In June 1996, I was interning on Capitol Hill for Nebraska Congressman Jon Christensen. After the first round of 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 the Communists would win the elections in Russia. The debate quickly unfolded in D.C., with the main question directed at President Clinton by the members of the 104th Republican dominated Congress: “If the Communists win, who will be responsible for losing Russia?” By “losing,” the critics of President Clinton meant Russia going 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. Often, it dislodges the importance of rethinking the long-term common agenda between the U.S. and Russia.
At the moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, politicians 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, which proved credible during several crises in the international politics of the 20th century.
The non-zero sum game and its positive value, especially in trade relations, have been promoted by such great economists as Smith, Riccardo, Heckscher and Samuelson. In politics, Henry Kissinger’s actions while in Nixon’s administration in the 1970s toward the USSR (bilateral trade accord) and China (“shuttle diplomacy”) are good examples of the non-zero sum game reaching concrete results.
I later witnessed Dr. Kissinger at the U.S. Congress arguing for the conditional extension of the Most Favored Nation status to China in 1997 when I interned for Senator Chuck Hagel. Dr. Kissinger’s argument was 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 the decision makers in Russia and the U.S. need to follow Dr. Kissinger’s advice and comprise common agenda. In this regard, the joint statement on the situation in Syria by Presidents Putin and Trump at the recent meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Vietnam is a step in the right direction.
The North Korean crisis, the war in Syria, the continued instability in Libya, acts of terrorism, population growth, resource scarcity — all these problems are geopolitical in nature, and they should form the basis for the revived realpolitik approach between Russia and the U.S.
To summarize my position on Russian-U.S. relations: Both Russia and the U.S. have multiple issues to solve at home and on the global stage. Both countries have national interests and agendas, and these should be respected by each other. When differences are evident, issues should be carefully chosen for discussion. They should be of equal importance to Russia and the U.S. and should unite both countries, rather than divide.
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.
If we fail to engage each other in the near 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 the pursuit of happiness.
I am a Russian, a citizen of the great country where I live with my family. At the same time, I was educated at Hastings College and lived in the heartland of America. I have many life-long American friends, one of whom, Doug Riley, set up The Riley-Kalinskiy Scholarship at HC many years ago to help foreign students like me receive a solid education. Doug recently traveled with me to Yale for my presentation on the future of the Russian-U.S. relations.
I know the Russian and American people, and I can clearly state: we are not adversaries. We have more in common than apart; we are more alike than dissimilar. We must remind politicians of these similarities and start working together to untangle the critical problems for both countries. The time for this to happen is long overdue. We should act now.