The revelation that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer promising derogatory information about Hillary Clinton reaffirms the need for a full accounting of how our democracy may have been subverted in the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into claims of Russian interference in the election, Russia’s potential collusion with the Trump campaign and the possibility of criminal malfeasance by President Trump or his associates is essential. Beyond the existing investigation, Democrats should seek an independent commission to lay out steps to protect the integrity of future elections.
None of the above should be controversial. At the same time, there is another set of facts that need to be reckoned with in this precarious moment, concerning the abject failure of U.S. policies toward Russia and the dangerous path down which the two countries are headed. These facts also concern real and present threats and cannot be ignored. Indeed, the crisis we are now facing makes clear that it’s time to fundamentally rethink how we approach our relationship with Russia.
As U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated, the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, including the danger posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, has risen to its highest level since the end of the Cold War. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now rates the danger higher than when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device, in 1949. The new Cold War is punctuated by perilous military face-offs in multiple arenas: in Syria; on Russia’s western border, with 300,000 NATO troops on high alert and both Russia and NATO ramping up deployments and exercises; and in Ukraine. The United States and Russia possess nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons between them — more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal — and keep almost 2,000 on hair-trigger alert. So the extreme danger of nuclear war can be reduced only through cooperation between the two countries.
Concurrently, the era of cyberwarfare has arrived without any of the agreed-upon rules that govern traditional wars or, for that matter, nuclear deterrence. There is now a rising threat of hackers breaching not only emails and elections but also power grids, strategic warning systems and command-and-control centers. For years, there has been discussion of the need to establish clear rules of the road for cyberwarfare. Now, reports of escalating interference make it imperative that cyberweapons, like conventional, chemical or nuclear arms, be controlled by treaty. Again, however, this cannot happen without a more constructive U.S.-Russia relationship.
Given these significant threats, the escalation of tensions with Russia, rather than de-escalation, serves neither the national interest nor our national security. This moment calls for diplomacy and dialogue, not moral posturing and triumphalism.
Needless to say, rebuilding a working détente with Russia will not be easy. It will take skill and persistence. Russian President Vladimir Putin heads an authoritarian government that tramples basic rights. Trump has demonstrated that he has neither the temperament nor the advisers to sustain a coherent policy initiative. It is hard to see how we get from here to there. But we come to negotiations with the governments we have, not the ones that we wish we had. There is simply no other choice.
For Democrats, whose understandable desire to resist Trump has helped fuel the anti-Russia fixation, there is also another reality to consider. Focusing on Trump’s ties to Russia alone will not win the critical 2018 midterm elections, and it will not win meaningful victories on issues such as health care, climate change and inequality. Moreover, cold wars are lousy for progressivism. They strengthen pro-war parties and fatten defense budgets while depleting funds that could be put to better use rebuilding infrastructure and expanding social programs. They empower the worst forces in both parties and, importantly, close off space for dissent. This is as true in the United States as it is in Russia. And personally, having worked with Russian dissidents, independent journalists and feminist nongovernmental organizations for three decades, I see how cold war has been used to suppress independent voices in that country.
The bottom line is that opposition to Trump cannot become the same as opposition to common sense. Common sense dictates that we protect our democracy by strengthening our election systems to counter outside interference. It dictates an independent investigation of claims of Russian meddling in the presidential campaign. But it also tells us that we cannot address many of our most urgent challenges — from Syria and climate change to nuclear proliferation and cyber issues — without the United States and Russia finding ways to work together when it serves our mutual interests. We do not have to embrace the Russian government to work on vital interests with it. And we cannot afford a revival of Cold War passions that would discredit those seeking to de-escalate tensions. Efforts to curtail debate could be a disservice to our country’s security.
As editor of the Nation, a magazine with a long history of adopting alternative views and unpopular stances, especially on matters of war and peace, I believe it’s important to challenge the conventional wisdom, to foster rather than police debate and to oppose the forces that vilify those advocating and pursuing better relations. And while arguing that both the United States and Russia have serious interests in maintaining a working relationship may not be popular, it also isn’t radical. It is simply sober realism.