The principal American and Russian diplomats, Antony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov, have spoken precisely once since Russia launched its illegal invasion of Ukraine in February.
In a phone call on July 29, the two diplomats discussed issues around a possible prisoner exchange involving two Americans being held in Russian custody, former US Marine Paul Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner. Nothing came of the call.
Writing from the G20 meeting in early July, the Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee noted in a dispatch that Lavrov told reporters there that “…it was not us who abandoned all contacts…it was the United States. That’s all I can say. And we are not running after anybody suggesting meetings. If they don’t want to talk, it’s their choice.”
The shunning of diplomacy by Blinken at a time when it is arguably more necessary than ever is puzzling given that one of the rare foreign policy successes of the Obama-Biden administration, the Iran Nuclear Accord, was owed to countless hours of backchannel diplomacy. In this case it might be hoped that Blinken is not taking meetings with his Russian counterpart because another, far more substantive and experienced statesman, William Burns, is conducting talks and they are simply being kept from public view. Burns, after all, is the administration’s most experienced Russia hand and is no stranger to playing the role of backchannel envoy.
Whatever the case, Biden’s national security team might familiarize themselves with the diplomatic strategy as carried out by US President Ronald Reagan and his secretary of state George Shultz at what historians often point to as among the two most dangerous periods (the first being the Cuban Missile Crisis) of the Cold War.
“The basis of a free and principled foreign policy,” said former California governor Ronald Reagan in a speech accepting the 1980 Republican nomination, “is one that takes the world as it is, and seeks to change it by leadership and example; not by harangue, harassment or wishful thinking.”
But the very early years of his administration were indeed marked more by harangue (“Evil Empire”) than by diplomacy. A New York Times profile of the Soviet Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, noted that he could not “recall a period more tense than the present….On his visits back home, he finds his relatives asking him, for the first time, if there is going to be war with the United States.”
The nuclear scare resulting from NATO’s Able Archer exercise of 1983 served as a wake up call to the president – as did the ABC television movie The Day After, which is said to have made a deep impression on the president.
The departure, in July 1982, of secretary of state Al Haig and the arrival of former Nixon labor and treasury secretary George Shultz as Haig’s replacement, set the stage for a new approach to the Soviets.
In a memo to the president, Shultz called for “intensified dialogue with Moscow.” But Shultz had his work cut out for him. The team Reagan had assembled around him was replete with hardline anti-Soviet hawks, some of which, prominently Harvard University scholar Richard Pipes (born 1923, Cieszyn, Poland), who served on the NSC, were part of a large and influential (though perhaps not as influential as they are in today’s Washington) “Captive Nations” diaspora community which carried with it the preconceptions, prejudices and hatreds of the old country. These have, inevitably, colored the policy recommendations offered by members of that community – then and now.
Pipes and his deputy, John Lenczowski, were the team behind the policies laid out in National Security Decision Directive 75, which was more or less an extension of the hardline approach toward the Soviets carried out by president Jimmy Carters’ national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński (born 1928, Warsaw, Poland).
NSDD 75 said US-Soviet policy should be predicated on the understanding that “Soviet aggressiveness has deep roots in the internal system and that relations with the USSR should therefore take into account whether or not they help to strengthen this system and its capacity to engage in aggression.”
Plus ca change. The very same arguments made then are being recycled today – but under the pretext that the US and the West must wage a battle in what is said to be a fight between “Democracies vs. Autocracies.” Such reasoning makes little sense, but nevertheless has become an article of faith among both members of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment and their progressive critics.
It is trite but nonetheless true that personnel is policy, and the Reagan administration was no exception. As the scholar James Graham Wilson noted in his superb history of the Reagan-Gorbachev years, The Triumph of Improvisation, “Absent new individuals in positions of power, stagnation shaped the international environment in the early 1980s and old thinking determined the relationship between the United States and Soviet Union.”
But once the personnel began to change, so too did the policy. Shultz, working with Reagan’s top NSC Soviet expert, Jack Matlock, successfully pushed back against the neoconservative agenda. As Wilson writes, “Unlike the hardliners William Casey, William Clark, Richard Pipes, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Caspar Weinberger, Shultz and Matlock believed that the Soviet Union had the capacity to reform.”
Shultz orchestrated a meeting between Reagan and Dobrynin at the White House in February 1983, during which the president told the Soviet ambassador that he wanted Shultz to be his direct channel to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov. And throughout 1983 and into 1984, a new policy – crafted by Shultz, Matlock and national security advisor Robert McFarlane – of engagement emerged in the form of a four-part framework consisting of bilateral relations, regional matters, arms control, and human rights.
The similarities between the early Biden years and the very early Reagan years are therefore hard to miss. Under President Biden, Russia hardliners dominate every high national security office but one (Burns, CIA). And it is an open secret that the Biden team is taking their cues from the hardest of hardline members of the Captive Nations lobby which has a virtually, yes, Soviet-style stranglehold on what is and what is not allowed to be said with regard to US policy toward Russia and Ukraine.
Reagan, like Nixon before him, wisely turned aside the lobby’s counsel in pursuit of diplomacy. Will Biden? One need only look at the results of his administration’s policies to intuit that perhaps a change is needed. In short, Biden needs a Shultz.
In about three months time, the president could use the midterm elections as an opportune moment to put an end to the Blinken-era at Foggy Bottom – and appoint a secretary of state with the experience and gravitas necessary to meet the current moment.
And it’s not as though the president doesn’t have plenty of options. William Burns, former California governor Jerry Brown, former secretary of state John Kerry (currently serving as the administration’s climate envoy), former deputy secretary of state Thomas Shannon, and former national security adviser Tom Donilon should be on any short list of contenders to replace the current secretary of state and usher in a new era of diplomacy between Russia and the West.
James W. Carden is a member of the board of ACURA and a columnist for the Asia Times. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the ACURA Board.