What Kissinger Teaches Us about Negotiating with Russia

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.


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.