Can Donald Trump handle diplomacy the way Theodore Roosevelt did?
From the beginning, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia (and its Soviet incarnation) has proved more tumultuous than special. Russia rejected the first minister sent by the new nation. Czar Alexander I recognized the U.S. in 1803. Diplomatic relations were normalized in 1809. The Senate voted down Thomas Jefferson’s choice as minister. After originally opposing him, it confirmed John Quincy Adams as ambassador during the administration of James Madison.
Relations proved steady for a while. The countries engaged in trade. The world then was a more distant place. Disputes took longer not only to resolve but to germinate to the point of crisis. The confrontations were few. The U.S. stayed out of the Napoleonic wars and did not send troops to support or oppose Field Marshal Kutuzov as he resisted Bonaparte’s invasion. The U.S. did not fight at Borodino in 1812.
Russia freed the serfs in 1861, before the U.S. abolished slavery. Russia backed the Union during the Civil War. During travels to obscure regions, Tolstoy encountered Cossacks who wanted to know about the great Abraham Lincoln. They did not express their admiration for Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. They knew about Lincoln despite the absence of cable news and tweets from the Oval Office. In 1867, the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia. Seward’s Folly expanded the U.S. presence in the Pacific and ultimately translated into petroleum and caribou.
Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Japan annihilated the Russian fleet at Tsushima, a battle that fired Japanese ambitions, which ultimately resulted in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. came late to World War I; it and Russia both opposed Germany. The Russian Revolution repelled the U.S., which actively fought the communists. Washington did not formally recognize the Soviet Union until 1933.
The original Red Scare arose when the Bolsheviks seized power. The progressive administration of Woodrow Wilson clamped down on dissent, particularly labor and the left, because it feared Leninist infiltration. Joe McCarthy drew on vivid antecedents. The Comintern was committed to global revolution, although Stalin and his successors preferred socialism in one country first.
The U.S. and the USSR entered an uneasy alliance to oppose Hitler. Lend-Lease included the Soviets. American materiel helped them defeat the Nazis; the Allies could not have won without the Red Army. The crucial turning point occurred at Stalingrad.
The Yalta conference helped to determine the contours of the post-war Western world. Critics consider Yalta an exercise in infamy in which the United States and its allies implicitly sanctioned the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. The U.S. could not have prevented the takeover of countries that became the satellites, but the Cold War was destined to happen.
It heated from time to time. The Berlin Airlift overcame the Soviet blockade of Germany’s capital. NATO bound the Western democracies to mutual defense and became the most successful military alliance ever. Donald Trump does not understand geopolitics.
The passing decades experienced the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and martial law in Poland, the launching of Sputnik and the U-2 incident, the test-ban treaty and the Berlin Wall. Soviet espionage stole American nuclear secrets; the Rosenbergs were executed for their crimes.
Alger Hiss betrayed his homeland. Whittaker Chambers bore witness to all that. Nixon went to Beijing and played the China card. The Soviets lied to Jimmy Carter and invaded Afghanistan. Star Wars accelerated the Soviet decline. The Soviets repressed Jews as though the pogroms did not belong to the past.
Margaret Thatcher saw the end draw nigh. She told her friend Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was different and that the American cold warrior and the communist apparatchik could cooperate. The apparent failure of the summit at Reykjavik opened the door to progress. Reagan and Gorbachev forged a working relationship that led to the Soviet Union’s implosion. John Paul set a moral framework. The pope had more troops than the general secretary. The nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl was the final straw.
Soviet artists toured the West; Western artists toured the Soviet Union less frequently. Soviet dancers defected. Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition. Americans now dance with Russian companies, Russians with American ones. “Dr. Zhivago” was a beloved movie. Americans admired Alexander Solzhenitsyn (and the AFL-CIO feted him) but did not heed his call for religious regeneration. The Russian saw the void. Mstislav Rostropovich made the cello an instrument of defiance.
The Soviet collapse produced a peace dividend. The Russians embraced a form of capitalism that made the Robber Barons look like members of a ladies’ league. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia began throwing its weight around.
Hillary Clinton’s re-set failed. Russia embraced Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the Middle East’s worst autocrat. It moved into Crimea and threatened Ukraine. The Obama administration stood idle. The U.S. had few options in any case. Americans are not going to win a conventional war in defense of Ukraine against Russia. The response will rely on diplomacy — a task dependent on patience and foresight, qualities ideologues lack. Don’t ask Sean Hannity.
Russia assumed a confrontational posture but no longer poses an existential threat. China is a greater super power that justifies more U.S. attention. Trump’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will embolden Mao’s progeny. The line that stretched from Franklin Roosevelt through Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan to the first Bush stretches no more.
Russia is an important player, nevertheless. Virginia’s senior senator has earned trust. The president of the United States must be watched.