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Hagel on Russia: Engagement, not Isolation


No, this was not Putin’s congratulatory letter to Hagel on his nomination.

“The worst thing we can do, the most dangerous thing we can do is continue to isolate nations, is to continue to not engage nations. Great powers engage.”

Foreign Policy compiled a list of “Ten Hagel Quotes You Need to Know,” including the above quote from a keynote speech at the Israel Policy Forum in New York City in 2008. Hagel, FP notes, has put himself at odds with a large section of  Washington and Congress by advocating engagement — not militaristic chest thumping (Russia is “without question our number one geopolitical foe,” anyone?) — in dealing with adversarial states.  His “clear-eyed and pragmatic approach,” said Russian expert Cliff Kupchan at the Eurasia Group and interviewee on “Great Decisions in Foreign Policy” on PBS, puts him on a similar track with Clinton and Panetta. He’s a realist.

And with Putin’s new brand of anti-Western, anti-American campaigns, it’s probably the best to not threaten the Kremlin too much.  The fallout from the Magnitsky bill, continuous struggles over missile defense, Russia’s relationship with Iran and Syria, all have set up Russia, particularly Putin, as an adversarial force, not an ally.  (Putin, granted, is not doing his part to win favor in the West.)  Although the row over the Magnitsky bill and Russian adoption ban probably won’t tumble into security issues, Hagel would probably agree that the trick is continue to engage Russia so as to prevent continued deterioration in ties — not isolate the country altogether.

After all, what would be the good of isolation? In “A Republican Foreign Policy,” Hagel lists Russia as one of the four vital relationships that “will be critical to global stability and security.” Additionally, as he said on Russia Today in 2009,

“There isn’t a great issue, a great challenge, a great threat that faces Russia, the United States, the world today that’s not interconnected — whether that’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or whether it’s terrorism, the economy, the environment. These are all global issues, and we’re all going to have to work together to find answers.”

Well, good. Hagel’s in line with the administration’s Russian agenda (for the most part) and seems willing to work with the issues at hand, not turn them into an all-out battle of the wills. And even if Putin’s veering towards toppling off his rocker, we’ll at least have a cool-headed secretary of defense.  And in the  midst of conflicts in Syria, the exit out of Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear obsession, and talks about America’s decline, perhaps that’s what we need right now.



Hannah Gais

Hannah is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association, a nonresident fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the managing editor of Her work has appeared in a number of national and international publications, including Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, Truthout, Business Insider and Foreign Policy in Focus.

Gais is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, where she focused on Eastern Christian Theology and European Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais