Jonathan Power: On How Not to Press the Reset Button

By Jonathan Power

Precise quid pro quos are not good in marital or romantic relationships. Neither do they work well in big time politics. If made too precisely, they suggest that the other side is not to be trusted unless there is a “deal.”

When there is conflict—either at home, with friends, or indeed with enemies—one needs to change the atmosphere, to restore a sense of trust so that opinions and arrangements can be freely traded. One good turn encourages, but not demands, a good turn by the other side.

At the end of the Cold War, we saw such magnanimity and Americans, Russians, Europeans, and the rest of the world benefited immensely from it.

Two great presidents were responsible for this—George H. W. Bush in the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. In 1991, Bush decided unilaterally to de-alert all bombers, 450 of the deadly accurate city-destroying Minuteman missiles, and missiles in ten Poseidon submarines (each with enough warheads to destroy Moscow, Leningrad, and every city in between). Gorbachev, taking the cue, deactivated 500 land-based nuclear tipped missiles and six submarines (weapons that could have reduced the most populated parts of the United States to ashes and dust).

Moreover, this wasn’t the cosmetic de-alerting that’s talked about today. Missile silos and submarine crews actually had their launch keys taken away from them.

This is why President Barack Obama (if The New York Times has got the story right) has made a big mistake in his opening move following the pressing of the now-infamous “reset button.” His letter to President Dimitri Medvedev suggesting that Washington was open to discussions on the dismantling of the anti-missile site now being constructed on Polish soil (if Russia would lean harder on Iran to halt its presumed nuclear weapons program) was misconceived.

What his letter should have said is simply, “President George W. Bush initiated a policy that the United States no longer stands by. We want to reopen discussions with you that will lead to our abandonment of said project.” Full stop. Period.

Then, once the reset button starts the music, the notes will start to write themselves, so long as the mood remains good.

Moscow knows that Washington wants to toughen up Russian policy towards Iran. But Moscow has already taken important steps towards that end with the responsible way it has handled the building and fueling of the new Iranian Bushehr reactor. It has also voted in the UN Security Council for sanctions. Further toughening on policy towards Iran would unlikely gather much resistance in the Kremlin, especially if it sees Washington extending its hand rather than its clenched fist towards Tehran—a long overdue necessity if negotiations are to prove positive.

It is important, too, that the West puts itself in Russian shoes. The regime of George Bush, Sr. was exceedingly cautious in not threatening the Soviet Union. Indeed, though Bush certainly hastened the end of the regime, he would have preferred it to remain whole—rather than split up into Russia and unstable independent former republics.

It wasn’t until Bill Clinton was president that the United States became more aggressive, deciding to expand NATO across the former Warsaw Pact nations right up to the Russian border. This broke the agreement between Gorbachev and then-Secretary of State James Baker (made in a private meeting) that if Moscow would allow East and West Germany to reunite, then Washington agree that “there would no extension of NATO’s current jurisdiction eastward.”

George Kennan, the author of the original containment policy towards Stalin’s Soviet Union, said that Clinton’s policy “was the most fateful error of the entire post-Cold War era.” And Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Washington’s crucial error lay in its propensity to treat post-Soviet Russia as a defeated enemy.”

Obama should use Bush, Sr. as a model for how to conduct relations with Russia. Indeed, the spirit of cooperation during the former president’s tenure was remarkable: the years between 1990 and 1993 were the longest period without use of the Security Council veto in the history of the United Nations. Such constructive collaboration could surely happen again, but Obama must dispense with the quid pro quos and offer the hand of friendship without preconditions.

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