No Longer the SALT of the Earth

What has changed about the super power summits since the end of the Cold War?

June 23, 2002

What has changed about the super power summits since the end of the Cold War?

In May 22, 1972 Richard Nixon arrived in Russia. I was living in Moscow then, and I remember that visit well. Soviet authorities spent months preparing for it, razing run-down buildings along his route from the airport — and giving flaking facades a fresh coat of paint.

Usually bare store shelves in the center of town, where nosy foreign journalists were bound to peek, were stuffed with sausage and Marlboro cigarettes.

Even more importantly, Yury the Sun, the head of Moscow’s miniscule hippie commune, was packed off to a mental institution for the duration of Mr. Nixon’s visit. At the time, U.S. cities were exploding with anti-war protests and race riots — and one of the reasons Mr. Nixon had decided to come to Moscow was to heal the rifts opening up in U.S. society as a result of the Vietnam War.

Soviet leaders were apparently determined to show Mr. Nixon that decadent long-haired kids, and their subversive counterculture, didn’t exist in the Soviet Union.

In the past, superpower summits were a lot of fun. Who can forget the images of U.S. President Jimmy Carter smooching Communist Party apparatchik-style with Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev? That kiss may have cost Mr. Carter a second term in office.

By contrast, Ronald Reagan was impressive, standing tall to a succession of Soviet leaders — and lecturing them on their various transgressions.

Even in the 1990s, after the Cold War had come to an end, the world used to enjoy the sight of Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton exchanging bear-hugs. They just loved swapping world-leader bonhomie in what in retrospect looks like a remarkably care-free period of world history.

But the summits of the past were not merely pomp and circumstance. There was also substance. Even at their first meeting in 1972, Mr. Nixon and Comrade Brezhnev signed a number of milestone agreements, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Defense Treaty. It obligated the two superpowers not to build defenses against a nuclear strike by the other.

A succession of summits and treaties followed. First there were two Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, which like popular Hollywood sequels were called SALT I and II. Then, in 1992, from arms limitations the two superpowers moved to strategic arms reduction, and two more treaties followed, START I and II.

Not all treaties were successful, and some died before getting ratified. But those treaties were huge steps toward building channels of communication between Washington and Moscow.

More importantly, they reduced suspicions and misunderstanding, a major factor in many previous wars, for instance the bloody World War I. For the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, they raised hope that a nuclear holocaust could be avoided — or at least that the two superpowers would not destroy the world through some silly accident.

A series of summits between Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush, Sr. in the late 1980s and the early 1990s were crucial for the shape of the world we live in today. They may not have established Mr. Bush’s vaunted “New World Order”.

But they made sure that the great Soviet Empire disintegrated peacefully and laid the foundation of the subsequent political and economic integration of Europe.

Judged against the great summits of the past, the summits that take place these days between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin don’t measure up.

Even when held in Russia, they cause hardly a stir among the Moscovites — except for some grumbling from motorists when the city’s horribly clogged streets are closed for the official motorcades.

Previous summits were meetings between rivals or partners — but at least they were negotiations between equals. The leaders of the two countries talked about easing tensions, not only on a bilateral level, but also in other hot spots around the world.

Now, the Bush Administration is determined to establish the United States as the world’s only superpower, while giving Russia a minor supporting role. Yet, with the United States as a self-appointed guardian of world peace, these summits emit little sense of security and reassurance. Rather, it is the other way around.

While Mr. Bush visited Moscow in late May, the two newest nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, stood ready to destroy each other — and the rest of the world along with them — over a minor territorial dispute.

In fact, the new sense of doom emanating from Kashmir in a large measure overshadowed the signing of a radical arms reduction treaty signed by Russia and the United States during Mr. Bush’s visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg, which slashed their arsenals of nuclear warheads to a fraction of their original numbers.

While Mr. Putin has been remarkably restrained about U.S. foreign policy, ordinary Russians are far from happy. It may not be a coincidence that two weeks after Mr. Bush’s visit to Russia, Russian soccer fans rioted on Moscow streets.

Unlike American anti-war protesters three decades ago, they were not driven by some idealistic visions or hopes of improving the world. Triggered by a Russian loss in World Cup, Russian kids exploded in a fit of unfocused, nationalistic rage. But then again, judging by the standards of another former great power, England, that is almost a welcome sign of normalcy these days.