As recently as a few months ago, it looked as though the United States and Russia were entering the post-arms control era. That had seemed to be the hope of President George W. Bush, who came into office with a powerful bias against negotiated, ratified, legally binding treaties as a means of regulating the strategic nuclear balance. He regarded the legacy of START—including the treaty his father had signed with Boris Yeltsin eight years before—as baggage of the Cold War and an obstacle to the kind of military, technological, and strategic flexibility Bush believed the United States would need to deter and defeat new threats.
At the height of his post-September 11 domestic popularity and international prestige, Bush delivered a double blow to arms control. First, at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crawford, Texas, he refused to codify reductions in strategic offensive weaponry in a formal treaty. Then, he announced that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
Putin was so determined to accelerate and solidify his country’s orientation toward the West that he decided, over the objection of much of his military and political elite, that he could live without the ABM Treaty. But he persisted in his efforts to persuade Bush that he needed a treaty to bolster the appearance that, as Russia reduced its levels of strategic weaponry, a modicum of parity with the United States still obtained.
At their summit in May, Bush relented on the question of form and signed what he wanted to call the Treaty of Moscow. Neither in name nor substance was it a full-fledged successor to START II (my former colleague John Holum has an analysis of the new agreement on p. 7 of this issue). But at least it kept alive the enterprise of arms control by treaty.
In making that concession, Bush was re-establishing a degree of continuity with his predecessors—not just with his father but with Bill Clinton, which was no doubt more difficult for him to do, or at least to acknowledge. Clinton had wanted to build on the START II treaty that George H. W. Bush had signed with Yeltsin in January 1993 and, during his own presidency, to add several roman numerals to the process. Clinton was thwarted in that desire by the combination of Russian and American domestic resistance. The Duma refused to ratify anything with Yeltsin’s name on it, and later the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate had a similar distaste for anything bearing Clinton’s imprimatur. Yet for eight years, Clinton looked for ways to reach agreement with Yeltsin—and, in his final year, with Putin.
On offer was a two-part deal: the framework of a START III treaty that would reduce offensive levels well below those in START II, coupled with amendments to the ABM Treaty that would permit a limited national missile defense (NMD) against rogue state threats. Especially in the wake of a North Korean missile test in 1998 and the Iranians’ determination to develop missiles of their own (with considerable Russian help), the United States felt all the more strongly that the ABM Treaty had to be modified in order to survive.
For their part, however, the Russians were convinced that any relaxation of the limits on defense in the ABM Treaty would expose them to the danger of blackmail or even decapitation by the United States. In addition to fearing latter-day Star Wars technology, they worried that the United States could supplement its formidable nuclear offenses with exquisitely accurate conventional weaponry of the sort they saw so dramatically on display against targets in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Kosovo in the 1990s.
Nonetheless, there was, during the Clinton administration, a shared premise in Washington and in Moscow, just as there had been for 40 years, that offense and defense were inextricably linked: only if anti-missile systems were constrained could missiles themselves be reduced without upsetting the balance of terror, or, as it was more politely known on the American side, “mutual deterrence” and, on the Russian side, “strategic stability.”
It was against this backdrop that President Clinton tried to get Putin to cut a deal on NMD and START in June 2000. Putin turned him down, preferring to see if he could do better with Clinton’s successor.
As it has turned out, he did worse: instead of amendments to the ABM Treaty, he had to settle for no ABM Treaty; and the strategic reductions treaty signed May 24 heavily tilted in favor of the Bush administration’s desire to retain in storage warheads taken out of operational deployment.
The following excerpt from my book The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy recounts the previous administration’s efforts to grapple with these issues—and the frustration that President Clinton, along with John Holum, myself, and others, felt when Putin decided to wait until after the 2000 election to see what kind of a deal he could get from Washington.
National Missile Defense (NMD) was yet another in a series of American military programs that the Russians feared and opposed. In some ways, they found it even more objectionable than NATO enlargement or the air campaign against Yugoslavia. It therefore presented a timely and politically useful opportunity for President Vladimir Putin to demonstrate that he would define and defend Russian national interests in contradistinction to American plans and proposals.
For the U.S., NMD was the latest attempt to answer a question that had vexed presidents and their advisers for more than thirty years, since the 1960s, when Bill Clinton, Al Gore and George W. Bush were in college and Putin was in junior high school: when is self-defense a threat to the nuclear peace?
For most of the cold war, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were bound by a suicide pact. Safety, such as it was, resided in the knowledge that neither superpower could attack the other without suffering cataclysmic retaliation. This arrangement was known as mutual deterrence, or, sardonically, as MAD, for mutual assured destruction. According to this principle, defense was deemed dangerous. If one side feared its ability to retaliate could be thwarted by the other side’s defenses, it could be tempted to strike first with its full force. Such calculations on both sides would lead to a spiraling buildup in offensive capability. There was also an incentive for both to put their missiles on hair trigger, increasing the chance of an accidental Armageddon.
It took a while for practice to catch up with theory. While some nuclear strategists were making the case for limiting strategic defenses, the U.S. and the USSR began deploying them. In so doing they proved the theoreticians’ point. In the sixties, the Kremlin built a system that it claimed was for defense against high-altitude bombers. Suspecting that the facility could be used against American missiles, the U.S. developed offensive countermeasures, primarily multiple, independently targetable warheads, known as MIRVs. In American hands, these devices, with their ability to multiply the number of warheads each missile could hurl at the enemy, restored the U.S.’s confidence that it could penetrate the USSR’s defenses and hold Soviet power in check in a crisis.
Eventually, however, the Soviets learned how to MIRV their own missiles. The USSR’s MIRVed missiles figured, in American planning, as the principal instrument available to the Kremlin if its leaders ever decided to launch a surprise attack on the U.S. For their part, the Soviets worried that their own rocket force was now an even more attractive target for preemption if the U.S. ever decided to go first. Thus, MIRVing was the single most dangerous innovation since the mating of nuclear weaponry with ballistic rocketry.
In due course, both the U.S. and the USSR accepted the reality of MAD. Through the negotiations known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), they agreed to codify mutual deterrence, regulate the balance of terror, curb defenses and pave the way for reductions in offensive forces. In 1972, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT I accords. One of these was the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. It banned either side from having a “national” defense—that is, a system that protected the entire country—although each could have two ABM sites. Under an amendment in 1974, the superpowers cut back to one ABM site per side. The Russians maintained a system outside of Moscow, while the U.S. briefly kept one at a missile-launch facility in North Dakota.
In 1976, in a further acknowledgment of the primacy of deterrence and the futility of defense against an enemy armed with many thousands of warheads, the U.S. shut down its one ABM site. For the remainder of that decade, the principle that nuclear offense trumped defense remained unchallenged.
