Learning to Trust the Untrustworthy: Dr. Yoshiko Herrera on U.S.-Russian Relations

By Megan Burtis

On Monday, February 17th, the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies kicked off its Spring Colloquia Series on “Russia and the World” with a lecture by Dr. Yoshiko Herrera of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her lecture, titled “U.S.-Russian Relations: Challenges and Opportunities”, delivered a comprehensive overview of the complex state of relations between the two countries, all the while maintaining a sense of optimism for the future.

It should be no surprise to anyone that recent cooperation between the U.S. and Russia has been difficult. To understand why this remains the case, Dr. Herrera began by discussing the seemingly simple notion of trust. According to her, trust makes cooperation possible, and trust cannot be built without the willingness to take risks. Unfortunately for both sides, a history of disagreements has made the notion of risk-taking a non-starter for both the U.S. and Russia. Issues such as NATO expansion, the U.S.’s use of force in Kosovo and Iraq, and the recent conflict in Ukraine have kept cooperation locked behind disagreement over everything from what is right in the eyes of international law to basic situational narrative facts. These disagreements in turn have made both countries view the other as unworthy of their trust.

A historical failure to trust, though important, cannot fully explain the current state of U.S.-Russian relations. Herrera outlined several other challenges that discourage the advancement of even basic cooperation between the two countries. These include a fundamental disagreement on international goals and the strategies to achieve them. While the U.S.’s stance includes the need for humanitarian intervention and support for human rights and democracy, Russia opposes both intervention and democratic regime changes. Herrera also noted the lack of stable channels for communication throughout the bureaucratic and diplomatic establishments, stopping cooperation before it can even start.

The final challenge described by Herrera concerns not the relationship between the U.S. and Russia per say, but instead focused on each country’s own domestic politics and leadership. President Vladimir Putin has faced a number of domestic issues and decisions that have left his support and legitimacy weak. In the United States, the Trump administration’s foreign policy as a whole consists of uncertainty and contradictions. Though President Trump personally maintains a pro-Russian stance, the administration has not lessened its sanctions against the country. The outcome of the 2020 Presidential election could also potentially yield yet another policy shift that would continue to leave the status of the U.S.-Russia relationship up in the air.

All this is to say, as Herrera clarified, that there is still hope. Though it may seem that the challenges identified by Herrera are numerous and insurmountable, she maintained that opportunities for cooperation do exist and should be a cause for optimism. The two countries’ domestic challenges and differences have not and will not go away, but there still remains a number of shared interests that could potentially form the basis of renewed cooperation. The conflict in Syria may have begun as yet another divide between the U.S. and Russia, but Herrera asserted that they now both have an interest in ending the conflict and therefore are incentivized to cooperate, a notion shared by the Council on Foreign Relations. Whether it be Syria, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, or environmental issues, Dr. Herrera believes in a state of optimism for the future of U.S.-Russian cooperation. These issues will not go away, but together these countries have the power to address them.

Though trust between our two countries may seem impossible, perhaps we can learn-perhaps we must.

Megan Burtis is a Political Science major at Miami.

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