In its sixth month in office, the Bush administration stands on the threshold of a new era of post-Cold War international relations. Despite occasional tactical clumsiness, it has grasped the unique opportunity that, for the first time since World War II, no major nation is in a position to challenge the United States; and, more important, that every major nation has more to gain from cooperating with the United States than from confronting it.

A good example is the American relationship with post-Communist Russia, which has the potential to become as symbolic of the new era as the opening to China was after 1972. President Vladimir Putin's unexpected agreement to discuss both offensive levels of nuclear weapons and modifications of existing missile defense arrangements shows that the first leader of a genuinely non-Communist Russia is coming to grips with the emerging international realities.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin had made their careers in the life-and-death struggles that led to their positions on the Politburo. They were used to the Soviet Union as a superpower equal in reach -- at least in its own perception -- to the United States. Instinctively believing that Russia's turmoil was but a brief interruption before resumption of its mission, they oscillated between posing as a superpower side by side with the American president and fitful stabs at traditional Soviet policies based on opposition to the United States in regions such as the Middle East and the Balkans.

By contrast, Putin's career was made in the bureaucracy of the KGB and later as the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. The former position placed a premium on analysis of the international situation; the latter brought Putin face to face with the dilemmas of post-Soviet reconstruction. Like his predecessors, he wants to restore Russia's role, but unlike them he understands this is a long-term process.

In terms of Russian history, Putin is best understood as comparable to Prince Alexander Gorchakov, who conducted Russian foreign policy for 25 years after the Russian debacle in the Crimean War in 1856. Patient, conciliatory policies and avoiding crises allowed Gorchakov to restore an isolated and gravely weakened country to a leading international position.

Thus Putin, in his first policy statements as premier in 1999 and later as president in 2000, appealed to Russian pride by putting forward the restoration of Russian greatness as a national objective. But he showed his understanding of the limited means available by admitting that even a heady annual growth of 8 percent for 15 years would allow Russia to reach only the per capita income of present-day Portugal.

Putin's priorities appear to be the recovery of the Russian economy; the restoration of Russia as a great power, preferably by cooperation with the United States but, if necessary, by building countervailing power centers; combating Islamic fundamentalism; establishing a new security relationship toward Europe, especially with respect to NATO expansion to the Baltic states; and solving the missile defense issue.

These priorities explain why Putin has not pushed this agreement on missile defense to the point of confrontation. A clash with the United States would drain Russian resources and encourage a return to postwar patterns. Cooperation would symbolize a new era and perhaps bring some technological progress in shared anti-missile technology. And the price would be tolerable: The size of the Russian nuclear and missile arsenal will prevent any missile defense foreseeable for the next quarter-century to threaten Russia's ultimate retaliatory capability.

On the political plane, the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism is probably the dominant Russian concern. Russia's leaders perceive Afghanistan's Taliban and to a lesser extent Iran and Pakistan as threats to the newly independent states of Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, formerly Soviet republics. Furthermore, Moscow fears that militant ideologies could stimulate irredentism in Russia's southern Muslim provinces. America has its own concerns about the spread of fundamentalism toward Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and into the Middle East. An effort should be made to achieve concurrent or at least compatible policies with Russia on the Middle East, including Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and, at least as far as Russia is concerned, the Balkans.

During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States were convinced that a gain in influence by either would amount to a weakening of the global position of the other. The basic strategy of each side was to reduce the influence of the other. Under post-Cold War conditions, neither side can make lasting gains at the expense of the other in the Middle East. Russia may believe it is foreclosing an American option by tolerating assistance to Iran in the nuclear and missile fields. Some American policy-makers may perceive comparable opportunities in other regions of the Middle East. But in the end, the test of either country's policy will not be whether one or the other has greater influence in Tehran but whether the Tehran regime alters its policies and conduct. Unless such a change occurs, both Russia and America are under threat.

There are, however, clear limits beyond which neither country may be able to go. America cannot, in the name of opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, acquiesce in Russia's methods for suppressing the upheavals in Chechnya. Nor can America be indifferent should Islamic fundamentalism become a pretext to force the newly independent states of Central Asia back under Russian strategic domination. The safety of Israel remains a fundamental American goal. Russia has not in the past displayed a similar concern -- though this attitude may be changing on the part of some Russian leaders who are beginning to view Israel as a strategic counterweight to Islamic fundamentalism. Finally, it is possible that the competition for access to oil and the routes for its delivery will prove a major obstacle to policy coordination. In the end, the possibilities of Russo-American cooperation regarding Islamic fundamentalism depend on the ability to carve out a passage between Cold War tendencies and reigniting a new competition for dominance.

The most immediate challenge to Russo-American relations is NATO expansion, especially to the Baltic states, which is on the agenda for 2002. The Soviet subjugation of these states in 1940 was never recognized by the United States. And surely no group of nations is more deserving of protection by the Western democracies than these small countries incapable of posing a threat to any neighbor.

At the same time, for Russia, the advance of NATO to within 40 miles of St. Petersburg, into countries considered by it until the last decade as part of the Soviet Union, is bound to be disquieting no matter what reassurances are given. Baltic membership in NATO would produce a strong Russian reaction, if only to maintain the Putin government's domestic standing. On the other hand, it is morally and politically impossible to ignore or postpone the appeals of the Baltic democracies -- especially in view of the support given to their entry into NATO by President Bush in his recent Warsaw speech. Three options present themselves:

(1) To face down Russia by admitting all the Baltic states with some security assurances such as agreeing not to station NATO forces on Baltic territory (selective membership for some but not all Baltic states would solve nothing; it raises all of the psychological and political problems and creates a festering sore).

(2) If the European Union were serious about strengthening its defenses and if it were prepared to assign a meaningful mission to the projected European force, a solution might be accelerated membership of the Baltic states in the European Union, coupled with a security guarantee by both the European Union and the United States but without the formal machinery of the NATO military structure.

(3) Treating eligibility for NATO not so much as a security issue as a recognition of political and economic evolution. On this basis, any country meeting stated criteria could be declared eligible, including Russia some years after the Baltics, when its domestic evolution has progressed further. This has been hinted at by Putin and urged explicitly by various of his advisers.

It is a seductive proposition, but before embarking on this road, careful thought must be given to its implications.

Russian membership in NATO would end the guarantee against Russian intervention most desired by countries formerly under Soviet occupation, because NATO provides no guarantee against attacks from other members of the alliance. Indeed, it would put an end to NATO as heretofore conceived. For an alliance protects a specific territory; once Russia joins, the alliance will be either a general collective security system or an alliance of North Atlantic nations against China -- a step with grave long-range implications.

It is highly desirable for Russia's relations with NATO to improve to a point that the question of security disappears -- much as happened between Germany and France after World War II. But to formalize such an outcome to facilitate Baltic membership in NATO is both premature and ironic.

Russia should be welcomed immediately into a North Atlantic political system, but membership in the military arrangements should be deferred. This poses the following challenges:

* Russo-American relations need to be lifted from the psychological to the political level; they cannot be made to depend on the personal relations of leaders. This requires concreteness of objective and substance. With respect to missile defense, it is unlikely that Russia will give us carte blanche, as President Putin has made clear in his conversations with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; discussions will have to revolve around some specific scheme or schemes; some form of understanding that has some binding quality has to evolve -- though I agree with the administration that the upcoming discussion should not give Russia a veto and that some time limit must be established.

* In the political field, the necessities of the present must be related to hopes for the future. This applies especially to America's NATO relationship, which is our only institutional link to Europe. But it applies as well to America's relations with China, Japan and Israel.

* By the same token, Russia will seek to maintain its influence in regions of geopolitical and historical importance to the Russian state and as a hedge should the effort to create a new basis for Russo-American relations flounder -- as is seen in its recent friendship treaties with China and North Korea.

* All this imposes a new need for imagination in American foreign policy. With a wise foreign policy, America for the foreseeable future should be in a position to create incentives that cause both Russia and China to stand to gain more from cooperative relations with the United States than from confrontation with it.

* The frozen relationships of the Cold War no longer fit a world in which there are no principal adversaries and in which the very distinction between friends and adversaries is in transition in many regions. In such circumstances, the United States needs to design a diplomacy that prevents threats to fundamental American interests and values without designating a specific adversary in advance, and above all by a policy based on the widest possible international consensus on positive goals.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm.

(c)2001, Los Angeles Times Syndicate International