President Reagan won his office in part because he convinced the electorate that the Soviets had hoodwinked all Administrations of the last decade. He proposed to reverse the unfavorable trend of U.S.-Soviet power relations and, quite simply, to "stand up to the Russians." For the last two years, the Reagan Administration has been trying to translate into policy the basic ideas its members brought into office. To an unprecedented degree, these basic ideas have remained unchanged despite pressures that inevitably drive every President facing the realities of domestic and international politics toward the pragmatic center. Despite various adjustments and adaptations, both the domestic and foreign policies of the Reagan Administration, like the Reagan campaign, continue to display the characteristics of an ideological crusade.

In foreign policy President Reagan has subordinated almost all decisions to the East-West conflict as the central axis of American international concerns. Yet after almost two years in office, his conduct toward the Soviet Union is guided less by a comprehensive and consistent long-range policy than by a general ideological orientation tied to several concrete and controversial elements of policy. The result of this approach, at least in the near term, has been a sharp worsening of U.S.-Soviet relations to a level of serious new confrontation and mutual suspicion.

If the patently deteriorating relations between the two superpowers are not to continue their drift toward a new cold war, their premises and priorities must be subjected to a clear and thorough-going reconsideration. Such a reexamination is particularly timely not only because the death of Leonid Brezhnev presents new uncertainties about the direction of Soviet foreign policy, but, even more important, because circumstances today generate pressures both internally and externally for the two nations to alter their present course.

As a contribution, then, to the general discussion that engages the political community in both the United States and the Soviet Union, this article will pursue four themes: how the Soviets perceive American policy toward the Soviet Union; what main factors affect the nature of current Soviet foreign policy; what assumptions underlie American policy toward the Soviet Union and how valid they are; and what alternatives are open to American policymakers in dealing with the Soviet Union.


President Reagan's concentration on the Russian danger as the fundamental issue in world politics is matched in intensity by Russia's preoccupation with Reaganism as a clear menace to its internal stability and international authority. If anything, this attention to America's words and actions will become even more acute during the present passage of power to new leaders. In deciding the future course of Soviet policy toward the United States, those leaders will build upon the views of Russia's U.S.-affairs analysts-analysts whose assessments of the Reagan Administration, with due allowances for differences of language and approach, are strikingly similar to those of some Western observers.

In their publications and conversations, both official and private, Soviet analysts reveal a broad range of agreement on key issues, even if a generous discount is applied to compensate for the influence of official viewpoints. Like American commentators on international problems, they regard as the key aspects of policy the direction of military decisions, the use of economic power, the climate of relations, and the approach to negotiations and to regional conflicts. (They are also prone, much like American specialists on the Soviet Union, to attribute to their adversary's policies greater order, consistency, and comprehensiveness than exists in fact.)

In Soviet eyes the most significant element of the Reagan approach is its attempt to alter the balance of military power between the United States and the Soviet Union. Particularly striking in this regard, many Russians feel, is Reagan's willingness to sacrifice social welfare spending to support the cost of the nation's increased military budget-something which would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. Reagan, they believe, has shown the will and the political capacity to begin the process of rearming America.

Like their American counterparts, of course, the Soviets appreciate the difficulties involved in the Reagan program. The Administration's military commitments-to the MX strategic missile, the Trident submarine, the B-1 bomber, the Rapid Deployment Force, improved command and communications structure-read like a shopping list with no clear priorities. It is clear that many years will elapse before these programs actually affect the military balance, and ultimate success will also depend upon the President's ability to deliver similar military budgets in the future. While unconvinced that the U.S. military budget seriously threatens them as yet, however, the Russians are convinced that the United States aims in the next few years to change the present strategic balance, which, in their view, is one of parity. What they fear most is any effort to realize one repeated theme of Reagan's election campaign-strategic superiority over the U.S.S.R.

If in material terms the Reagan military program remains far from affecting the actual Soviet-American power balance, the Soviets recognize that its psychological and political effects are immediate and important. The Soviets have been warned that their unceasing military buildup will at least be matched should President Reagan have his way. Although the President may not yet have persuaded them he will succeed, the prospect that American resolve to engage in a military buildup will continue through Reagan's first term and perhaps even into a second term brings home to Soviet leaders the unintended consequences of their military buildup and expansionist policies during the second half of the 1970s. It also promises them a new arms race, the relative cost of which would far exceed that of the past two decades.