Then along came Ronald Reagan to challenge it. He was convinced that with enough Yankee know-how and dollars, a high-tech defense against ballistic missile warheads was not just possible but far preferable to MAD. The U.S., he proclaimed in 1983, must undertake a crash program to erect a space-based, impregnable, all-encompassing shield that would render all nuclear weapons, including the Soviets’ cherished Strategic Rocket Forces, “impotent and obsolete.”
Most American experts considered the Strategic Defense Initiative, as it was officially known, a wildly expensive and dangerous fantasy. Some nicknamed it “Star Wars,” in part because Reagan announced the program two weeks after giving a speech to an audience of evangelical Christians in which he’d denounced the USSR as “the evil empire.”
The Soviets were less dismissive. Because of their deep-seated sense of vulnerability and their awe of American technology, they could imagine that SDI might just work. If so, it would deprive them of the great equalizer in their otherwise unequal relationship with the U.S. Even if SDI didn’t live up to Reagan’s high hopes, it would still require massive expenditures for Moscow to offset.
Even after Reagan left office and the program was scaled back, SDI kept its hold on many conservative Republicans. For them, it was more than just a military program of great promise. They believed that the very prospect of SDI had served as a kind of deus ex machina at the end the cold war: so frightened and demoralized were the rulers of the evil empire by Reagan’s vow to turn American technology against them that they had simply thrown in the towel.
The next American president, George H. W. Bush, was as much a traditionalist as Reagan was a revolutionary. Bush believed in maintaining a stable balance of offensive weaponry through the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), the successor to SALT.
But right-wing Republicans who had not given up on Reagan’s vision of a perfect defense didn’t want Bush do so either. They pressed the White House to continue funding development of an ambitious strategic defensive system and to link a START II treaty to a loosening of the restrictions in the ABM treaty.
In 1992, Boris Yeltsin wanted to do his friend George a political favor, and he also wanted to get a START II treaty since that would help him reduce his military budget. Therefore when he and Bush held their summit in Washington in June of that year, they instructed Dennis Ross, James Baker’s right-hand man, and Yuri Mamedov, a deputy Russian foreign minister with years of experience in arms control who was my principal counterpart, to initiate a “consultation” on a cooperative anti-missile plan to guard against missile attacks from radical regimes or terrorist organizations. As a result, Bush was better able to deflect complaints from pro-SDI Republicans who felt he was giving short shrift to defense.
The START II treaty that Bush and Yeltsin signed in early January 1993 set a ceiling of 3,500 strategic warheads for each side, a two-thirds reduction in the size of the Russian and American arsenals from their cold war highs. The treaty contained another landmark achievement in arms control: “de-MIRVing,” a prohibition on land-based missiles with multiple warheads. It was a rare case of the two sides stuffing a genie back into a bottle.
When Clinton came into office, there did not seem to be any reason to continue the dialogue that Ross and Mamedov had begun, since the new president had no enthusiasm for strategic defense. The Russians, too, were more than happy to let the subject drop, since they’d regarded the Ross-Mamedov talks largely as a sop to Bush. Both governments now intended to concentrate on further reductions in offensive weaponry. Each of Clinton’s predecessors since Nixon had achieved at least one major agreement limiting or reducing the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals. Had START II been implemented in 1993, Clinton might have concluded a START III treaty with Yeltsin in his first term and been well into START IV by the second.
But before we could move ahead to START III, START I (which Bush and Gorbachev had signed in 1991) had to go into force, and that required the removal of Soviet-era nuclear weaponry from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan—one of the Clinton administration’s highest priorities in 1993 and 1994. The bigger problem was the Russian parliament’s refusal to ratify START II. Yeltsin’s political enemies there, who were already defying him at every turn, now had one more chance to do so. As a result of these snags, strategic arms control went into a hiatus that lasted for eight years—and beyond.
Clinton and I talked from time to time about his regret and frustration. He noted the irony that a process that had begun in the depths of the Brezhnev era had gone into suspension largely because Russia was now a democracy. The U.S. was not just negotiating with a potentate in the Kremlin and his minions, but dealing with a pluralistic system that included an obstreperous legislative branch.
It bothered Clinton that because arms control had stopped dead in its tracks, the U.S. and Russia still had some 15,000 long-range nuclear weapons, primarily for use against each other.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded in a meeting on defense policy in the Cabinet Room in September 1994. “The cold war’s supposed to be over! What do we need this much overkill for? Are we stuck in some sort of time warp, or what?”
Clinton asked on several occasions why we couldn’t go further on our own in shrinking the size of our arsenal to take account of the dramatic changes in the former Soviet Union. The Defense Department was reluctant to cut back on the number of strategic weapons available for the conduct of World War III given the danger of what was sometimes called a “recidivist Russia.” A bigger obstacle was legislation that Congress had passed prohibiting unilateral cuts below the levels in START I in the absence of START II ratification by the Duma.
While arms control was stalled, the Pentagon continued to experiment with new technologies for defending against ballistic missiles. Clinton’s first secretary of defense, Les Aspin, shifted the focus of that program from national missile defense of a scope and capability that could shoot down Russia’s intercontinental rockets to “theater missile defense,” or TMD, against shorter-range rockets like the ones that Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea were beginning to develop.
There was nothing abstract about the threat posed by these so-called rogue states. The U.S. had lost twenty-eight soldiers in the Gulf War to an attack by an Iraqi SCUD missile. The prospect of nuclear-armed missiles in the hands of Iran’s radical Islamic regime had been a preoccupation for the U.S. for years and a major irritant in our relations with Russia, primarily because of the peril it posed to Israel. North Korea, under Kim Jong-il, the son of its founding dictator, was one of the most mysterious and menacing countries on earth. The prospect that it would be armed with both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatened not only South Korea and the 37,000 American troops stationed there but Japan as well.
There was nothing in the ABM treaty that said the U.S. couldn’t defend itself or its allies against shorter-range ballistic missiles. At the same time, we didn’t want an anti-missile program intended to deal with non-Russian threats to provoke nationalistic fervor in Moscow during a period when the very survival of Russian democracy was in doubt. Therefore in several of his summits with Yeltsin during the first term, Clinton provided formal assurances that the U.S. would keep its testing of TMD systems compliant with the ABM treaty.
Clinton’s promise to adhere to the ABM treaty was a red flag to those still-powerful forces in Congress who remained faithful to Reagan’s vision of a world in which defense replaced deterrence. In 1994, the Republicans trumpeted that goal in their campaign to take control of both houses of Congress. Once they were in the majority, they began pushing legislation to require deployment of a national anti-missile system and, as a consequence, withdrawal from the ABM treaty.
Leading Democrats urged the White House to come up with an alternative NMD scheme that was compatible with the ABM treaty.
