The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
The poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British territory on March 4—an act that could only have been carried out by Moscow—has set off a chain of diplomatic expulsions and counter-expulsions recalling the Cold War. On March 26, in retaliation for the assassination attempt, the United Kingdom expelled 23 Russian officials, the United States expelled 60, and 19 other countries, mostly NATO allies, expelled nearly another 50. Within days, the Russians struck back, expelling 60 American and 50 British diplomats, along with other Western diplomats in numbers equal to the number of Russians expelled. It may not be over.
Russia's act of aggression in the United Kingdom called for a sharp response, so the British should be commended for insisting on allied solidarity, and the Trump administration and other Western governments should be commended for showing it. The coordinated round of expulsions represents a big step in the ongoing effort to challenge Russia for its provocations. But will it work? Is it enough?
The short answer is: not yet. Diplomatic expulsions are a standard if extreme way of showing outrage. But tactically speaking, they have mixed results. Experience suggests that expulsions work best as part of a broad strategy to deter, pressure, and ultimately change an adversary's behavior. Without that strategic context, the Trump administration's actions risk being interpreted as a symbolic slap on the wrist intended merely to manage a news cycle.
In diplomatic parlance, when an unwanted foreigner with diplomatic status is expelled, he is declared persona non grata, or PNG’d. Expulsions usually involve going after actual diplomats and intelligence officers under diplomatic cover, and because expulsions are usually met in kind by the target country, it's hard to say which side comes out on top. In the case of the United States and Russia, mutual expulsions of spies may work to America's advantage. That's because Russian spies on U.S. soil, operating as they do in a more open society, may have more running room, despite the FBI's best efforts to limit it, whereas their U.S. counterparts in Russia are already quite constrained. Mutual expulsions of diplomats, on the other hand, may work to Russia's advantage, because the lack of free media in Russia means that U.S. diplomats must talk to their Russian contacts to find out what's going on. By contrast, Russian diplomats need only go online to get the lay of the land, and since that can be done from anywhere, their expulsion hurts Moscow less.
To really judge the impact of a round of expulsions, however, one must consider the strategic context in which they occur. Sometimes, expulsions are just a corrective—a sharp but limited response to a single act and not meant to send a larger signal. In March 2001, the George W. Bush administration expelled 50 Russians shortly after the arrest of Robert Hanssen, a veteran FBI agent charged with spying for Russia. The Russians retaliated by expelling the same number of Americans. But the Bush administration let the Russians know that it was a one-off move, justified but not intended to derail what it hoped would be better relations. The Russians understood both sides of the message, and Bush and Putin held their first meeting that June, which ushered in a period of good relations that paid off when Russia provided some counterterrorism cooperation after 9/11.
Much bigger and nastier was the cycle of expulsions that came in 1986. (I was on the State Department’s Soviet desk at the time.) It started with the arrest that August in New York City of Gennady Zakharov, a Soviet intelligence officer who was caught in the act of receiving classified documents on a subway platform. In retaliation, the Soviets arrested Nicholas Daniloff, an American journalist in Moscow (and not a spy). In September, the United States responded by expelling 25 Soviets from their UN mission in New York, and the next month, another 55 from the Soviet embassy in Washington and the consulate in San Francisco. The Soviets, in return, not only expelled American officials but also pulled Soviets from their jobs as custodial staff at the U.S. embassy and in diplomats' residences. American officials in Moscow were soon spending their free time unloading produce trucks and mopping floors.
The superficial parallels with the current cycle are apparent: grim announcements of expulsions, dire predictions of spillover into other areas of relations, uncertainty about how far things deteriorate before ties hit bottom. But the underlying differences are instructive: the U.S. president at the time knew what he wanted from Moscow and understood what that would require, and the Russian leader was willing to consider a new and better approach with the United States and the West.
That year, 1986, was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's first full year in office. His reforms—perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”)—were just beginning. Within the Reagan administration, various camps were debating the significance of these reforms and what, if anything, Washington should do to encourage them. Some, call them the Cold Warriors, believed that communist Russia was implacably hostile and unreformable. Glasnost or no glasnost, they argued, the United States had to keep up its guard and lead with strength. Others—the Strategists—believed that Gorbachev was offering openings that the United States should consider. A third group, the Suckers, believed that the Cold War was all a misunderstanding, with fault equally distributed. (Happily, they had little influence in those years.)
