Lessons of the Grain Embargo

The urge to teach someone a lesson seldom inspires sound policy. The lessons learned are too often one's own. So it is with President Carter's 1980 grain embargo. Soviet food supplies have been little affected. U.S. illusions about its own "food power" have been properly dispelled.

The idea of U.S. food power over the Soviet Union was an inevitable diplomatic by-product of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union, which had grown very large over the past decade, seemingly in proportion to large and growing Soviet needs. The President finally decided to use this putative power on January 4 of this year, when he suspended delivery of all U.S. grain sales to the U.S.S.R. in excess of the eight million tons guaranteed under the terms of a 1975 bilateral agreement. His announced purpose was to punish the Soviet Union for its military occupation of Afghanistan, begun in late December 1979. Never before had U.S. food exports to the U.S.S.R. been suspended in pursuit of a noncommercial, foreign policy objective. Now, at last, the "food weapon" had been taken from the shelf. For all who cared to watch, a definitive test of its effectiveness was at hand.

In most respects, circumstances in January 1980 seemed tailor-made for a high measure of success. Because of very dry weather early in 1979, that year's Soviet grain harvest had fallen 48 million tons (21 percent) short of production targets. To prevent a severe reduction in the size of its livestock herds, the Soviet Union had made plans, in October, to import an all-time record quantity of grain, 35 million tons in the next 12 months. By far the largest share of these anticipated grain imports (about 25 million tons, or nearly three-quarters of the total) were to be supplied by the United States, which had just completed a bountiful harvest. Meanwhile, owing to record demand, a poor harvest, and transport bottlenecks throughout much of the rest of the world's grain trading system, major suppliers other than the United States were less prepared than usual to assist in meeting Soviet import needs. If the Soviet Union would ever be vulnerable to U.S. food power, this seemed the time.

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