What Kissinger Teaches Us about Negotiating with Russia

As the United States works to develop a coherent strategy toward Russia, the lessons of the Kissinger and Reagan period suggest a good place to start in our current negotiations is with serious engagement with Russia on specific nuclear risk-reduction measures.

WE NOW face a risk of a nuclear catastrophe arguably greater than at any point in the nuclear era, except perhaps during “Black Saturday,” the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Two years later, popular films such as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove dramatized the risks of an inadvertent nuclear conflict. If we look at the past fifty years, there were two times of heightened nuclear risk when the United States and the Soviet Union successfully negotiated breakthrough measures to reduce nuclear danger. On the U.S. side, the negotiations were led in the early 1970s by Henry Kissinger, producing détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) arms control agreements at the Nixon-Brezhnev Summit of 1972, and then in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan when, at the very first summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, they agreed to create Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers (NRRCs). An examination of these two key historical moments suggests lessons for U.S.-Russian negotiations on nuclear risk reduction that arguably are as applicable today as they were then. These include specific steps to reduce the risk of unintended, accidental nuclear war; build a working relationship on nuclear issues insulated from political differences; and specific recommendations for current negotiations.

BY 1972, the nuclear risk arguably decreased significantly, and tensions eased. There had been major steps to that point—the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968—but after Kissinger negotiated détente, there was a dramatic improvement of relations with the Soviet Union that yielded SALT I, the first arms control deal between the superpowers that put a cap on numbers of strategic ballistic missile launchers. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed at the same time.

The risk then increased dramatically in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. Congressional refusal to ratify SALT II, and the start of President Reagan’s major military buildup and strong support for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). By 1983, tensions reached an extremely dangerous level: government communications had largely broken down, raising extreme risks of misperception and unintended escalation to nuclear conflict. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov feared a U.S. first strike and, in November 1983, U.S. and NATO officers practiced the procedures they would have to follow to authorize and conduct nuclear strikes in an unpublicized exercise called Able Archer. In the media, it has been referred to as “the war game that could have ended the world.” We also now know the story of a false alert that could possibly have resulted in catastrophe had Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet nuclear launch officer, decided to pass the reported U.S. attack to the Kremlin.

The risk then went dramatically down when Reagan and Gorbachev signed a series of agreements, beginning with their accord at their first summit in Geneva in 1985. This accord was not on arms control specifically, but rather to begin establishing NRRCs in both Washington and Moscow. The centers were meant to keep the two sides in constant communication to alert one another to actions that might be misinterpreted as acts of aggression—avoiding future incidents like those with Able Archer and Stanislav Petrov. This was a confidence-building measure that helped lay the foundation for the historical reductions in U.S.-Soviet nuclear arsenals from over sixty thousand nuclear weapons at the time to half that in a little over a decade later, and subsequently to the current level of fourteen thousand.

Now, in 2019, even though the number of nuclear weapons is four times lower than in the early 1980s, the likelihood of some form of nuclear catastrophe has arguably risen to an unprecedented level. The new risks today are manifold. First, since the events in Ukraine in 2014, many basic political and military communication channels that the United States and Russia had used for decades to avoid misperception and share information have been suspended or effectively became fora for the exchange of mutual recriminations. Arms control treaties are now collapsing at a time when we are faced with serious challenges to strategic stability from nonnuclear high-precision weapons, hypersonic weapons, advanced cyberwarfare, unmanned and robotic systems, space weapons, third countries’ nuclear arsenals, vulnerabilities in command and control, terrorist hacking and more.

Furthermore, in the United States, there has developed a growing certainty, based on statements by Russians since 1999, that Moscow has lowered the threshold for nuclear use to a dangerously low level through an “escalate to de-escalate” policy—where Russia would use nuclear weapons if faced with an imminent battlefield defeat, particularly to make up for conventional inferiority in a conflict with NATO. Though it has never been stated in official Russian doctrine, the Trump administration has pointed to the Russian position to argue for its development of “low-yield” submarine-launched nuclear missiles, asserting that the United States needs new low-yield nuclear weapons to deter Russia at lower levels of conflict. Such policies carry high risks because they rely on intentional ambiguity over escalation thresholds, creating a context for miscommunication and, many argue, an unacceptable potential for failure of deterrence and a nuclear catastrophe.