By Clinton’s second term, the administration was well on its way to refining a plan to develop a ground-based ABM so fast and accurate that it could home in on an enemy warhead and destroy it in flight. The U.S. cranked up a major program to develop and deploy this technology for TMD purposes and to test its potential against intercontinental-range missiles as well. To facilitate the high-priority TMD program, we initiated discussions with Russia aimed at agreeing on the dividing line, or “demarcation,” between TMD, which was permitted by the ABM treaty, and strategic defensive systems, which were sharply constrained by the treaty.
The Russians were wary about giving us any leniency, since they assumed that whatever we were up to was a stalking horse for an anti-missile system that would eventually be able to neutralize their deterrent.
The turning point came at the Helsinki summit between Clinton and Yeltsin in March 1997. The two presidents had an intense but inconclusive go at each other on this subject in the course of a longer conversation about NATO enlargement, then turned the issue over to their aides. For much of the rest of that day, U.S. and Russian officials, who had split into working groups, occupied every room on the first floor of the Finnish presidential residence, including the kitchen, the pantry, the dining room and President Ahtisaari’s study. Madeleine Albright and Lynn Davis, the State Department’s top arms control official, held three separate and contentious meetings with Yevgeny Primakov, then the foreign minister, and his team.
General Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Russian counterpart, General Victor Samsonov, sat at a coffee table poring over technical documents that the Pentagon hoped would assure the Russians that our TMD program was not an NMD either in disguise or in potential. The senior civilian from the Defense Department present, Jan Lodal, was on the telephone with Secretary of Defense Cohen back in Washington, apprising him of the problems as they arose in the negotiations and coaxing him into agreement with solutions as they emerged.
Yuri Mamedov and I, who had spent much of our careers on nuclear arms control—he as a diplomat, I as a journalist—had been hoping for four years we’d get a chance to sink our teeth into these subjects. We floated among the various working groups primarily to make sure that the right people were talking but also to help with the drafting of compromise language.
After lunch, Clinton and Yeltsin sent Albright, Shali and Lodal off with Primakov, Mamedov and Samsonov with instructions to come up with an agreement based on a draft that Lodal and Mamedov had prepared. In the end, the Russians agreed to a detailed technical demarcation between permissible TMD programs and prohibited ABM ones. The inducement for them to do so was a willingness by the U.S., engineered primarily by Shali, to set a ceiling for offensive systems in START III that would be nearly a third lower than the one in START II, thereby making it easier for Russia to afford a nuclear arsenal roughly equal in size to that of the U.S.
The Helsinki summit had moved the Russians closer to an important threshold: they seemed prepared to consider adjusting the strategic equation, letting the U.S. add defense against certain kinds of threats, while continuing to subtract offense—as long as the smaller arsenal Russia ended up with would still be able to penetrate whatever defenses the U.S. eventually deployed.
We never had a chance to test that proposition because the Duma still refused to ratify START II after Helsinki and our own law continued to prevent unilateral cuts in the U.S. arsenal.
Meanwhile, the juggernaut on Capitol Hill in favor of NMD gathered momentum. In mid-July 1998, a congressionally appointed commission chaired by a former (and future) Republican secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, issued a report predicting that rogue states could have ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. sooner than the U.S. intelligence community believed. Six weeks later, on August 31, 1998, the North Koreans tried and failed to launch a small satellite. The shot demonstrated they had the ability to launch multi-stage rockets.
As much as anything, the North Koreans were probably pursuing the political goal of increasing their leverage over the U.S. and Japan in future negotiations to increase international assistance to their economy, which was in desperate shape. But in the U.S., the launch was seen as presaging a new military threat to the American homeland. The North Korean rocket was believed to be the prototype of a ballistic missile that might, if perfected, be able to hit American territory. In March 1999, the Senate passed, by a margin of 97-3, a bill mandating a U.S. policy to “deploy as soon as technologically possible an effective” anti-missile system capable of “defending the territory of the United States.” Therefore NMD was, by definition—by virtue of the “N” for National in its initials—a violation of the ABM treaty’s prohibition against a national anti-missile system. The House overwhelmingly approved a similar measure in May.
The administration was more in danger than ever of losing control of a key feature of defense and foreign policy. We’d had to deal with demands from Congress in the past, notably over Russia’s relations with Iran and the Duma’s passage of a restrictive religion law in 1997. But those earlier disputes within the U.S. government were essentially over tactics. The executive had as much desire as anyone in Congress to end the leakage of Russian technology to Iran and to promote religious tolerance in Russian society.
We had a deeper disagreement with the more extreme advocates of strategic defense in the Congress. They had already made up their minds that the U.S. would be safer with an unfettered defensive system than it was with existing arms control agreements, while we saw NMD as a research-and-development program that should be continued but that had a long way to go before it was ready for deployment. Even if the technology proved itself, the system should be designed to meet the rogue-state threat but to stay within the bounds of the ABM treaty, although those bounds might have to be adjusted through amendment in order to accommodate new threats and new technologies.
There was little room for these considerations in the NMD bill that Congress had passed by a veto-proof margin and that was now heading toward the president’s desk. That left us with a dilemma. If we said we were committed to preserving the ABM treaty without regard to its constraints on NMD, we’d spend the rest of the administration in a what would very likely be a losing fight with Congress, since the Republicans had the votes to block our policies. If, on the other hand, we acceded to congressional pressure and decided to pursue NMD without regard to its implications for the ABM treaty, we’d have a blowup with the Russians—and very likely a split with our allies, who tended to see NMD as a return to the concept of Fortress America and an abandonment of thirty years of strategic arms control.
Never did Sandy Berger, the president’s national security adviser, have more reason to evoke the myth of Scylla and Charybdis—which he often said captured the dilemmas so common in diplomacy—and never did he do a more masterly job steering between the two. Almost single-handedly, in an intense round of brainstorming and logrolling, he cobbled together a compromise on NMD that balanced military, diplomatic and political considerations.
One challenge was to make sure that when the president signed the bill he wasn’t also signing away his prerogatives and responsibilities. Sandy crafted a White House statement stipulating a set of criteria that the president would apply when it came time a year or so later to decide whether to go forward with deployment. The two key variables were whether the technology of the system under development proved itself in tests still to be conducted, and whether proceeding with NMD contributed to the overall security of the U.S., including in its impact on arms control.
This latter criterion, which had the support of key Senate Democrats, allowed the president to evaluate missile defense in a larger context. Even if the bugs could be worked out, American and allied experts were justifiably skeptical about whether NMD would be as effective against enemy warheads as its proponents believed, given the possibility of countermeasures to defeat the defense. Moreover, NMD was useless against suitcases, knapsacks, balloons, oil drums in the holds of tramp steamers and other low-tech “delivery means” for attacking the U.S. with high explosives or weapons of mass destruction (no one, as far as I know, predicted the use of hijacked commercial aircraft for kamikaze attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon).
The president also must be able to weigh the benefits of NMD against the negative consequences that going ahead with the program might have for relations with our allies, Russia and other countries as well as the implications for arms control.
