In his recent interview with Henry Kissinger, Jeffrey Goldberg asked the former secretary of state and national security advisor what he would advise the next president of the United States to do first. That president, Kissinger replied, should ask, “What are we”—the United States—“trying to achieve, even if we must pursue it alone? … What are we trying to prevent, even if we must combat it alone?” But he also noted that the next president would be taking office at a uniquely challenging moment in international politics. Drawing on the campaign rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump, we can posit some preliminary answers to Kissinger’s questions, and some preliminary suggestions as to how he might handle Russia, in particular.
During his campaign, Trump openly fawned over Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He also suggested that it might be “nice” if Russia and the United States “got along.” Theoretically, it could be easier for the United States to achieve some of its major international policy goals—like stabilizing Syria, or preventing future cyberattacks against U.S. organizations, both public and private—if relations with Russia were better. Indeed, there’s a venerable history here. Washington cooperated with the former Soviet Union on a number of far-reaching nuclear-weapons agreements the final years of the Cold War, supported Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight industrialized nations (G-8) in 1997, provided aid when its economy cratered, and proved a stable partner to Russia’s first democratically elected President, Boris Yeltsin, when he faced an armed uprising in 1993 and used the Russian military to quash it. When Yeltsin objected to the U.S.-led intervention in Serbia, the United States welcomed Russia to join international peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo. Although America was not always a perfect partner, given the extent of residual Cold War animosity, U.S. policy makers warmed relatively quickly to a reforming, though struggling, Russia.