Towards a new model for U.S.–Russian relations

Written by Thomas Graham and Dmitri Trenin for The International Institute for Strategic Studies

To date, Russian and American experts disturbed by the sorry state of US–Russian relations have sought ways to repair them, embracing old and inadequate models of cooperation or balance. The task, however, is to rethink them.

We need to move beyond the current adversarial relationship, which runs too great a risk of accidental collision escalating to nuclear catastrophe, to one that promotes global stability, restrains competition within safe parameters and encourages needed cooperation against transnational threats. To do that, the new model must take into account the complexity of today’s world, the gaping power asymmetries between the two countries, the inevitability of competition and the reality that US–Russian relations have ceased to be the central axis of global affairs.

The models now being advanced fall short on one or more counts. A reset deals only with immediate irritants rather than fundamental causes. Strategic partnership is based on two patently false expectations: on the US side, that Russia will accept American leadership, which it won’t; and on Russia’s side, that the United States will respect it as an equal, which it isn’t. A balance-of-power model sounds more realistic, but falters over the power asymmetries and the diverging world views between the two countries, as well as among the other centres of power.

In this respect, today’s polycentric world replicates the conditions of the early twentieth century that overturned the European balance-of-power system of the nineteenth century and precipitated two cataclysmic world wars. Detente 2.0 may acknowledge irreconcilable world views, but it fails to accommodate current global power dynamics, with China displacing Russia as America’s top strategic rival.

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