The next American president, whether it is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, will have to decide which course of action to follow with regard to Russia. Realist political theory suggests that taking a step back from increasing hostility would be a good starting point.

A woman holds up a sign for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, June 2, 2016, in San Jose, California. Photo: AP

With Hillary Clinton securing the Democratic presidential nomination on June 8, the rhetoric between Clinton and her Republican rival Donald Trump will most likely intensify in their race to become the next U.S. president. Among the most urgent foreign policy questions that both candidates will debate will be the future of U.S. policy toward Russia.

The American debate about Russia started in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. At the time, Obama claimed that Russia was not a great power, but a regional one. In 2015, this debate over Russia’s status as a great power continued. According to the European Geostrategy report on the world’s 15 most powerful countries in 2014: “Countries like Russia, China and North Korea possess formidable arsenals of conventional forces on paper, yet they lack the means to project and sustain them in distant theaters, while much of their inventories are obsolete or suffer from poor training and a lack of combat experience.”

With regard to Russia, there appears to be an inherent contradiction in Western foreign policy. On one hand, Russia is not considered a great power worthy of attention; on the other hand, it is considered to be an adversary and anyone proposing a détente is derided as a Putin sympathizer.

Also read: "Would Trump’s presidency improve US-Russian relations?"

Russia’s bid for great power status

Is Russia a great power? That depends on which definition one is using.

In terms of soft or economic power, Russia finds it hard to compete with developed economies of the West. As one of these indicators, Russia lags behind the United States and European countries as an attractive destination for students, according to UNESCO.

However, from the strict realist perspective, the status of a great power only requires a state to pass the test of whether it has the capability to wage war and the ability to protect its political independence when challenged.

There is a general consensus that current great powers are categorized broadly on the basis of power dimension, spatial dimension and status. A great power is therefore assumed to be a country, which possess more influence over other countries, and a disproportionate influence on world politics.

The father of the neorealist theory of international relations, Kenneth Waltz, suggested other criteria for defining a great power. According to him, the five following criteria should be analyzed: population and territory; resource endowment; economic capability; political stability and competence; and military strength.

Notwithstanding Russia’s problems in some of these aspects – decreasing population, pressing economic challenges and domestic problems – some still argue that Russia remains a great power. As American academic Walter Russell Mead has pointed in his article for The American Interest, although Russia’s status can be best described as a “declining power,” it still can be considered a great one.

“Russia is a nation in decline, but it has not yet finished declining and it by no means reconciled to the prospect. This makes it extremely dangerous. It may be failing at some of the most important tasks of a great power, but it still has nukes; plentiful natural resources; effective (and often underrated) intel, infowar and cyber capacities; and is currently led by a tactically canny president who punches above his weight,” he wrote.

Hence, a conclusion can be arguably drawn that Russia still remains a great power, especially in light of its recent Syrian military initiative, which showed its ability to project force abroad.

Washington’s incoherent policy toward Moscow

So, where does this lead, then? Logically, there are only two basic policy prescriptions.

One, Russia should be deemed as an adversary, Russian territory marked, the Russian sphere of influence recognized, and boundaries drawn. For the U.S., it would then be necessary to understand the core interests of this adversarial power, and make deliberate efforts not to step in the areas of its influence. To avoid confrontation, the modes of communication should be open, and the U.S. should attempt to contain the rival power in its own sphere of influence, similarly to the early stages of the Cold war.

The second option would be recognizing Russia as a minor power, but a “power” nonetheless, and continue with efforts to undermine its role in geopolitics, roll back its influence, and diminish its area of influence. We have seen variants of that during the Cold War as well.

Here’s the tricky part. There is simply no policy being followed if you discard a rival as being a minor regional power, yet simultaneously spend money and resources in containing it or limiting its power. In geopolitics, you cannot justify that, as it is frankly contradictory. If Russia is not a great power, then it is clearly not a threat for NATO, with its far superior armed forces, far greater economic prowess, and almost unrivalled soft power of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Then, it doesn’t really make sense if you move forces into Eastern Europe, play adversarial roles in the Middle East, and spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars accordingly. It is baffling, contradictory and incoherent. It is also difficult to justify to one’s own democratic electorate.

What the next U.S. president might do

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump becomes the next U.S. president, the United States foreign policy establishment has realized that the future power struggle lies in Asia, simply because the Asia-Pacific region is the only region growing economically. The region is also becoming increasingly volatile from a military perspective. Without neglecting or downplaying the number of people killed in Eastern Europe, or even the Middle East, it is safe to assume that any conflict in Asia, particularly involving China, would be far more devastating than any other conflict this century, not to mention the damage to the global economy it would inflict.

The Middle East has lost its importance to the U.S. as a geostrategic interest, and that is being increasingly observed as the U.S. reduces its influence in the region. The U.S. is tacitly handing over power to other regional powers, and even attempting a pivot in decades-long alliance systems. That is likely to continue as part of the U.S. bipartisan grand strategy in the future.

The Middle East faces a future of diminishing importance as energy prices fall, the region’s economies sink further, and domestic infighting continues. In short, the region will cease to be of strategic importance, and will be amputated strategically or contained and cut off for the regional powers to sort out the mess.

Similarly, Eastern Europe will eventually reach a cautious calm, as there is already evidence Europe is trying for a détente with Russia, and realist voices in America are calling in for the nations in Eastern Europe to shoulder their own security burden. That will continue as well, unless Russia decides to embark on another round of territorial annexation.

The U.S., despite its liberal rhetoric and support of globalization, is still a realist power, and it is inconceivable to expect another great power starting a military base in the Western hemisphere. The idea is no different in the case of Russia. The experience of structural realism suggests that great powers become reactive whenever their sphere of influence is threatened, whatever the intentions of their rivals. Russia is no exception to this rule.

The best policy, therefore, is to take a step back from this increasing hostility and brinkmanship, especially in Eastern Europe. As realists have noted earlier, such a policy of retrenchment or taking a step back can be a successful policy. For Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, it may be time for a new type of reset with Russia, albeit one that takes place within a broader American foreign policy of retrenchment.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.