In their first face-to-face meeting this week, President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, agreed that the two countries should get back to nuclear arms control. That might seem retro, and not particularly relevant in the post cold-war age.
But the direction set by the two presidents is very much 21st-century. And it's hard to imagine a better way to "reset" this troubled relationship than to hit the weapons-negotiation button.
First, about the relationship, which both presidents diplomatically describe as "drifting."
Russia would like to be seen as an equal partner with the US in managing the world's problems. Maybe someday this will be possible, but not while Moscow acts like a czarist imperialist, claiming a "sphere of influence" over its neighbors, relying on force and threats in places like Georgia. Not while it unnerves Europe by turning off the energy tap in mid-winter. Not while it clamps down on freedoms at home, and journalists, activists, and political opponents end up jailed, beaten, and even dead.
The nuclear arena, however, is one area where Moscow and Washington share stature. It's smart to converge on an issue where the two countries have equal footing.
As for relevance today, the act of Russia and the US negotiating nuclear arms reductions sets a positive example for nuclear-ambitious countries such as Iran and North Korea (though one could also argue that reductions might motivate countries with smaller arsenals, such as China, to seek parity).
In recent years, Washington and Moscow have unilaterally withdrawn from security treaties: the US in 2001, when it quit the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and Russia in 2007, when it pulled out of the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement.
Both countries had their reasons, but it's hard to convince others to hold to pacts when you don't do it yourself.
At the same time, it was encouraging to see Russia agree in a joint statement with the US that Iran must comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as the nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.
The world also shudders at the thought of freelance terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons. With arms control, fewer nukes mean fewer possibilities of wayward nukes.
Specifically, the two presidents agreed to immediately begin negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or START), which was signed in 1991 and expires at the end of this year. START brought nuclear warheads down to 6,000 each. The 2002 Treaty of Moscow followed up with cuts down to 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012. Officials from both sides suggested the renegotiation might reduce nuclear arsenals by a third, to 1,500 warheads each.
The US-Russian joint statement went beyond START, and called for international negotiations to end production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. And, in a first, the statement said, "We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear-free world."
The Obama-Medvedev meeting was light on the personal and heavy on the technical. That seems to match these two young, lawyerly presidents. It puts the focus on shared interests, as opposed to shared democratic values. Perhaps if these two countries can settle their differences over interests, they might someday begin to share values.