Nuclear weapons were not the only item on the agenda at the pivotal 1986 Reykjavik summit. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev discussed issues ranging from human rights to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But understandably, nuclear weapons were at the heart of the talks, and today, the summit is mainly remembered for how the two leaders came within a hair's breadth of agreeing to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within 10 years.
Two decades later, as U.S. President Barack Obama meets in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the agenda is similarly crowded, with concerns ranging from logistics in Afghanistan to the status of Russia's satellite states. But as the Obama administration seeks a complete reset of the U.S.-Russia relationship, progress on nuclear weapons must still be the top priority.
The political environment on disarmament and nonproliferation has changed drastically in recent months. Both countries have agreed in principle to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Talks to create a disarmament mechanism to replace the expiring Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) are well underway. For the first time in many years, it seems likely that the United States and Russia will make dramatic moves toward fulfilling their Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) disarmament obligations.
Improved U.S.-Russian cooperation would be generally beneficial on a range of problems. But on no other issue does so much depend on the agreements reached by just two countries. Combined, the United States and Russia account for more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. If the two countries do not come to a strong and bold new agreement, then there will be no disarmament. Nor will there be any real chance to preserve and strengthen the NPT. It is that simple.
Some will say that arms-control treaties are relics of the Cold War, but a new agreement can help us define the future. The successor to START need not be about control, but instead can focus on collaboration. The strategic purpose of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals has evolved over the last two decades. The two countries no longer stand unblinking on opposite sides of the ocean, facing each other down with the threat of mutually assured destruction. Today, both sides can approach disarmament as a cooperative global exercise with mutually beneficial outcomes.
If START expires in December without a successor, there will be no agreed legal mechanism for controlling nuclear arsenals on both sides. This would be far more costly and dangerous for the United States than any cuts in its own nuclear arsenal. The 2002 Treaty of Moscow (SORT) will remain in force, but it is not an adequate replacement since it has no verification mechanisms and can be easily ignored by both parties. Disarmament is an exercise that is too complicated to occur on its own without a formal agreement. Uncertainty breeds mistrust, which neither the United States nor Russia can afford right now. The absence of a formal agreement may not result in a new arms race, but even the specter of such a possibility is enough to make achieving other goals that much more difficult.