Sandy’s next task was to get the administration to close ranks behind a version of NMD that had enough political support to keep our congressional opponents at bay, enough military and scientific plausibility to deal with the potential threat we faced from rogue states, and enough compatibility with the ABM treaty to be the basis for a new round of discussions with the Russians.
After weeks of quiet intramural diplomacy with the Pentagon, Sandy presented Clinton with a plan at a meeting on August 18, 1999, in the Cabinet Room. In order to meet the requirement for covering all fifty states, there needed to be two anti-missile sites, one in Alaska and the other probably in North Dakota, with a total of 250 interceptors, as well as a network of highly sophisticated radars on the ground (including outside the U.S.) and sensors in space that would track enemy warheads and help our interceptors home in on them. The full system wouldn’t be in place until well into the next decade—sometime between 2005 and 2010. The first step would be a site in Alaska that could have some initial capability by 2005 to counter what was perceived to be the most immediate threat, the one posed by North Korea. To meet that schedule, construction of a radar on Shemya Island off Alaska would have to begin in the spring or summer of 2001. To have the equipment and material in place by then, the president would have to decide on deployment a year beforehand, by the summer of 2000.
That itself was a perverse bit of timing, since the presidential election campaign would be moving into high gear—never a good time for the U.S. government to face politically controversial and strategically important decisions. If the president gave a go-ahead to preparations for the Alaska site, he would in effect be putting Russia and the world on notice that the U.S. was pulling out of the ABM treaty—unless we could persuade the Russians to amend the treaty to permit that first step toward deployment.
Since we had about ten months to negotiate amendments to the ABM treaty, we decided to seek only those changes that were necessary to permit deployment of the first phase of an NMD system, the Alaska-based part of the system required to deal with the North Korean threat. The second site with additional interceptors and more radars would be the subject of further negotiations a few years down the road. As an inducement to the Russians to go along with this plan, we were prepared to share with them early-warning data and new interceptor technologies, and engage in other measures intended to make anti-missile defense a cooperative venture.
Sandy called the goal a trifecta, since it would allow us to advance—and reconcile—three objectives: first, we would be able to proceed with preparations for a limited NMD appropriate to the new threat we faced from the rogues without violating the ABM treaty; second, by amending that the ABM treaty, we would be making it more relevant and durable in a world where the U.S. and Russia were cooperating against proliferation; and third, we would be able to achieve deep cuts in offenses as part of an accompanying START III agreement that would have some prospect of approval by the Senate.
Like Sandy, I believed the trifecta was a long shot, probably coming too late in the Clinton presidency to be achievable either diplomatically or politically. It was worth trying for but not betting the ranch on. We should make an all-out effort at getting a deal while leaving the president a range of choices about what to do if the Russians refused.
There was a difference between this challenge and the ones we’d faced over NATO enlargement and Kosovo. In those cases, the U.S. negotiating position had been simple, unbending and, largely for that reason, successful. “Table and stick” we’d called it: go straight to your bottom line and stick with it; wait until the other side bends. We’d been able to look the Russians in the eye and tell them that we were going forward with or without them.
In the case of NMD, the president might decide in mid-2000 that he should go forward with the program in the face of Russian objections, but he might instead decide to defer deployment for reasons unrelated to the Russia factor, such as poor performance of the system in the tests.
Therefore in pressing the Russians to join us in changing the ABM treaty we couldn’t credibly adopt the table-and-stick strategy. Instead, we tried to get them to look at the choice they faced in terms of the devil they knew versus the one they didn’t. We understood that the Russians didn’t want the U.S. to undertake any serious missile defense at all. But that position was unrealistic as well as unreasonable. Sooner or later, the U.S. was going to need some form of missile defense to cope with the rogue states. Russia would probably want one too, since it was closer to all three rogues than we were. We were offering Moscow a chance to adjust to that unavoidable reality cooperatively and within the framework of mutually agreed constraints, starting with an understanding in 2000 to amend the ABM treaty enough to permit a limited missile defense against rogue-state threats of the kind we were proposing.
The Russians, we contended, could safely join us in that step, since their Strategic Rocket Forces, even if substantially reduced under a prospective START III, could easily overwhelm a limited American defense that was designed to cope with a very small number of missiles from North Korea or Iran. Therefore NMD was a devil they knew and ought to be able to live with.
The devil they didn’t know was the possibility that the next president—regardless of whether it was Al Gore or George Bush—would, at a minimum, build the system we were proposing and, because of the timetable for construction in Alaska, have to withdraw from the ABM treaty in order to proceed. In the case of a Bush presidency, that devil would be all the less appealing to the Russians, since Bush was in favor of a bigger NMD and no ABM treaty.
We based the case that our proposed system did not threaten the Russian deterrent on simple arithmetic: the first phase of NMD, even when fully deployed sometime after 2005, would have only 100 interceptors, while the Russians, under any imaginable variant of START III, would have more than a thousand warheads, as well as various techniques for confusing and overwhelming our defense. Mutual deterrence would remain alive and well.
Yuri Mamedov and I, accompanied by military and civilian experts, conducted a series of meetings on ABM/NMD that lasted nearly a year and brought us together in Moscow, Washington, New York, Rome, Helsinki, Oslo and Okinawa. We treated the talks as a spin-off of the Strategic Stability Group that we had established seven years before, in the spring of 1993. (In the context of strategic arms control, both sides used the term “strategic stability” as a synonym for mutual deterrence, and as a euphemism for MAD.)
For months, terminology was just about the only thing on which we were able to agree. On the core issue of whether the proposed American plan for NMD threatened the Russian deterrent, we might as well have been debating whether the earth was round or flat. The Russians based their position on a worst-case scenario that cast the U.S. in the role of nuclear aggressor or at least nuclear blackmailer. By their calculations, the U.S. would have the offensive capability to knock out ninety percent of Russia’s strategic arsenal using our nuclear forces and precision conventional weapons of the kind they’d seen so spectacularly on display in Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan in September 1998, after Osama bin Laden was determined to be behind the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. The surviving ten percent of their force—say, a hundred warheads—might be within the capacity of NMD to shoot down before they reached their targets.
What the Russians feared most was the “architecture” that would eventually be associated with NMD—sophisticated radars deployed around the world, complemented by constellations of space-based sensors all coordinated by an elaborate command-and-control network. Once that whole system was in place, they said, the U.S. could easily expand the number of interceptors well beyond what we were presenting as the full extent of our program. The Russians knew that nuclear war with the U.S. was unthinkable, but they worried nonetheless that the combination of a substantial American first-strike capability and an NMD system to back it up might leave them vulnerable to nuclear intimidation in a political crisis—similar, perhaps, to the one that they’d just been through at Priština airport, which the Russian military had seized at the end of the Kosovo war, triggering a fleeting but worrisome confrontation with NATO.
