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America's "wise men" lead the way on Russia

Lower-level diplomatic visits set the stage for this week's meeting between Obama and Medvedev.

"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."

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