Many little American flags.

Survey: US Vital Interests Vis-à-Vis Russia

February 15, 2017
RM Experts

Every new U.S. president assumes office with a firm intention to pursue polices based on national interests, but not every one of them publicly formulates what exactly these interests are. We have asked a handful of top experts on Russia three related questions: (a) What are America's top five vital national interests; (b) which of them can Russia significantly impact by acting either as a constructive partner or as a spoiler; and (c) what steps should Washington take in this context to maximally advance these interests?

Managing Partner, Kissinger Associates; Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University; Senior Director for Russia on the NSC staff in the George W. Bush Administration

Thomas Graham

Managing Partner, Kissinger Associates; Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University; Senior Director for Russia on the NSC staff in the George W. Bush Administration

Since it emerged as a great power over a century ago, the United States’ top national security interests have been to prevent any single power from dominating Europe or Asia, the two most productive regions outside of North America, and to deter attacks on the homeland. Today those interests translate into five strategic tasks: (1) defending the foundations of a liberal world order, (2) maintaining strategic stability and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, (3) managing the rise of China, (4) enhancing European security and (5) containing international terrorism.

On all these matters, Russia is a major player. Even in secular [i.e., long-term] decline, Russia will remain a leading power for years ahead and thus an essential pillar of any world order. As one of the world’s two largest nuclear powers, Russia is indispensable to strategic stability and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Its scientific prowess makes it one of the leading players in the emerging strategic domain of cyberspace. Its relationship with China can enhance or moderate that country’s strategic ambitions and promote or erode a healthy balance of power in East Asia. No enduring European security arrangement is possible without the participation of Russia, which has been a great power in Europe for the last 300 years. And with its intervention in Syria, Russia has regained its historical role as a major power in the Middle East, now the main spawning ground of terrorist groups with global reach.

In recent years, U.S.-Russian rivalry has sharpened on almost all these issues, witness the Ukraine and Syria crises, Russia’s provocative strategic reconnaissance patrols in Europe and support of anti-EU forces and its embrace of China to counter the U.S.-led world order. While strategic stability endures, Russia has evinced little interest in further arms reductions, and, even if it agrees with the United States on constraining Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the two disagree on the tactics.

In this light, what should the Trump administration do? It needs to engage Russia directly on all these issues to understand its interests, goals, policy preferences and room for maneuver and, on the basis of that understanding, with a focus on what the United States absolutely requires to protect its vital interests and through a series of trade-offs within and across issues, fashion the optimal balance of cooperation and competition for the advance of the United States.

Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University; Boston Globe columnist; former New York Times foreign correspondent

Stephen Kinzer

Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University; Boston Globe columnist; former New York Times foreign correspondent

Vital interests are by definition interests for which countries fight wars. That suggests the list should be as short as possible. Core interests of the U.S. are:

  • Assuring that we are not attacked with weapons of mass destruction;
  • Preventing wars in other places from reaching our shores—which is another way of saying “defending our strategic depth”;
  • Maintaining our access to sea lanes on which our economy depends; and
  • Preventing any great power from dominating a continent so fully that it could threaten our security.

Russia does not threaten any vital U.S. interest. If it seemed likely to subjugate all of Europe, that would be different—but there is no prospect of that. Russia’s attempts to exert influence over some of its neighbors do not threaten the U.S. Our security in no way depends on the politics of Ukraine, Georgia or other nations that will always be more important to Russia than they are to us.

Although Russian actions do not threaten the U.S., Russia could be helpful to the U.S. if we could develop a less confrontational relationship. Many of its goals in the Middle East, including defeat of Islamist terror and support for states that are still stable as they seek to avoid collapse into instability, are congruent with our interests. Russia could also be a partner in areas ranging from counter-terrorism to non-proliferation. Offering it an alternative to closer ties with China would also be in our long-term interest.

