In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
The Russia Trap cover

Forget US-Russian Friendship: Let’s Foster ‘Predictable Competition’

October 16, 2019
Thomas Schaffner

The U.S. and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals by about 70 and 80 percent, respectively, since the peak of the Cold War, according to the Federation of American Scientists, and the two countries remain committed to bilateral and multilateral documents meant to prevent either intentional or accidental war between them. However, while the Cold War may be history, the danger of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia is not a threat consigned to the history books, according to a new book by George Beebe, vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest and former director of the CIA’s Russia analysis program. At a recent book talk moderated by Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, and hosted by Russia Matters, Beebe discussed the problem of anticipating and avoiding "a war that no one wants and that few believe is likely or even possible.” Such a war, Beebe argues, is actually frighteningly plausible due to “a combustive mixture of clashing ambitions, new technologies, misplaced fears, entangled alliances and commitments, domestic political pressures and mistaken assumptions about how adversaries might react.”  

Beebe’s book, "The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War With Russia Could Spiral Into Nuclear Catastrophe," engages with a subject that, although once a pressing fear in the American collective consciousness, has largely vanished from the popular imagination. As Graham Allison remarked at the talk, the book “helps remind us that there is a real risk of war with Russia,” a fact that is especially critical to acknowledge as “the idea that there can actually be a war with Russia is pretty much gone from 99 percent of peoples’ minds.” Allison agreed with Beebe’s argument that “most people are looking at the Russian problem as a World War II problem,” where an actor intentionally starts a conflict, but U.S.-Russian relations are “closer to a World War I problem,” where powers can “sleepwalk” into a war they do not want to fight.

Allison credited the book for defining the misperceptions leading both sides toward conflict and “trying to help us see how things look from the perspective of the other party”; he noted that “Intelligence 101 says 'empathize with your adversary'… You need to understand how they are seeing the world if you’re going to cope with them.”

The first section of Beebe’s book focuses on describing and analyzing the threats present in U.S.-Russian relations and the challenges to stability posed by new instruments of coercion, misperceptions and an absence of “rules of the game.” The second section deals with tentative suggestions on how to mitigate the risks inherent in this increasingly complex relationship.

Beebe argues that “the United States and Russia are fighting an undeclared virtual war … a ‘shadow war,’ wherein the combatants attempt to achieve goals that, for much of human history, would have required the direct use of military force or other physical action, but today can be accomplished through less kinetic means.” This situation, although not a state of overt conflict, is extremely dangerous. During the Cold War, there were clear red lines and definitive demarcations between overt and covert conflict. Now, those lines are gone. Changes in the instruments of coercion and the use of unregulated cyber weapons means that “this is a war being waged largely without rules.” In his presentation, Beebe stated that this unstructured environment together with the emergence of a multi-polar world system means that “the risk [of nuclear war] is greater than it was for much of the Cold War.”   

Expanding on the idea that many in Washington today view relations with Russia as a “World War II problem,” Beebe said they see Russia as an expansionary power with a leadership ideologically driven to clash with the United States that, with allusions to Munich 1938, must not be appeased. The good news, Beebe argues, is that this intrinsically conflictual view is a misperception. The bad news is that U.S.-Russian relations pose a “systems problem,” where “multiple factors interact and reinforce or diminish each other, [and as a result] are much more difficult to resolve than single-factor issues.” In such an environment “small events can cause ripples in this complex set of problems that produce large, catastrophic outcomes”—again, more like WWI than WWII.

At the same time, both powers increasingly view themselves as being locked in an existential struggle, ascribing “deadly intent” to the other. Beebe describes an insidious feedback loop where “Russia’s great power aspirations fuel American concerns about imperialism, which strengthens U.S. support for building West-leaning bulwarks against Russia’s influence along the country’s periphery. This stokes fears in Russia of hostile encirclement and regime change… Left unaddressed, this cycle of [U.S.-Russian] perception is likely to deepen, increasing the likelihood that the two sides will ... overreact to the actions of the other side.”

Beebe’s recommendation for this situation are, in his own words, “Hippocratic.” To do no harm, one must “recognize the dangers of unintended consequences, of doing things that could produce secondary and tertiary effects that you do not want and do not anticipate.” Instead of trying to achieve the unfeasible goal of U.S.-Russian friendship, both parties should prioritize fostering predictable competition. He also recommends that the U.S. and Russia “build resilience and rules of the game” into their relations. To survive crises, “shock absorbers” must be built into the system “to help us better deal with surprises.”

Beebe concluded the talk with a recommendation to “use system effects to our advantage.” He stated that “the way you make progress in a complex system is usually indirect… Sometimes you are going to do things that look like they are backwards steps.” If the U.S. wants to mitigate the risks of conflict, it must “step back and say … our goal here is to actually have a competition with Russia, we aren’t going to be friends, we aren’t going to be partners. We are going to be competitors, but our goal is going to have to be to make that competition safe, to make sure that it does not spin out of control.” Quoting U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s American University speech of June 1963, Allison concluded that “we’re going to have to settle now for a ‘world safe for diversity,’” and learn to compete, and coexist, with our adversaries. 

Photo: Cover image of "The Russia Trap" courtesy of the author.