Photo Ops and Back Patting Aren't Enough

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After weeks of predictions -- and great expectations -- on both sides of the ocean that Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin would sign a strategic document in Sochi, the two leaders walked away with only one document titled "U.S.-Russia Strategic Declaration."

The declaration offers little substance in terms of resolving the conflicting Russian and U.S. positions on several key issues. The document only pledges that the two sides will continue to try to reach a compromise on enduring problems, such as U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense system in Central Europe, an extension to the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty and the fates of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

The position of the Bush administration is that the missile-defense system needs to be deployed to protect against an attack from Iran. Russia's position is that there is no imminent Iranian threat and that the planned missile-defense system could be reconfigured to be used against Russian missiles. In addition, the Kremlin believes that neither the INF nor the CFE will serve Russia's interests, unless the countries that have developed intermediate-range missiles join the INF and all NATO countries ratify the CFE.

When it comes to national interests, neither country is interested in undermining the international arms control security and stability that the INF and CFE provide. Nor are the two countries interested in the emergence of new nuclear powers, whether it is Iran or any other country.

But it takes mutual trust for the negotiators to be flexible enough to move from their official negotiating positions to discuss their real interests. Over the past eight years, Bush and Putin have developed a relationship built on trust, and they could have used this trust in their Sochi negotiations to reach a compromise on missile defense, arms control agreements and NATO expansion. But in Sochi, this opportunity was wasted. The only thing that the summit produced was a news conference, friendly pats on the back, photo opportunities and a nonbinding declaration. All of the difficult and divisive bilateral issues will be left to Bush's and Putin's successors to resolve.

Another problem is that the two presidents did not create any permanent bilateral forums in which lower-level diplomats could regularly interact and develop trust and cooperation between the two administrations.

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed interest in a meaningful dialogue with President-elect Dmitry Medvedev. But regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election, it will require a lot of time and good will to develop a trusting relationship with Medvedev. It will take even longer if John McCain, a harsh critic of Putin, becomes the next U.S. president.