Team of rivals: Putin and Trump at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017
Evan Vucci / AP

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

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  • THOMAS GRAHAM is a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and served as Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.
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