threat.
Today, the democratic world faces its gravest existential threat since the Cold War. Or, if you believe the danger of thermonuclear annihilation was exaggerated, since the rise of the Axis Powers.
While some progress has been made in disrupting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, only last week it carried out mass executions amid the desecrated ancient ruins of Palmyra. It and its affiliates will not be easily erased. Its poison seeps far beyond the Middle East.
Buffeted by a desperate diaspora of refugees, Europe faces deepening turmoil. France, hurt by its own encounters with horror, threatens to send Marine Le Pen to the Elysee Palace. In Germany, Angela Merkel faces punishment for the welcome she gave to the migrants. America has suffered atrocities perpetrated in the name of ISIS and fears that more may come. The freedoms and the sense of security we once took for granted are being taken from us.
Surely these dangers are clearer and more present than that of nuclear war. Yet the Cold War mentality endures in Washington. To Congress and the Pentagon, the gravest threat comes not from those who pervert the teachings of a great religion but rather from Russia. It is an outdated mindset that refuses to loosen its grip more than a quarter century after the Berlin Wall fell.
Whether due to that anachronistic dogma or because their careers depend on a deliberate misreading of the geopolitical runes, America’s political and military classes will try to block any Trump-Putin embrace, citing alleged cyber-interference in the election and occupation of Crimea as twin disqualifiers of an alliance that offers our best hope of crushing Islamic terrorism. They will say Mr. Putin means to invade the Baltics as the next stage of a master plan to recreate the Soviet Union, never mind that his teetering economy is in no shape to absorb their populations.
Although I was born and spent my earliest years in Moscow, I make no claim to special insight. “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” was how Churchill put it in his enigma speech. Nor can this Russian emigre.
But one high priest of realpolitik said this when asked just this week if he agreed with Joe Biden that Mr. Putin’s main aim is to destabilize the West. “No,” replied Henry Kissinger. “We are worried that this is his objective. He is worried that our objective is to undermine him.”
The time has come to end this vicious spin cycle of mutual suspicion. Rebuilding trust won’t be easy. Accommodations would have to be made and sealed at a suitably trumpeted summit or conference. Yalta II, even. Mr. Putin agreeing to respect Ukraine’s borders, the West conceding Russia’s right to Crimea.
A dime-bag panacea for all that challenges global security it would not be. But whereas Hillary Clinton so eagerly engaged in retro-Cold War brinkmanship, Mr. Trump presents the chance for a new start, to bury the paranoid perception of Mr. Putin as a rapacious imperial crusader and to work with him against a shared threat.
“Perhaps there is a key,” Churchill intoned. “That key is Russian national interest.” Indeed. And today, its national interest is also America’s — destroying Islamo-fascist terrorism.
Mr. Trump should resist the reflexive negativity typified by John McCain and others. If he wants to offer Russia the respect it has been denied, if he regards Mr. Putin as a man he can do business with — as Margaret Thatcher did Mikhail Gorbachev — he should be encouraged.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity,” Churchill said. “An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Today there is an opportunity of forging a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia. Let us be optimists and seize it.
• Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of The Independent and the London Evening Standard. He is Russian by birth and a naturalized British resident by choice.