Football Diplomacy

By James Mesiti and Andrei Tarasov

On any given weekend, one can find American James Mesiti and Russian Andrei Tarasov together on the football pitch with the many other football enthusiasts from IBEI. To many, their chemistry is uncanny, not only in how unique their playing styles are but also in how different their histories may be. Two young-men who should seemingly be rivals regardless of their setting have turned into a prolific partnership – even being dubbed the “Nuclear Brothers” in some circles.  However, as James and Andrei’s chemistry on the pitch proves to be more and more fruitful, greater United States – Russia relations have seemed to only get worse.  Deeply rooted Cold War animosities have given way to new era tensions that have proved to once again push the countries towards opposite sides of the international political arena. While a robust offensive partnership may not directly translate into more cooperative decision-making both in the Situation Room and the Kremlin, perhaps there are lessons to be learned.

Flashpoints: 2016 Presidential Election

Before the recent 2016 presidential election in the United States, Russia-US relations were already uneasy. That being said, the 2016 election had the impact of unhinging this already fragile relationship. The election was controversial and polemic for countless reasons, however “Russia” seemed to be one of the few topics always at the forefront.

Vladimir Putin’s testy relationship with election candidate Hillary Clinton stems from her time as Secretary of State under then US President Barack Obama. Their varying positions regarding US intervention in Libya in 2011, when Putin was Prime Minister of Russia, drastically severed hopes for a future working relationship between the two actors. These apparent personal tensions between Clinton and Putin inevitably surfaced during the 2016 election, with the latter consistently voicing his concerns over future relations between the two historically powerful states if the former were elected.

Personal cleavages between the two, coupled with rumors of Russia hacking and campaign interference, provided real estate magnate Donald Trump with the opportunity for clever – albeit questionable – politics.  On the campaign trail, his invitations to Russia to hack into Clinton’s email servers from her time as Secretary of State allowed him to methodically present his opponent as untrustworthy to voters.  Before even entering the Oval Office, it seemed as though a cordial relationship was developing between future President Trump and Putin.

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey on / CC BY-SA

Yet, President Trump has seen his position on Russia from the campaign trail return to haunt him. In a series of events better suited for Netflix drama House of Cards than actual politics, rumors of collusion between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government have reached a climax. A special government counsel has already charged Trump campaign aids and is continuing its investigation.

These complex factors have caused President Donald Trump to find himself in a political Catch-22. The special investigation has forced him to distance himself as far as possible from Russian ties but by doing so he has unavoidably taken a harsher stance with respect to greater Russia-US relations. His decision for the use of airstrikes against Assad’s regime in Syria and the recent US Congress-imposed sanctions against Russia have since added further growing pains to the once promising dynamic between the two combative figures. If both Putin and Trump’s recent concessions of the dangerously low status of relations between the two countries are not telling enough for the need for greater cooperation, the international political landscape may have a worrying forecast ahead.

Syria: Should the Enemy of my Enemy be my Friend?

Despite its strong criticism of US intervention in Libya, Russia gave its silent permission for the invasion. Just a few years later, however, a similar resolution on Syria was defeated by Russian veto. This has given rise to a paradoxical situation, with both Russia and the US invading Syria with the similar aim of fighting terrorist organization ISIS, the new face of global threat for the international community. As it turns out, though, having a similar enemy and similar goals does not necessarily ensue mutually beneficial cooperation.

Russia justifies its position by quoting international law, which allows foreign countries to participate in internal matters upon invitation of the official government. Bashar al Assad, a notorious friend of Putin’s, officially asked Russia for help in combating ISIS. The US, on the other hand, sanctioned NATO intervention because they see a threat in global terrorism for international society and accept the obligation of defending democratic peace.

Photo credit: Sputnik

US-Russian relations on Syria are blocked by the contradictions of their national interests. For Russia, the Assad regime is legitimate and the Russian military campaign has a two-fold mission: to beat ISIS and to maintain the Assad regime. On the contrary, the US wishes to, yes, defeat ISIS, but also to topple the Assad regime. The clear division of interests is the main obstacle in this case. Both Russia and the US want not only to combat terrorism, but also take to advantage of the Great Game in the Middle East.