The second key element of Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union, the Russians feel, is his effort to shape an effective campaign of economic warfare which exploits their growing dependency on Western imports. If, in the early days of détente, Soviet economic relations with the United States failed to expand as expected, Soviet economic relations with Western Europe have exceeded estimates. Even in good harvest years the Soviets import grain, and in bad harvest years-and 1982 marks the unprecedented fourth in a row-they import as much as 25 percent of total needs. As for advanced technology, the modest share of these imports in the gross national product masks the reality of their importance. Directly or indirectly, Western technology influences to a high degree the Soviet ability to continue modernizing their military forces, and the impact of these imports is maximized by being concentrated on key projects of the five-year plans. But since Soviet-American trade in industrial items scarcely exists, Reagan's attempt at economic warfare against the Soviets consists primarily of pressing U.S. allies in the West to limit their trade and especially to abolish their highly favorable credit arrangements, which Reagan views as subsidizing Soviet military and economic growth.

The third key element of the Reagan Administration's policies toward the Soviet Union, in the Soviet analysis, concerns the effort to redefine the very atmosphere of Soviet-Western relations and, particularly, the public mood in the United States with regard to those relations. The strident anti-Soviet rhetoric of the early Reagan Administration, which occasionally surfaces even today, is addressed primarily to the American public, in order to ensure its acceptance of reduced social programs together with substantial growth in military spending. The rhetoric also aims to persuade West European allies that American attitudes toward the Soviet Union differ markedly from the period of détente and that if the Europeans want to retain American guarantees and confidence, they should be more in step with the American mood. Only finally is the rhetoric addressed to the Russians themselves, who are advised that in light of the Soviet military buildup and expansionist moves of the last decade, President Reagan does not intend to engage in "business as usual" with the Soviet Union. In this regard, President Reagan's declining to attend the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev, and in particular the deliberately casual manner in which he announced that decision, must be regarded by the new Soviet leaders as yet another effort to diminish the stature of their country. From the American perspective, it may well stand as an occasion lost in preparing the ground for future constructive negotiations.

From the Soviet perspective, the fourth element of current American policy toward the Soviet Union concerns the timing of U.S.-Soviet negotiations. The Soviets recognize that in U.S.-Soviet relations former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used carrots and sticks, incentives and disincentives, simultaneously, while now they are used sequentially. Sticks come first. Serious negotiations on arms limitations and reductions, on commercial relations and credits, on compromise solutions to regional conflicts and imbalances, can be undertaken only when Soviet leaders understand that the mood of the American people and the American Administration has really changed and that the trend of Soviet-American military power has been reversed. This position was clear from the speeches of former Secretary of State Alexander Haig even with his pro-European orientation; it is too early to know whether it will hold under Secretary George Shultz.

The fifth key element of Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union discussed by Soviet analysts is the Administration's approach to regional conflicts and civil wars in the Third World and to regional security arrangements. The Reagan Administration appears to look at Third World issues primarily through the prism of American-Soviet relations. It regards Soviet attitudes and actions as either the direct cause of instability in the Third World or at least as the decisive obstacle to the resolution of regional problems in line with American preferences and interests. There is, for example, the intransigent American position toward Cuba, a country which, in the view of the Reagan Administration, shares with its Soviet patron the blame for the civil war in El Salvador, or the American attempt (since abandoned) to arrange a "strategic consensus" in the Middle East expressly in order to neutralize the threat of Soviet expansionism.

On all these five points, the current dismay of Soviet specialists has replaced the complacency with which they first received Reagan. During the election campaign of 1980, it appeared that the overwhelming majority of Soviet leaders and commentators on the American political scene preferred the election of Reagan, his anti-Soviet rhetoric notwithstanding, to what they saw as the unpredictability, ambiguity and indecisiveness of the Carter Administration. Even after Reagan chose the members of the new Administration, the Soviets were not unhappy about Carter's defeat. They expected that the very process of governing would inevitably drive Reagan's policies toward the center, and they remembered that conservative Republicans find it easier than liberal Democrats to make agreements with the Soviet Union. To put it simply, the hope of Soviet leaders was to see another Nixon in the White House. Today they hold no such view.

During Reagan's first year, many Soviet specialists on the United States regarded the Reagan Administration as "Carterism without Carter," that is, as a continuation and intensification of policies pursued during Carter's last year in office. Today one finds scarcely a Soviet official or expert who still subscribes to this view. Almost everyone in the Soviet political community sees Reaganism as a major break with the past despite the persistence of important policy tendencies. It is a major break, first, because different people serving different constituencies are in charge and will in crisis situations behave differently (and, it is thought, more decisively); second, because the Reagan Administration still appears to enjoy more support than its predecessor for its stern line toward the Soviet Union; and, third, because whatever the elements of continuity, the Soviets suspect that President Reagan pursues different, more ambitious, and-for the Soviet Union-more dangerous aims in his policies toward the Soviet Union than did his predecessor.

