Argument

MAD About You

It's time to turn mutually assured destruction into mutually assured stability.

After a series of setbacks and disappointments during President Barack Obama's first term, U.S.-Russian political dialogue is finally gaining momentum. In April, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met on the margins of the G8 foreign ministers' gathering in London. Not long after, U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon called on President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where he hand-delivered a letter from Obama detailing potential areas of cooperation. This renewed diplomatic push lays the groundwork for Obama and Putin to reframe U.S.-Russian relations in their upcoming meetings at the G8 summit this week and at the G20 summit this September.

Despite the mixed results of the so-called U.S.-Russian "reset," the two leaders should embrace this opportunity to fundamentally transform U.S.-Russian relations. In doing so, they should move beyond the outdated Cold War paradigm of "mutually assured destruction" and offer the prospect of a more collaborative relationship defined by what might be termed "mutually assured stability." Broadly defined, mutually assured stability would include confidence-building measures, transparency, and predictability in the actions of both parties, concerted effort in the field of arms limitation, and expanded cooperation in jointly confronting global challenges.

The doctrine of mutually assured destruction, sometimes referred to as MAD, defined Cold War relations between Moscow and Washington. It was an appropriate paradigm for a zero-sum U.S.-Soviet relationship defined by fierce ideological and political competition around the world. Massive nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert ensured a cold peace between the two superpowers throughout the Cold War, despite the emergence of "hot" proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

That paradigm no longer fits today's globalized, multipolar world. Today, the United States and Russia have many interests in common. To be sure, the two countries still have significant differences over issues like the conflict in Syria. But our bilateral relationship is far broader and richer today than at any point during the Cold War. Today, Russians and Americans do not fear a nuclear attack from their Cold War rival. Instead, extremism, terrorism, natural disasters, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and environmental catastrophe are the greatest risks to the citizens of both countries. Protecting the public from these threats requires international cooperation, particularly between great powers like the United States and Russia.

Fortunately, the post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relationship is defined by much more than a narrow security agenda. A focus on threats has been replaced by the prospect of opportunity and prosperity. Globalization and open markets have made Americans and Russians trading and investment partners, facilitated greater scientific cooperation between the two countries, and offered new opportunities for cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

Russian and American political leaders have acknowledged this new reality. But they have yet to take concrete steps to usher in a new strategic relationship and establish a common security framework. This summer affords Obama and Putin a perfect opportunity to do just that.

For the last decade, both Republican and Democratic administrations in the United States have framed U.S.-Russian cooperation on ballistic missile threats as an opportunity to fundamentally transform the bilateral relationship. Yet attempts at fostering cooperation have failed, in part because of Russian concerns that U.S anti-missile capabilities could ultimately threaten the Russian intercontinental ballistic missile deterrent.

The Obama administration's recent decision to restructure Phase IV of the European missile defense program, cancelling the production of SM3-IIB interceptors, constitutes a major inflection point in U.S.-Russian relations -- potentially clearing the way for deeper cooperation in the future. By cancelling the SM3-IIB interceptor program, Washington has removed the part of the missile defense system that Moscow feared could threaten its nuclear deterrent. This important American policy change -- a result of funding shortages and technological challenges -- is an important opportunity to finally forge significant cooperation between Russia, the United States, and NATO on European missile defense.

It is time for Obama and Putin to say "yes" to U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation. Fortunately, much of the hard work has been done already. American and Russian negotiators came close to reaching an agreement on missile defense cooperation in 2010, but circumstances at the time prevented our leaders from seizing the opportunity for agreement. With Russian and American elections behind us, both countries can restart negotiations in a less politicized environment.

Making the most of this strategic moment will require political commitments from both Obama and Putin to prioritize U.S.-Russian cooperation. Such a political agreement will open the door for technical cooperation to proceed. This could include advancing a previous proposal -- brought forward by Putin and further elaborated on by the Pentagon -- to create a joint fusion center. This would increase coordination on plans and exercises, and enhance technical cooperation. The transparency afforded by such initiatives would further assuage Russian concerns, while the coordination itself would help Russia defend its territory.

U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense could fundamentally change the bilateral relationship. It would shift the paradigm of U.S.-Russian strategic relations from ensuring the ability to destroy one another to jointly protecting the two countries from common ballistic missile threats. The United States and Russia spent 20 years searching in vain for the right key to unlock the door to a cooperative future. The world is changing fast and we cannot afford another 20 years of missed opportunities. Now is the time to move the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship from mutually assured destruction to mutually assured stability.

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GettyImages

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