This article was originally published by The New York Times

Yesterday, President Obama presided over the United Nations Security Council meeting that passed a resolution seeking to strengthen the international commitment to limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. A week ago, he announced that the United States will not deploy — at least, not in the foreseeable future — a missile defense site in Central Europe, including powerful radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland.

Is there a link between the two events? I believe there is. Yet initial comments by many political figures and journalists have for the most part ignored this key relationship.

Instead, many are asserting that canceling the Eastern European missile defense was simply a concession to Russia, which must now reciprocate with a concession of its own. But President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia had already said last November that if the United States made changes to its missile defense plans, his nation would refrain from countermeasures like deploying its own missiles. Soon after President Obama’s decision was announced, this position was reaffirmed.

Many of President Obama’s critics in the United States insist that he “caved in” to Russian pressure, virtually leaving America’s NATO allies to fend for themselves. There is nothing behind this argument other than the old stereotype of “bad Russia,” a Russia that is always wrong.

Consider the merits of the case. Russia’s leaders have been saying for some time that the fear of Iran developing effective long-range missiles in the near future was not grounded in fact. Now, after a thorough review by intelligence and defense officials, the United States government has come to the same conclusion, holding that Tehran is perhaps at least five years or even a decade away from such capacity.

The initial reaction by some politicians and commentators in Poland and the Czech Republic is no less odd. They seem to enjoy the role of a spoiler in relations between other countries and Russia. Voices of realism and caution are routinely rejected, and the opinion of their own citizens, who by and large have no use for radars and missiles, is brushed aside.

In Russia, President Obama’s decision has been well received. It also met with support in Europe, with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France lauding it. The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, called it “a chance to strengthen European security.” Indeed, if the president’s decision is followed by further serious steps, it will provide an opportunity for us to strengthen global security as well as reach a new level of cooperation in ridding the world of nuclear danger.

At their meeting in Moscow in early July, Presidents Obama and Medvedev reaffirmed the relationship between strategic offensive weapons and missile defense. The two nations continue arms reduction talks and, judging by cautious diplomatic statements, they seem to be on course to complete them by Dec. 5, when the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — which I signed with President George H. W. Bush in 1991 — is due to expire.

This week’s United Nations meeting marks the next stage of progress. It is vital that other nations come away from the meeting believing that America and Russia are moving toward verifiable nuclear arms reductions, and that by the time the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference is held at the United Nations next May, they will have made progress toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Unless they show the world they are serious, the two major nuclear powers will be accused, again and again, of not keeping their word and told that if it is acceptable for 5 or 10 countries to have nuclear weapons as their “ultimate security guarantee,” why should it not be the case for 20 or 30 others?

It is vital that the two presidents themselves monitor the negotiations closely, sometimes plunging into minute details. I know from experience how difficult it is to deal with such technical details on top of constant political pressures, but it is necessary to avoid misunderstandings that could undermine trust.

Some questions that will need to be clarified are evident now. The American secretary of defense, Robert Gates, has said that the SM-3 missiles that are to be used under the new missile-defense plan could later be perfected to intercept long-range intercontinental missiles. Yet he has also raised the possibility of cooperating with Russia on missile defense. To me, these two ideas seem incompatible. The sooner such issues are cleared up the better.

As I see it, there is only one way to move forward: Washington should agree to the Russian proposal for a joint assessment of missile threats. Let the experts from both countries have a frank discussion that would reveal which threats are real and must be dealt with, and which are imaginary. This would help to avoid misguided projects like the Polish-Czech missile shield, and could help move us from a state of mutual deterrence to a goal of minimum nuclear sufficiency for self-defense.

This is a big agenda. Realistically, it would take two or three years of intense negotiation. But Russia and the United States must set big tasks for themselves. What is needed is nothing less than a change in the strategic relationship between the two major nuclear powers — in their own interests and in the cause of world peace.


Mikhail Gorbachev is the former president of the Soviet Union.