Rand Paul is right to talk to Russia

By Bonnie Kristian

Sen. Rand Paul traveled to Russia Monday, and he invited the Russians to Washington.

“During an hour-long meeting today,” the Kentucky Republican’s press release announced, Paul “secured an agreement from Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, to send members of the Russian Federation to Washington, the first trip from the Russian Federation to the U.S. Capitol in almost three years, to continue dialogue on vital issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and combating terrorism.” The timing of the visit has yet to be announced, but Kosachev suggested it could happen this fall.

Paul will likely come under criticism for this invitation from those wary of untoward Russian influence on our government. Their wariness is understandable, given—as even President Trump now seems to concede—Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. As would be the case with any other great power, Russia’s values and interests are not identical to our own, and it would be naïve to proceed in conversation to Moscow as if they were.

Yet given all due circumspection, Paul’s overture here is the right move. “Engagement is vital to our national security and peace around the world,” the senator rightly said of his invite, and fostering dialogue with Russia is not a sign of capitulation but of prudence.

The president and his supporters sometimes complain of “Trump derangement syndrome,” which, they say, is when absolutist opposition to Trump prompts his critics to anathemize everything he says or does regardless of its objective merit. We might debate the actual incidence of this syndrome, but where diplomacy and Russia are concerned, the risk of an outbreak is real.

The fact that the president wants to talk with Moscow—and even the fact that he recently did so in a bizarre and arguably counterproductive manner—is not evidence that talking with Russia is a bad idea.

On the contrary, canny diplomacy between the world’s greatest power and all our near-peer competitors—among which Russia is chief—is perpetually necessary. It is necessary because on some issues, like preventing terrorism, avoiding nuclear catastrophe, and fostering stability in the greater Mideast, the United States and Russia share interests in common. And it is necessary not despite our points of contention—like election meddling, Syria, Iran, or Crimea—but because of them. To talk is not to downplay those serious differences; it is to acknowledge their gravity and actively pursue a solution that is not war.

And make no mistake, war becomes more likely in the absence of productive, consistent diplomatic engagement. How much more likely is impossible to say, but do we really want to test those limits? However duly skeptical we may be of Moscow’s aims, the preferability of good faith dialogue with Russia over great power conflict cannot be overstated.

Paul made this argument on the Senate floor last month. “Nobody is … excusing Russia's meddling in our elections,” he said. But neither should anyone say, “’We're done with diplomacy, we're going to add more sanctions and more sanctions.’ You know what, I would rather that we still have open channels of discussion with the Russians,” Paul continued. “Kennedy, at the height of the Cold War, had a direct line to Khrushchev, and it may have prevented the end of the world.”

A direct line from the Oval Office is not the best bet for present circumstances, but Senate-led diplomacy—like Paul is offering—is a strong option. It can sidestep at least some of the worries about Russian manipulation that will inevitably arise when Trump is involved given his unfortunate performance in Helsinki. More broadly, it is a welcome reassertion of congressional authority in foreign affairs, and moving the locus of diplomacy from the White House to Capital Hill makes it easier for average Americans to weigh in.

The crucial thing to understand during Paul’s tour this week and when future U.S.-Russian visits hopefully develop is that talking is not weak. Diplomacy is not the opposite of toughness. It is the result of a clear-eyed understanding that foreign relations are painted in shades of gray, that negotiating with reprehensible people and regimes is often the least bad option. In this case, it is our difficult but imperative route away from war.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by the The Hill on August 7, 2018. Read more HERE