What opportunities for nuclear risk reduction exist today? President Donald Trump has threatened to “outspend and out-innovate” any competitor in an arms race. At the same time, he has suggested the possibility of deep U.S.-Russian cuts in nuclear weapons in a trilateral agreement with China, though Beijing has rebuffed the initiative. The Russian side has recently made statements suggesting possibilities for major nuclear risk-reduction steps, including statements by President Vladimir Putin that essentially reaffirm the declaration made by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that a nuclear war would be a catastrophe for humanity, and therefore it cannot be fought and won; Putin’s recent statements may amount, some argue, to “a fundamental amendment to Russia’s military doctrine,” that disavows “escalate to deescalate” and is essentially a declaration of no first use of nuclear weapons.

What can we learn about reducing the unprecedented nuclear danger today from those who backed us away from the brink in the past—Kissinger in the early 1970s and Reagan in the 1980s? 

THE AUTHORS of Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level, the first book to examine Kissinger’s record as a negotiator, distill fifteen lessons on dealmaking at the highest level of international negotiations, summarizing three overarching objectives that Kissinger set for the United States in the 1970s;

  • Prevent the great evil of nuclear war;

  • Restrain Soviet expansion and manage Cold War conflicts to American advantage;

  • Build a more stable “structure of peace” among China, the USSR and United States.

The authors invite us to adapt Kissinger’s objectives and lessons to “wise purposes” in today’s changing circumstances. It’s a very different world in 2019, but objective one above remains paramount. Objectives two and three are largely aligned with the views of many U.S. experts today if we substitute “Russian” for “Soviet.”

A key lesson from Kissinger the Negotiator is that “ultimate negotiation success depends upon the validity of your most basic assumptions, about the world, the situation and your interests.” In the bitter debate in the United States today over Russia, actions in Ukraine, and election meddling in the United States and Europe, there is no consensus in the U.S. foreign policy community regarding American national interests and a strategy toward Russia. In this rancorous debate, it is easy to fall into Nietzsche’s “most basic form of human stupidity” and forget what we are trying to do. Whatever else we are attempting we still have one shared absolute existential interest. Kissinger’s number one objective from 1970 remains an overriding wise purpose today. He has stated that when he became national security advisor in 1969, he realized that nuclear war would be catastrophic for both sides, and would change human history. That remains true in the present day.

Kissinger has been sounding this alarm publicly for over a decade as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse.” He has expressed his anguish at the prospect that a nuclear holocaust could occur through the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons—a deliberate launch in response to a false warning, for example—that technological advances have made riskier. He has stressed: “…the most anguishing problem one could face was what happens if the strategic plans of both sides had to be implemented, or were implemented by accident or whatever. But it was a relatively less complex issue than we face today.”

This fundamental objective certainly shaped Kissinger’s view expressed in 2016 that we cannot afford in our negotiations to prioritize the isolation or weakening of Russia, let alone push for Russian collapse. He has argued for years that U.S. policymakers must impose real limits on our definition of our national interests. He made a point after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea of separating himself from neoconservative Republicans and liberal interventionist Democrats who argued, in Kissinger’s words, that Russia must be taught a lesson after its violation of international law and “if they collapse in that process, that’s the price they have to pay and, in a way, an opportunity for world order to reestablish itself.” Kissinger warned that “a post-Tito-type Yugoslavia wracked by conflict stretching from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok—from Europe across the Middle East to Asia—is not in America’s interest.”

