WASHINGTON--As a people, we are so inattentive to international affairs--especially now that the Cold War is over--that it takes a long time for things to sink in. But eventually the light bulb does switch on over our collective heads, and we murmur, "OK, I get it."
Something very like that has happened with public understanding of a new era in U.S.-Russian relations, I think. By chance I was in the middle of a round of voter interviews when President Bush had his second meeting about 10 days ago with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Their first meeting, a few weeks earlier, had produced general ridicule and some alarm, when Bush proclaimed that he had looked into Putin's soul and discovered there a righteousness and honesty on which he could rely. "Naive" was one of the kinder adjectives applied to Bush's judgment of the former KGB official.
But when Bush emerged from the second meeting and announced that he and Putin had agreed to discuss the potential of anti-missile defenses along with lowering the number of nuclear missiles in their countries' inventories, the reaction among the voters I met was warmly approving.
Most of all, I think Bush got through to people with the simple, oft-repeated statement that "Russia is not the enemy of the United States."
The Cold War, of course, ended during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, more than a decade ago. The Soviet Union came apart before Bill Clinton became president. But while Clinton worked manfully to improve relations with Mexico, to end conflict in Northern Ireland and to pursue an elusive peace in the Middle East, he did little to redefine U.S.-Russian relations.
It was not entirely his fault. Much of the time he was in office was consumed with the ups and downs of the volatile Boris Yeltsin, a leader we embraced too uncritically and grew to view with frustration.
And so it remained for the current President Bush to give voice to the once-startling notion that the nation we viewed for more than four decades as our main adversary was no longer a threat.
The historic significance of that realization is captured in a new report from the EastWest Institute, a 20-year-old private think tank, titled "Toward the Common Good."
The authors include former Pentagon and National Security Council officials. And the report carries the imprimatur of three notably long-headed former senators, Democrat David Boren of Oklahoma and Republicans John Danforth of Missouri and Alan Simpson of Wyoming.
These are not innocents. They readily acknowledge that democracy and a free economy both remain at risk in Russia. They write that "it is important to state explicitly that what occurs inside Russia is important to us.
The United States and the West in general will not wish to pursue the type of relationship we envision with any country that does not adhere to basic and internationally accepted principles of democracy, human rights, market economics and transparency."
But if Russia travels that road, with American encouragement, the report says that the basic thrust of Bush's policy has the potential to engage Putin in enormously productive changes. It recommends that "the two sides should make an up-front commitment to an interim nuclear relationship that features a mix of dramatically lower levels of offensive weapons and defensive systems. ... Russia should also be made a part of the research and development effort on ballistic missile defense, ensuring that Moscow derives real benefits from any alteration to the ABM Treaty."
That, in my understanding, is exactly what Bush is seeking to do.
Beyond those immediate challenges, the three senators and the authors of the report--Sherman Garnett, John Edwin Mroz, and John Tedstrom--say that a new relationship with Russia could speed its entry into the World Trade Organization, facilitate the expansion of the European Union and NATO, and provide a base for more effective international efforts to curb terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
The policy is not without risks, Boren, Danforth and Simpson acknowledge. But "if we do not seize the moment, we may well miss a historic opportunity. ... Our view is that we are at a dramatic turning point, one that could support the transformation of the U.S.-Russian relationship with wider implications for the world at large. ... The United States, from its position of prosperity and strength, can afford to make a bet on a much broader and more positive change."
The Bush administration has made that bet, and the public is beginning to back it.
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