When you think of U.S./Russia relations, what comes to mind? World War II and the struggle against the Third Reich? The subsequent Cold War and the decades-long fear of nuclear annihilation? How many remember the long forgotten fact that Russia assisted the United States in the American Civil War? In 1863, Russian battleships arrived in the ports of New York and San Francisco to protect the Union from hostile actions by Britain and France. Parades were held in their honor. Sadly, with the onset of the Cold War this fact has mostly faded into the sea of time.
"The Cold War is over," Our politicians now loudly proclaim. "Russia is no longer a threat." Yet NATO continues to expand its territory along Russia's borders, something Mikhail Gorbachev was promised would never happen. We impose economic sanctions that do more harm to everyday citizens than to the government. We accuse Vladimir Putin of empire building over the annexation of Crimea, even though the Crimean people voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Russia (a country to whom they had belonged since 1783) and then danced in the streets when the deal was done. Have we forgotten that shortly after this two other provinces - Donetsk and Luhansk - petitioned to separate from Ukraine and rejoin Russia and were denied by Putin? That's very poor empire building.
Vladimir Putin, regardless of how one may feel about him, is not the kind of man one wants as an adversary. He has stated on numerous occasions that he wants to work more closely with America as long as Russia gets to stand on its own feet rather than participate in global U.S. hegemony. Each time the door has been slammed, so he has instead sought partnership elsewhere. I do not know if the allegations of Russian hacking in the 2016 are true but if they are it's only because we helped create a political climate in which such a thing would be possible.
And that brings us to Donald Trump.
While I did not consider myself a supporter of Trump, he did say a few things I agree with. His assertion that the U.S. needs a better relationship with Russia is of critical importance. While the United States may have the bigger military, Russia invests in more effective and advanced weaponry and a war between the two countries is not one the U.S. will walk away from, even if the confrontation doesn't go nuclear. Millions of lives on both sides could very well depend on peaceful relations between our countries, so why would anyone not want this?
Now it seems Donald Trump has backtracked on all of his foreign policy promises. We're not bringing troops home and scaling back on the government's hawkish tendencies. No, in fact we're teaming up with Saudi Arabia to wage war on Yemen. We're not abandoning the goal of overthrowing Assad in Syria. No, in fact we're illegally occupying the country until Assad is gone. We're not improving relations with Russia. No, in fact we're beginning a new era of "great power competition" against them. We're arming Arctic icebreakers with cruise missiles and sending battleships into the Black Sea to "curb Russian activities there" (imagine the reaction in the West if Russia sent battleships into the Gulf of Mexico to curb American activities). We're selling weaponry to Ukraine to use against Russian troops. We're drafting new nuclear policy stating that cyberattacks can now be justification for a nuclear first strike. And now we have Vladimir Putin presenting to the world a new weapon capable of bypassing missile defense systems that he is ready and willing to use should the U.S. launch an attack. As alarming as this, it should only be taken in the context in which it was intended: a warning that the West may not want to play this game. My fear though is the warhawks surrounding Trump won't listen. My fear is their recklessness will only be inflamed in the pursuit of a bigger stick to poke the bear with.
Many people understandably voted for Trump because he isn't a politician and now we find ourselves in a bind he lacks the political experience necessary to negotiate. The only hope is the Russian and American people. We need more citizens of the United States - particularly children and young adults - to travel to Russia and spend a few months to a year living with a host family, meeting the people and immersing themselves in the culture. Likewise, we need more Russian citizens to come here and do the same. We need to see each other to realize we are not that different. The generation that rejects propaganda and breaks down that barrier to see for themselves what's on the other side is the generation that will never allow their countries to go to war.
Chris Nunnally is a naturalist and author of "Where the Bear Walks: From Fear to Understanding". Also a student of Russian history and culture, he works to encourage citizen diplomacy between the people of Russia and the United States.