WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, meet in London this week, they will profit from the advance work conducted by a glittering roster of American senior statesmen.
In March alone, Russia's leaders have been visited by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James A. Baker, former defense secretary William Perry, former senators — and foreign policy experts — Sam Nunn, Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart, and former White House national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
While the visits to Moscow by the current crop of American "wise men" didn't involve the sort of heavy diplomatic lifting conducted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and official U.S. envoys, the trips have been used by both countries to send diplomatic winks and nods.
Dimitri Simes, the director of the Hart-Hagel commission on U.S.-Russian policy — a joint project of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and The Nixon Center here — noted that his group met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones before going to Russia. Once in Moscow, they met with Medvedev. And upon their return, they met with Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.
At each stage of such visits, Simes said, signals are sent, received and analyzed. The delegation's welcome in Moscow was "remarkably positive," Simes said, but he cautioned against exuberance — noting how Russia's leaders also expressed skepticism that Obama's vaunted "reset" of U.S. foreign policy would lead to meaningful change.
The positive reception given the visiting American statesmen is all part of the atmospherics for the Obama-Medvedev meeting which, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said in a telephone briefing for reporters this weekend, "have dramatically improved in the last several weeks." The April 1 meeting between the two leaders — it will take place in conjunction with the world economic summit in London — "will be an opportunity for us to make that much more concrete," McDonough said.
The March visits of so many U.S. "wise men" was more serendipity than scheme, said Thomas Graham, a senior director for Kissinger Associates and a former adviser on Russian affairs to President George W. Bush. Such contacts are set up months in advance, Graham noted.
But not all visiting delegations get to meet — as the Kissinger-Nunn group did — with top-ranking Russian leaders like Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The presence of so many senior hands in Russia this spring, and their reception by Russia's most powerful leaders, says two important things. First, that relations between the two big nuclear powers have deteriorated, alarmingly, and are in recognizably urgent need of attention. The U.S.-Russian relationship is in "severe disrepair," said Jessica Tuchman Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But the visits to Moscow also indicate that a lot of smart old guys who have dealt with the Russians for many years believe Obama's election represents a moment worth seizing.
"We seem to have … a window of opportunity," according to Nunn, in which to repair the damage caused by a "collective failure of leadership."
On the immediate agenda, the United States is looking to Russia for help containing Iran's nuclear weapons, and for continued cooperation in keeping U.S. military supply lanes open to the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But the Russia hands would also like to see Obama and Medvedev emerge from their meeting in London with a declaration that the two nations will embark on an intense effort to negotiate a new strategic arms agreement, to replace the current START treaty, which is due to expire Dec. 5.
After eight years in which U.S. foreign policy has been focused on the Middle East and the Muslim world, Nunn and others want to remind the world that the two great nuclear powers still have mighty arsenals of missiles and bombers, which are still poised for immediate launch at each other's teeming cities and military targets, and which are still vulnerable to accidents or terrorist threats.
"We must strike a deal, or create a bridge, before we lose the only rules we have to verify a nuclear agreement with Russia," Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told a gathering of Russia experts that was convened by Carnegie and a half dozen other prestigious think tanks March 27. "It is simply too dangerous not to get this right."
And Kerry's Republican counterpart, Sen. Richard Lugar, warned at a March 19 committee hearing that the path to a new strategic arms agreement may take more time, and prove more arduous, than anticipated. "Time is a wasting," Lugar said, "and it may not be a lay-down hand."
A new strategic arms treaty, by itself, is an important goal. But in the process of cooperating on strategic arms, the two countries might also build the trust needed to cooperate on other issues.
And — perhaps as importantly for the leaders of countries in tough economic times — a glittery signing ceremony would give Medvedev and Obama a quick diplomatic triumph that could boost their stature at home and abroad and illustrate the rewards to be gained by resolving other difficult issues.
When compared to thorny mazes like a climate change treaty, or the roles of Russia and NATO in eastern Europe, a nuclear arms deal is "relatively easy stuff," said former U.S. deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott.
"It is intellectually relatively easy … it's politically relatively easy … (and) it's financially, not just relatively easy, but absolutely easy," said Talbott, who is now the president of the Brookings Institution.
The good news, Nunn said, is that the two nuclear powers have maintained and even institutionalized the continued communication among their statesmen, and have thus kept talking in the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. "The bad news," he said, "is there have been many more words than deeds."
More related GlobalPost Dispatches:
US path to Afghanistan now runs through Central Asia
A Gazprom seat at the UN?
For Which It Stands: Russia