So adamant were the Russians in opposing NMD that they refused even to call the talks a negotiation, since that would have implied that what we were asking for was negotiable. Instead, they characterized the year-long marathon of the Strategic Stability Group as a “consultation.” Even the term that the Russians used for NMD, “national ABM,” was a way of underscoring that it was inherently a violation of the treaty.
Throughout the fall of 1999, the Russian military was more assertive and confident in stonewalling us on NMD than it had been over NATO enlargement and Balkan peacekeeping. Every time my colleagues from the Pentagon, Ted Warner and Rear Admiral Joseph Enright, would put on a slide show, with maps and charts, to demonstrate that Russia had nothing to fear, General Nikolai Zlenko, the Ministry of Defense representative on Mamedov’s team, would make a detailed presentation of his own showing how the U.S. could either decapitate the Russian rocket forces or checkmate the political leadership in a crisis.
On the eve of several of our sessions, General Kvashnin, the chief of defense who had been the driving force behind the Russian dash to Priština in June and was now leading the charge in Chechnya, publicly warned the Russian foreign ministry not to make any compromise. There were hints that he and others in the defense ministry were making plans to re-MIRV their missiles in order to counter NMD, thereby brushing aside a key provision of START II and undoing one of the signal accomplishments of arms control.
Soon after Putin became acting president at the turn of the year, the Russian military’s role in the talks became, if anything, even more conspicuous than before and its position even more intractable. The generals no longer had to worry that Yeltsin and his friend Bill would cut some last-minute deal over the military’s objections.
On January 18, 2000, the American anti-missile system failed an important test when the infrared sensor on board the interceptor malfunctioned. Many domestic critics rejoiced, including (quietly) some within the administration who had doubts about the wisdom of the program.
I regarded the failure of the test as a setback for our diplomacy. The performance of our system in the testing program was, after all, one of the criteria that the president had specified when he signed the NMD bill into law. New questions about the technology of NMD made it harder for me to persuade the Russians that Clinton might proceed with deployment even if they refused to amend the ABM treaty. Therefore I needed an additional incentive to get the Russians to budge.
In preparation for another round of talks with the Russians in late January, I asked the White House and the Pentagon for authority to sound out Mamedov on whether lowering the ceiling on offensive weapons in START III well below what Clinton and Yeltsin had agreed in Helsinki might induce Moscow to alter the ABM treaty enough to permit the beginning of construction of the Alaska radar site in 2001.
The Russians, Yuri replied, did indeed want lower offensive levels in START III but not at the price of higher levels of American defense. He quoted Reagan to me—not Ronald but Nancy. “On NMD,” he said, “you’re dealing with a country and a new president whose motto is, ‘Just say no.’”
The naysayer in chief was careful not to make himself the heavy on NMD. Putin spent nearly three hours with Secretary Albright on February 2, 2000, exuding reasonableness and good will.
“We want to find formulas that allow us to meet new threats while preserving the ABM treaty and achieving deep cuts under START III,” said Madeleine.
“I like that approach!” Putin replied, as though it were a eureka moment. It was actually a classic Putinism. When we followed up through diplomatic and military channels, we were told that the only way to preserve the ABM treaty was not to change one word or punctuation mark in it.
In February, Sandy Berger made a run at persuading the new head of the Russian security council, Sergei Ivanov—a former KGB officer close to Putin—that Moscow would be smart to do a deal with us on NMD rather than take a chance on our successors. One way or another, Sandy said, NMD was almost certain to proceed. It was a variation on the devil-you-know-versus-the-one-you-don’t sales pitch of our position.
The Russians were never impressed by that argument since they calculated—again, not unreasonably—that they could get either a quick deal or a postponement of construction out of Al Gore, while George W. Bush wouldn’t be bound by anything he inherited from us.
I had my next crack at Yuri Mamedov the second week in March, when he and I arranged to rendezvous in Rome. My wife Brooke accompanied me on the trip and Yuri brought along his wife, Katya, whom I’d never met before. Putting aside work one Saturday, the four of us traveled into the countryside. After strolling around a hill town, we wandered into the opera house, where a competition was under way among amateur sopranos from all over Europe. We then had lunch in a country inn by a river.
We returned to Rome that evening in a U.S. embassy van that careened along mountain roads trying to keep up with its escort of motorcycle-mounted carabinieri. While Brooke and Katya snoozed in the seat in front of us, Yuri and I got back to business. Our principal concern was managing NMD at the first Clinton-Putin summit, which we expected would take place in the late spring or early summer.
I hadn’t entirely given up on reaching a deal, nor did I want the Russians to discount the possibility that Clinton might order the start of construction in Alaska even in the absence of a deal. Yuri was equally careful not to box in his own president. He left open the possibility that Putin might come to agreement with Clinton during their first summit or at one of the several other encounters they would have later in the year.
But Yuri doubted that would happen, and so did I. Therefore we concentrated on an interim arrangement that would avoid a breakdown on NMD/ABM at the summit even if the two presidents couldn’t achieve a breakthrough.
For some months, we’d been privately exploring the possibility of a joint presidential statement as a provisional measure in the spring that would set the scene for a final agreement later in the year, or at least lay the ground for progress later. We called it “the principles document” since it would assert a number of tenets on which the two sides could agree in the near term and that might help guide them to an eventual settlement. One principle was the assertion that both countries remained committed to strategic stability. Translation: neither side would deprive the other of its deterrent capability. We would, in that context, explicitly cite the role of the ABM treaty in maintaining stability and creating the confidence in mutual deterrence necessary to reduce offensive forces.
That was what the Russians wanted to hear from us, and we were glad to say it since we believed it.
The principles document would go on to assert that the world had changed since 1972, when the ABM treaty was signed. It would identify the growing threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles to deliver them as a significant change in the strategic situation, and it would note a provision in the ABM treaty anticipating that such changes might be grounds for amendment. That way Russia would be on record accepting a key premise of the U.S. position and, accordingly, retreating from its refusal to consider changes in the treaty.
In the American view, the most important line in the principles document was one in which the two presidents would agree to develop “concrete measures” that would allow both sides to “take necessary steps to preserve strategic stability in the face of new threats.”
While Yuri and I would meet often during the months that followed, the principles document was our last major piece of collaboration. It was also the quintessential example of how the two of us had worked together for seven years. We sometimes compared our own personal diplomacy to win/win chess. Each of us had as his principal obligation the advancement of his own government’s interest. But since we were trying to respect each other’s interests, we would, as we put it, “play both sides of the board,” explaining what we were doing, and why, and occasionally even suggesting what move the other should make.
It was in that spirit that Yuri and I put our heads together on the principles document as we bounced through the Umbrian countryside toward Rome in the dusk that Saturday evening. Even if Clinton and Putin could not break the impasse over how to amend the ABM treaty, at least they would have established that the treaty could be amended, and, by implication, why it should be. That agreement would provide the next American administration with a basis for resuming negotiation on an ABM deal as it made up its own mind about how to proceed with missile defense.
