Note: The following text is an approximate translation of a 17 April 2017 op-ed in Kommersant by Chairman of the Presidium of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (Sovyet po Vneshney i Oboronnoy Politikye) Fyodor Lukyanov. In the interest of context, the translator has taken the liberty of inserting clarificatory notes offset in italics into the main body of text. The views expressed below belong solely to their original author, and do not, necessarily, reflect the personal opinions of the translator.
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild earlier this month, Mikhail Gorbachev warned of the Cold War’s return. So much is evidenced by the increasingly bellicose rhetoric used by politicians and servicemen. The term “cold war” is a term that commentators can apply to any conflict. Where the notion of “cold war” once conveyed an actual military and political threat however, overuse of the term has reduced it to a banality, not unlike cries of “Wolf! Wolf!” But Gorbachev is right – for the first time since the late 1980s, the current atmosphere has started to resemble that of the actual Cold War, though with a considerably weakened system of formal and informal security mechanisms.
Since Gorbachev changed the character of global politics with his “new political thinking”, such mechanisms have ceased to function. They have not quite been systematically rejected – indeed, despite their failings, both George W. Bush and Obama spoke of “selective engagement” and cooperation with Russia. To be sure, the path to such cooperation repeatedly ended up at a dead-end due to irreconcilable differences on certain key issues. But this does not constitute a repeat of the Cold War.
Yet by fixating on a past where “America was great”, Donald Trump has drawn closer to the spirit of the Cold War than any of his predecessors. Trump, a businessman, talks endlessly about “deals.” But his understanding of deals consists of demonstrating force (or the imitation thereof) in order to compel partners to enter into dialogue on the terms of the United States. Trump does not hide this fact. In this respect, he differs from Obama, who deployed force with reluctance and ineptitude, as well as from Bush, who loved power but grounded it nevertheless in a firm ideology.
The present inhabitant of the White House is devoid of ideologies. He possesses an instinct for battle over power and prestige (or, as he puts it, “respect”). Though such preoccupations are characteristic of international relations, in Trump’s case they are manifested in an acutely primordial form, devoid of political or diplomatic content. In this respect, Trump is similar to Nikita Khrushchev in that he intuitively grasps the essence of confrontation, yet is unencumbered by any knowledge or subtlety whatsoever.
Khrushchev was involved in the most dangerous episode of the Cold War – the Cuban Missile Crisis. That incident ended up serving as the benchmark for the establishment of institutions for civilized deterrence. Perhaps Trump will not require an analogue of this crisis. Be that as it may, the role of diplomacy under Trump has increasingly come to resemble that of an “shock absorber” for his instincts. If US politicians are unable to mitigate the commotion resulting from Trump’s behavior, then US diplomats should act as safety fuses.
The ridiculous invective earlier this month by the deputy Russian ambassador to the United Nations – in which which he commanded his British counterpart, Matthew Rycroft, to “look [him] in the eyes” after the latter condemned Russia for its continued support of Damascus in the wake of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack – was said to be wrong not only in terms of form, but also in terms of essence. The task of diplomacy is not to adapt to the irresponsible tone of politicians, but to resist it. “Look me in the eyes!” – this is no more than an invitation to a staring contest, where the first to blink, loses. More and more politicians are being drawn into this game. For diplomats, it is more important to deal with one another, to focus on avoiding collision rather than staring one another down – failing which, diplomacy loses all meaning, since heads of states are generally better at playing such games than are their foreign ministers.