Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan first met in Geneva 25 years ago. Their meeting on November 19, 1985, did not produce any tangible results but ushered in an era of perestroika in Soviet foreign policy that led to the end of the Cold War and ideological confrontation and largely contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Strange as it may seem, but this past quarter century is stunning not so much by the obvious scale of change as by the extreme conceptual inertia of its politics. It is amazing how little the Russian-U.S. agenda has changed since then. It has merely been turned on its head as the two sides swapped roles.
In the mid 1980s, the Soviet Union enjoyed a considerable conventional advantage in Europe that troubled the United States and NATO. They tried to make up for this by stockpiling nuclear weapons. Moscow’s confidence, however, was drawn from its conventional strength and Russia willingly put forward high-profile initiatives on nuclear arms cuts.
Beset with mounting economic difficulties since the first half of the 1980s, the Soviet Union was trying to cut costs by restraining the arms race and Gorbachev bet the ranch in 1986 by proposing the complete destruction of nuclear weapons by 2000. He discussed the initiative with Reagan at their second meeting in Reykjavik in fall 1986; the agreement they had been expected to sign collapsed at the last moment.
The U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a proposed universal missile defense shield that, according to Reagan, would cancel out the nuclear threat, proved to be a stumbling block in both Geneva and Reykjavik.
A quarter-century later, U.S. missile defense still evokes heated debates in Russian-U.S. relations and as before, it is unclear if SDI can really work. The sides are discussing reduction of nuclear warheads and carriers but now everything is reversed. It is the United States that today enjoys supremacy in conventional weapons, allowing it to be one of the brashest flag-wavers for a “nuclear-free world.” It is as if President Barack Obama took the baton from Gorbachev and ran with it.
By contrast, Russia now sees its nuclear arsenal as a guarantee of its sovereignty and international status because, given their current state, it cannot afford to rely on its conventional forces. So Washington’s noble appeals for a nuclear-free world meet with little enthusiasm in Moscow – just polite formal support.
However, the United States’ serious economic problems compel it to consider cutting its defense budget and therefore its military presence abroad. The need to save money will probably prompt it to revert to the idea that nuclear weapons are the best deterrent and the optimal way of attaining political goals when funds are scarce. With Obama’s departure, nuclear-free rhetoric may gradually grind to a halt.
The range of problems remains largely the same but the situation has fundamentally changed. A quarter-century ago, the threat of a nuclear war was perceived by many as very real indeed, and the talks on how to alleviate it were seen as being a guarantee of stability, not as mere rhetoric. The talks in Geneva and Reykjavik had the entire world riveted. Soviet-U.S. relations were the backbone of international politics and the actions of other major countries were mostly shaped by the dialogue between the two superpowers.
Although Russia and the United States are still nuclear giants, their maneuvers around the START treaty, missile defense and strategic stability are only of interest to specialists and even then, not globally. The threat of a nuclear clash between the superpowers is no longer perceived as real. The public remains largely indifferent to what agreement the sides reach on the percentage by which the weapons stockpiles will be cut. And, vitally, these two countries no longer rule the world.
Despite all the drastic changes on the world stage, Russian-U.S. relations remain extremely sluggish. One explanation is that the nuclear deterrent lies at their core. That is not set to change so long as both maintain their nuclear arsenals. Neither side is likely to unilaterally volunteer a reduction: that would, especially for Russia, risk a sharp decline in the global status and a similarly sharp spike in the security threat… This is a vicious circle. Ironically, the initial reason for stockpiling these arsenals has long ceased to exist.
The ruling classes’ mentality is also proving slow to change. Conceptually, Russia is still readying itself to take on NATO although the alliance itself is totally confused and the scale of genuine threats is changing all the time. In America, any attempt to cast aspersions on the usual ideological and political paradigm (even Obama’s modest bid) provokes powerful resistance. The Republican comeback is likely to cause another wave of high-flown rhetoric about U.S. leadership and moral advantage. But it seems that even this will quickly subside. The reality of this century will compel even die-hard conservatives to revise their priorities so they can respond to completely new challenges. Once that has happened, Russia and America will finally be able to see each other differently.