Soviet analysts do see differences and divisions within the Reagan Administration, although they ascribe little importance to them. They distinguish, for example, what may be termed the anti-Soviet position of former Secretary Haig and more generally of the State Department from the anti-Soviet and anti-communist position of the Defense Department and White House. The former espouse policies designed to counteract the expansion of Soviet power by means of Realpolitik. The latter absorb the anti-Soviet position and go beyond it to call for a crusade against the Soviet Union, its clients, and communism in general, through the rhetoric and instruments of the cold war. The former, Soviet analysts argue, would make American policy dependent on Soviet behavior with regard to specific issues, such as Poland or Afghanistan. The latter would pursue an intransigent "cold war" policy against the Soviet Union regardless of any adjustments, compromises, or changes in Soviet policy on specific issues, in the belief that any accommodation would prove an illusion because the Soviet Union is systemically incapable of altering its behavior.

Whereas Soviet specialists broadly agree on the key elements of Reagan's policies toward the Soviet Union, they disagree over the nature and sources of Reaganism. The two main views have important implications for Soviet policy planning.

According to one school of thought, Reaganism represents a significant if temporary departure from the long-range thrust of American policy in the direction of accommodation with the Soviet Union. In this view Reagan, his associates, and his principal supporters constitute only one tendency within America's "ruling circles." They are primarily responsible for the present harsh anti-Soviet direction of American policy and mood of American opinion. For this group of Soviet analysts, the United States bears the overwhelming responsibility for the failure of détente, although it is admitted that certain Soviet actions, such as the invasion of Afghanistan ("forced" on the Soviet Union by circumstances), did contribute through an action-reaction cycle to the progressive deterioration of Soviet-American relations.

According to this view, there are other forces in America, distinct from Reagan, who are more realistic and pragmatic, and whose time will come. Reaganism will pass, it is thought, perhaps as early as the 1984 elections. Soviet patience will eventually find its reward in a changed American political climate, and in a new Administration that will once again choose regulated competition and compromise solutions over the confrontational stance of the present incumbents.

This new Administration, supporters of this view believe, will not go so far as to restore détente of the 1972-75 vintage. Such an outcome, according to one proponent, will probably not be feasible in this generation-which might, he added, be all to the good so that neither side harbors unwarranted illusions or exaggerated expectations of what détente can accomplish. Yet sooner or later, the United States will recognize that Soviet-American relations must be regulated in ways which acknowledge the vital interests of both parties and avert potentially dangerous conflicts.

The second school of Soviet thought argues that the change in American direction came not with Reagan but with détente. The situation in the early 1970s, this view holds, was highly unusual. The United States found itself deeply enmeshed in an unpopular war which was tearing apart society and polity. President Nixon looked to better relations with the Soviet Union both in order to preclude a Soviet challenge to an overextended America and in order to secure Soviet help in ending the Vietnamese war "with honor." According to this group, the ascendancy of Reaganism in foreign policy has deep systemic roots and derives from secular changes in American politics and social policies.

The perceived systemic roots of Reagan's orientation in foreign policy, and particularly in Soviet-American relations, concern, first, the malleability of the American public and the extent to which anti-Sovietism and anti-communism have become deeply rooted in American popular attitudes; second, the expression and exploitation of frustration among America's "ruling circles" and public over the decline of U.S. power; and, third, the traditionally moralistic character of American foreign policy, with its aversion to a Kissinger-style Realpolitik. The failure of détente, according to this perspective, was entirely the fault of the Americans, who wish to deny the Soviet Union the equal role in international relations which it deserves thanks to military parity with the United States.

Unlike the first school, this view argues that the tendency represented by Reaganism will not pass quickly from the American scene. Even should the Democrats achieve victory in the 1984 elections, the entire spectrum of American politics and policies has moved toward the Right, and the pendulum may not swing back during the present generation. In any case, these analysts contend, the Soviet leadership cannot design its long-range plans on the basis of a simple assumption that the present trend of American policy toward the Soviet Union is a passing phenomenon.

Crucially important as the differences between these two schools are, their limits should also be recognized. It is often asserted in the United States that two distinct orientations regarding Soviet policy toward the West divide the Soviet foreign policy establishment. "America-firsters" are said to maintain the absolute centrality of Soviet-American relations and hope for major improvement in these relations. "Europe-firsters" are thought to see the greatest opportunities in Soviet relations with Western Europe and to promote such relations as the main axis of Soviet policy toward the West. Such a distinction, however, exaggerates the differences within the Soviet foreign policy establishment. That establishment as a whole, it would seem, attaches central importance to Soviet-American relations-even more so today, if that is possible, than in the immediate past. It believes that the United States alone stands between the Soviet Union and the satisfaction of its international appetites and ambitions.

