The world seemed to hang in the balance when American and Russian leaders met at a summit. Fears of nuclear war were in the air. But no more.
Russia is no longer a superpower, as the Soviet Union was, and world peace rests as much in the hands of tyrants and terrorists as in the actions of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.
This is not to minimize their agenda for Thursday's meeting in Slovakia. Iran's nuclear ambitions alone make their meeting in Bratislava significant.
But no historic pacts will emerge. Nor are they antagonists. To the contrary, complex and careful pacts to control nuclear bombs and missiles hammered out by foreign ministers and negotiators over the years are being consigned to the dustbin of history in a new era of trust and virtual alliance between Washington and Moscow.
Bush and Putin are committed to countering international terror. They are cooperating to keep nuclear arsenals under lock and key, beyond the reach of terrorists.
Where Bush will lean on Putin is to try to discourage Soviet sales of missile technology to Syria and Iran.
Every American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 has met with the leader of the Soviet Union or Russia. Long before nuclear weapons cast a dark shadow, Roosevelt, then Harry Truman, were arranging with Josef Stalin to conclude World War II and launch a divided Europe to postwar peace.
Crises in the Middle East and Far East dominated summits in the 1960s. Summits became so commonplace that President George H.W. Bush met 11 times with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and President Clinton had 26 meetings with Yeltsin and Putin, not all of them full-dress summits.
The Clinton-Yeltsin meeting in Paris in 1997 quietly set the two countries on the course of friendship. The two leaders signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act in which they stated they no longer considered each other as adversaries.
Clinton's meeting with Yeltsin in 1995 at Roosevelt's Hyde Park, N.Y., home produced a pledge to safeguard nuclear weapon stockpiles. It is probably best remembered, however, for the American president's guiding of an apparently unsteady and sometimes nearly incoherent Yeltsin through their joint public appearances with good humor.
Similarly, the human touch was evident in Vienna in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter steadied a faltering Leonid Brezhnev as they emerged from an Austrian palace. Even with aides guiding him, Brezhnev was unable to maintain his footing, and Carter quickly put his arm under Brezhnev's left shoulder to keep him from falling.
Summits generally are carefully scripted in advance by negotiators and ministers. But the scripts do not always work out.
One dramatic instance was Gorbachev's last-minute gambit at the 1986 summit with President Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland, to try to link the understanding they had reached on arms reductions to restrictions on Reagan's dream of a futuristic defense against strategic missiles, known popularly as Star Wars.
Reagan refused and the summit ended with little progress.
At their next meeting, a year later in Washington, Reagan and Gorbachev picked up the arms control theme and signed a treaty to eliminate U.S. and Soviet short and medium-range missiles. They also took up human rights, beginning a dialogue that has marked summits ever since, and that will be a focal point in Bush's meeting with Putin on Thursday.
In the meantime, arms control as an issue has dimmed.
The treaty Bush and Putin signed in Moscow in 2002 was almost an afterthought. Barely three pages long, its goal of reducing strategic nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds by 2012 was left largely to trust.
And since neither side remotely needs Cold War level arsenals, it took no arm-twisting to sign.
The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, and two historic arms control treaties have since been abandoned.
Both the 1972 restriction on missile defenses, signed by President Richard M. Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow, and the START II treaty that the first president Bush and Yeltsin signed in Moscow in 1993, 18 days before Bush left the White House, were the products of tedious and tortuous negotiations.
Determined to shield the United States from missile attack, the current President Bush abandoned the 1972 accord. The 1993 treaty's reduction in strategic warheads to between 3,000 and 3,500 apiece was largely tossed aside as well.
Nor did the Soviet Duma or the U.S. Congress ratify the 1979 SALT II arms limitation treaty that Carter and Brezhnev signed. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sidetracked Carter's submission of the accord to the Senate for ratification.
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