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American Political Scientist Thomas Graham Speaks at HSE

On January 22, Thomas Graham, former Special Assistant to the President of the United States on Russian and Eurasian affairs (2004-2007), spoke to faculty and students of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs about the fundamentally competitive nature of US-Russia relations and prospects for cooperation between the two countries.

After being introduced by Sergey Karaganov, Dean and Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, the guest speaker noted, ‘I have spent the past 40 years of my life engaged with Russian-US relations, and I still haven’t gotten it right. I’m still working on it. I want to lay a few of my thoughts on the nature of this relationship— where we’re headed, and what the challenges are.’

Thomas Graham’s work in US-Russian relations extends back to the late Soviet and early post-Soviet years when he was a Foreign Service officer. His assignments included two tours of duty at the US Embassy in Moscow where he served as head of the political internal unit and acting political counselor. In the early 2000s, as Special Assistant to U.S. President George W. Bush and Senior Director for Russia on the US National Security Council staff, he managed a White House-Kremlin strategic dialogue. He is one of the founders and co-Directors of the Russian Studies Project at Yale University, and he is currently a managing director at Kissinger Associates, Inc., an international consulting firm based in New York.

On the Prospects for a US-Russian Partnership

Mr. Graham’s talk centered around the question of whether the United States and Russia can be partners. ‘Relations have deteriorated since 2014,’ he said. ‘We’re probably at the lowest point in US-Russian relations since the darkest days of the Cold War.’

Many people, he said, believe that the two countries are heading towards a new cold war. ‘I want to make the argument that this isn’t a new cold war,’ the political scientist said. ‘There are essential differences in the factors and the challenges that we face today.’

However, he also laid out a case for why the relationship between the United States and Russia is, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, one of competition.

The relationship has been fundamentally competitive for most of its history, and there’s no pressing reason to think that it’s going to change anytime in the near future

Despite their competition, Mr. Graham emphasized the importance of cooperation between the two countries regarding climate change, arms reduction, counter-terrorism, cyber conduct, and other challenges in the modern age.

No Cold War

Mr. Graham rejected the prospect of a new cold war for several reasons. ‘Firstly,’ he said, ‘the world is no longer bipolar. We are entering into some sort of post-bipolar world, whether it is multipolar, polycentric, or something else.’

Secondly, there is no ideological confrontation between the United States and Russia. ‘This isn’t an existential struggle across the globe,’ he said. ‘Although we interpret the meanings of a market economy and a democratic society radically differently, we are not in fact articulating radically opposed ideologies that have no basis for reconciliation.’

Thirdly, the Russian-American relationship does not structure the international system the way the Soviet-American relationship did during the Cold War, and Russia no longer lies at the center of US foreign policy. ‘China probably figures at a higher level. Then there is Iran, North Korea, as well as the non-state actors, terrorists, who are all included as key rivals and challenges to the US going forward,’ he explained.

Finally, there is the changing surrounding environment. ‘We see tremendous ongoing geopolitical changes: the rising of China is the obvious one, but not the only one,’ Mr. Graham said. ‘Technology is developing in extremely rapid fashion and it is changing the way we live, the way we produce, the way we communicate, the way we engage in conflict.’

Continued Competition

Although he rejects the prospect of a new cold war, he argues that the relationship between the United States and Russia will remain competitive. ‘The reasons for this is that we have different world views, different conceptions of world order, continuing geopolitical conflicts and disputes, and different sets of values that inform the political systems that govern our societies.’

‘Relationships between great powers are almost always defined by competition, and this is certainly the case if you have two large, robust, dynamic countries—expansionist countries—that believe they have vital interests in Europe and East Asia the way the United States and the Soviet Union and then Russia have for the past 125 years or more,’ Thomas Graham said.

A Need for Containment and Cooperation

Mr. Graham emphasized the importance of cooperation and containment of potential conflict. ‘We are the two countries where a war between us would be of catastrophic consequence for not just ourselves but the world,’ he said.

Mr. Graham outlined three basic tasks that American and Russian leaders need to fulfill: ‘We need to reduce to a minimum the risk of nuclear confrontation between our two countries; we need to restrain our competition in geopolitical disputes so that it doesn’t escalate into a military conflict that would lead to the type of nuclear confrontation that we’re trying to avoid; and while we’re doing all of this, we still need to keep open the possibility for cooperative efforts in dealing with those major transnational challenges that cannot be resolved without some level of cooperation or coordination between all the major powers,’ he said.

The pressing challenges that require international cooperation, in Mr. Graham’s view, include international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, transnational crime, pandemic diseases, and climate change. He also stressed the importance of coming to an agreement regarding Ukraine in addition to the way the two societies interact in the cyber realm.

‘The first step,’ Mr. Graham said, ‘is to rebuild normal diplomatic relations between our countries and discuss these issues in a reasonable and civilized fashion, finding the proper solutions, recognizing that we are going to remain competitors moving forward, but that we don’t have to become enemies.’


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