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Time for cooler negotiations between Obama, Putin

REYKJAVIK, Iceland

Volcanoes and glaciers, fire and ice, are dominant features of this moonscape-pocked island nation. How fitting that more than a generation ago the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union came to talk disarmament in the heat of the Cold War.

Ballistic missile eruptions and a Soviet-supported Nuclear Freeze movement were all on the table here at Höfði, home of the testy U.S.-Soviet summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. That chilly encounter resulted in disagreement and accusation, but it was a venue where positions were clarified, a measure of each man was taken, and, incredibly, the basis for a lasting nuclear treaty was catalyzed.

There was not much time for sightseeing for the global leaders; locals still complain that they never caught sight of Reagan as he was cordoned off and spirited back and forth to the embassy residence. Their menus were not filled with the local Icelandic fare: the fermented shark and whale steaks. The leaders also missed going into the belly of a 4,500-year dormant volcano, down into the cone and into the eerie cathedral of hardened lava, seeping groundwater dripping on visitors. But they had enough excitement ahead of them with the world on a constant nuclear brink.

Today, it is hard to imagine that the whole summit and the various arms control treaties that followed teetered on total failure because of an unproven, untested technology derisively referred to as “Star Wars.”

Our screens are now filled with YouTube or Vice.com streams showing Israeli “Iron Dome” interceptors and American “Patriot” missile batteries knocking out Hamas rockets or Scuds in midair. It seems distantly quaint to think back to the chilly October 1986 Reykjavik summit, where the negotiation sticking point was Reagan’s plan to shoot offensive missiles out of the sky with defensive missiles.

His “Star Wars” dream — and others’ nightmare — was imagined technologies known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, intended to make obsolete the superpower governing nuclear doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. Many of those imagined SDI technologies that detractors called fantasy and as improbable as “hitting a bullet with a bullet” are now a complex reality with varied degrees of success.

Over the last four decades, there have been significant advances in strategic defenses, many of them through work done at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Whether surface-to-air antiballistic missiles, particle beams, radar tracking and homing vehicles, hypervelocity rail guns, X-ray lasers, infrared seeking Kinetic Kill Vehicles, “Brilliant Pebbles,” or just upgraded versions of run-of-the-mill flak, the strategic approach that has made the greatest difference in achieving mutually assured security over time was serious, mutually respectful negotiation and a level of trust. Reagan and Gorbachev proved they were more interested in a deal than a duel.

All negotiations should have at least an element of trust that each party will execute the terms of an agreement. To that end, Reagan would repeat the Russian maxim “trust, but verify” at every opportunity to remind everyone that his negotiations, while made in good faith, were never made naively.

Reagan’s arms control director was Ken Adelman and his newly published book “Reagan at Reykjavik” brings readers back to that time, and this northernmost and otherworldly national capital, when unprecedented nuclear weapons’ controls and agreements were launched between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

Edelman reminds us that the talks were considered a failure at the time, but that the Reykjavik summit did succeed by allowing both superpower leaders to air their differences and paint visions of their dreams — including Reagan’s rogue attempt to completely eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth within a decade of the summit meeting. The final Intermediate Nuclear Forces deals, known as INF, were a direct result of those tense meetings and eventually sealed collaboration and joint understanding to lower the risks of confrontation. For some Russian elites today, that deal is seen as also having sealed Gorbachev’s fate toward irrelevance and the Soviet empire’s devolution.

Russia is again a concern and the United States has accused it of violating the long-lasting 1987 INF treaty by developing and testing disallowed new cruise missiles. More seriously, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has lopped off territory from a sovereign state and stealthily invaded Ukraine.

Negotiated de-escalation and disarmament seem the farthest thing from reality today. When the U.S. president regularly gets on the phone with Putin, the call is invariably characterized by mistrust, disrespect and the Russian leader’s bald-faced lies. And when the call is over, hostilities in Ukraine continue to escalate. Miscalculation has already downed a commercial jetliner and could inadvertently — or calculatedly — cause a wider conflagration. There is a growing call for NATO intervention instead of speedy summitry and cooler heads.

In this explosive environment, presidents Barack Obama and Putin should find their way to remote and neutral territory to find a personal connection, recognize shared values and seek an honest, negotiated and verifiable way forward. In this year’s State of the Union speech, Obama made an important general statement: “If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

It may be time to for the president to get off the Moscow hotline and head back to Iceland’s cooler climes and significant symbolism.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. This column first appeared in The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee.

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