Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. president has come into office promising to build better relations with Russia—and each one has watched that vision evaporate. The first three—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—set out to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community and make it a partner in building a global liberal order. Each left office with relations in worse shape than he found them, and with Russia growing ever more distant.
President Donald Trump pledged to establish a close partnership with Vladimir Putin. Yet his administration has only toughened the more confrontational approach that the Obama administration adopted after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Russia remains entrenched in Ukraine, is opposing the United States in Europe and the Middle East with increasing brazenness, and continues to interfere in U.S. elections. As relations have soured, the risk of a military conflict has grown.
U.S. policy across four administrations has failed because, whether conciliatory or confrontational, it has rested on a persistent illusion: that the right U.S. strategy could fundamentally change Russia’s sense of its own interests and basic worldview. It was misguided to ground U.S. policy in the assumption that Russia would join the community of liberal democratic nations, but it was also misguided to imagine that a more aggressive approach could compel Russia to abandon its vital interests.
A better approach must start from the recognition that relations between Washington and Moscow have been fundamentally competitive from the moment the United States emerged as a global power at the end of the nineteenth century, and they remain so today. The two countries espouse profoundly different concepts of world order. They pursue opposing goals in regional conflicts such as those in Syria and Ukraine. The republican, democratic tradition of the United States stands in stark contrast to Russia’s long history of autocratic rule. In both practical and ideological terms, a close partnership between the two states
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