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The Geneva Conversion

DENVER – The agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons reached by Russia and the United States is important not so much for what it could mean on the ground – which remains to be seen as inspectors begin to flow into Syria and, we hope, chemical-weapons stockpiles begin to be destroyed. Rather, the agreement’s main significance consists in the fact that it was struck at all: US Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva, that most traditional of diplomatic venues, and cut a deal on an issue of intense mutual interest.

In the days, weeks, and months ahead, the arrangements to remove chemical weapons from Syria will, one hopes, begin a new era in which the US and Russia work together on other pressing global issues as well. A cooperative US-Russia relationship is essential if the international system, now almost dysfunctional, is to work properly in the future.

The agreement on Syria could accomplish something else: Americans might recognize that, lo and behold, there are other ways to solve problems than by dropping bombs. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clumsy foray into the American debate infuriated many Americans (including me), but it was certainly a teachable moment. Many outside the US thought it was high time that someone offered America a taste of its own paternalism – and even better that that someone was Putin, a politician who has, to put it gently, his own set of foibles.

So Americans might want to tone down their anti-Putin rhetoric. As a practical matter, Putin certainly does not seem to be suffering any adverse domestic political consequences from his bashing in the US. More broadly, America’s supply of moralistic – and even churlish – advice to the rest of the world has greatly exceeded international demand for it. And its willingness to engage militarily as an early step, rather than as a last resort, has alienated many around the world. No amount of “Muslim outreach” and other public diplomacy alone will change that.

Support for insurgencies is a case in point. Many countries – Syria qualifies as a poster child in this regard – suffer under miserable, brutal governments. But backing an armed rebellion is a major step, especially when the rebels whom one is backing have, as in Syria, started something that they may not be able to finish.

This is not to say that the US should never support insurgencies against established governments; but doing so is almost always a lonely affair, without any realistic expectation of enlisting many partners in the process. Such policy choices should be made rarely, and with a clear understanding that support for the violent overthrow of a government is not very popular around the world.

The road that got the US to the Geneva agreement with the Russians was long and windy, and may indeed have done some damage to America’s standing in the world, even though the outcome was better than any other on offer. To put that process behind it, the US needs to follow up with the Russians to establish a broader pattern of long-overdue cooperation.

Call it a “reset” button – like the one then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave to Lavrov in 2009 – or whatever one wants. But it should be more than a gag gift. The reset must occur in the context of efforts to solve real problems together.

A good place to start would be to seek a Syrian peace deal that enables the country’s different communities – now butchering each other – to live in one state. Maybe the US is right that Syria’s brutal and mendacious president, Bashar al-Assad, cannot be part of any eventual solution. But there is time to figure that out, and Syria’s own 2014 election might offer a face-saving way out of that conundrum. A role for the Russians could help coax Assad into offering concessions that he will not make as long as he views the process as one that is intended to destroy him.

At this point, any peace process is a long shot, but so is the prospect of either side winning militarily, with or without the arrival of American arms for the rebels. The alternative of allowing this fight to the death to play out – a proposal heard daily on American talkathon television – is not worthy of our civilization. Such a scenario could amount to fighting to the last Syrian child.

The world needs all hands on deck – not only Russian and American, but also Arab, Chinese, European, and anyone else’s. The beacon of hope shining from Geneva should guide us all.