Donald Trump looks at a bulletin board covered with memos on Russia (illustration).

Symposium: Advice to President Trump on U.S.-Russia Policy

November 28, 2016
Carnegie Corporation of New York and The National Interest

For the week of Nov. 28-Dec. 2, 2016, The National Interest and Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned a multi-part symposium to provide U.S. President-elect Donald Trump with advice on crafting a new Russia policy. The individual entries, published daily, are written by esteemed experts including Russia Matters partners Graham Allison, Steven Pifer, Paul Saunders, Jack Matlock Jr., Matthew Rojansky and others. Below you will find a brief introduction to the series by Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest. The full symposium homepage with links to all entries is available here.

With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the issue of U.S.-Russia relations is acquiring a new importance. Russia figured prominently in the discussion of the U.S. elections and in debates about the direction of American foreign policy. Now the central question is whether or not the possibility of warmer relations between the two sides—or even a new détente—exists? What would it take to adopt a fresh approach?

To answer such questions, Carnegie Corporation and The National Interest created a symposium on Russia and the United States. The essays contained in this collection are particularly pertinent now that the possibility is being discussed, both at home and abroad, of reassessing the frosty relations between Moscow and Washington. These stimulating and enlightening essays, written by an impressive array of leading experts, offer a possible roadmap forward for a new U.S. administration. They consist of analysis and recommendations from policymakers, think tank members and academics. The precise answers may vary, but the authors are receptive to the idea that change is imperative.

For example, Graham Allison, the director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, argues that the stakes could not be higher. According to him, “the next U.S. President must do everything possible to prevent an accidental U.S.-Russian war, now the likeliest it’s been since the end of the Cold War.” Allison suggests that overturning President Obama’s interdiction on communication “at every level from President-to-President to Secretaries of Defense and regional commanders” can lessen the risk. He also cautions that a Trump administration must build a “credible deterrent” to deter Russia from aggression against U.S. allies but also “bear in mind the potential consequences of further alienating Russia—like a closer military-political alignment between Moscow and Beijing.”

Barry R. Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, maintains that Russia is best viewed as a great power in decline that is seeking to preserve a modicum of security and prestige. In his view, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not managed to reverse Russia’s slide, but he has been able to retard it. In his view, “because the West is strong, and relative to Russia likely to get stronger, it is in a position to accommodate some Russian concerns.” There should be no surprise, Posen writes, in Russia’s attempt to push back against its decline as a great power. When Russian history is taken into account, the surprising thing would have been if Moscow did not react allergically to the expansion of NATO.

Whether an improvement in relations will actually take place remains an open question. Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, says that there is no point in calling it a “reset” but “U.S.-Russia relations will benefit if President Trump adopts a different approach to Moscow than the one we’ve seen from President Obama.” The diverse essays contained in this symposium offer a potentially valuable path forward for policymakers in the Trump administration.