The Russia hysteria that is sweeping Washington, DC must end before severe and irreversible damage is done both to American domestic politics and U.S. international standing. Even a meeting last year between Russia’s chief rabbi and a lawyer who happened to work for the Trump Organization (and now has a senior White House position, but one unrelated to foreign affairs) is being cast as some sort of sinister spy encounter—a sign that the overheated rhetoric is getting out of hand.
I was always taught in international relations class that the job of diplomats is to facilitate as many meetings as possible with a wide spectrum of the host country’s domestic political establishment on a wide range of issues. This includes being able to understand the key currents in the legislature as well as obtaining a better read on what prospective candidates for high office might do in terms of policy choices that have an impact on the diplomat’s home country. There should be nothing improper about U.S. officials, legislators and experts exchanging views with any country’s ambassador and diplomatic staff—whether they are close allies, partners or even competitor nations. This includes Russia’s current ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Efforts to cast normal diplomatic activity as some sort of nefarious plot risks closing down the few remaining active channels between the United States and a country that remains one of the world’s key actors on the global stage. Moreover, this attempt to play a game of “gotcha” where senators and other figures tout never meeting Kislyak as a sign of ideological purity—only to have photographic evidence of encounters with the Russian ambassador dredged up from the archives—looks foolish and petty.
Two former U.S. ambassadors to Russia, Michael McFaul and John Beyrle, who served as America’s chief envoys and personal representatives of the president during the Obama years, have been consistent voices of reason on this matter. They have warned—perhaps in vain—that America’s long-term interests are not served by attempting to suggest that contacts between American officials and Russian diplomats constitutes a treasonous or criminal act. Russia still remains a country with a sizeable nuclear arsenal and is a major player in the greater circle of Eurasia. Trying to establish channels of communication and ascertain possible areas of convergence and conflict with a new, incoming administration is prudent diplomatic activity.