None of this is possible as long as the confrontation between Russia and NATO is so intense. No Russian leader could remain silent and inactive while NATO conducts large-scale maneuvers on Russia’s borders, any more than the U.S. would tolerate Russian army maneuvers in Mexico. There will never be stability in Europe until European countries, including Russia, devise a security architecture that takes everyone’s interests into account. The U.S. fervently opposes any such accommodation. Instead it pushes NATO toward confrontation with Russia.

Over the last couple of years, portrayals of Russia as a predatory enemy, coupled with extreme demonization of President Putin, have taken such hold in Washington that calls for cooperation and compromise are considered near-treason. That leaves little hope for improvement in relations—unless it is driven by a president who is not part of the liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican consensus that considers Russia and Putin incurably evil.

Jack Matlock, Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union; Rubenstein Fellow, Duke University

Jack F. Matlock, Jr.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union; Rubenstein Fellow, Duke University

Nuclear weapons, in the quantities still held in U.S. and Russian arsenals, constitute a potential existential threat to both countries, and indeed to civilized life itself. The United States therefore has a vital interest in avoiding any conflict that might risk the use of nuclear weapons, whether intentional or accidental. This means that U.S.-Russian cooperation to continue reduction of nuclear arsenals, to inhibit proliferation and to secure fissionable materials is vital to both countries.

Both countries are also vulnerable to new forms of warfare, including cyberattacks on infrastructure and, potentially, the weaponization of space. Given Russian capabilities in both cyber and space technology, it will be impossible to preserve U.S. security unless there is active cooperation with Russia to avoid hostile use of these technologies.

Terrorism is not an existential threat to the United Sates, but defense against terrorism is a shared interest with Russia. The security of both countries suffers when they are unable to make coordinated efforts to deal with a common threat.

Longer term, the effects of global warming may pose a vital threat to the world community as a whole. Given Russia’s size and the industrialization of its economy, no international effort is likely to be adequate unless Russia is a part of it. The same applies to other transnational threats such as organized crime, illicit drug and arms trafficking and containment of pandemics. In all of these Russia will either be part of the solution or part of the problem.

So why has there been diminished cooperation in areas vital to both countries? Unfortunately, in a series of inconsiderate actions by the United States and its allies followed by a succession of disproportionate reactions by Russia, a Cold War atmosphere has been revived on both sides. Actually, the underlying cause of the Cold War—the ideological standoff between capitalism and communism—is no longer present. There is no fundamental reason for the United States and Russia to consider themselves enemies, and no compelling reason why differences in domestic political systems and habits should make them enemies.

One thing is certain: Today’s global problems will not be solved by a return to the sort of geopolitical rivalry that led to two world wars in the 20th century or by a continuation of the pattern of mutual recrimination that marks the relationship today. Our leaders must put aside their differences on less important matters and cooperate to insure our mutual survival.

Matthew Rojansky, Director, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Matthew Rojansky

Director, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

By any measure, the highest national interest for the United States must be ensuring the physical security and safety of all Americans. In particular, Washington must confront the continuing threat of terrorism, compounded by the possibility of terrorists obtaining a nuclear or other WMD device. 

The risk of major state-to-state conflict also has not disappeared—in the tensions around Ukraine and Syria, it has even increased. With that danger comes the very real risk of escalation, including to nuclear exchange.

Russia can be either a partner or a major risk factor in each of these. On counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation, the U.S. should seek to benefit from Moscow’s considerable global and regional intelligence and interdiction capabilities. While Russians and Americans may not agree on a common definition of the terror threat, we can agree to work together against at least some groups that target innocent civilians, espouse extremist ideologies and/or seek to acquire WMD.

A second vital U.S. national interest is protecting the critical infrastructure—political, financial and digital—enabling the development of our economy and society. Coordinated state-sponsored cyberattacks on these systems pose a particular threat to U.S. national interests. 

To manage and contain that threat, Washington should initiate discussions with Moscow on cyber conflict in the context of overall strategic stability, with the ultimate objective of confirming a mutually acceptable code of conduct for cyber operations that excludes damaging attacks on critical infrastructure.