When the Russians went to the polls on March 26, 2000, to elect their second president, it was an anticlimax, especially compared to the election four years earlier, when Yeltsin came from far behind and had to go into a second round to be reelected. This time Putin won outright with 53 percent of the vote, defeating ten opponents….
One of Putin’s many advantages in the accelerated timetable of the election was that it allowed him to assume the presidency before the war in Chechnya flared anew with the coming of spring. The rebels, who had regrouped in the mountains during the winter, stepped up their hit-and-run attacks on Russian forces. By the end of April, Moscow acknowledged that nearly two thousand Russian soldiers had died in the seven months of fighting.
Yet even when the fighting resumed, there appeared to be no slackening of public support for Putin’s determination to deal harshly with “bandits and terrorists.”
Much the same was true of his explicitly tougher domestic policies. During the campaign, Putin had promised a “dictatorship of laws,” a telling variation on the more common phrase “rule of law.” It suggested a tightening of the screws not just on crime and corruption but on the media and society in general. Putin’s slogan raised eyebrows in the West and among Russian liberals, but apparently not with the rank and file.
Putin’s popularity with the people translated instantly into clout with the Duma. In mid-April, he accomplished with relative ease what Yeltsin had been unable to do for seven years: he rammed through ratification of START II. But in doing so, Putin promised the legislature—and his own military—that if the U.S. decided to “destroy” the ABM treaty, Russia reserved the right to “withdraw not only from the START II treaty but also the whole system of treaties on limitation and control of strategic and conventional weapons.”
In the U.S., political pressure was building against compromise on NMD. Governor Bush seized on missile defense as a demonstration of what he portrayed as an approach to national security that was more hard-headed than Clinton’s and Gore’s. Bush promised that, if elected, he would override Russian objections, discard what he called an outmoded ABM treaty and launch an effort to develop an effective anti-missile system. While vowing to proceed unilaterally with NMD, he promised to slash American offensive forces, on the grounds that “Russia is no longer our enemy.”
The problem with Bush’s position, I believe, was that it seemed to assume that the Russians, confronted with an administration that was more “serious” about deploying NMD, would accept a world with no agreed limits on American defenses and join the U.S. in offensive reductions and restraints. Yet Putin’s vow to the Duma suggested otherwise. Rather than sitting still, the Russians might take a range of countermeasures (including re-MIRVing) that would represent a net setback to American and international security.
But as a campaign tactic, Bush’s move was clever. He had, in a single stroke, positioned himself to the administration’s right on an anti-missile system (“we’ll do whatever is necessary to defend America”) and to its left on disarmament (“we don’t need so many of these weapons”—something Clinton himself had felt for a long time).
At the end of April, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov came to Washington and, in addition to a meeting with Secretary Albright, paid a call on Governor Bush. The two chatted jovially in Spanish, which Ivanov had mastered as ambassador to Spain in the late eighties. During the meeting, Bush professed total confidence of victory in November. On NMD, Bush told Ivanov not to worry; he was sure he’d be able to “sit down with President Putin and work something out.”
The Russians attached no substantive importance to the exchange—they doubted Bush had anything in mind beyond wanting to appear affable and statesmanlike—but they welcomed the opportunity to scoff at us for urging them to do a deal with our administration rather than leave themselves to the mercy of the NMD superhawks if Bush won.
America’s allies were, without exception, apprehensive about NMD. Along with a number of my colleagues from the State Department and Pentagon, I made frequent trips to allied capitals and NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief them on the program and on the discussions with the Russians. We encountered deep skepticism about every aspect of our policy—the technology, the implications for arms control and transatlantic defense, and the extent to which short-term political considerations might drive a decision of long-term strategic consequences. The allies’ resistance to our argument was of operational significance, since the plan we were asking them to endorse required at least two of them, Britain and Denmark, to let us use their territory for radar facilities integral to the NMD system.
When I boarded Air Force One for the flight from Germany to Moscow, I joined Clinton, Sandy Berger and Steve Sestanovich, the head of the State Department office dealing with the former Soviet Union, in the president’s private cabin for a quick review of where we stood. I had given a lot of thought to my principal message for the president, and it required me to be a bit stern with my boss—not my favorite role. I’d heard him say several times about Putin that he hadn’t “broken the code on this new guy.” He was going into the meeting uneasy about his host. I was concerned that he might try to counter the Putin chill with an excessive display of the Clinton warmth. Whatever Clinton did or didn’t accomplish on the substance of the agenda, I said, he had to set the right tone, and that should be one of reciprocal wariness. That meant resisting his natural temptation to get too chummy.
It was particularly important to get the atmosphere right, since a breakthrough on substance was highly unlikely. Clinton himself called NMD a “giant banana peel.” While he had yet to make up his mind on deployment, he was strongly inclined to defer construction of the radar site in Alaska. There were problems with NMD well beyond Russian obstinacy. That made it all the more important that Clinton not make the decision before he sat down with Putin, in anticipation of a rebuff, or, for that matter, immediately afterward. When the time came to make the call on NMD later in the summer, he ought to be free to do so on the basis of the full array of criteria he’d laid out a year earlier when he signed the missile defense bill into law. He would treat Russian opposition as a significant factor but not necessarily as the dispositive one. On this point, Sandy, who had been letting me use the time available for the briefing, weighed in to support me, since he’d been making much the same pitch to Clinton for days.
Whatever else happened in Moscow, I concluded, circling back to the question of public perception, Clinton could not go home with people saying he’d tried to get an arms agreement at any cost or was too eager to buddy up to Putin. It would be a minor but useful accomplishment if we could get the press to write after the summit was over that there had been a noticeable reserve in Clinton’s handling of Putin.
“For starters,” I said, “don’t call him Vladimir.”
Sometimes when I gave Clinton advice he didn’t particularly want to hear or that had an implication of criticism, he pushed back or waved me off (although he never slapped me down). On this occasion, though, he took it all in and nodded pensively when I was done.
“Got it,” he said. “Bottom line, I can’t go in there and take a dive or box myself in for what I decide later. I’ve got to go in there and give this thing my best shot on the merits and then do the right thing when the time comes.”
The summit began with a private dinner in the presidential quarters of the Kremlin on June 3. As I entered the room behind Clinton, Putin welcomed me as though I were an old pal and a fellow weekend warrior, wounded on the battlefield of middle age: I was on a cane after knee surgery, the result of an injury on top of too many years of running. Putin sympathized, saying he’d been finding it hard to stay fit and was therefore more prone to pulling a muscle, which would then throw off his whole “physical culture” regimen. Part of the problem, he added, with just the slightest hint of a smile, was that now that he was the president of the country, no one wanted to be his judo sparring partner.
