Ripple Effect Of U.S.-Russia Nuke Pact
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
What does this agreement say about the state of U.S.-Russia relations more broadly? Joining us now from Brussels is Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State and now a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Welcome to the program once again.
Professor NICHOLAS BURNS (Harvard University): Thank you.
SIEGEL: And in your view, apart from reducing the numbers of warheads, what's important here?
Prof. BURNS: Well, you know, I think it's important for President Obama. This is the first concrete, major foreign policy achievement in many months for his administration. It's also good for the world because Russia and the United States possess 96 percent of the nuclear warheads in the world. These are substantial reductions.
And hopefully it might lead to an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations. President Obama famously said he wanted to reset relations with Russia after the bitterness and mistrust of the Bush administration. And we had not seen any tangible signs of that progress; perhaps today is a good sign that this might lead to improvements in other areas of the relationship between the two countries.
SIEGEL: Now, imagine we're in Moscow, how would this look to us as Russians, what's achieved here from their standpoint?
Prof. BURNS: You know, I think this is important psychologically for the Russian leadership. The Russian leadership, particularly Prime Minister Putin, want to believe that they're still a superpower. In many ways they've been overtaken by China and India and Brazil. But in this realm of nuclear weapons, which of course defined the power of the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, it allows the Russians to feel that they still have weight in the world. It affirms their importance in the world and I think psychologically we shouldn't underestimate how important this is for the Russian people.
SIEGEL: Nicholas Burns, give us some context here. How would you describe generally the state of U.S.-Russia relations, apart from the strategic arms talks?
Prof. BURNS: I think U.S.-Russia relations continue to be in many ways complicated and difficult. There is still mistrust and suspicion left over from the period after the fall of the Soviet Union when many Russians believe - I don't happen to agree with this - but Russians believe that the United States should not have expanded NATO.
And there are, of course, still fears on the American side that Russia might want to dominate its neighbors that are now democratic. So, symbolic events like today's, the announcement of a major accord, sometimes can help to allay that mistrust and suspicion and build for the future. And there's a lot of work that has to be done.
The Russians are very important to us for Afghanistan, for our military forces there, for the supply of those forces and the transit of our aircraft. And, of course, Russia is perhaps the country that has the most influence on Iran, as the United States seeks to diminish the threat of a nuclear weapons future from Iran.
SIEGEL: When the Soviet Union was breaking up, the concern wasn't just the big, nuclear arsenal that was under the control of the Soviet Union, but the loose nukes, weapons that some corrupt enterprising general might go sell to another country or conceivably to a non-state actor. What's the thinking today about the security of the Russian arsenal and the threat of loose nukes?
Prof. BURNS: Well, there's been an enormous effort made. And, Robert, it's bipartisan for many years, led by former Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar, to have the United States invest in helping the Russian government to destroy stocks of chemical weapons and to make sure that the nuclear weapons and nuclear material they do have is secured so that it can't be stolen and put on the black market.
A lot of progress has been made since the early 1990s. I was in the White House between 1990 and 1995. And I can tell you that our greatest concern, as you said at the end of the Cold War was that as a rogue general would establish himself as a warlord someplace in the former Soviet territory, as a nuclear weapons power. And since the great fear now in our time is that a radical terrorist group might get control of weapons of mass destruction, we need to work with Russia on nuclear security, the security of their fissile material and their nuclear warheads.
SIEGEL: Former undersecretary of State, Nicholas Burns, thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. BURNS: Thank you, Robert.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.