If you understand the gravity of the real nuclear danger—and we cannot afford to get this wrong—Kissinger has argued it should be a critical U.S. national interest to work to integrate Russia, to repair the hostility, to exhibit “strategic restraint.” He has focused on the escalating nuclear danger, including new risks from emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence. Kissinger has stated that the Russian interference on the U.S. election was “a relatively small part of the risk” compared to the catastrophic danger of cyberattacks on nuclear weapons systems and that both sides must show restraint in using technology to influence the domestic affairs of the other side. Kissinger says,

…the post-Cold War generation of young people has not experienced what it is like when nuclear war is a real possibility and, as a result, does not have experience of strategic restraint. Also, they learn facts today in a fragmentary fashion. Often, they do not have a sense of history, though today’s problems are much greater than we faced, since today we do not even understand the implications of artificial intelligence or fast-paced technology. That is why some humility is crucial.

From a negotiation point of view, it is critical in such a high-stakes situation, as stated again and again in Kissinger the Negotiator, to “evaluate and reevaluate your fundamental premises.” Mistaken or partisan premises can result in failure in negotiations no matter how skilled you are in the art of dealmaking—and the results can be catastrophic. In 2011, Kissinger and the three other “Horsemen” repeated their call that we are operating on a false premise that the risk of nuclear use is so low that we can afford to give this existential security objective a low priority and pursue other objectives and a relatively unrestrained view of our national interests.

Negotiation on nuclear risk-reduction is an essential, mutually beneficial process that must be insulated from U.S.-Russian political differences. Kissinger emphasizes that, during the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union: 

attempted to ensure that both sides understood the challenges in the same way. We explained our perception of the weapons system, and they did the same to us. As a result, arms control became an educational process for both sides, that enabled us to navigate the problems...

Existing arms control agreements like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) are, in Kissinger’s view, essential, and we must be “very firm in insisting on carrying out these agreements.” We have had one round of strategic stability talks with the Russians. For us to navigate today’s new problems, it is vital to have the second round and continue to engage the new threats posed by emerging technologies, such as cyber and artificial intelligence, so that we can adapt “to the new circumstances of a world in upheaval.”

AT THE 1985 Geneva Summit, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed on the need to “go beyond the Hotline”—in other words, beyond the Direct Communication Link between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union established in 1963 after the Cuban Missile Crisis. They agreed to establish two centers, one in the U.S. State Department and one in the Russian Ministry of Defense, designed to serve as twenty-four-hour watch centers, and build working relationships among Soviet and American foreign service officers, military, civil servants and technical support personnel. These centers, the NRRCs, enabled both sides to provide advance notification of military tests and alert one another to actions that might be misinterpreted as acts of aggression.

This agreement was achieved after a strong clash of Soviet and U.S. policy priorities that left negotiations in the early 1980s deadlocked. The Kremlin portrayed nuclear risk-reduction measures as purely technical—a distraction from the “real issues” of Reagan’s arms build-up, and particularly his SDI. Moscow focused on returning to the relationship of détente and garnering support for its position among anti-nuclear movements in Europe and the United States.

In Track 1.5 conversations from 1982–87, my colleague William Ury and I used negotiation tools in an effort to help break through the deadlock and facilitate agreement on the NRRCs. We focused on a fundamental distinction that is often lost when relations are in a state of confrontation. When both sides are engaged in official attacks on the other side’s official stance, two sides in a negotiation frequently fail to make sufficiently clear the distinction between stated official positions and underlying interests.

Ultimately, though the official positions were diametrically opposed, key interests were shared. By 1985, the U.S. and Russian sides agreed on a formula that enabled progress by pursuing both objectives in parallel. While affirming the need to return to better relations, and taking steps to do so, both sides moved ahead to create NRRCs in Moscow and Washington.

The establishment of the NRRCs became an initial point of agreement that helped build confidence and opened a door for the subsequent START agreements that radically reduced the number of nuclear weapons. U.S. and Russian NRRCs served as a communications channel for transmission of goodwill messages. Though not required by agreement, the two countries have used the centers to communicate and help prevent misinterpretation or miscalculation regarding key developments or concerns. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, when U.S. armed forces moved to their highest alert level, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had the U.S. center send a message to its Russian counterpart stating that this was due to a national emergency and was not directed at the Russian Federation.

