Friday, November 8, 2019


What’s the right approach to Russia? During the Cold War, soft-liners argued for detente and arms control. Hard-liners clamored for an arms race and ideological victory. Ronald Reagan forged a hybrid approach: Rearmament to convince the Soviet Union it could not compete; ideological clarity to avoid a cynical co-existence with tyranny; and negotiations to facilitate Soviet domestic reforms.

How does the United States approach Russia today? Some call for sanctions and cyberwarfare to retaliate against Russian aggression in Ukraine and U.S. elections. Others urge caution because Russia is weak and easily threatened by Western retaliation and arrogance.

In “The Russia Trap,” George Beebe rejects the focus on either intentions or capabilities: “[T]he US-Russian relationship is not primarily a function of the capabilities [weak or strong] or intentions [aggressive or defensive] of either party … [but] of a complex systems danger … in which multiple factors interact and reinforce or diminish one another …” leading to unintended consequences and accidental war.

The book details frightening scenarios of how Russia and the United States might get trapped in a shadow war of cyber conflicts, deadly perceptions that the one side intends to destroy the other side, and arms races without rules.

It develops believable scenarios, based on actual events, whereby religious conflicts in Ukraine trigger deeper Russian aggression or cyberattacks on Ukrainian gas pipeline control systems escalate into reciprocal strikes against Russian infrastructure and U.S. satellite systems.

The trap closes very rapidly as “coercive steps against a state that already sees itself as threatened wind up magnifying perceptions of vulnerability and triggering a dangerous escalatory reaction.”

So, what do we do about this systems-driven trap? Stop treating the problem as singular or linear, Mr. Beebe counsels. Take a wholistic approach and be humble. Don’t proselytize for democracy in Russia or elsewhere. Be an example and plan for resilience in policy not control. 

These general prescriptions lead to some practical and on balance reasonable recommendations for contemporary U.S. policy toward Russia. First, declare that the United States and Russia are not partners or enemies but competitors, looking for ways “to keep their competition within safe, mutually respected bounds.” 

Second, accept multipolarity as a fact (include China) and seek equilibrium not primacy, albeit as Mr. Beebe writes, “an aspirational equilibrium,” which addresses both territorial integrity and “the importance of defending human rights.” 

Third, withdraw from Afghanistan and revert to an offshore balancer role in Central Asia. (Does the same apply in the Middle East? Mr. Beebe doesn’t say.) 

Fourth, in Europe, be “reluctant to stray beyond NATO’s borders to add members or undertake out-of-area missions … [and] share an interest in working to contain and manage instability in the unaligned states in between NATO and Russia” (174). In effect, although Mr. Beebe doesn’t use the term, treat Ukraine, the Caucasus and perhaps the Middle East as “buffer” zones. 

Fifth, mind our own garden and regain a self-confidence that shrugs off notions that American democracy can be easily undermined by Russian meddling and propaganda. 

The book is felicitously written and reflects the keen insights and expertise of a veteran high-level intelligence officer, who now serves as vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest. Mr. Beebe’s basic warning is also well-taken. Russia is not an existential threat to American democracy, and the United States (or NATO) is not the biggest obstacle to Russia’s recovery from its Cold War trauma.

Yet, Mr. Beebe’s focus may be too narrow. While he dwells on complex systems interactions and the likelihood of nuclear catastrophe between Russia and the United States, he does not compare this likelihood with that of an existential clash with China, an eruption of Muslim extremism in the Middle East or a planetary catastrophe due to climate change. Other traps exist and may spiral out of control. Does the Russia trap take priority?

Moreover, whatever complex systems exist outside countries, they also exist inside countries. Countries organize domestic political and economic systems to serve conflicting ideological aims. Vladimir Putin intervened in Ukraine not because NATO and the EU represented a military threat (there were no NATO soldiers on Russia’s borders) but because he did not want the Ukrainian people to have free choice of economy, politics and religion that citizens in Moscow might then demand. 

Thus, substantive differences between authoritarian and liberal societies are as much a source of deadly misperceptions in world affairs as complex systems dynamics. Human rights mean very different things in Washington, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, complicating the search for an “aspirational” equilibrium. 

George Beebe is right. We should do more to empathize with the interests of other countries but we should also be upfront about ideological differences. In the end, President Reagan found the best path to confront tyranny while managing peaceful outcomes. 

• Henry R. Nau is a George Washington University professor and author, most recently, of “Conservative Internationalism” (Princeton 2015).

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By George S. Beebe

Thomas Dunne Books, $28.99, 240 pages

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