The Edward Snowden drama has skipped from Washington through Hawaii and Hong Kong and into Moscow.
Now, the storyline is back to Washington. Thanks to Russia’s decision to grant Snowden asylum for a year, Obama canceled a bilateral meeting with President Vladimir Putin that was slated for September 5 ahead of the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Snowden story, with his newfound political asylum status, has become another piece in the Rubik’s Cube that is U.S.-Russian relations. It includes the conflict in Syria, the transfer of advanced technologies to Iran, and discriminatory laws against gays that are prompting many people to call for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, which will take place in the Russian city of Sochi.
I’ve been following U.S.-Russian relations for more than four decades and I’m sure of one thing: We all need to take a step back and breathe deeply. The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, rarely comes across as a Russia fan, but he described the current tit-for-tat of negative relations as childish.
“One thing we can do is realize that Russia is maybe not our best friend at all times,” the California Republican said.
“This is a chance for them to stick their finger in our eye. We’re acting like children.” Since the Cold War began, both of the world’s leading nuclear powers have found ways to poke each other while still pursuing high-level cooperation on key issues. U.S.- Russian relations have run hot-and-cold but the two countries have continued to work for solutions that are in the economic and security interests of both.
For example, Washington and Moscow have worked cooperatively on preventing the spread of nuclear materials by encasing hundreds of pounds of dangerous plutonium in cement. They’ve also cooperated in other ways — for example, Russia supplied information on the Boston Marathon bombers.
Over the last six decades, U.S. and Russian diplomats have shown an ability to compartmentalize their relationship to pursue solutions that benefit their mutual security and pocketbooks.
The remaining global stockpile of more than 17,000 nuclear weapons is one of these issues.
The most recent example occurred in 2008-2009. In 2008, Russia invaded South Ossetia, Georgia. That operation triggered strong diplomatic condemnations from Washington, but both countries continued reducing their nuclear stockpiles.
Not only does pursuing a bilateral arms-reduction agenda in the face of less-than-stellar diplomatic relations make strategic sense, it makes economic sense. Nuclear weapons are expensive to build and maintain. Despite our current atmosphere of budget austerity, the United States is on track to spend $640 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade, according to an estimate compiled by Ploughshares Fund. That’s larger than the estimated size of this year’s budget deficit.
Managing U.S.- Russian relations is far from a science. Talking is the first and most important step toward ensuring cost savings and greater security.
John Isaacs is the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Council for a Livable World. ArmsControlCenter.org