Positive developments with the centers continued through 2013, when the United States and Russia signed a cybersecurity pact to use the centers to warn each other of cyber-exercises that might be misperceived as attacks and as a channel to ask about cyber incidents that raise national security concerns and appear to be emanating from the other’s territory. The pact also called for a new “hotline,” a secure phone link, for the U.S. cybersecurity coordinator and his or her Russian counterpart to speak directly in the event of a crisis. In 2013, in preparation for the implementation of New START, the NRRC developed an entirely new software protocol and upgraded its automated translation tool to facilitate the required notification regime.

With the deterioration in relations after events in Ukraine in 2014, the two centers ceased to hold consultations—the last one was in September 2013. On October 31, 2016, the NRRC channel was used to convey a message demanding an end to Russian interference in the U.S. election. The Obama administration decided to use the centers, a channel specifically designed for crisis communication, to send a message clearly conveying the gravity of the situation. The centers have continued their exchange of information, but little goodwill. 

TODAY, AWARENESS of nuclear danger arguably lags far behind the actual threat—unlike during the Kissinger and Reagan eras, when the mass population lived with almost daily reminders in the media and in public campaigns about the nuclear danger. In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. and Soviet leadership, and publics in both countries, shared a general conviction that the use of nuclear weapons would most likely lead to a civilization-ending catastrophe. This mass public awareness has been lost due to multiple reasons. For example, the belief that the threat ended with the Cold War itself. There is also the fact that the younger generations did not experience the “duck and cover” era, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Russian security expert Aleksei Arbatov refers to this as the “unfrightened generation” (nepugannoe pokolenie). Others point to the nature of our post-modern age of digital distraction, or the presence of so many other threats, like climate change, that people don’t want to think about the depressing reality of the nuclear threat.

The key lesson from Kissinger is that we must once again place a number one priority in our negotiations with Russia on avoiding “the great evil of nuclear war.” The “Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse” have sought now for over a decade to raise awareness of the current danger. It is indeed arguably a dangerously false premise that the risk of nuclear use is so low that we can afford to de-prioritize it and pursue other interests. In his 2018 testimony to Congress, nuclear policy expert Austin Long explained:

Even if intentions are largely defensive, nuclear crisis and even limited nuclear use is possible. Russia could take what it believes to be appropriate defensive measures. U.S. and NATO leaders could take what from their perspective are equally defensive measures, resulting in a crisis and possible conflict… This possibility highlights the important but tenuous role of arms control.

The key lesson of the Reagan breakthrough with Gorbachev, meanwhile, is that there is an opportunity to make progress in arms control negotiations by rebuilding confidence initially through agreement on immediate nuclear risk reduction measures.

Drawing from these lessons provided by Kissinger and Reagan, and from the field of negotiation theory and practice, there are three recommendations on how to improve the current nuclear situation.

First, we can adopt certain key nuclear risk reduction measures. There are several nuclear risk-reduction policies that the United States could once again prioritize to avoid “the great evil of nuclear war.” Former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and former Senator Sam Nunn, for instance, have recently called upon the U.S. administration to make the declaration, as Reagan and Gorbachev did in November 1985, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They argue that this act was “essential to ending the Cold War.” The declaration did not remain “just words”—it was followed by real changes in nuclear force structure and policy.

In December 2018, Putin made statements that some accept as equivalent to the Reagan and Gorbachev declaration. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has stated that in October 2018 the Russian side sent a draft joint statement to the Trump administration on the prevention of nuclear war but received no response. It included the statement “A nuclear war cannot be won and must not be unleashed.” To date, Trump has spoken of how nice it would be not to spend the money on weapons, but has expressed little real visceral awareness of the nuclear threat or its consequences. On the contrary, he has taken the United States further in the direction of a war-fighting stance, as seen in the latest Nuclear Posture Review.

