During this sustained pendulum swing between overly detailed considerations that confuse and catchy catastrophic buzzwords which help to distract, the national conversation has all but forgotten the big picture. Taking a step back to understand the basic realities of the legacy from over a half-century, Russia has always remained the principal focus of US strategic nuclear weapons policy throughout the history of this arsenal.
After most Americans quickly lost interest in weapons of mass destruction at the conclusion of the Soviet era in 1991, a fundamental reality has still lurked in the shadows amid today’s mainstream misperceptions surrounding most things related to Russia. Since the conclusion of World War II, Moscow has continually been perceived as the country’s greatest potential nuclear foe based on yesterday’s stockpiles. While American policymakers and outside experts often view these issues separately, the direct connection between relations with the Russian Government and U.S. nuclear strategy could not be more clear cut.
The complete lack of substance in today’s related analyses and debates has served as a conduit for seemingly relentless foreign policy problems. This crisis in the making continued to come to a head in recent weeks. Among the latest steps in an ongoing downward path of bilateral relations, the disintegration of a treaty on the disposal of plutonium marks yet another low after the end of the first Cold War. Meanwhile, negotiations on Syria came to an abrupt end. Further progress in this perilous direction can only be expected without a change of tactics.
One remarkably simple concept offers a viable pathway out of the current mess. In July 2016, I gave an academic lecture in Moscow that explained the concept of mutual respect. Although my speech closely paralleled other talks I have given in the past around the world, the greater recent attention to this latest edition partially corresponds to a recent increased interest in Russia among American audiences. While the fundamental point regarding the potential for mutual respect has been lost in the subsequent debate, some U.S. Congressional leaders have called for a farcical federal investigation of my actions on unfounded, spurious grounds.
President Obama has advocated for the concept of mutual respect in a domestic context, but a step back from the high-handed brink of today’s diplomacy could help to create a lasting change in the trajectory of global affairs. In contrast to the idea of mutual respect, the U.S. Government’s actions in the domestic democratic processes of Russia’s neighboring states stand as a primary example of interference in the international arena. Among the national interests of Moscow and in light of continued instability, Ukraine has risen as a primary example of these same trends. While no simple answer to these problems exist, a complete disregard for Russia’s interests further increases the expected longevity of today’s downward trajectory.
From Syria to Ukraine to world energy policy, Russia remains an essential piece in the puzzle for solving many of Washington’s most pressing geostrategic challenges. It may be easy to forget the issue of nuclear weapons policy since the technical nature of this field entails deep study and consideration. Nevertheless, the risks of weapons of mass destruction in an increasingly confrontational relationship should bring it toward the top of the list of topics for future debate. And respect, not provocation, can prevail if we are to succeed in reversing the current stance of mutual contempt.