President Ronald Reagan certainly thought that in dealing with Moscow, the United States had to start with strength. But in addition to believing that communism was evil, he understood that it was failing. He was therefore willing to accept that a Soviet leader might come to the same conclusion, and might therefore be interested in political and economic reforms, and a better relationship with the West to support these. In this regard, Reagan was ahead of many in his administration, and it was on this logic that he met with Gorbachev in Reykjavik on October 11 and 12—just days before the United States PNG'd 55 Russian diplomats—to explore a possible breakthrough agreement on nuclear arms control.
In 1986, U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union was thus running on two tracks. On one, Washington was pushing back against Russian aggression in Afghanistan by arming the anti-Soviet resistance there, and supporting Poland's Solidarity movement and ties to other democratic dissidents in the Soviet bloc. On the other, it was reaching out to Gorbachev, seeking progress on arms control, economic cooperation, and areas of common ground in some hotspots such as the Middle East. Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, integrated these disparate elements into a coherent Soviet strategy that brought together the Warriors and Strategists, and also eased European concerns that Reagan was an unreliable cowboy.
Reagan and Shultz fit the 1986 PNG round into their strategic framework: the United States was making clear that it would show strength and take tough steps when needed, expulsions included, but simultaneously explore all reasonable openings with Moscow. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, wryly citing one of Lenin's tactical principles, Washington sometimes needed to sharpen the contradictions for the Russians: they could have their opening with the West or they could indulge their aggressive preferences, but not both. Reagan's approach worked: faced with both a show of American strength (including the expulsions) and a demonstrated American interest in cooperation, Gorbachev chose cooperation.
THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW
Putin is no Gorbachev. The current leader in the Kremlin is not looking for better relations with the West to enable his reforms at home but, to the contrary, seeking to weaken the West and dominate Russia's neighbors in an effort to protect his autocratic system. That includes waging war against his neighbors (so far, Georgia and Ukraine) if they attempt to get too close to the West; militarily intimidating the Baltics and Poland, which are now part of the West; using cyberaggression against infrastructure in Ukraine and Estonia; spreading disinformation and conducting other forms of meddling in democratic elections in the United States, France, and elsewhere; and, it seems, murdering political enemies at home and abroad.
Putin’s pitch to Russians is that he alone can protect them from a vindictive West and that, through will and guile, he can divide or seduce its leaders and stave off countermeasures. The United States needs to develop and articulate a Russia strategy commensurate with this challenge, and its tactics—diplomatic expulsions, economic sanctions, measures to stop inflows of corrupt Russian money, military deployments to vulnerable NATO countries, and defenses against disinformation campaigns and cyberthreats—must be expanded and integrated into it. Putin has his narrative and menu of actions. The United States needs its.
The best thing about the recent round of expulsions was the solidarity it demonstrated among Western allies—not a priority that is usually associated with the Trump administration. The United States joined with the rest of the West in a cohesive action that put the lie to Putin’s narrative of being able to outwit the West.
The administration has cited this and other steps as evidence of its resistance to Putin's aggression. But one or even several good actions are not enough. They feel like one-offs, actions that somehow got past a president who does not quite support them. After all, Trump has praised Putin repeatedly and avoided criticizing Russia’s action against the United States, an odd and as yet unexplained reluctance; and apparently invited Putin to Washington, an even odder gesture under the circumstances. Whatever the reason, mixed public messages—especially from the president—generate doubt and give Putin's narrative oxygen.
A proper Russia strategy would, as did Reagan and Shultz's, integrate Trump's reasonable (if overly optimistic) desire to work with Russia on areas of common interest with the reality of Russia's aggression. It would outline Washington’s intention to resist Moscow’s bellicosity and stand with those most threatened by it, even as Washington acted to stabilize the relationship. It would make clear that the United States sought better relations with the Russian people and believed in the possibility of a better Russia.
Such a strategy could unite the current generation of Warriors (such as John Bolton, the incoming national security adviser) and Strategists (such as James Mattis, the secretary of defense) and isolate the Suckers, now more powerful in Europe on both the left and the right, and, sadly, more prevalent in the United States.
As good a move as the coordinated expulsions were, more is needed. The Trump administration should make such solidarity a habit and, accordingly, should work with U.S. allies to take steps to impose a cost on Putin and, crucially, on those in his circle, showing that Putin cannot protect their interests. Following the money is often a good way to start. For example, the U.S. government should tighten regulations that currently allow money to flow into the United States through disguised shell companies or complex real estate deals that mask the true owners. If the United States wants to cooperate with a better Russia in the future, it needs to confound the Russia it faces now, so that Russians begin to reassess their current path.