There is also legislation currently before the U.S. Congress calling on the United States to adopt a No First-Use of nuclear weapons policy. The argument is that, if the United States commits to never initiating a nuclear attack, this would have a stabilizing effect during a crisis, relieving pressure on Russia to launch first before the United States does, and reducing the risk of launching on false warning.

A measure that is not before Congress, which Kissinger and his colleagues called for in 2011, and which has been supported by Republicans and Democrats (including George W. Bush and Barack Obama), is a feasible and serious confidence-building step: de-alerting icbms—i.e., taking them off hair-trigger alert. This step involves not “merely” declarations but an actual physical change to nuclear forces. There are several ways to “de-alert” a missile. A highly verifiable way is to de-mate the warheads from the missiles and store them a short distance away—as China has done for decades with its deterrent of only about three hundred weapons. Verification can be conducted without on-site inspection by satellite. De-alerting increases the decisionmaking period in a crisis and arguably immediately reduces the risk of miscalculation and unintended nuclear war.

From a negotiation point of view, the de-alerting initiative could be implemented by the United States and Russia through reciprocal unilateral commitments, with each side initially removing the warheads from a small number of icbms, verifying that the other side has fulfilled its pledge, then (in stages) de-alerting the remaining silo-based icbms. Each successful step would help build confidence and trust—always subject to the Russian maxim, which Reagan liked to quote, “Trust but verify.” The confidence-building process of de-alerting icbms could potentially assist the revitalization of arms control and reduction talks, as did the initial agreement to cooperate on NRRCs in the 1980s. And the Centers themselves could serve as the forum for information exchange on this staged de-alerting and subsequent compliance. The process of reciprocal unilateral commitments also has a successful precedent in steps taken by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin in the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, when both sides fulfilled reciprocal unilateral pledges to substantially limit and reduce their tactical nuclear weapons.

SECOND, WE drive toward rebuilding a long-term U.S.-Russian working relationship that allows the cooperation on nuclear risk reduction. Both countries currently occupy a multipolar nuclear world vastly different from the old bipolar world of the U.S.-Soviet era. Along with the challenge of overcoming the accumulated mistrust in current U.S.-Russian relations. Even in situations not characterized by overt hostility, negotiation research by Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius shows a typical human bias: to perceive one’s own side as more “honest and morally upright,” while seeing the other as untrustworthy, dishonest and seeking unilateral advantage.

This could be seen by 2014 in some assessments of Putin’s/Russian negotiating styles as being practically the same as U.S. views of Soviet negotiation tactics from the worst days of the Cold War. James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, wrote in 2016 that “Russians go into a negotiation thinking not how they can create a win-win outcome, but rather how they can defeat the other side.” Stavridis cites “distrust, outbursts of rudeness and skepticism, threats to crater the discussion, and frequent finger-pointing.” I recall the short list of American assessments of Soviet negotiating behavior from the 1950–60s. These are:

  • Use rudeness and vilification

  • Use the negotiating process for propaganda purposes 

  • Maintain an adversary attitude toward those with whom the Soviets are negotiating 

  • Be stubborn; attempt to wear out the opponent

  • View compromise as weakness

  • Be devious; use deceit with little or no regard for the truth 

  • Refuse to make concessions; see concessions as a sign of weakness rather than goodwill 

  • Emphasize grievances the Soviet Union has with the opponent

Events since the Reagan-Gorbachev historic breakthrough have brought us to this point of deep-seated mistrust and hostility. Many Russians point to the expansion of NATO to the Russian border and their belief that the United States took advantage of their weakened state after Gorbachev’s magnanimous acts to allow the reunification of Germany—as well as the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq, Libya and Syria. On the U.S. side, most see the cause of the crisis in relations as due to events in Ukraine, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and Russian meddling in U.S. and European elections.

