What Kissinger Teaches Us about Negotiating with Russia

Bruce Allyn

WE NOW face a risk of a nuclear catastrophe arguably greater than at any point in the nuclear era, except perhaps during “Black Saturday,” the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Two years later, popular films such as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove dramatized the risks of an inadvertent nuclear conflict. If we look at the past fifty years, there were two times of heightened nuclear risk when the United States and the Soviet Union successfully negotiated breakthrough measures to reduce nuclear danger. On the U.S. side, the negotiations were led in the early 1970s by Henry Kissinger, producing détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) arms control agreements at the Nixon-Brezhnev Summit of 1972, and then in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan when, at the very first summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, they agreed to create Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers (NRRCs). An examination of these two key historical moments suggests lessons for U.S.-Russian negotiations on nuclear risk reduction that arguably are as applicable today as they were then. These include specific steps to reduce the risk of unintended, accidental nuclear war; build a working relationship on nuclear issues insulated from political differences; and specific recommendations for current negotiations.

BY 1972, the nuclear risk arguably decreased significantly, and tensions eased. There had been major steps to that point—the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968—but after Kissinger negotiated détente, there was a dramatic improvement of relations with the Soviet Union that yielded SALT I, the first arms control deal between the superpowers that put a cap on numbers of strategic ballistic missile launchers. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed at the same time.

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