Medvedev-Obama Summit: A Path to Success

Today, President Barack Obama arrives in Moscow for talks with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. These talks are critical for America, Russia and the rest of the world, and we must wish success to both Presidents and to those in the United States and Russia who support their intention to meet and talk.

The issue of reducing both nations' nuclear stockpiles, the central agenda of the meeting, is the linchpin of a number of other global problems, including Iran and North Korea. But the meeting will also be of crucial importance to European security, and to global security more generally.

During the last eight years, the Bush administration acted unilaterally and attempted to remove the issue of strategic balance from the Russo-American relationship. That policy resulted in the collapse of several keystones of the global security architecture. The relationship between Russia and America deteriorated to the point where any proposal coming from one side was treated by the other side with distrust and suspicion. Both Moscow and Washington looked for hidden motives in each other's actions. During the conflict in Georgia last August, the relationship between Russia and America came to the point of nadir.

Next week's meeting provides an opportunity to begin the process of reviving our relationship. We should not expect an actual signing of a strategic offensive weapons treaty during this visit. Instead, the goal of this summit is for the negotiators to report on the progress of working out a new, comprehensive, legally binding agreement on reducing and limiting strategic offensive arms, to replace the START-1 treaty which expires at the end of the year.

The prospects for success are real. This is the first serious encounter of two young presidents who both represent a new generation of politicians. They are not burdened by the past mistakes, and they are both capable of looking forward. Both presidents have a vested interested in making the U.S.-Russia relationship work.

But repairing this relationship will take time, and there are deep obstacles to success that are rooted in history.

In 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and I were tasked with preparing the visit of President George Bush to Moscow. The two presidents concluded their summit with a final Declaration which stated the two nations had elevated themselves to the "new strategic relations." The era when Russia and the United States regarded each other as adversaries or strategic threats, they claimed, was over. We all know how the rest of the story played out.

To succeed next week, we must analyze why this grand declaration fizzled. We can argue about who bears more responsibility for the degeneration of the relationship, but the fact is that there were hawks on both sides who did not want to see an improvement in Russo-American relations. These individuals had enough power to torpedo the process of putting the ideas of the Moscow 2002 Declaration into practice. There is little doubt that similar attempts will be made this time around. In fact the hawks are already at work.

Presidents Medvedev and Obama can avoid these land mines by concentrating on the issues that are of strategic importance to each of their countries. It is well known how destructive "packages" and "linkages" can be. Trying to link the issue of Iran's sanctions with the issue of placing missile defense system in Europe will guarantee a failure. This will not change until Russia and the United States can regain the basics of trust, mutual understanding, maintaining dialogue, and hearing each other.

If the summit is successful in reestablishing these fundamentals, it will be easier to add other security-sensitive problems to the agenda later. Success is very much achievable if the two Presidents maintain personal control. Top-level personal contacts have always been the key link for the Russian-American relationship. Success will not be possible if the institutions responsible for maintaining the relationship malfunction, or if the channels of communications between governments are blocked.

By solving our issues one by one we can create a new architecture of Russo-American ties based on the principles of mutual security, trust, openness, co-operation and predictability. We cannot afford to miss this chance.