In his analysis of U.S.-Russian relations, Kissinger highlights the importance of dignity, a factor that most political figures consider intangible and elusive yet many in the field of negotiation consider to be a key element in creating successful negotiation outcomes. In 2016, Kissinger asserted to this magazine’s editor that the West must actively pursue a long-range purpose to integrate Russia into the European security community, and that the United States had put forth no strategy—“no concept of its own except that Russia will one day join the world community by some automatic act of conversion.” He later argued to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that “Russia must be dealt with by closing its military options but in a way that affords it dignity in terms of its own history.” As U.S.-Russian relations fell further into bitter confrontation after the annexation of Crimea, Kissinger repeatedly emphasized that “Russia is a vast country undergoing a great domestic trauma of defining what it is. Military transgressions need to be resisted. But Russia needs a sense that it remains significant.”

Few in the West realize that Russian president Yeltsin was in fact deeply angry by the end of his presidency, saying that President Bill Clinton was treating Russia “like Haiti.” “Russia will rise again,” Yeltsin affirmed bitterly. Seeking to fulfill that vow, Putin was chosen by Yeltsin and elected with the promise to “lift Russia from its knees” and to restore its status as a great power. And ever since Putin gave a stinging speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, the Russian leader has repeatedly expressed visceral anger at being wronged, often with a tone of desiring vengeance. Even pro-Western Gorbachev supported the annexation of Crimea, and has bitterly complained of Western efforts to “push Russia out of geopolitics.” Responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Obama could not have offered a greater affront to Putin’s sense of Russia’s national greatness by saying that Russia was “a regional power threatening some of its neighbors not out of strength but out of weakness.” In March 2018, Putin whipped up Russian national pride with a speech showcasing the country’s nuclear modernization and status as a great military power that had to be reckoned with, chiding the West: “You didn’t listen. So listen to us now.”

In 2019, we have reached a point where the United States and Europe have failed to integrate Russia into the European security system. Who is to blame for this is a matter of some debate. Former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock has argued that integration of Russia should have been a priority strategic goal in the 1990s, but the Clinton and subsequent administrations implemented a “reversal of the Bush policy of not ‘taking advantage’ of the democratization of Eastern Europe.” Kissinger has argued that this was a failure due to the fact that U.S. foreign policy was disconnected from history and geopolitics, and overly guided by moral impulses, resulting in a counterproductive national strategy toward Russia.

What is to be done now that we have reached this point in U.S.-Russian relations? The United States and Russia rank as the top countries in terms of nuclear weapons, possessing over 92 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Few would dispute that this carries a responsibility to cooperate on nuclear risk-reduction for the safety of their own populations and for the larger global community. Moreover, not cooperating carries a momentous geopolitical cost in terms of the progressive Russian shift toward China; one of Kissinger’s top three strategic priorities was to create a more stable “structure of peace” in U.S-Russia-China relations, avoiding a Russo-Sino alliance.

What occurred is what frequently happens in human and international relations—there was a failure to realize shared interests in a complex, evolving context. In this case, there were serious players in the United States who disagreed on fundamental issues. Gorbachev repeatedly put forth a grand vision for a new European security order, which found considerable support in Europe and with many in the United States. But there was ultimately no agreed-upon grand strategy in Washington for a new world order—certainly not of the kind Henry Kissinger would have preferred. Looking back in 2018, Strobe Talbot, a former deputy secretary of state and a key supporter of NATO expansion at the time, says that the United States pursued what appeared to be immediate national interests but he now admits the possibility of a question regarding its ultimate wisdom: “Should we have had a higher, wiser concept of our real interests that would require us to hold back on what many people would say is our own current interest?”

We cannot change the past, but we can take actions now that may help overcome mistrust and heal broken relationships. Politicians are not in the habit of acknowledging failure, even partial responsibility for bad outcomes. But there is always a potential high-value move for politicians to give voice to mutual respect and acknowledge what is widely agreed to be positive regarding the other side. In the field of negotiation, we say, “Respect is low cost and high value.” President John F. Kennedy endeared himself to Russians for generations when, in his 1963 “Strategy for Peace” speech, he acknowledged the great victory of the Soviet Union in World War II: “No nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the course of the Second World War.” Kennedy acknowledged the trauma, the dignity and achievements of the people in the Soviet Union and offered respect on behalf of the American people—a speech that gave impetus to concrete action—the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty two months later.

