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Russia: Not Ready for Obama

As President Obama heads to Russia, our discussions with various American and Russian representatives show that stove-piping is blocking what could be a major multifaceted deal. The main negotiations in preparation for the president's visit are taking place in tightly controlled compartments.

Those who deal with reductions in strategic weapons are not authorized to deal with matters concerning members in the World Trade Organization and access to American markets, and trade representatives do not deal with matters concerning nuclear weapons -- and neither is charged with enlisting Russia's help in convincing Iran to give up its military nuclear ambitions. In effect, this way of negotiating is typical, as highly specialized issues are involved, and the various negotiators represent different parts of the government, each with its own policies and authorities.

In this case, however, we hold that a major deal can be made only if points gained in one area are used to gain concessions in other areas -- because of the highly asymmetrical profile of US and Russian interests in the various areas.

The Russians, for example, are keen to reduce the number of strategic nuclear arms because of the high costs of maintaining them, while the United States has little to gain financially from such a reduction, although it may be to garner some goodwill from other countries in demonstrating US commitment to a nuclear drawdown. In contrast, the US cares more about winning Russia's support for serious sanctions on Iran if it endlessly drags out the discussion about its nuclear plans. Russia, in contrast, sees mainly losses in such a move, as Iran is one of its best customers and serves as a counterweight to US influence in the Middle East.

The Iranian issue is further connected to US plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russians feel threatened by such a system and want the United States to stop deployment. But the solution under discussion -- substituting the Polish and Czech deployments for a cooperative missile defense using radars in southern Russia and Azerbaijan -- may do little for the US unless it can be assured that the system is effective against Iranian missile threats.

A similar disparity in threat perception has blocked further progress in preventing nuclear terrorism. The United States, in particular, has a strong interest in blocking terrorists from getting their hands on thousands of Russian tactical nuclear weapons or on hundreds of tons of Russian fissile material. Russia, which should be equally concerned, is not. Instead, Moscow feels the need to preserve its tactical nuclear weapons to counter its conventional military inferiority vis-à-vis NATO. Here, it would help negotiators to be empowered to discuss conventional military forces in Europe.

Further exacerbating the conventional military imbalance is US plans to develop prompt global strike conventional weapons. Moscow perceives these highly accurate arms as threatening to its strategic nuclear weapons while Washington wants better military capabilities to target terrorists.

In all these cases, points gained by yielding in areas in which Russia has strong interests must be used to gain concessions in the areas the US has keen interests, and vice versa. In this situation, looking for shared or complementary interests area by area is not going to work. Cross-sector deals may well succeed.

Making such cross-sector deals is the job of the Secretary of State, the National Security Council, and ultimately the president. However, before they can act on such a complex and multifaceted deal, the ground must be prepared. As far as we can tell these preparations are not proceeding at a pace we find reassuring, and time is running out.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University and the author of
Security First (Yale, 2007). Charles D. Ferguson is the Philip D. Reed senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the project director of the Independent Task Force Report on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy.