News that the president-elect’s son, Donald Trump Jr., met with pro-Russian Syrian opposition in Paris, or that two Russian officials acknowledged longer term contacts with the Trump campaign, has prompted concern about undue foreign influence — especially given recent news that the CIA has concluded that Russian hacking during the election was designed to help Donald Trump. Those worries have escalated with the president-elect’s apparent selection of Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil who has made multibillion-dollar deals with Russia President Vladimir Putin, for secretary of state — especially since Russian Duma members applaud his nomination.
But we can look at the incoming Trump administration’s contacts with Russian officials in a different way. The Trump team may be taking a page from Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 playbook by using “back channels” to improve U.S.-Russian relations. Perhaps the incoming administration can achieve detente — a relaxation of tensions — through this more informal approach to diplomacy. If that’s what’s going on, the Trump team might wish to be mindful of this approach’s longer-term pitfalls.
Nixon used two ‘back channels’ before taking office
Before his narrow victory in November 1968, Nixon used two back channels to get messages to the Soviet leadership. First, Nixon dispatched his longtime aide and personal friend, Robert Ellsworth, to contact Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and Soviet Charge d’Affaires Yuri Cherniakov. Once he did so during the campaign, Ellsworth conveyed the incoming Nixon administration’s views on a variety of issues, such as the ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Middle East.
The second channel — one that would probably raise eyebrows today — involved Henry Kissinger and a KGB intelligence officer, Boris Sedov. This connection functioned informally during the presidential campaign when Kissinger was a foreign policy adviser to Nixon and petered out shortly after Kissinger became national security adviser. The Kissinger-Sedov contact added the dimension of Soviet intelligence seeking additional information about the main players in the incoming Nixon administration and corroborating the Ellsworth-Dobrynin-Cherniakov exchanges.
Both Ellsworth and Kissinger were assessing whether the Soviet leadership might be open to working through back channels. These contacts quickly led to the Kissinger-Dobrynin Channel, which came to define U.S.-Soviet relations during the Nixon administration and led to detente.
Many analysts consider “the Channel” to have been an effective tool. At a 2007 conference hosted by the State Department, Russian-born scholar Vladislav Zubok stressed that there was “a 90 percent chance . . . that there would not have been a summit in Moscow in ’72, and such a productive summit that it was, without the back channel.”
Back channels can convey messages more subtly than formal contact
The early back-channel forays also helped communication during the transition between Nixon’s election and inauguration. Nixon used both channels to kill the idea of an early U.S.-Soviet summit championed by his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson. As Nixon explained later, he did not “want to be boxed in by any decisions that were made before [he] took office.” The Soviet leadership received Nixon’s intended messages via Ellsworth and Kissinger. The private exchanges kept the issue out of the spotlight and set a precedent of back channels as preferred communication mediums for both Washington and Moscow.
Because of an exchange between Kissinger and Sedov, Nixon added a line to his inaugural address. At the posh Pierre hotel in New York City on Jan. 2, 1969, Sedov told Kissinger that the Soviet leadership “was very interested that the inaugural speech contain some reference to open channels of communication to Moscow.” Kissinger recommended that a phrase be included, and Nixon initialed his agreement on a memo two days later.
“I was never clear whether this request reflected an attempt by Sedov to demonstrate his influence to Moscow,” Kissinger wondered years later, “or whether it was a serious policy approach by the Politburo. In any event I saw no harm in it.”
And so in his inaugural address, Nixon proclaimed, “our lines of communication will be open.” The gesture cost nothing but almost certainly established goodwill between the new administration and the Soviet leadership.
Why use U.S.-Russian back channels?
When used to supplement rather than supplant traditional diplomacy, back channels may offer a protected forum free from leaks to explore points of agreement, disagreement and potential conflict. For instance, on relations with Vietnam, Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev disagreed. The United States wanted the Soviets to cut aid and push Hanoi to negotiate, while Moscow wanted the United States to stop bombing North Vietnam and withdraw its troops from Indochina. Nevertheless, via back-channel exchanges, Nixon and Brezhnev eventually reached tacit agreement on broader issues, like the status and tone of U.S.-Soviet relations, and had a successful summit meeting in Moscow in May 1972.
If they choose, Russian and U.S. leaders may use back channels to clearly convey what they see as their core interests, to explore potential areas of cooperation, and to try to mitigate conflict or escalation.
Back channels are like regular diplomacy, but with more intimacy and without the bureaucracy. Like intimacy, it requires willing partners. Kissinger found one in Dobrynin, and Nixon in Brezhnev; both the United States and the Soviet Union benefited during the short-lived period of detente that enabled the two superpowers to start cooperating on arms control and in other areas, like agreements signed at the Moscow Summit on avoiding naval incidents at sea, bilateral trade, science and technology, public health, environmental protection, and collaboration on space exploration (the Apollo-Soyuz docking in 1975).
Of course, U.S.-Russian relations are now strained. The two nations have been backing different sides in the Syrian civil war; Russia has invaded and annexed a portion of Ukraine, resulting in U.S. sanctions; NATO installed a missile defense site in Romania and began another in Poland; and the Russians have sent nuclear-capable short-range ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, to note a few issues. While there is no Cold War now, both countries remain nuclear powers. In the Internet era, when provocations and communications travel instantly around the globe, keeping back channels open could conceivably help prevent or minimize confrontation.
If the Trump team is indeed in informal contact with the Russians, which it denies, some observers may find comfort in the idea that diplomacy — even the back-channel variety — is underway.
But of course, Nixon — for all his accomplishments — isn’t usually held up as a president to admire, given his illegal actions in the Watergate scandal, leading to the only U.S. presidential resignation in history. Relying on back channel communications too exclusively means operating in secrecy while avoiding — or even disdaining — the news media. Circumventing the usual systems, his example tells us, has its risks.
Richard A. Moss is an associate research professor, co-director of the Halsey Bravo research effort, and a faculty affiliate in the Russian Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies. His book, “Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente,” will be published by the University Press of Kentucky in January 2017.
Author’s note: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of the Navy or the Naval War College.