Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Replacing Competition With Collaboration

My generation arrived in this world when the Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a Cold War. I've spent 40 years -- all my adult life -- studying the United States and Russian-American relations, and now I'm afraid that when my generation leaves this world, the United States and Russia will be adversaries again. When communism collapsed, expectations were high that former enemies would become strategic partners. But it never happened. Why?

Many people in Russia blame the United States. Many people in the United States blame Russia. Predictably, the backlash against unfulfilled hopes and promises is strong today in both countries.

The 1990s were a difficult time for Russia. Some in the United States saw the beginning of a golden age of democracy, but Russians saw and felt the disintegration of a former superpower. President Boris Yeltsin brought out tanks to fire on the parliament to impose his policy of speedy privatization of industry, business and natural resources, so a few became super-rich and many were pushed into poverty. Russia nearly became a failed state. But the worst-case scenario was avoided. With a lot of help from high oil prices, Russia has managed to begin an economic revival. Today the standard of living is going up, and the threat of a civil war is gone. We still face a long and difficult path to a mature democracy and a modern market economy, of course. New mistakes can still be made, but Russia is on its way to recovery.

Meanwhile, the United States has enjoyed the fruits of "victory" in the Cold War. Since 1991, Washington's strategy has been to prevent the emergence of a new peer competitor and to extend "the unipolar moment" as long as possible into the 21st century. The United States has failed to resist the temptation of unilateralism and preemption.

On issues of international security, Russia has been treated as a second-rate power whose complaints can be ignored. At the end of the Cold War, U.S. President George H.W. Bush proposed a new security system "from Vancouver to Vladivostok," but this idea was quickly forgotten. So was NATO's promise not to expand its military infrastructure eastward beyond West Germany.

"The winner takes all" -- so despite Russia's objections, all former Soviet clients in Eastern Europe have been admitted into NATO, including three former republics of the Soviet Union. And two more former republics -- Georgia and Ukraine -- could be next. Russia's objections were also ignored when NATO started its first war in Kosovo.

At the same time, the old arms-control regime is half-dead. The two strategic arms-limitation agreements on the books expire in 2009 and 2012. Today, there are no serious negotiations between Russia and the United States about any new arrangements, and U.S. President George W. Bush's administration says that there is no more need for legally binding treaties. To demonstrate this point, the administration unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, ignoring Russian objections.

Now the United States wants to deploy the components of missile defenses (interceptors and a radar) in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russians are complaining that the deployment of American missile defense systems so close to Russia could undermine Russian nuclear deterrence.

Unfortunately, Russia and the United States have never fully escaped from the Cold War doctrine of "mutual assured destruction." Both pretend that they may someday confront each other with nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the nuclear club continues to grow ominously. It now has five official and three "de facto" members. North Korea and Iran could also join, if diplomatic efforts fail. A new wave of proliferators would surely follow. What used to be primarily a bilateral Soviet-American nuclear arms race during the Cold War already looks like a multilateral competition that might make a real nuclear war more possible.

After Iraq, the United States will not be able to act as the world's policeman. The U.S. public does not want to play that role. To avoid chaos, there must be a workable, multipolar international system based on multilateral rules that are accepted by all the major players.

The United States and Russia have unique responsibilities here. If they revert to confrontation, we cannot expect, say, China or France to lead efforts to create a new world order and control the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Only Americans and Russians can lead the world away from the biggest dangers. To do so effectively, they must begin serious cooperation in three areas:

First, a real effort is needed to reinvent arms control. Both countries should make a commitment to take seriously each other's security concerns and avoid actions that the other side might perceive as a threat. The dispute over anti-missile equipment in Eastern Europe should be resolved through a compromise, not a confrontation.

Even more important are Russian-U.S. initiatives to invite other nuclear countries to demonstrate self-restraint and abstain from the buildup of their nuclear arsenals. Joint brainstorming is needed to prevent the collapse of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is at serious risk.

Second, Russia and the United States must cooperate on bilateral and multilateral efforts to manage regional conflicts. The success of the six-party negotiations on North Korea proves that when the United States gives priority to nonproliferation instead of a regime change, solutions are possible. The same approach should be applied to Iran.

Multilateral efforts must be expanded to prevent the Taliban from restoring its grip on Afghanistan. Russia, China and India can help NATO politically and economically, and even militarily, if Russia can overcome its "Afghanistan syndrome."

If the United States agrees that the way out of the Iraq quagmire requires multilateral arrangements, Russia also can help. And it can share responsibility for implementing the "road map" to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

Third are the problems of democracy and values. Russia and the United States face serious terrorist threats. It is premature to claim that either has found the best ways to expand human rights and democratic freedoms. America hardly occupies the high moral ground that would enable it to lecture others. Neither does Russia, which is debating the vague concept of "sovereign democracy," trying to understand how to apply universal standards of human rights and democratic procedures.

It would be a great blunder to revive the spirit of the ideological crusade that gave us the Cold War. Propagandistic campaigns should belong to history. While there are heated debates on these issues in each country, we need a Russian-U.S. dialogue instead of mutual accusations.

Russia is back as an international player. While it is not a superpower (except in the number of its nuclear weapons) and is still amid a difficult transformation, no one should be surprised that Russia wants to protect its national interests. Russia should be treated as a responsible player, sharing the rights and the duties of membership in the community of democratic market economies in a globalized world. That was President Vladimir Putin's message in the speech he gave last month in Munich. And Russia, if necessary, should be criticized for her mistakes, as should America, or China, or other members of the international community. But the goal should be a new cooperation, not a new Cold War.

Sergey Rogov is the director of the Institute of U.S.A. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. A longer version of this essay appeared in The Washington Post.