The vision thing

The ability to deliver a stirring speech enunciating idealistic goals is a start, but without successful follow-up, the vision seems hollow. Presidents who succeed at the vision thing manage to secure way stations along the path to overly ambitious objectives. President Ronald Reagan was a masterful visionary.

On nuclear issues, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Obama certainly met the rhetorical standard – Kennedy at American University in June 1963, Obama at Prague in May 2009 and now Berlin. President Obama still has a long way to go to match the accomplishments of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan in reducing nuclear dangers. Kennedy stopped nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Reagan secured a treaty banning entire classes of ballistic missiles.

JFK’s speech at American University 50 years ago demonstrates how the vision thing can prompt historic accomplishment. Less than 10 months after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy sought to shift gears from nuclear confrontation to nuclear risk reduction by going out on another limb, seeking a treaty banning nuclear testing.

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Kennedy engineered this shift through quiet, preparatory diplomacy and through adept stage management. JFK’s masterful commencement address at American University calling for an era of peace between ideological foes was a key factor in success, but there was far more to his recipe. Presidents who want to bake this cake need the following ingredients:

1. Convey private messages to your competitor that you seek to change course.
2. Make a high-profile public statement calling for a specific, notable result.
3. Take a calculated risk, but avoid making an offer likely to be stiffed.
4. Dispense with harsh rhetoric. Use a tone of respect and empathy instead.
5. Take a verifiable, meaningful, politically risky step as a sign of serious intent.
6. Call for reciprocal restraint.
7. Send a high-profile negotiator who knows his or her way around both capitals to cut a deal.
8. Seize the moment. Don’t dilly-dally.

Kennedy had greater ambitions than an atmospheric test ban treaty, but a complete test ban wasn’t negotiable in 1963. The key sticking point was the number of on-site inspections required to monitor underground tests. While falling short of what he wanted, JFK still achieved concrete results, ending the plague and public health hazards of atmospheric testing. (In the 23 months before Kennedy’s emissary, Averell Harriman, put the finishing touches on the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Soviet Union and the United States carried out no less than 179 atmospheric tests. That averages out to about two mushroom clouds per week.)

President Obama clearly is Kennedy’s equal when it comes to making stirring speeches. He has now tried in Berlin to replicate JFK’s recipe to reduce nuclear dangers. He and other administration officials have talked privately with the Kremlin about taking parallel steps to reduce strategic forces by one-third and to make bold reductions in tactical nuclear arsenals. He has now publicly called on President Vladimir Putin to join in taking these reductions in parallel. Left unsaid is whether the Obama administration will reduce these nuclear arms, which have been declared to be in excess of U.S. requirements, if the Kremlin balks.

These weapons are expensive to maintain and even more expensive to replace. Despite concerns over budgetary outlays and calls for spending reductions, Republicans on Capitol Hill will resist nuclear arms reductions. Changing Putin’s views toward the value of nuclear weapons will also be a challenge. He is pursuing deployment of a liquid-fueled missile that can carry multiple warheads and is expressing deep concerns about U.S. missile defense programs – even though Russia can foil U.S. defenses even if funding for them were increased ten-fold.

The Kremlin is speaking in ways that are stuck in the 1970s. President Obama is speaking about the future. To succeed in making parallel, verifiable strategic arms reductions, they have to find common ground in the present.   

Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank that studies peace and security challenges around the world.