Today, it could have a positive impact in Russia for a major U.S. figure to acknowledge a great historic achievement: the people of Russia overturned the Soviet system without bloodshed and faced down a massive quandary: the wholesale reform of their political, economic and social system. This was a challenge of an order of magnitude rarely—if ever—matched in history. And any expectation that the process would be anything other than difficult, including successes and failures, was absolutely unrealistic. The Soviet legacy of centralized power and corruption would continue to have a negative effect on the new Russia. And Russia never had any period resembling Western democracy in its thousand-year history.

Likewise, if an American leader were to sincerely and publicly acknowledge that both sides bear responsibility for the current crisis, it might assist to create a context to build a working relationship where the United States and Russia could once again realize shared interests and engage in historic nuclear arms control and reduction agreements. To be politically acceptable on the domestic front, it would need to be done together with a clear statement of areas of disagreement with Russia, as has been done in the past by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. In his 1963 speech, Kennedy acknowledged the Soviet Union for its heroism in WWII, its achievements and its advancements in space. But he also pulled no punches regarding U.S. disagreement with Soviet socialism. Similarly, Reagan left no doubt about his views of the Soviet system while he expressed his support for Gorbachev, his reforms and his vision to end the Cold War.

THIRD, WE must take the right approach when pursuing strategic negotiation on nuclear risk reduction with President Vladimir Putin. Kissinger’s success in his breakthrough agreement on détente in 1972 was achieved with a clearly defined strategy and prioritization of U.S. national interests. Kissinger’s greatest ability, in the view of the authors of Kissinger the Negotiator, was his ability to continually “zoom out to his strategy” and “zoom in to his counterpart” to bring both views into alignment, bring the macro and micro together to advance core interests. The challenge today is, first, to formulate an executable strategy toward Russia and keep that in focus while negotiating with Putin. Putin, Kissinger argues, operates “on the premises of Russian history,” and is focused on advancing Russian national interests. He is not going to integrate on U.S. terms.

The very first lesson in Kissinger the Negotiator warns against viewing negotiation mainly in terms of persuasive, interpersonal dealings. This poses a major problem for the current U.S. president. Donald Trump’s performance in negotiations with Putin, many argue, has been a classic case of a people-oriented negotiator who lacks a strong strategic and analytic sense. Trump has exhibited a belief that bluster, force of personality, charm, a proclaimed ability to read people, persuasion and improvisation can bridge historical and political differences and compensate for lack of preparation.

Kissinger specifically worked to get to know his counterparts’ psychological tendencies, their personalities, their styles and their personal histories—and used this understanding to advance the larger strategy. In Kissinger’s negotiations with Rhodesian president Ian Smith, Kissinger managed to have what Smith himself considered a very good relationship, even as Kissinger pushed him out of office and ended white minority rule. Trump has been criticized for demonstrating his understanding of Putin’s perspective by simply affirming that he heard what he said and that he believes “he means it.” On the issue of election meddling, Trump has stated: “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”

To succeed in negotiations with Putin, his counterpart, or at least that person’s team, needs to understand the man and have a genuine awareness of Russian history, culture, economics and politics. The United States needs a consensus on a strategy that is more than isolating Russia or trying to wait out Putin.

AS THE United States works to develop a coherent strategy toward Russia, the lessons of the Kissinger and Reagan period suggest a good place to start in our current negotiations is with serious engagement with Russia on specific nuclear risk-reduction measures. Whatever other priorities we choose, we must not lose sight of the scourge of nuclear weapons, of a war that “cannot be won and must never be fought,” and the escalating threat today of a nuclear catastrophe through blunder, miscalculation, accident, which could be a civilization-ending cataclysm.

The field of negotiation offers concrete steps, never easy in a complex, already embittered political relationship as we have in U.S.-Russian relations today, to further shared interests and agreement on what we cannot afford to get wrong.

Bruce Allyn is Senior Fellow and Affiliated Faculty at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Image: Reuters