The foreign policy world of today is strongly anti-Donald Trump and for many valid reasons. The current President of the United States is credited with directly damaging America’s relations with key allies like Germany and the United Kingdom, and alienating North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members. Some have even argued that if a successful Trump re-election were to occur in November 2020, it would be the final straw that completely breaks the United States’ alliances and the U.S.-led global world order. Despite this wave of emotional anti-Trump sentiment, it is essential to look at things pragmatically and objectively and refrain from polarizing generalizations. There is an unprecedented opportunity for the U.S. diplomatic community to leverage Trump’s close relationship with Russia and build a more intimate relationship between the two nations.
As soon as the Soviet Union was founded in 1917, the United States’ attitude towards Russia has been increasingly hostile and suspicious. During the First Red Scare (1917-1920), Americans were gripped with worry that a Bolshevik revolution would seize the United States, changing society forever. There was no such revolution, but the fear did not stop there. During the Second Red Scare (1947-1957), America was swept up in a wave of anti-Russian and anti-communist fear, now known as McCarthyism. It spread over the nation and resulted in some of the most hysterical high-profile arbitrary mass trials in modern American history. Originally intended to root out alleged communist sympathizers amongst government employees, the movement quickly spread out of control. It resulted in academics, labor-union activists, and Hollywood stars being accused of communist sympathy. Many arbitrary convictions were made as a result of McCarthyism, mainly without evidence, and names as big as Charlie Chaplin even got caught up: he was expelled from the U.S. for alleged communist sympathies.
The fall of the Soviet Union seventy-four years later in 1991 did not end American suspicion of Russia. In many ways, the Red Scare of the past is regrettably alive and well today. Even though Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation formally clearing Trump of his Russia-related affairs, nearly half of all Americans are convinced that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Six in ten Americans believe that Trump is “too close” to Russia, and a majority of Americans believe Russia is a “critical threat” to the United States, despite there being little to no evidence to support such claims. Likewise, anti-American sentiment is also high among Russian elites and the Russian people, with two-thirds of Russians saying that America does not take other nations like itself into account when formulating foreign policy. It does not have to be this way.
Despite the public’s negative view of Trump’s closer ties with Russia, in 2017, his approval rating in Russia was higher than it was in the United States. Trump’s close relationship to Russia provides a rare opportunity for pragmatic diplomats in Washington and Moscow to co-operate on a level not seen before, and for many good reasons. One of these is the chance for both nations to bridge the cultural misunderstandings and mistrust, a problem likely rooted in language and underexposure to each-others cultures. Today, an estimated 90,000 Americans speak Russian in the U.S., compared to 41 million Spanish speakers, the difference here is astounding. A preliminary bridge built on U.S.-Russian cultural and educational exchange can help the U.S. reduce the critically low numbers of Russian-speaking Americans and help patch up cultural gaps and misunderstandings. A robust Russian-speaking American community with first-hand experience in Russia gained through education or work can act as invaluable citizen diplomats and future employees of the U.S. Department of State. Likewise, Russia is also deficient in English-speaking Russians despite their numbers doubling over the years, and the demand for native English-speaking teachers remains high. Similarly, a robust English-speaking community in Russia can help serve Moscow with first-hand experience of America and English.
By pursuing friendlier relationships with Russia using the foundation that Trump has built, the U.S. can extend the olive branch of cultural diplomacy. This branch will show Russians that America is willing to co-operate in peaceful, mutually beneficial ways, and can result in the U.S gaining a new and valuable friend in Europe and Asia.
Aside from critical shortages in the cultural sector, the U.S. also has a severe problem with over-reliance on Middle Eastern oil. America spends a staggering $81 billion a year – more than the profits of the ten biggest healthcare companies in 2018 combined – on protecting global trade routes for oil. One of the contributing factors is distance and shipping costs. The chief exporter of crude oil to the United States is Saudi Arabia. The shortest distance between Saudi Arabia and the United States is roughly 7,500 miles. Compare that to the gap between the U.S. and Russia. At their closest point, they are just three miles apart. Russia is the largest country on earth by landmass and rich in natural resources, chief among them oil and gas. These crucial resources for the Russian economy are equally as important to the U.S.
In the words of retired Air Force general Duncan J. McNabb: “If we can reduce our dependence on oil, we could reduce our presence in the Gulf and use the funds for other critical military priorities…” America’s obsession with procuring and trading oil is of such a high concern that it is one of the significant factors influencing the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. This trend started as early as 1850 and has not stopped. In a world that is transitioning away from oil to renewable energy sources, a country heavily reliant on fossil fuels is at a potentially tremendous long-term disadvantage in terms of energy modernization. Even former president George W. Bush emphasized just how problematic the American over-reliance on oil had become, calling it a “serious problem” in his state of the union address. There is no reason to divert the newfound funds from oil divergence to only the military, however. A good portion of the money saved can go directly to benefitting the American taxpayer in the form of reduced gas prices, crucial infrastructure investments, and other national necessities.
Clearly, the United States and Russia are critically deficient in mutual cultural understanding, and the U.S. is problematically over-reliant on Middle Eastern oil. The solution is, however, a promising one. Americans will benefit from a more profound knowledge of a uniquely Russian cultural heritage that has endured a thousand years of history. Russians, too, will be able to express their side of the story civilly, a tale too often buried and ignored by a paranoid form of modern Russophobia prevalent in America today. As Russia is geographically closer to the United States than the Middle East, a friendlier American relationship with Russia will mean cheaper oil and gas for the American market and the consumer. This would enable a welcome shift from American reliance on Middle Eastern oil, profits for both sides, and a much easier funded and defended trade route. As the world fights one of the deadliest pandemics in recent memory and is increasingly realizing their common humanity, this is a historical time for closer U.S.-Russia relations and an excellent way for the twin eagles of East and West to lay the foundations of peaceful reconciliation.