When a new administration comes to Washington, the flowery rhetoric and springtime promises are often less revealing than who is put where to run the place. That’s why many of Washington’s most scurrilous campaigns are backstage fights over potential appointments. And that’s why the successful campaign to block the appointment of Matthew Rojansky as Russia director on the National Security Council is not only a sad reflection of the poisonous state of the debate on Russian policy today, but also an ominous sign for Biden’s foreign policy going forward.

As director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Rojansky has been an articulate advocate of a common-sense realism on U.S. relations with Russia. Facing what President Biden calls “cascading crises” — the pandemic, economic collapse and growing inequality, racial upheaval, catastrophic climate change — the United States needs to avoid draining conflicts abroad to rebuild its strength at home and focus on meeting the real security challenges of our time.

With China becoming a “near-peer competitor,” according to the administration, we should be trying to divide Russia from China, not drive them together. As Rojansky wrote, “America’s task is not to replace enmity toward Russia with a partnership …. It is to manage the current competition in ways that protect vital U.S. interests while minimizing risks and costs, and allowing space for selective cooperation.” The United States has real interests in cooperating with Russia in reviving nuclear arms controls, helping to stabilize Afghanistan after U.S. withdrawal, addressing climate change and more. This would suggest more dialogue and engagement with Russia and less posturing and confrontation.

Rojansky’s tempered realism is at odds with the strident consensus of the foreign policy establishment. The foreign policy “blob” sees Russia as weak and paints Putin as the devil. They call Russia’s SolarWinds hack an “act of war,” when intelligence experts describe it as “reconnaissance and espionage of the sort the US itself excels at.” They seem intent on extending the U.S. commitment to Ukraine, writing a check that the American people have no intention of backing. New sanctions on Russia are shortsighted and are likely to drive Moscow still further toward Beijing. The result is a self-reinforcing spiral of tensions and hostile postures strengthening hawks on both sides. For the Biden administration, Rojansky’s sensible perspectives would provide a necessary balance to voices such as Victoria Nuland, the hawkish new undersecretary of state for political affairs.

For his independent thinking, Rojansky has been slandered as a Putin ally, an advocate of Russian partnership and an opponent of human rights in Russia. In fact, Rojansky stands in the tradition of George Kennan, for whom the institute he heads was named. Kennan famously helped formulate the U.S. policy of containment of Russia after World War II. But at the end of the Cold War, he warned of the dangers of extending NATO to the East. In this he was joined by many of the most avid cold warriors — including Paul Nitze, Richard Pipes, Sam Nunn and Robert McNamara. As they predicted, pushing NATO to Russia’s borders generated a hostile and nationalist response in Russia, leading directly to the misbegotten conflicts in Georgia and now Ukraine.

Sadly, it seems the debate over the extension of NATO would be impossible today, with opponents ostracized as heretics. If Rojansky is considered “controversial,” as the Politico headline had it, then the mainstream media and the foreign policy establishment are stigmatizing those who seek diplomacy, who hope to avoid unnecessary conflicts and foster cooperation in areas of mutual concern. This does not augur well for U.S. policy toward Russia and, moreover, is a troubling reflection of our constricted foreign policy debate today.

Upon taking office, Biden promised a “foreign policy for the middle class,” tacitly acknowledging that the debacles of the past decades have badly served all but the few. Keeping that promise requires profound rethinking. By reversing some of Donald Trump’s most egregious follies — returning to the Paris climate accord and the WHO, ending the Muslim ban, beginning negotiations to return to the Iran nuclear deal, extending the START nuclear accord with Russia — Biden has taken the first steps. Recalibrating our relations to Russia — and reducing the tensions around Ukraine and the Russian border — surely must be part of that effort. Getting that right will be much harder if sensible experts such as Rojansky have no place in the administration.

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