Having fallen to a historic low after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, U.S.-Russia cooperation is again on the rise, thanks to last year’s “reset” of the relationship. The U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, launched at the July 2009 Moscow summit, aims to enhance cooperation between the two countries on a broad range of shared interests. Although the Commission appears promising so far, significant challenges lie ahead and the two sides must work closely to monitor both the structure and the substance of this new institution to ensure it continues to produce results.

Moscow and Washington have engaged each other directly since the 1950s, beginning with limited academic and technical exchanges that were closely monitored by government agencies on both sides. In the 1970s, summit diplomacy yielded parallel negotiations and agreements on a range of shared interests, from health science to agriculture. The 1980s brought the first standing ministerial working groups, which managed a complex agenda of security, economic, and humanitarian issues.

It was only after the Cold War, however, that both sides began to fully explore how their cooperation could benefit common interests. Over the past two decades, two distinct experiments in bilateral institutional cooperation—the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission and the Bush-Putin Strategic Dialogue—produced important lessons about how to structure engagement effectively. But these and other efforts suffered from numerous problems, including bureaucratic inflexibility, distrust between and within the two governments, and an emphasis on personal rather than institutional relationship-building.

To address these shortcomings, the organizers of the new commission created a streamlined, flexible structure that fosters interaction at multiple levels and assigns responsibility for deliverables to specific individuals. Led by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, the Commission’s Coordinators are U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who oversee seventeen substantive working groups that are in turn co-chaired by senior executive branch officials from both countries. The working groups address topics ranging from nuclear security and arms control to educational and cultural exchanges, and the Coordinators report on the Commission’s overall progress to the presidents at least once a year.

Thanks to strong support from the White House and the Kremlin, plus the efforts of dozens of officials connected to the individual working groups, the Commission has produced impressive results in its first year. Already a traditional strength of the U.S.-Russia relationship, security cooperation now includes new binding arms control and nonproliferation agreements, joint efforts to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, and concrete Russian assistance for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The Commission also achieved progress in less traditional areas, such as facilitating dialogues on small business and environmental issues, sponsoring people-to-people exchanges, and promoting joint scientific research, to name just a few examples.

Despite these early successes, the Commission needs enhanced institutional support to remain effective. Organizers must:

  • Ensure that officials at the presidential, cabinet, and staff levels devote attention and political capital to the Commission’s work, despite many competing priorities.
  • Continue to make activities public to hold the working groups accountable for producing concrete outcomes.
  • Increase input from local and state government officials, who have firsthand knowledge of best practices that can support the working groups’ goals.
  • Leverage web and social media technologies to make the working groups more dynamic and accessible to the public.
  • Increase private-sector engagement to help government handle the expected growth of Commission contacts and projects.

In addition, individual working groups would benefit from an enhanced focus on the following specific goals:

  • Environment: Leverage the recent extreme weather phenomena in Russia and the United States to develop joint programs addressing the consequences of climate change.
  • Energy: Enhance the group’s focus on energy efficiency and clean energy technologies.
  • Emergency Situations: Draw on U.S. and Russian experience and capabilities to provide effective disaster relief in other countries.
  • Science and Technology: Use the Kremlin’s focus on modernization to strengthen efforts to improve information technology and e-government practices for enhanced transparency.
  • Counternarcotics: Increase cooperation on drug abuse treatment and prevention, especially at the local level.
  • Agriculture: Move beyond trade disputes to cooperatively address issues such as food security.
  • Health: Increase engagement between Russian and U.S. pharmaceutical and medical research communities on non-communicable chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, which kill Russian men in large numbers and contribute to Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis.

Continuing the Commission’s record of success and delivering the results that both sides want will require attention from the very highest levels. Presidents Obama and Medvedev should maintain regular, direct communication about the Commission’s progress and goals. At the same time, working-level officials on both sides must apply creativity and flexibility to the challenges of building effective joint programs while overcoming bureaucratic inertia, political distractions, and outdated prejudices.

The history of U.S.-Russia bilateral engagement shows that managing the relationship successfully requires sound institutions to advance the interests of both sides and to sustain global peace and security. Without continuing high-level attention and follow-through on concrete, achievable goals, even this latest success story could quickly lose momentum, setting relations between Moscow and Washington once again adrift.