The “Trump hurricane” hit Brussels this week. There is a place for frank exchanges and even public pressure with friends and allies. But the President’s public castigating of Germany as being “totally controlled by Russia” is inappropriate treatment of a valued ally. Nor is it likely to generate the necessary cooperation and trust from key allies and NATO to reengage with Russia in our collective duty to reduce nuclear dangers.
This latest display of bullying our friends follows soon after disputes between the Trump administration and European allies over trade, as well as the president’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate change accords. The perception of a strong alliance that firmly backs the United States has been severely challenged weakening NATO and undercutting U.S. leadership. Unfortunately, this self-inflicted damage weakens President Trump’s position when he sits down with President Putin in Helsinki, where the stakes for the security of America and the world are high.
The United States and Russia possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, each posing an existential threat to the other. Outdated Cold War nuclear postures, new cyber dangers and the spread of nuclear knowledge and technology, make it imperative that our leaders work together to prevent a nuclear blunder, with the Helsinki summit being an essential step to restarting nuclear risk reduction efforts.
There’s much to be done, but it must begin with the two presidents creating a climate for dialogue across our governments, one that will provide a stable foundation for managing our differences and addressing common existential threats.
Our leaders should approach this summit with a clear-eyed understanding of our differences — in Europe, where Russia has used political subversion and military force to change borders and challenge NATO; in the Middle East, where Russia has supported a brutal Syrian regime; and in cyberspace, where Russia has aggressively worked to influence American and European elections. These issues must be firmly and seriously confronted by the president and both parties in Congress.
Dialogue, however, must also be grounded in a basic truth: that Washington and Moscow have a common existential interest in preventing the use of nuclear weapons. While we must address our serious differences, it is imperative that we cooperate on these vital matters.
Absent serious attention to crisis management and risk reduction, an accident or miscalculation involving our military forces leading to a major international incident and escalation is likely. Without even informal understandings regarding the danger of cyber interference in command and control and early warning systems, we risk blundering into a nuclear exchange. Our leaders have only minutes to make decisions about nuclear use upon notice of a nuclear attack. We must find ways to increase decision time for leaders to respond to what may be a false warning.
Democrats and Republicans understood the need for cooperative engagement to keep Americans safe throughout the Cold War, when Washington and Moscow engaged in a deep ideological struggle, often playing out in hot spots around the world. Even then, negotiators met regularly in Geneva, Vienna, and New York, and our military commanders spoke with their counterparts in Moscow. There was an understanding that we have a mutual obligation to prevent nuclear disasters.
Unfortunately, this perspective has faded as tensions have grown. We have been stuck in a retaliatory spiral of confrontations that have only led to less communication and more acrimony and tension. And here at home, there are real risks of characterizing all dialogue with Russia as suspect, even when it is essential to our security.
President Trump can use the Helsinki summit to begin to carve out a Russia policy that reduces the unnecessary nuclear dangers we are currently running, while maintaining our values and protecting our allies and interests. The meeting is a chance to reaffirm the declaration from presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought; to extend and preserve mutually beneficial agreements that provide transparency, verification and stability on nuclear arms; and to launch a dedicated effort to cooperate on areas of common interest, including preventing nuclear terrorism. Beyond the summit, the presidents should commit their diplomatic, military and scientific establishments to report back on jointly developed specific agreements and concrete actions that could reduce nuclear risk.
But the president can succeed only with support from our allies abroad and Republicans and Democrats at home. The president created headwinds in Brussels for building a durable consensus behind renewed dialogue between Washington and Moscow. That makes it even more imperative for Democrats and Republicans to weather the storm and work together to meet these existential security challenges.
Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn are co-chairmen of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Originally published in The Hill.