A Chance for a Nuclear-Free World

Obama and Medvedev must work to succeed where Reagan and Gorbachev failed.

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.

A renewed bilateral commitment to arms control will also help advance the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. With the NPT Review Conference approaching in 2010, states that don't possess nuclear weapons are looking for the United States and Russia to demonstrate meaningful progress on their disarmament obligations. The reluctance of the United States and Russia to do so in the past has hindered diplomatic efforts to strengthen the treaty's enforcement provisions and increase the monitoring capabilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Taking concrete steps on disarmament now will help us to move forward on these and other critical nonproliferation tasks, including those that will directly affect the ability of countries such as Iran to achieve nuclear weapons capability. Progress on nuclear disarmament should also create the conditions for U.S.-Russian cooperation on a joint system to defend against rogue missile threats.

The United States has many other critical nonproliferation and security objectives that require the full cooperation and support of Russia, and that will be advanced by progress with Russia on arms control. The highly successful "Nunn-Lugar" Cooperative Threat Reduction programs steadily continue to reduce the possibility of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands. The two countries already work closely on preventing nuclear terrorism by monitoring and intercepting suspect cargo around the world, a program that can be expanded to the benefit of all. The United States and Russia can extend that cooperation to include countering drugs and small-arms trade that supports violent extremist groups and poses threats to both countries.

In February, we signed a bipartisan statement from the Partnership for a Secure America that laid out a road map for improving the relationship between the United States and Russia. Of the six steps we listed, only one involved curbing the two countries' respective nuclear arsenals. And that is how it should be. Nuclear weapons are a part of the shared history of the two countries, but they should not be the dominant factor in our collective future. It is time to move beyond the Cold War with a firm commitment to reduce and eliminate its most dangerous legacy. President Obama's visit to Moscow is the next step in that process, but hardly the last.

Epsilon/Getty Images


Cut Bibi Some Slack

Why Obama's hard line on Israeli settlements is counterproductive.

Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel's prime minister on March 31. Within weeks, the Obama administration launched a high-profile public campaign to confront Israel's new leader on the issue that most divides the two governments: Israel's settlements in the West Bank.

It was an unusual way to welcome the new leader of a close friend of the United States. Why did the Obama team veer so sharply off the normal course? Diplomacy toward an ally normally begins with building relations of trust on areas of agreement, and only later engaging discreetly on issues where there are sharp differences. Why instead did the administration team roll out a campaign of diktats, beginning May 28 in front of cameras at a press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister, virtually nailing a decree to Netanyahu's door announcing that President Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it. Why so dismissively brush aside understandings crafted by the George W. Bush's administration, understandings that had achieved a significant reduction of settlement construction albeit not a total freeze? Why would an unnamed source in the administration boast to the Washington Post on June 30, "We have not changed our position at all, nor has the president authorized any negotiating room"?

One explanation for this bizarre behavior is "Yes, we can" syndrome -- the prevailing belief in Washington that this president holds 99 percent of the cards and can get people to do things beyond what normally can be achieved. Even some in Jerusalem believe that Netanyahu cannot say "no" to Barack Obama, especially on the settlement issue where there Israel has little support in Congress and even the American Jewish community is divided and paralyzed.  

The theory that Obama holds the high cards rests on the results that George H.W. Bush got when he confronted a different Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, over settlements in September 1991. Nine months after Bush threw down the settlements gauntlet, Israeli voters ejected Shamir and replaced him with Labor's Yitzhak Rabin, opening the way to the Oslo accords.

But this comparison is misleading. Obama's confrontation is taking place mere weeks after the formation of a new Israeli government, not months before an Israeli prime minister has to face his voters again. What's more, Israeli voters have elected the most conservative Knesset in Israel's history. The parties of the left -- Labor and Meretz -- had 56 seats in 1992, but they have shrunk to 16 seats today. The real pressure on Netanyahu in today's Israel is from the right. If Obama hopes to invigorate the country's moribund left, he's in for a rude shock: the gains it would need to force either new elections or a different coalition more compliant to U.S. demands are daunting.

Moreover, the hawks have many ways to constrain and compel the prime minister. In fact, Netanyahu is in the opposite position of Shamir. Succumbing to U.S. pressure is the one thing that might bring Bibi down, but keeping the conservatives in his coalition offers him every prospect of serving a full term until the next scheduled Israeli election in 2013. Netanyahu can, and will, say "no" if his only choice is the one the Obama team is now offering: total capitulation.

Netanyahu does have the political strength to reaffirm previous compromises made by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to limit natural growth. This includes the "construction line" principle that would restrict development to infill construction within already built-up areas while preventing further geographic expansion beyond the outer line of existing structures. But the Israeli prime minister does not have the legal authority, let alone the necessary political foundation, to impose an absolute and complete freeze on all construction in all settlements. Few in Israel are prepared to freeze construction in the "blocs," today primarily those on the Israeli side of the security fence, that the Clinton administration anticipated would be annexed to Israel as part of a land swap creating a Palestinian state. Nor does Netanyahu have either the legal authority or the support of the public to ban Jewish housing inside the juridical boundaries of Jerusalem, on land that might have been outside Israel's borders before 1967 but was formally annexed to Israel a quarter century ago by the Jerusalem law of 1980.

The Obama administration would be smarter to play a more nuanced game and make the distinctions it is avoiding. Only a minority of Israelis support construction of housing in outlying settlements beyond Israel's security fence, but construction in the blocs and especially in Jewish communities in Jerusalem is supported by the vast majority of the Israeli public and all the major political parties. Absolutist demands for a total freeze may win applause in the United States even from some in the U.S. Jewish community, but they go much too far to succeed in the real world.

If Obama's purpose in authorizing this confrontation was to provide an incentive to the Palestinians and the moderate states in the Arab League to take the steps they need to take for peace, his policy is likely to fail on this measure as well. Reinforcing the long-standing belief in the Arab world that the United States can "deliver" Israel if it only has the will reduces Arab incentives to make concessions in direct negotiations with Israel, rather than increasing them. It is only natural for Arab leaders to conclude, "Why negotiate with the difficult Israelis, when you can get your American friends to do the work for you?" The American message should be exactly the reverse: "You have to negotiate with the Israelis. We cannot do it for you."

Netanyahu knows he will need to compromise on settlements, but he can do this only if Obama compromises too. An impasse on this issue certainly does not serve Israel's interests, but it will not advance the goals of the Obama administration either. The U.S. president's advisers need to see that, on settlements, like so many issues, the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.

Amos Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images