Can the U.S. make friends with the friends of its enemy?

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

The war in Ukraine grinds on with no end in sight and no obvious pathway for a cessation of hostilities. Russia’s bargaining position is a non-starter with Ukraine, and it seems difficult to imagine a resolution in which Russia would be willing to withdraw its troops and acknowledge the preexisting status quo. The higher the casualty count, the harder it will be for either side to walk away from fighting.

The longer the war lasts, the more the United States needs to think about how to make its sanctions regime sustainable. The International Monetary Fund warned on Saturday that the combination of the war and the sanctions would “have a severe impact on the global economy.”

Edward Wong and Michael Crowley of the New York Times reported over the weekend that the U.S. government wants the sanctions to materially weaken Russia, which means the creation of a containment regime. The United States has succeeded in making Russia the most sanctioned country on Earth — for now. But sanctions fatigue will eventually kick in. This is particularly true if the Russia sanctions lead to a sustained spike in energy prices. Americans have indicated that they are willing to pay a higher price in return for punishing Russia, but over time that preference might shift.

It is therefore interesting to see reports suggesting that the Biden administration is trying to repair and rebuild ties with other oil producers. Both the New York Times and The Washington Post report that senior U.S. officials traveled to Venezuela to talk about easing the sanctions against that country, enabling Venezuelan oil to substitute for Russian oil in the global marketplace.

Pivoting to the Middle East. Axios’s Hans Nichols reports that “President Biden’s advisers are discussing a possible visit to Saudi Arabia this spring to help repair relations and convince the Kingdom to pump more oil.” And then there is Iran, where the sanctions against Russia threaten to throw a monkey wrench into a reconstituted nuclear deal. The Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman reports “Moscow said it wanted written guarantees that Ukraine-related sanctions won’t prevent it from trading broadly with Tehran under a revived pact.”

Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia … not exactly countries that belong in the Human Rights Hall of Fame. As Nichols notes, “The possibility also shows how Russia’s invasion is scrambling world’s alliances, forcing the U.S. to reorder its priorities — and potentially recalibrating its emphasis on human rights.”

This will not sit well with some. On “Meet the Press,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blasted the Biden administration for talking to China about Russia, asserting, “You never ask an enemy for help with another enemy.”

This is one of those lines that sounds appealing but is historically uninformed. The United States partnered with Stalin’s Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War. During the Cold War, the Nixon administration, to put pressure on the USSR, opened up a dialogue with Mao’s China.

Great power politics requires deciding which threats merit the greatest focus. None of these countries is an angel. That said, their transgressions are not all created equal. When a nuclear-armed state decides to invade a sovereign neighbor without any provocation in proximity to the most important strategic alliance for the United States, that threat has to take top priority. Russia has committed the biggest rupture in international relations. It is worth at least sounding out whether other states are interested in patching up ties with the United States as Russia is reeling (which, at this point, is all the United States is doing).

If this really is a new Cold War, then it is worth remembering that George Kennan, the architect of containment, advocated for exploiting fissures within the communist bloc. Replace “communist” with “autocratic” and the same logic holds.

In the long run, the United States should combat climate change and reduce the leverage of oil producers by generating more clean energy. In the short run, the United States is right to explore options other than Russia to lower world energy prices.

This piece was re-published from The Washington Post.

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