Rex Tillerson’s business background for the office of Secretary of State reinforces a massive, overarching handicap in America’s dealing with the keystone issue of international affairs – matters affecting our national security and sovereignty. Nowhere will this be so immediately and dangerously played out as in the articulated approach of the incoming Administration’s desire to “deal” with Russia.
Domestic commercial “deals” rely on predictable and effective third-party enforcement mechanisms. This translates to the courts and related institutions. Indeed, it’s the fear of consequences – a fear that can be real only if a realistic opportunity for enforcement exists – that militates against a breach occurring in the very first place. Without that, “superior negotiating skills” are irrelevant.
In the international sphere, the core postulates for a modicum of world order are agreements affecting national sovereignty and international security: the UN Charter, the Helsinki Accords, the UN Genocide Convention, the Budapest Memorandum, and other nuclear and WMD non-proliferation agreements. But an effective and reliable third party enforcement structure for such “deals” is glaringly absent. Like drivers obeying the rules of the road, nations must instead rely on the assumption of reciprocal compliance with the “deal” by other signatories, in the mutual recognition of the self-interest by all.
It’s a delicate eco-system. If a signatory nation is allowed to trash the underlying premise of the “deal”, and if there are no consequences proportionate to the breach, the entire global structure will implode. The implosion can be cataclysmic when a signatory nation to an international disarmament agreement, for instance, knows that its breaches will be systematically ignored, and that even more agreements will blithely, meaninglessly, follow.
The incoming Adminstration’s compulsion to blithely translate domestic commercial deal-making to its relationship with Russia is fatuous, and will be disastrous. The first order of business, so to speak, is to understand that America’s domestic, commercial and political DNA both reflects and feeds a mercantile environment of stability and predictability that makes business possible in the first place. We approach international relations similarly, seeing it as essentially a regulatory matter, a relationship among nations simply to be managed for the sake of “stability.” We put our faith in reason, and worship compromise and negotiation. We idolize resulting international agreements as we do domestic ones: as solutions to problems, not as their cause; as resolutions of conflict, not as their catalyst; as enforceable paths forward, not as highways for reversal. We’re hypnotized with “doing the deal.”
American deal making with Russia does not work. Russia did not become the largest country in the world, steamrolling dozens of nations, through bourgeois deal making. Russia has always been an empire. Its imperial DNA precludes the compromise we worship and the precondition to which is restraint. Moscow vehemently rejects the stability we imagine we’re creating. Its worldview and goals are dynamic, outgoing, and implacably aggressive. Russia plays offense. America plays defense. Russia initiates. America reacts. Russia disrupts. America seeks to stabilize, to preserve, all the while as we cast about wondering, “What do we do now?”
We never learned Stalin’s encyclical: “agreements are like pie crusts, made to be broken.” Agreements for Russia, therefore, are simply part of maskirovka, intended to divert attention, to placate, to confuse, to buy time. It’s a hologram, another app to be programmed as may be appropriate for the circumstances, as are genocide of all strips, kompromat, dezinformatsia, provokatsia. Excepting purely commercial deals (but only for the duration and extent it so deigns to choose), Moscow’s goal in deal making with “the Americans” in matters of the highest national consequence for us is either (a) to prevent the realization of the very purpose of the agreement, or (b) to ensure the realization of the very opposite. Predictability of Moscow’s compliance is replaced by the predictability of Moscow’s breach.
It has been this way for generations. It’s beyond rational explanation why, in the context of domestic deal making we require compliance– “you agreed to that, didn’t you?”– whereas in dealing with Russia we do not. To the very contrary. When Moscow breaches, we simply spin the phantasmagoria and call the lawyers to prepare yet another agreement, and so on ad infinitum. Our catatonic return to the table fits precisely Einstein’s definition of insanity: repeating something over and over again that has proven itself to be a failure. At least Pavlov’s dogs received a reward upon the sounding of the bell.
The Budapest Memorandum is pivotal to America’s international credibility and therefore the utility of any international arrangement with friend or foe, alike. Washington pressured Ukraine to surrender its nuclear arsenal, the third largest at the time, some of it to Ukraine’s age-old persecutor, Russia. For good measure, Washington then oversaw Ukraine’s destruction of its conventional weaponry. Barely four months after Putin’s lament about the fall of the Soviet Union, then Senator Obama delivered the coup d’grace, declaring. “We need to eliminate these stockpiles for the safety of the Ukrainian people and people around the world.” At the time, Obama was standing in Donetsk. That city is no more. Moscow then invades Ukraine, violating every relevant agreement it ever struck, committing war crimes with abandon, never mind that is not on anyone’s radar screen.
And now what? It’s America under the new Administration that proposes yet another reset with Russia? There can be no greater provocation of Russia than an obsequious, pusillanimous America. And there is no more ironic example in history than that the M(utually) A(ssured) D(estruction) scenario was markedly lessened with the fall of the Soviet Union, itself ensured by Ukrainian independence, now again so horribly violated by Russia. We’re squarely on the trajectory back to MAD. This time, however, when we are checkmated on the chessboard, Mr. Tillerson may not be able to characterize the outcome as did his predecessor, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, of the Cuban Missile Crises at the time: ”We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other side just blinked.”
The first order of business, so to speak, is to understand that America’s approach to dealing with Russia has failed, and that “deals” don’t work. Our business commercial and political culture both fuels and reflects the ingrained weakness of a representative democracy in dealing with Russia. With scarcely a sense of history, even less of geography, we have a time horizon measured by the next election cycle. With the frustration tolerance of a child, and infatuated with polls, we are prey for the tenacious. President Obama’s “reset” with Russia, and now yet another by the incoming Administration, are no different than the periodic exhilaration that we experienced through the decades.
As a result, we have compiled a loose-leaf record of crisis management, and swing like a metronome between panic and hope, endlessly responding to the crisis du jour crafted by the Kremlin, which alone determines the choice of time, place and circumstance. In the meantime, Russia has been constant, consistent and immutable. We are being outplayed, outmaneuvered, ricocheting from crisis to crises, perpetually asking ourselves, “what do we do now?”, “how do we react?”
No worry, though. The Klieg lights beckon. Another agreement, another handshake, another exchange of pens. Not only do we consider it a job well done. We actually convince ourselves that it’s a job completed.
After all, everyone agreed. We have it in writing.
Victor Rud is a board member of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and chairman of its Committee on Foreign Affairs.