Many years ago the Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien told me that someone can always bomb the negotiating table. His reference was to the notorious Provos of the Irish Republican Army. Today, we have Provos in Congress, who just voted for new and dangerous sanctions on Russia.
Many forces joined the vote. Some who favor confrontation in Syria and Ukraine and some who believe that Russian government meddling produced the presidency of Donald Trump. There are some who imagine that U.S. efforts can eventually destabilize Russia itself, bringing back the compliant Russians of the Boris Yeltsin years. And there were some who merely calculated the political cost of appearing “soft on Russia” in the present toxic climate. Only two senators said no: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
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The authors of these sanctions know, even if they may not admit it, that Russia won’t collapse. On the contrary, Russia these days is quite strong. Russian military power has already decided the Syrian war. The annexation of Crimea is an irreversible fact. The conflict in Ukraine is stalemated. And in this global information age, the U.S can no more stop Russian propaganda than other countries can stop our own. Though we should try, we cannot keep Russian mob money out of our politics any more than we’ve ever kept mob money out of politics.
Nor can sanctions hold back economic history. With the recovery of Russian development potential since 1998, the economic complementarities of the Eurasian land mass are great: German and French engineering, Russian energy and science, Chinese industrial scale and manpower. These things exist.
So, the Eurasian continent will continue to integrate, not politically but in economic terms, through networks of rail, roads and pipelines that will be built, and are being built already.
Russia has a legitimate place in this world of commerce, industry, technology and cultural exchange. To accept this does not mean bowing to Russian control. Russia has about one-third the population of Europe and one-tenth that of China, and neither region is going to fall under Russian dominance, whatever we do. Whatever we do, whatever the Russians want, our friends in Europe – and our colleagues in China – are strong and determined enough to maintain their own systems and values.
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This is the reality. For the U.S., it’s not ideal. There are costs. We will not again enjoy quite the same position in Europe or Asia that we did during the Cold War, but if in the end we can cut back on our military role — and on the arms trade, on our reliance on global banking — there are benefits too. When we accept what is, we will discover our advantages. We are as rich in talent and resources as any other country. We are secure in a network of friends, allies and neutral powers. We can benefit from being freed (to a degree) of the burden of maintaining a far-flung realm. We will remain the global safe haven, financial and political.
Russia is a country with whom we have never fought a war, and on whose soil, with one brief exception in 1919, our troops have never fought. It is a country our ships have never shelled, and our planes have never bombed. We should keep it that way. We should work toward ways to live in peace. We need to remember that whatever we may think of Russia, or how it is ruled, it is one of the world’s great powers in economic, scientific, cultural and military terms. We have lived with that fact for 200 years, sometimes under much more challenging conditions. We can continue to live with it. Coexistence, it is not exactly a novel idea.
Galbraith holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government and Business Relations at the University of Texas.