2 Presidents' Last Chance to Make History

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The failure of U.S. and Russian foreign and defense ministers to come up with a compromise on long-contested U.S. plans to deploy elements of a global missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe is regrettable but widely expected.

Prior to the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday, officials in Washington openly acknowledged that the delegation would have no new proposals to offer the Russian side. Hopes, however, were raised on the first day of the visit that Moscow and Washington could resolve differences not only on missile defense, but also on other points of contention on arms control. President Vladimir Putin announced during a meeting with Rice and Gates that President George W. Bush had sent him a letter that offered a chance to improve relations. He gave few details other than calling it a "very serious document." A Pentagon spokesman said the letter laid out priority areas for long-term discussion.

It quickly became clear Tuesday that a compromise would not be reached soon. Rice and Gates again agreed to disagree with their Russian counterparts on whether and how elements of the U.S. missile defense should be deployed in Eastern Europe.

Both sides must attempt to go the extra mile to reach a compromise on the issue, because a lack of agreement will deal a serious blow to the already dented and increasingly fragile international arms control regime. The regime has already been undermined by the United States' abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Russia's moratorium on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Frustrated by the Bush administration's reluctance to reach compromises on these and other issues of arms, Russia is also threatening to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans the deployment of medium-range missiles.

Next year, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will expire unless Moscow and Washington agree to prolong the accord. START is one of the remaining cornerstones of strategic arms control, providing a verification regime for arms cuts stipulated in another pact, the Moscow Treaty.

The expiration of START I and nullification of INF may send the entire international architecture of strategic arms control crumbling.

If outgoing Presidents Bush and Putin hope to avoid entering history as leaders who oversaw, if not provoked, the emasculation of strategic arms controls, they should order their top diplomats and defense chiefs to hammer out a compromise, first on missile defense and then on the entire range of arms control issues, before they meet at the NATO summit in Bucharest next month.

The summit will be their last opportunity to make history together as heads of state before their presidential terms expire.