Washington George W. Bush's deadpan expression and inflectionless voice did not match the short burst of rhetoric his aides had prepared. He was announcing from the White House lawn that he and Vladimir Putin would sign an arms control treaty that would "liquidate the legacy of the Cold War" when they meet in Moscow next week. But even casual television viewers could see that Bush had his enthusiasm under control.
"It will begin the new era of U.S.-Russian relationships," the president said, quickly adding, "and that's important," as if his low-key presentation on Monday might have misled his national audience.
Bush's critics slowly re-emerging into the sunlight from post-Sept. 11 political bomb shelters will portray his mood as chagrin over having to renege on campaign denunciations of the very notion of arms control treaties: Those treaties were unreliable instruments that he would toss onto history's ash heap. Or the critics will spotlight the hard fact that Bush has accepted Putin's insistence that substantial cuts in nuclear arsenals are too big a deal to be settled by a Texas handshake, as Bush proposed.
But Bush's phlegmatic demeanor was more appropriate than the grandiloquent script he had memorized. Instinctively, he was communicating that this moment was about embers rather than flames, about what America's role in the world has been rather more than what it will be. This would have been a glory moment in the pre-Sept. 11 world in which he campaigned and governed. But that is a world Bush, Putin and the rest of us no longer inhabit, and I suspect Bush could not shake that realization.
Bush does not have to apologize or feel humble about giving in to Putin on form. He lost nothing on substance. The three-and-a-half-page document they will sign will have two provisions: Each side will reduce its nuclear warheads to a range of 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012. The other recites already tested verification procedures. "This is a minimalist treaty," says an approving Richard Perle, the most articulate and determined opponent of previous arms control accords of any flavor. "Agreements between friends should be short. This one is mercifully lacking in details."
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser and the most trusted voice he hears on Russian affairs, described the new arms control treaty in similar terms. It was the result of the close trust the two leaders had established on other issues, and especially on the war on terrorism in Central Asia, she said.
Bush 43 sees arms control as byproduct, not a driving force in or regulator of Russian-American relations. This treaty was retrofitted from the high level of U.S.-Russian intelligence-sharing in the war on terrorism.
In the Cold War, arms control agreements sought to contain the danger that Washington and Moscow would annihilate each other in atomic clouds of dust if their rivalry in Europe spun out of control. Superpower conventional war in Europe is no longer a danger, Rice and Bush believe. So there is no trigger for a global nuclear exchange.
The unspoken corollary is that Europe is no longer America's biggest security concern. Against his own expectations, Bush will make his reputation in war and peace in the Middle East and in Asia, where he must manage the emergence of India and China as big powers.
That does not mean Russia will not present new challenges when opportunity arises (see Iraq) or that Europe can now be ignored. The Europeans, led by Britain's Tony Blair and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, have taken the lead in fashioning a new consultative security relationship with Russia that will make the alliance more responsive to the challenges of the future. And Europeans will not be spared the reach of global terror, as a suicide car bomber who killed 11 French nationals in Karachi, Pakistan, last week demonstrated.
"This is a hard awakening for all of Europe," the Paris daily Le Monde editorialized as French investigators pursued leads pointing to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Europeans had begun to slip back into a pre-Sept. 11 "quietude" in which they pretended that "the hardest was over and the Americans were exaggerating" in "their war on terrorism," Le Monde's editorialist wrote. That pretense was shattered in Karachi.
For Bush, the treaty signing in Moscow will come as an afterthought of history a last shovelful of earth on the grave of the Cold War. In that struggle, each side could at least assume the other was rational enough not to commit suicide. In today's conflicts, the American president does not have the luxury of that assumption.