This week in Moscow, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are holding a summit meeting that will heavily influence the next decade of U.S.-Russian relations. If the two leaders strike up a personal and political rapport, it could unfreeze a relationship that became icy in the final years of the Bush and Putin administrations. If the summit produces less favorable results, it could intensify mistrust and leave several foreign policy wounds to fester.
The most important agenda item at the summit is the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a 1991 agreement that reduced deployed U.S. and Russian strategic warheads by 40 percent, cut bombers and missiles, and included thorough verification measures. Since START expires in December, Obama and Medvedev are racing against the clock to negotiate a follow-on agreement.
Unfortunately, the political momentum for this agreement has been hindered by other concerns, including congressional Republicans' worries that the U.S. missile defense site in Europe might be traded away during negotiations. Both Obama and Medvedev have stated that this round of negotiations will not deal with missile defense, however, so Republicans' criticism is unfounded and should not distract the American public from the compelling need for a successor agreement to follow START.
The only appropriate mission for our nuclear weapons is to deter the use of nuclear weapons against us and our allies. Yet this concept of deterrence does not apply to terrorists, whose willingness to commit suicide in pursuit of fanatical objectives -- and lack of a fixed geographical territory that the United States can retaliate against -- make them immune to traditional deterrence strategies. In fact, the massive U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, comprising some 95 percent of the total global stockpile, actually increase the risk that terrorists could steal the materials necessary for a crude but devastating nuclear attack on U.S. soil.
Besides reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism, a START follow-on agreement would bring the United States and Russia back into the habit of working together. Improved bilateral relations might lead to breakthroughs on other important issues. For instance, Russia might be persuaded to take a stronger stance against North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs. Efforts to disrupt terrorist financing operations could be expanded. And Russian energy supplies, so crucial to European markets, could be shielded from the volatility that accompanies disagreements and conflicts between the United States and Russia.
In the United States, there is overwhelming bipartisan support for step-by-step nuclear weapons reductions. Republicans in favor of the effort include such luminaries as Senator John McCain, Senator Dick Lugar, Henry Kissinger, former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, former Reagan Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, and former George H.W. Bush Secretary of State James Baker. These aren't woolly-headed academics or naïve idealists. These are men who have devoted their lives to protecting the security of the United States. Their support for a START follow-on agreement demonstrates the advantages and widespread support the initiative enjoys.
Mutual arms reductions have a long and proud history that stretches back into the darkest days of the Cold War. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who no one could accuse of being soft on Communism, frequently signed arms control agreements with the Soviet Union to foster stability and control the arms race. The same rationale motivates President Obama today, except that the need for tighter controls over nuclear stockpiles is even greater in this age of new and dangerous threats.
With a nuclear arsenal that, even after a START follow-on agreement, will still be able to wreak incalculable havoc at the press of a button, the United States is in no danger of losing its military dominance anytime soon. Reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles will make both countries safer by lessening the threat of nuclear terrorism and reviving a cooperative relationship between the two nations. It is imperative that progress on these objectives be concluded in Moscow.
Robert Gard, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former president of both National Defense University and the Monterey Institute of International Studies, is chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where Travis Sharp is military policy analyst.