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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Historic Chance to Build a Bridge

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We often say that there are no second chances in life, and that is generally true. But when U.S. President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev meet Wednesday, they will have an opportunity that is extremely rare in international relations -- a third chance to build a strong U.S.-Russian relationship. It won't be easy, the two countries' interests and perspectives differ significantly, but they should seize the moment.

The United States and Russia have already failed twice since 1991 to take advantage of two historic opportunities -- after Russia's independence and after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States -- to build a generally cooperative and sustainable relationship. Leaders and people in each country have their own perspectives on why this did not happen. What matters most, however, is that despite a softening of U.S. and Russian rhetoric in recent weeks, the relationship remains hampered by mutual frustration and suspicion.

The Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia -- a bipartisan group of top-level U.S. foreign policy practitioners and specialists from government, business and academia led by former U.S. Senators Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart -- has urged U.S. leaders and citizens to develop a closer and stronger relationship with Russia that reflects vital U.S. national interests, including nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism and energy security. We have already presented the group's key findings to top officials in the Obama administration, and earlier in March a small delegation from the commission exchanged views with Medvedev and other senior leaders in Moscow.

The commission's recommendations cover several broad areas, including nonproliferation, arms control, terrorism, energy, trade, European and Eurasian security issues and democracy. We also suggest new approaches to the most complex and contentious issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship, including efforts to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program, U.S. missile defense plans, the Kremlin's "energy diplomacy" and NATO's relations with Georgia and Ukraine.

The function of the commission is to recommend policy to the U.S. government and not to the Russian government, which is fully capable of developing its own policy options and also has access to a variety of assessments from nongovernmental organizations located in the country. Nonetheless, three points in the report are especially relevant to Moscow.

First is the clear recognition that the United States and Russia have different interests and perspectives, that each defines its own interests and that a better U.S. understanding of Moscow's interests and perspectives could make U.S. policy toward Russia more effective. Implicitly, a better Russian understanding of U.S. interests could help Moscow to improve its policy as well. Washington and Moscow would also benefit from a sharper definition of respective priorities, as it is unlikely that each will get everything it wants from bilateral relations or that the relationship can succeed without compromises by both sides. Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that U.S. and Russian national interests do not appear to be in fundamental conflict in any area. This may not be a sufficient basis for a cooperative relationship if Washington and Moscow do not engage successfully on their common interests, but it is a major difference from the Cold War era, when each worked actively for the other's defeat.

Second, the United States and Russia are unlikely to succeed in pursuing their many common interests if they are unable to engage more deeply on a government-to-government basis. This requires developing new structures for bilateral consultation and collaboration on all levels. It also requires making cooperation routine rather than something that happens only under the close scrutiny of top leaders. Despite their many differences, the United States and China are already well on the way to developing such contacts. There is no reason that Washington and Moscow could not build similar ties.

Finally, the commission states explicitly that even if the United States makes a serious effort at cooperation with Russia, it may not succeed if Moscow chooses another direction. In other words, it takes two to tango. The vital interests of both countries are deeply intertwined, and it would be to Washington's advantage to win Moscow's cooperation. Conversely, the United States could pay a high price if the U.S.-Russian relationship is dominated instead by reflexive hostility. But Moscow's interests would suffer too.

There were good reasons that the United States and Russia were unable to develop a strong and stable relationship during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin and Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Building a cooperative relationship today after two false starts will be even more difficult, but good excuses are not a substitute for success, especially when the cost of another failure could be quite high. Washington and Moscow are lucky to have a third chance and should not count on a fourth.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center and senior adviser to the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia.