US-Russian relations can learn from the darkest moment of the Cold War
Sooner or later, Russia and the US will have to settle old scores
In November, America will be marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy, a president who had many faults but did get one thing magnificently right. In 1962, when the world was on the brink of nuclear war after the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, tried to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, he kept a cool head long enough to defuse the crisis.
The experience of having his finger so close to the nuclear trigger profoundly changed the president for the rest of his short life. Kennedy immediately set out to make sure it could never happen again. Despite the bad blood between the two men - both had told the other lies and been caught out - within a year of the crisis the two countries signed the first nuclear test ban treaty, which helped to keep the peace between Moscow and Washington for the rest of the Cold War.
The story of Kennedy's final year, and the rhetoric he used to bring the American people with him, is told by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, in his book, To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace. Professor Sachs's purpose is to contrast Kennedy's idealism and energy with today's White House, which he calls a cynical "focus group machine".
It is worth recalling the Kennedy-Khrushchev era on a day when the G20 summit in St Petersburg is overshadowed by the notoriously bad personal relations between Barack Obama and his host, Vladimir Putin. The physical chemistry is revealing. Mr Putin, who can be charming when he wants to, has displayed his disdain by slouching like "a bored kid in the back of the classroom" in his presence, to use Mr Obama's phrase.
Mr Putin acknowledges that they both get "vexed" but he said in a pre-summit interview that neither leader was elected to be "pleasant" to the other. This is certainly true of Russia, where public opinion seems to expect Mr Putin to be bolshie with Uncle Sam.
But this is a bigger issue than personalities. There is no chance of a political settlement to the Syrian crisis without the Russians being on board. And Washington is wary of a military solution with the rebel forces toppling the Assad regime, fearing that its chemical weapons arsenal would then fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked factions.
Mr Putin has now upped the stakes, threatening to supply the Syrians - and potentially Iran - with its highly effective S300 air defence system if the US launches its promised missile attack.
If Kennedy and Khrushchev could find a meeting of minds in the 1960s, why not their successors? The simple reason is that the threat is not as high as in the Cold War. For Mr Kennedy, relations with the Kremlin were an issue of survival. Not only did the Russians have a devastating nuclear arsenal, they also appeared (deceptively as we now know) to have a flourishing economy that could one day outstrip America. Both leaders know they had to do something extraordinary.
By contrast, Syria presents no existential threat for either country, though Mr Putin argues that his country risks contagion from militant Islamism if the Assad regime falls. So the issue is more about Mr Putin projecting the USSR's lost power while Mr Obama vacillates between his roles as law professor and global policeman. This is not a life or death issue for either man.
There is another difference. Kennedy and Khrushchev had stared at war and decided against it. They were braves burying the hatchet. Today the situation is reversed. Their modern analogues are more like angry lovers, once in harmony but now filled with betrayal.
Four years ago Mr Obama set about improving relations with Russia in what came to be known as the "reset", a slippery term if ever there was one. He found common ground with Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin's stand-in for president while the strongman cooled his heels as prime minister before returning to supreme power for a third term. The two countries did some useful business - on trade, nuclear missiles and opening up Russian railways as a route for the US armed forces to evacuate from Afghanistan.
In 2011 Mr Obama asked the Russians to allow the Nato alliance to establish a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians in Benghazi from the Libyan army. Mr Medvedev agreed, and the operation was approved by the United Nations Security Council.
Nato pocketed the Russian vote and went on to remove the Libyan leader Col Muammar Qaddafi, to the fury of Mr Putin who sensed that Russia had been played for a sucker. Since then Mr Putin has seen the Americans as aggressively trying to topple Moscow-friendly regimes and sow anarchy, as in Libya and Syria, where there had once been stability.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary at the time of the Libya conflict, told The New York Times recently: "I said at the time we would pay hell ever getting them (the Russians) to cooperate in the future." That is the situation we are in now.
It is hard to see how the situation can change until the stakes rise for both sides, and they see a serious risk from the Syria conflict. In simple terms, it has to get worse before it gets better, so that the strategic confusion in the West and the obstructionism in Moscow give way to clear goals.
But that is not any kind of diplomatic road map. More a counsel of despair.
In fact, the lack of strategy in the West has already allowed the crisis to deteriorate to such an extent that the rebels are now dominated by jihadist factions for whom any accommodation with the regime is anathema. That makes simple calls for a peace conference unconvincing. One day, however, Russia and America are going to have to find a plan, as Kennedy and Khrushchev did, but that could be some way ahead.