Precise quid pro quos are not good in marital or romantic relationships. Neither are they good 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, with friends or indeed with enemies, the great need is to change the atmosphere: to restore a sense of trust so that opinions and arrangements can be freely traded. One good step by one side encourages, but does not demand, a good step by the other side.
At the end of the cold war, we saw such magnanimity. And we, the peoples of American, Russian, Europe and the rest of the world, benefited immensely from it. Two great presidents were responsible for this: George Bush senior in the US 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 the missiles in 10 Poseidon submarines (enough with one launch to destroy Moscow, Leningrad and every city in between). Gorbachev, taking this as his cue, deactivated 500 land-based nuclear-tipped missiles and six submarines (enough in total to reduce the most populated parts of the US to ashes and dust). This wasn’t, moreover, the cosmetic de-alerting talked about today. Silo 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 famous “reset button.” Although apparently warmly received, his letter to President Dimitri Medvedev—suggesting that the US was open to discussion on the dismantling of the anti-missile site now being constructed on Polish soil, if Russia would lean harder on Iran to halt any programs that would lead to nuclear weapons—was misconceived.
What it should have said is simply this: “President George W Bush made a policy that the US no longer stands by. We want to reopen discussions with you that will lead to our abandonment of the project”. Full stop. Period. The rest would then follow.
Moscow already knows that the US wants to toughen up Russian policy towards Iran. It has already taken important steps towards that…