Turning his attention to Clinton, Putin asked solicitously how Chelsea had adjusted to life in the White House (his own teenage daughters were isolated because of all the security, he said); how Hillary was faring in her campaign for the Senate in New York (Clinton expressed cautious optimism); and how Al Gore was doing in his race (recent polls showed him running slightly behind Bush). Clinton predicted that the election would be extremely close. He explained that George W. Bush’s strategy hinged on convincing the voters that “he’s a slightly more conservative version of me. Missile defense is one of the issues on which he’s trying to tell the people, ‘I’m different than Clinton—I’m better because I’m tougher.’”
Putin laughed appreciatively, as though to show he knew all about the virtues of running as the tough guy. Then he remarked, “Well, it’s important not to let the best become the enemy of the good.” The watchword on both sides, he added, was “do no harm.”
Careful student that Putin was of his visitor’s file, he probably knew that Hippocrates’ famous counsel was one of Clinton’s own favorite adages. (I’d heard him use it nine years before, in August 1991, when he was trying to decide how not to complicate Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s lives during the Soviet coup—and many times since.) This one cryptic comment seemed to be as much as Putin wanted to say about missile defense. Clinton let the subject slide for the time being.
In the long, meandering discussion that followed, Putin would occasionally drop in a phrase of English, usually to underscore agreeableness or deference (“okay” or “excuse me”). He seemed to be following much of what Clinton said even before it was interpreted.
It was all very friendly. As in earlier encounters, only when the subject of Chechnya arose did Putin’s eyes narrow and his manner become more hard-edged. The Chechens were terrorists, and Russia was going to deal with them as such. He scoffed at reports of “alleged, mythical atrocities by the Russian army.”
Eventually, seeing that Putin was not going to return to the subject of NMD, Clinton circled back to it himself. He laid out the political argument that Sandy had used with Sergei Ivanov: if Bush won the election, it would be harder for him to undo a done deal than to walk away from unfinished business. The compromise the U.S. was proposing, he said, “will be a strong precedent for establishing that any future missile defense would have to be based on mutual agreement.” He added the promise of lower START III numbers than he’d agreed to with Yeltsin in Helsinki.
Clinton concluded with a fervent appeal for Putin to worry less about the vulnerability of Russia to American nuclear attack and worry more about the danger both countries faced from proliferation. “We’re caught in a time warp here,” said Clinton. “Thirty years from now people will look back on the cold war and the U.S.-Russian nuclear stand-off as ancient history. Our countries will be working together against new threats—rogue states that are menacing the world with chemical and biological weapons and suitcase bombs, new threats deriving from religious and ethnic conflict and religious extremism. How do we get on the right side now for that point in the future? How do we make sure that we’re part of the same system working together? How do we not let ourselves be trapped in the cold war mentality while at the same time keeping mutual deterrence strong between us until we come up with something better? And how do we take advantage of the opportunity and the responsibility we have to bring levels of nuclear weapons much lower? I believe we can have a helluva lot of mutual deterrence with smaller arsenals.”
“It may surprise you,” replied Putin, “but I agree with you—in contrast to some of my colleagues, including several in the Ministry of Defense. In the future, suitcase bombs are a much bigger threat.”
Listening to this, I thought to myself that this was the best example yet of a Putin wind-up for a curve ball. Sure enough, Putin went on to say, “Now, there are some points where I might take slight issue with you. For example, you’re saying, ‘We have to do this now.’ I think it would be better to focus on the threats we’ll face thirty years from now…”
Clinton, who rarely interrupted, did so at this moment, and with an uncharacteristic sharpness in his voice: “Listen, I’ve got to focus on threats a lot sooner than that.” He was referring to the missile programs of North Korea and Iran.
Putin, who wasn’t expecting a push-back, did a slight double-take. “Okay, okay,” he said, “I understand perfectly well that the U.S. isn’t getting ready to launch a nuclear strike on Russia, but we’ve got to treat the balance between us very carefully, with an eye to the future as well as to the present.”
Putin went on to say that a few blocks away, at the Ministry of Defense, Russian officials were frantically planning countermeasures to NMD that could cause problems for the U.S. and its allies. (He was referring, we believed, to such steps as the vigorous deployment of shorter-range nuclear missiles that would threaten Europe, a return to reliance on multiple warheads, or MIRVs, atop Russia’s intercontinental missiles and the sharing of MIRV technology with the Chinese.)
The logic of the U.S. position, Putin continued, might have a certain legitimacy, but there was another logic that he found more compelling. Clinton had been president of the U.S. while a new Russia was coming into being. He’d done a great deal to help Russia and strengthen the bilateral relationship. In that sense Clinton was one of the leading citizens of the world. But that made it all the harder for Putin to imagine how Clinton could make a mistake that endangered international security. Apart from the pressures of American domestic politics, Putin didn’t see any basis for a decision that would violate the physician’s oath to do no harm. (There it was again.) Of course, Putin stressed, his preference was to come to terms with Clinton. But they needed to do so on genuinely common ground. The principles document they were going to sign later during the summit met that standard. It helped identify a path forward that would allow Clinton to avoid spurring a new arms race and plunge the U.S. and Russia back into the mutual mistrust of the bad old days.
In trying to argue Clinton out of NMD, Putin claimed to be speaking not just for Russia. If he and Clinton failed to find a way out of their impasse, other countries—he probably had China principally in mind—would react as well in ways that would be bad for the whole world. How would that look? he asked.
He concluded by urging Clinton to keep everything he’d said in mind before making a decision.
Putin’s peroration was typical of what we’d now come to expect from him. He had lavished praise on Clinton as camouflage for a rebuff and a warning. By my count, Putin had uttered nearly two hundred words, but they boiled down to one: “no.”
As though to make clear that it was also the last word on the subject, he rather peremptorily terminated the discussion and suggested a tour of the Kremlin residence before dessert. He showed us a sumptuous duplex library with a bust of Pushkin prominently on display, a private chapel with a baptismal fount, his personal gym with a universal weight machine and a massage table. Then, on our way back to the dining room, he stopped for a moment to point out a darkened chamber no longer in use. It was, he explained, the clinic for “the previous resident.”
That gave Clinton a chance to mention that he would be paying his respects to Boris Yeltsin on Monday, just before leaving Moscow. He asked if Yeltsin was still in the same dacha where he’d resided as president.
“Yes,” said Putin, “I let him stay there.”
The remainder of the summit was desultory, in large measure because on NMD, which everyone knew was Topic A, there wasn’t much more to be said. The two presidents signed the principles document in a public ceremony on Sunday afternoon, June 4. Answering questions from the press after the signing, Clinton stressed that he had not made a decision on deployment. “I do not believe,” he said, that the U.S. program constituted “a threat to strategic stability and mutual deterrence. The Russian side disagrees. But we had a lot of agreement here,” and it had been captured, he added, in the principles document.