Why are great powers interested in Syria? Its geographical position makes it convenient as a transit corridor for the transportation of natural gas to Europe from the Middle East, which, along with Russia, has the largest reserves of this important raw material. Two groups of competing countries, one of which headed by the United States the other by Russia, were ready to lay gas pipelines through the territory of Syria for the subsequent transportation of gas to Europe. This has led to a situation where Russia defends its economic interests whereas the US tries to sustain its geopolitical hegemony in the region.

In all honesty, Russia, using international law as its umbrella, and the US, acting in the name of democratic values and human rights, play right into the hands of Middle Eastern interests. Russia is blinded by the feeling of revenge and the wish to make a “comeback” in international politics. At the same time, the US is frustrated by the challenge to their dominance. Unfortunately, being driven by such reasons both sides “have forgotten” about the real threat, and about the duties real great powers should accomplish. This interplay undermines the security of citizens not only in both countries but also in Europe, Asia, Africa, etc., because terrorism continues to exist. Without mutually beneficial cooperation, it is impossible to ensure the safety of ordinary citizens, who want only to live in peace and are unconcerned by who finally wins in this Great Game.

Lessons from the Pitch – Pursuing the Common Goal(s)

The 2016 US Presidential Election and Syrian War have created a toxic climate for future Russia-US relations, let alone improvement or growth.

While obvious, football teaches that having common goals is a necessity. In fact, they are what separate one team from another; AC Milan from Inter, Barcelona from Real Madrid. When Andrei and James are trying to score through the same set of posts, their goals are the same – the “Nuclear Brothers” inevitably take form. Will Russia and the United States always find themselves on the same team in the greater game of international relations? Of course not, but finding common goals may be able to bring a relationship that is in free-fall back to the surface.

Combating global terrorism, managing a belligerent North Korea, and fighting climate change are some of the many potential common goals the United States and Russia share. Many of these goals will undoubtedly have lower stakes than other points of contention, however the more like-minded thinking in smaller policy areas will affect the greater Russia – US relations. For example, sharing intelligence to stop a planned terrorist attack in one of the two countries can be a first step towards opening better dialogue into limiting the nuclear capabilities of North Korea and maintaining sanctions.

In fact, it is likely that this room for cooperation is already being exploited as a recent CIA tip helped Russian police thwart a terrorist attack in Saint Petersburg this past December. Putin made a point to thank Trump. In a phone call he told the U.S. president that “the Russian security services, in the case where they receive information regarding terrorist threats in relation to the U.S. and its citizens, will without question and immediately pass it to their American colleagues.”[1]

Such a course of action would not be dissimilar from past foreign policy agreements between the two sides. In the late 1960s and the greater part of the 1970s, the United States and the then Soviet Union began to integrate economic channels and engaged in a series of talks, known as SALT I & II, to limit armament. Their common goal was to prevent the massive destruction that modern technological military advances may have permitted. Pursuing common goals in the present is no different than policies of “détente” of the Cold War. Looking back towards history may even be the last hope for greater cooperation as the football match that is international relations is becoming more and more complex with time. Many factors, such as the rise in historically non-traditional actors, the emergence of cyber-terrorism, and the increasing interconnectivity of world economies makes US-Russia cooperation now a more delicate task to achieve but an all the more vital one.

The Beautiful Game

Photo credit: Nadine Gabron

Admittedly, it might be poetic irony that Andrei and James have found great chemistry on the pitch considering that the United States finds itself as a bystander to the Men’s FIFA World Cup in Russia this coming summer. However if there is one moral to be drawn from this metaphor turned analysis, let it be that football will always be the beautiful game. International relations are not as simple as a football match. Never will Russia and the United States combine their nuclear capabilities to become the “Nuclear States” and, frankly, nor would international society ever want them too. However as football is indeed beautiful, its lessons can transcend the lines of the pitch. Even though the dynamics of the 2016 election have soured future relations and the current crisis in Syria presents very complex challenges, it would not be the first time Russia and the United States have reached such lows. The two countries must acknowledge their shared interests and work towards them cooperatively – a “détente” 2.0. Such a move may never put both sides on the same team, but at least they will be shooting for the same goalposts.


[1] Mallin, Alexander, and Patrick Reevell. “Putin Called Trump to Thank CIA for Tip on Bomb Threat.” ABC News, December 17, 2017.


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