Obama-Medvedev Russia Summit: Key Things to Watch

| July 02, 2009

Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are meeting in Moscow July 6-8 to discuss a range of key issues, including reductions in nuclear weapons. Three experts from Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center offer their insights and analysis of the issues in play.


Graham Allison

Graham Allison
Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Approaching the summit, it is important to keep in mind four fundamentals:

(1) The US and Russia are two independent, great nations; as befits independent nations, each has distinct national interests; so differences of national interest are natural and normal--not a matter about which to be surprised.

(2) The most significant fact about the two leaders of the US and Russia are that each represents a new generation: his country's first post-Cold War leader.

(3) The dominant Russian narrative about events since the Soviet Union disappeared 17 years ago is distinctly different from dominant American views: what we celebrate as "victory in the Cold War" is thought of by most of the Russian national security establishment as, in Putin's words "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."

(4) Despite all the real differences in national interests and even larger differences in perceptions of those interests, the vital national interests these two nations share are much greater than the interests that divide them. As each of these leaders focus on their own nation's vital interests, he will recognize that protecting and advancing these interests requires deep cooperation with the other nation. The most vial of these shared interests in nuclear security and these two leaders are committed to moving ahead cooperatively to address challenges in this arena. The big question is whether they can overcome the overload of other urgent issues, and inevitable obstacles to cooperation, to reverse a trendline that is unraveling the global nuclear order.


Matthew Bunn

Matthew Bunn
Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center

President Obama will need Russia as a committed partner in the struggle to keep nuclear weapons and the materials to make them out of terrorist hands. Active Russian participation will be essential to meeting Obama's goal of securing all nuclear material worldwide within four years. It is deeply in both U.S. and Russian national interests to agree on new steps to sustain effective nuclear security for the long haul in Russia, to consolidate nuclear weapons and materials to fewer locations, and to help other countries around the world to achieve effective nuclear security.


Will Tobey

William H. Tobey
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

The United States and Russia have succeeded when they have been able to overcome perceptions that they are locked in a zero sum contest. Their joint efforts on nuclear material security in Russia, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (launched by the United States and Russia to build on their experience and to enlist other states in efforts to improve nuclear security), and the Treaty of Moscow, which greatly reduced deployments of strategic nuclear weapons, are all examples of cooperative efforts that significantly strengthened international security. The question now is: can we build on these successes to meet new challenges? Those challenges include sustaining the upgrades to nuclear security in Russia, acting collectively with other states to stem and reverse the nuclear proliferation threats from North Korea and Iran, and defeating nihilist terrorist groups that seek to destroy civilized societies. Perhaps paradoxically, the United States and Russia may now have more in common on core security issues than they do elsewhere, such as culture and economics, which were seen as areas for bridge-building during the Cold War.


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For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, Matthew Bunn and William H. Tobey. “Obama-Medvedev Russia Summit: Key Things to Watch.” News, , July 2, 2009.

The Authors

Graham Allison