Third, the U.S. depends on stable security alliances and partnerships to sustain a global trading and financial system favorable to free-market competition. By using force against and seizing territory from Ukraine and Georgia, Russia has challenged the post-Cold War European security order, yet the West’s punitive sanctions also help Russia further justify its challenge to the Western-led global economic order.

China’s rise has an impact on the global balance as well. How major powers, including the U.S. and Russia, engage with China in East Asia may determine to what degree Beijing seeks to reinforce—or hedge against—the current order. The U.S. should seek to foster trade and investment ties between Russia and U.S. allies in this region that complement China’s own economic interests, and that incentivize Beijing to avoid zero-sum confrontations with its neighbors.

Finally, vital U.S. national interests depend on finding common ground with other countries on shared global problems. For example, growing megacities and fast-paced international travel help disease spread faster and farther than ever before, raising the risk of global pandemics that may overwhelm any single country’s public health system. Extreme weather and natural disasters will also force states to cooperate in developing responses that protect people, industry, agriculture and other vital resources. 

As the world’s largest country, home to a huge proportion of global forest, mineral and fresh water resources, and as a scientifically advanced society with extensive public health expertise, Russia is well positioned to contribute to coordinated international responses. The U.S. should seek to incentivize and encourage Russia to play such a role.

Paul Saunders, Executive Director, Center for the National Interest

Paul Saunders

Executive Director, Center for the National Interest

It is important to define “vital.” By a deliberately high standard, vital interests are those that, if compromised, could seriously threaten the survival of the United States with its fundamental institutions and values intact.

From this perspective, America’s top five vital interests are:

  1. Preventing the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against the U.S. at home or overseas;
  2. Preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in Europe or Asia—the world’s two most wealthy, militarily powerful regions apart from the U.S.—and of a hostile major power on U.S. borders;
  3. Ensuring the survival of U.S. allies as partners in sustaining a favorable, stable, generally peaceful international order;
  4. Maintaining functional relationships with other major powers that sustain such an order;
  5. Ensuring the stability of the global economy and global trade and financial systems.

Russia can have a significant impact on each of these, both positively and negatively. First, Moscow has the only nuclear arsenal comparable to our own. Thus, it is a vital U.S. interest to prevent a U.S.-Russia nuclear conflict. In practice, this requires both credible nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. The former requires a modern and capable nuclear force; the latter is best ensured through bilateral engagement on strategic issues, which simultaneously contributes to satisfying U.S. obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and facilitates U.S.-Russian cooperation on broader non-proliferation challenges.

Russia today is not set to become a regional hegemon in Europe as its economy is approximately one-eighth the size of the EU’s, though it will gain somewhat following Brexit. So long as the U.S. ensures the survival of its European allies and actively cooperates with them on European security, Russia is unlikely to seek such a role. That said, U.S. leaders should remain alert to Russian efforts to exploit divisions within Europe and should work with allies to maintain effective conventional military deterrence.

Moscow’s support for China, even if tacit and reluctant, could help Beijing dominate East Asia. This could in turn threaten both key U.S. allies and, over time, U.S. survival. Hence, U.S. leaders should seek to avoid overly close Chinese-Russian relations. Strengthening the U.S.-Russian relationship (without sacrificing other vital U.S. interests) could contribute importantly to America’s ability to manage and maintain a largely Western-defined international order. Since Russia and China are the two principal threats to that order, preventing cooperative attempts to undermine it is a vital U.S. interest.

Because its economy is significantly smaller than America’s, the EU’s, China’s or Japan’s, Russia plays a limited role in sustaining the foundations of the international economic order in comparison with its potential impact on other U.S. vital interests. Nevertheless, Moscow does play a significant role in the international energy trade, both directly and indirectly (through military/political activities in key energy-producing regions, especially the Middle East).

While differences in American and Russian interests and values make a sustainable partnership unlikely, an enduring confrontation could also be costly. A more realistic goal is establishing a functional relationship with Moscow that avoids reflexive hostility, reduces the risks of confrontation by managing our competition and allows for cooperation where possible.

Photo credit: Pixabay photo by Tystik0013 shared under a CC0 public domain license. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.