U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said that “Right now, U.S.-Russia relations are in the gutter but we want to make sure they don’t flush into the sewer.”
I think that what we see is much worse if one adds the current conflict escalation in Syria, NATO advancement of troops to the Russian borders, frequent near collisions of U.S. and Russian planes over the Baltic and Black seas, plus non-stop anti-Russia hysteria in Congress and the media.
In the current climate, one can expect at almost any time that the two powers will go into direct military confrontation with catastrophic results for all.
It didn’t have to be that way, since during the second term of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush term in office America was considered by the Russian leaders and peoples as an admirable and friendly nation with whom they were eager to build a new joint and bright future.
Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin went out of their way to convince Washington that Russia was abandoning communist expansionist ideology and was ready to join in the “European Home” by embracing basic Western values.
I was a direct witness of this process starting from October 1988, when I helped to organize many visits of American delegations, including dozens of members of Congress, prominent foreign-policy experts, businessmen, university professors, and even exiled Soviet dissidents.
During these trips, we had endless discussions with the upper echelons of the Russian government, members of parliament, intellectuals, students and the media.
The well-known Washington insider Paul Weyrich, founder of the Heritage Foundation, had direct access to President Bush and brought to the Oval Office an executive summary of these discussions. Weyrich urged him to quickly develop a plan for Russia‘s integration with the West, something like the Marshall Plan, which had worked so well for Germany and Japan in the wake of World War II.
This was a unique historic moment made possible by the hard work of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev when Russia was ready to become part of the West. Unfortunately, Mr. Bush lacked the vision of Reagan or was overpowered by the “deep state” which finds it more useful to have Russia as a foe than as a friend.
Our proposal was largely ignored except for Mr. Bush making some empty promises not to expand NATO eastward and proposing to build a new security arc from Vancouver to Vladivostok.
The rest of the damage has been done by George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton teams: NATO expansion, Middle East wars, democracy promotion crusades, support of the coup in Ukraine and many other covert and overt actions which brought us to the dismal state in U.S. – Russia relations that we find ourselves in right now.
There were some expectations that Donald Trump could reverse this dangerous trend and try to repair the damage done by his predecessors. At least he pledged this during the presidential campaign. But so far, we do not see too many encouraging steps in this direction.
This brings us to the question of what to do now. The answers can be found in the not-so-distant past, in the actions of Reagan, who is now revered by most Americans of all political persuasions, even by those who did not support him during his presidential terms.
Why was it all right for Reagan to find a common language with Mr. Gorbachev and the then-Communist USSR while any suggestion from Mr. Trump to attempt the same with Vladimir Putin and post-Communist Russia leads to calls for his impeachment?
Fortunately, not only are the major details of the Reagan-Gorbachev negotiations and deals readily available, but we have among us many members of Reagan‘s inner circle with whom we can consult: James Baker, Bill Bennett, Pat Buchanan, Chas Freeman, Suzanne Massie, Jack Matlock, Edwin Meese, Dana Rohrabacher, George Shultz, David Stockman. There are many others to whom I must apologize for not mentioning them.
We need their advice about how to resolve this crisis and the time is now.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin are expected to meet on the margins of the G20 summit in Hamburg (July 7-8, 2017), a date that is quickly approaching. The good news is that both presidents are eager to work toward a mutually beneficial U.S.-Russia relationship.
However, we need Reagan‘s wise men to help overcome the efforts of those who have other goals and objectives which have nothing to do with the security of the United States and survival of humanity.
This is what Reagan said about the opponents of his nuclear deal with Mr. Gorbachev: “[S]ome of the people who are objecting the most … whether they realize it or not, those people basically down in their deepest thoughts have accepted that war is inevitable.”
There is no time left for political maneuvering. Mr. Trump should get on with what he promised during the election campaign using Reagan‘s banner.
Edward Lozansky is president of American University in Moscow.