NATO: The Mother of All Deals

There are major foreign policy items to which the Russians attribute very great importance but are of little significance to us, and vice versa. Call it a major saliency differential. This seems to lay the ground for a major deal that has yet to be struck.
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A message to the NATO summit in Chicago: be realistic. Trade in items of low saliency to us, but of great import to Russia, for items that have little saliency for Russia but that are keenly sought by us.

A line or two on how I came up with this somewhat distinct notion of a deal: I was attending a meeting in Moscow when a very high-ranking member of the Russian government (whom I cannot name) must have had a last-minute cancellation on his schedule. He asked the Russian organizer of the meeting to bring over a few foreigners for an informal chat. It was supposed to last half an hour, but wound up lasting about an hour and a half.

I was listening intently to find converging and complementary interests of Russia and the United States, to be used as a basis for resetting the "reset" that got unset. I took it for granted, as a sort of Negotiations 101, that two nations can make successful deals when their interests overlap (e.g. both Russia and the U.S. are concerned about Muslim terrorists) or when their interests are complementary (e.g. we need to ship material to our troops in Afghanistan through routes other than those that Pakistan can choke off, and by offering an alternate transportation route Russia is able to improve its political standing in NATO -- and Russian freight companies benefit to the tune of $1 billion per year). However, during the meeting it became clear to me that there is another way, because there are major foreign policy items to which the Russians attribute very great importance but are of little significance to us, and vice versa. Call it a major saliency differential. This seems to lay the ground for a major deal that has yet to be struck.

The Russians are very incensed -- if you wish, unreasonable and irrational -- about the eastern expansion of NATO. Sergei Markov, a member of the Russian parliament, has held that Georgia's accession to NATO would be viewed as "an attempt to trigger a war in the Caucasus." In 2008, when NATO stated that Georgia and the Ukraine would eventually become members, General Yuri Baluyevsky went so far as to threaten military action if Georgia and the Ukraine acceded to NATO. While NATO members would like to promote democracy in former Soviet republics, such as Georgia and the Ukraine, promoting democracy in a specific country (as distinct from allowing the country to move in that direction on its own) is not high on NATO's saliency list. In effect, we have had some doubt about adding more former Soviet republics to NATO at this stage because of public opposition in the NATO countries.

The Russians are also incensed about the missile defense shield. They fear that it could unhinge the balance of terror, because if we prevent Russia from retaliating for a nuclear strike, we could hit it at will. The U.S. has already relocated the system and has offered the Russians various assurances that the system is aimed at Iran and North Korea, but the Russians believe that it could be converted to work against them and stress that the U.S. refuses to provide them with written assurances. At the same time, our engineers and scientists have grave doubts about the shield. Even if implemented, it would not be operational before 2020 and would only be able to take down some types of missiles (rather basic "primitive" ones), and the costs are prohibitive.

NATO should offer to stop the eastward expansion of NATO, say, for the next five years or some such period, and hold off on developing the missile defense shield for the same period -- in exchange for concessions from Russia that we care about deeply. One is support for whatever measures we must take against the military nuclear program of Iran (from which the Russians benefit financially but otherwise are quite uneasy about), and another is agreement to take major steps to reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons.

The situation with Iran requires acquiring Russian (and Chinese) support if the stricter sanctions regime is to work and if a military option is ultimately pursued. And much more attention must be dedicated to tactical nuclear weapons. Russia is estimated to have approximately 3,500 operational tactical nuclear weapons. They are much less well-secured than its strategic nuclear arms and are often under the control of local commanders. Some are located close to Russian borders with Muslim republics. These small nukes are much more suitable for terrorists than big bombs, mounted on intercontinental missiles. However, only strategic nukes were included in the U.S.-Russia New START. This treaty badly needs to be expanded to reduce the number of tactical nukes and better safeguard the rest from being absconded with by terrorists or sold on the black market.

If the NATO summit looks beyond finding converging and complementary interests, and draws on saliency differential of interests, it may find that it can offer Russia the mother of all deals -- a deal that Russia will not want to refuse.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). For more discussion, see

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