“I do not want the United States to withdraw from the ABM regime because I think it has contributed to a more stable, more peaceful world. It has already been amended once [in 1974, when each side agreed to have only one ABM site], and its framers understood that circumstances might change and threats might arise which were outside the context of U.S.-now Russian relations.” He and President Putin, he added, “acknowledge that there is a threat; it needs to be met; and we’re trying to bridge our differences. And I think that’s where we ought to leave it.”
The next morning, Clinton held a farewell meeting with Putin in the ceremonial office at the Kremlin that Yeltsin had renovated with statues of the various czars and the one empress who epitomized Russia’s greatness in the past.
Clinton, making small talk, commented on each of the statues—Peter’s founding of Putin’s hometown, Catherine’s aggrandizement of Russian territory, Alexander II’s assassination.
“You know Russian history very well,” said Putin. “You could be the president of this country. Or maybe we could switch places.”
Then, to Clinton’s surprise and mine, Putin, for no apparent reason, returned to the subject of NMD, as though to make sure that his guest understood the Russian refusal to go further than the principles document.
Putin said he wanted to talk to Clinton not just in his capacity as the president of the U.S. but as a human being whom Putin liked and whom the Russian people liked, someone who’d earned a reputation not just for being well-spoken, as Clinton had demonstrated several times during his visit, but who was a good listener too—someone who paid attention to “the other guy’s point of view.” Could he speak to Clinton on that basis? he asked before continuing.
“Sure,” said Clinton, a tad warily.
Why then, asked Putin, did Clinton keep pushing national missile defense so hard? Putin recognized that there were threats on the horizon that the U.S. and Russia should be preparing to deal with. They had two choices: they could counter those threats jointly, or each side could take steps on its own. Putin knew that there were some in America who thought the U.S. should take the latter course; that America didn’t need Russia’s permission or cooperation; that the U.S. could do whatever it wanted; that Russia was too weak to do anything about it—too weak to launch another spiral in the arms race.
“But please believe me,” he said, speaking very slowly and softly: Russia was capable of an “adequate response” and always would be. That would be true regardless of who the president of Russia was. If NMD went forward, there would be reciprocal action—“maybe quite unexpected, probably asymmetrical”—that is, measures intended not to mimic American high-tech programs but to thwart them. Whatever action Russia took would threaten the territory of the United States.
“I know you’ve got your own decision to make, and your successor’s got his decision to make,” Putin continued. Perhaps, according to the American logic, the rest of the world would just swallow what the U.S. president decided, whatever it was. But Putin was putting Clinton on notice what to expect. Or actually, he added, correcting himself, he was warning Clinton that the result might be quite unpredictable and therefore all the more dangerous.
“Look,” said Clinton, trying to suppress what I could see was his annoyance, “I’ve worked hard to make this a good meeting for both of us, including on the security issues. I told you I thought we’d dealt with a difficult problem about as well as we could. I’m determined, if possible, to find a way forward together. I don’t think that the U.S. has the unique power to do whatever it wants and to say to hell with the rest of the world and to hell with what anyone else thinks. I’m trying to find a way to work with you on adapting the existing security system to tomorrow’s threats without doing harm with regard to what’s happening elsewhere. Where your point of view and mine come together is on the principle that we should adapt to new threats and”—he added after a pause, so that Putin knew that Clinton too listened carefully to his partner and knew when his own lines were being played back to him—“do no harm.”
After the meeting came to a close, there was some milling around while Russian security and protocol called for Clinton’s motorcade to position itself for the departure. While Putin conferred with several of his aides in hushed tones in a corner of his outer office, Clinton and I had a brief moment to ourselves.
“I guess that guy thought I didn’t get it the first time,” he said under his breath. “Either he’s dense or thinks I am. Anyway, let’s get this thing over with so we can go see Ol’ Boris.”
Putin rejoined Clinton, took him by the arm and, with me tagging along behind, led him down the long red-carpeted corridor and out through the Czar’s Entrance to the Grand Kremlin Palace, where they paused for a moment to shake hands and say good-bye in the sunshine.
Bill Clinton still had more than seven months of his presidency ahead of him, but his work with Russia was mostly done. It has always been difficult for an administration to accomplish much its final year in office. Doing business with Russia in 2000 was further stymied by the lingering dispute over national missile defense, which had, for nearly a year, taken its toll on the political will and diplomatic energy necessary to deal with other issues.
In another test of the NMD system in early July, the “kill vehicle” that was supposed to guide itself into the path of a dummy warhead in space failed to separate from the booster rocket, strengthening the argument for deferring deployment on technical grounds. Three weeks later, on a visit to Pyongyang, Vladimir Putin heard from Kim Jong-il a vague though intriguing proposal that North Korea might suspend its ballistic missile program in exchange for international assistance in launching satellites into orbit. Perhaps the North Koreans really were, as some experts had previously believed, more interested in getting the world’s attention and money than in mounting a serious threat to Japan or the U.S. If so, they might be open to verifiable restrictions on their missile program.
On September 1, in a speech at Georgetown University, Clinton announced that he was putting on hold plans to begin construction of the radar site at the tip of the Aleutian Island chain in Alaska—the step that government lawyers believed would have breached the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Clinton reviewed the criteria he’d specified the year before as the basis for a decision. The tests to date, he said, did not provide sufficient confidence in the technology and operational effectiveness of the system for him to move forward with deployment. While NMD would continue as a research-and-development program, Clinton was leaving to his successor the decision of whether to field it as an active part of American defenses and, if so, whether to seek Russian agreement to adjustments in the ABM treaty.
A few hours before Clinton’s speech, I called Yuri Mamedov to urge that the Russian government resist the temptation to pop the corks of champagne bottles in public, since celebrating, to say nothing of gloating, wasn’t justified. Deferral of NMD deployment did not mean cancellation. The logic for altering the strategic equation to take account of threats from rogue states was still compelling. The need to reconcile more capable defenses with an amended ABM treaty was unfinished business that the Putin government would have to take up with the next American administration. If George W. Bush won, the Russians would find themselves dealing with an American president who was enthusiastic about a far more ambitious anti-missile program than the one Clinton had proposed. Moreover, Bush was pushing an unfettered missile defense not just to destroy enemy warheads but also as a way of scuttling the ABM treaty.
The Russians’ official response to Clinton’s Georgetown speech was appropriately muted, but our allies’ sigh of relief could almost be heard across the Atlantic.
In the U.S., Clinton’s decision seemed anti-climactic. Objective observers saw the case for deferral as a no-brainer, while gung-ho advocates of NMD had long since discounted the Clinton version of the program as militarily puny and strategically objectionable precisely because it was designed to be as compatible as possible with the ABM treaty.
Strobe Talbott, who served as deputy secretary of state from 1994 to 2001, is the founding director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and will assume the presidency of the Brookings Institution in July. His book was published in May by Random House, and the excerpts here are reprinted with his permission.