July 13, 2009

From Mikhail to Michael


Four years ago, in August 2005, then Senator Barack Obama was detained for three hours at a Siberian airport. Obama, with Senator Dick Lugar, was on a US delegation touring nuclear warhead storage and disposal sites. Russian border guards insisted on searching the delegation's plane. The senators refused. The diplomatic standoff lasted three hours before the plane was allowed to leave Russia.

Had Russian authorities known then that the junior senator from Illinois would become the next US President, things might have gone differently. But then that's the thing about the future. You never know what it's going to bring. Take Rejkyavik, for example.

On a cold and dreary October morning in 1986, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev parted bitterly from their summit at Rejkyavik, Iceland. The world had held its breath as the two came within a handshake of slashing their countriesâ?? massive nuclear arsenals in half. But talks broke down over Reagan's unwillingness to give up on research into missile defense, then known as SDI or, more popularly, Star Wars.

And yet, despite this "failure," within a year, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It eliminated all intermediate range nuclear missiles in a span of just four years.

Over the next two decades, strategic arms reductions talks and treaties led to more cuts in warheads, missiles and bombers. As a result, the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the two superpowers dropped from 25,000 in 1986 to about 8,000 today - far below Gorbachev and Reagan's "pie in the sky" goal of 50%.

Last week, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to still further reductions. If those cuts are made, the number of warheads could drop to around 10% of what they were 30 years ago.

Even remembering that thousands of nuclear warheads are stockpiled but not deployed, this is a remarkable achievement. And it has been little noticed amid the hoopla of summits, where more attention is given to leaders' personal chemistry than to how those heads of state are actually affecting the trajectory of history.

Still, it is hopeful to realize that the idealistic dreams of a failed summit did become a reality - even though it took 20 years. Or that a junior US senator, once a pawn in a diplomatic squabble, could - just four years later - unlock a stalemate, and sign a historic arms control agreement with our nuclear rival.

And yet, Obama's trip - only the sixth visit to the USSR or Russia by a sitting US President since World War II - was last week unexpectedly overshadowed by the memorial for Michael Jackson.

But this is a good thing. The seeds planted at Rejkyavik have borne fruit: inching away from nuclear confrontation has become ordinary and expected.

Which means it's now time to sow some different, Rejkyavik-sized seeds for our children, and our children's children - for instance on climate change - because, after all, you never know what the future might bring.

[This Commentary was broadcast on Vermont Public Radio, 7/14/09]

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