The Soviet foreign policy elite does tend to divide on strategic and tactical objectives concerning Western Europe, especially in periods like the present when relations with the United States are unlikely to improve. In such a situation the entire Soviet foreign policy establishment advocates a very active policy toward Western Europe as the most promising alternative. Here the two Soviet evaluations of Reaganism suggest two distinct lines of foreign policy. The first school of thought would court Western Europe mainly in order to realize the potential for influencing through European pressure American policies toward the Soviet Union. The second would advocate improving relations with Western Europe primarily to weaken the Western Alliance and increase for the United States the cost of confrontational policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

Despite these differences, however, it would seem that neither group in the Soviet foreign policy establishment has any illusions about how much can be gained from the West Europeans and how far differences between the United States and its West European allies can be exploited in the near future, especially on crucial questions of military policy.

All the Soviet foreign policy elite are hardliners publicly with regard to Soviet-American relations. For some, these hardline views no doubt express real convictions; for others, especially those who in the past advocated a policy centered on America, they express insurance and compensation for the earlier "soft line" toward the United States. What is perhaps most striking for an observer of Soviet thinking on foreign policy is the Soviets' refusal to accept the view that Reagan's foreign policies have moved somewhat toward the center in the last year. Few Soviet experts seem to note that, except for a high defense budget, Reagan's harsh rhetoric has so far been followed by very little decisive action.


The Soviet Union remains in an ascendant phase of great-power ambitions to which the messianic traditions of Russian nationalism and revolutionary Marxism-Leninism add virulence. The achievement of strategic parity with the United States, the ability to project the Soviet Navy and proxy or Soviet military forces far from Soviet borders, and the unceasing determination to ensure Soviet participation in the regulation and resolution of every major international issue and regional conflict-all are signs that proclaim Soviet commitment to an active and expansionist global policy. The new leaders are not likely to abandon this commitment.

While the general tendency of Soviet foreign policy makes it dynamic, assertive and ambitious in the long run, however, its tactics in the short run oscillate between expansion and retrenchment. At the present juncture, Soviet foreign policy can best be described as a holding operation. Characterized by great caution, it displays neither major initiatives nor attempts to shape a new general line following the collapse of détente with the United States.

The reasons for the conservative nature of Soviet foreign policy today stem from both international and domestic circumstances. One reason follows from dilemmas over the behavior of the United States. To the extent that the Soviets have abandoned any hope of doing business with Reagan and are waiting for his replacement in 1984, expecting that the pendulum in American politics as many times in the past will swing to the center or Left, these attitudes reinforce the holding pattern of Soviet foreign policy. To the extent that Soviet leaders take Reagan's anti-Soviet rhetoric and policy gestures seriously, they have shown themselves unwilling to test the Administration's resolve-thus also reinforcing the existing holding pattern in Soviet foreign policy.

To stress this particular explanation for current Soviet retrenchment strengthens the arguments of those Reagan advisers who insist on the correctness of the present course. It would be wrong to draw such conclusions, however, since not only do numerous other factors work in a similar direction, but, even when taken together, all these factors fail to challenge seriously the general proposition that the present phase of Soviet policy is likely to be a transitory phenomenon.

Another important reason for the cautiousness of current Soviet policy today is Soviet fear of overextension. The seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, the continuing investment in Africa, the burden of subsidies to Eastern Europe and Cuba, and especially the situation in Poland-all of these considerations dictate retrenchment rather than extension of commitment.

In Poland, the policies of martial law and the crackdown on Solidarity for which the Soviets pressed were acts of desperation rather than of long-range planning. This gamble, which has so far spared the Soviets the incalculably greater costs of an invasion, paid off in the short run far better than expected. Yet despite the immediate benefits derived from abolishing the dual power system in Poland, the situation there is a stalemate. Martial law remains in effect; the embarrassing replacement of the Communist Party by a military regime, far from being a temporary "solution," persists; passive defiance of the Polish population continues unabated; the catastrophic economic situation, according to official Polish estimates, will endure for a number of years before pre-Solidarity levels can be regained. Most important, Polish Communists and Soviet leaders have proved helpless in devising a realistic plan to restore political and economic stability.

Of equal significance are the military consequences of the continuing Polish turmoil. Poland today and for the foreseeable future constitutes a power vacuum in Soviet military plans regarding Europe. The events in Poland have reduced to nil the intended place of this country in Soviet plans for deployment, communications and supply. All in all, the Polish situation bears a stamp of provisionality where one false move, one provocation, can still provoke an explosion.

Yet another reason for the holding pattern in Soviet foreign policy derives from the direction of Soviet-West European relations. While détente with the United States has unraveled, détente with Western Europe continues to prosper as it did in the early 1970s. Commercial relations flourish. Points of conflict like Berlin remain dormant. A West European commitment to increased military expenditures has been postponed. Both inside and especially outside government circles there has been an immense growth in West European opposition to the agreed deployment of new, American-controlled theater nuclear forces (TNF), an issue of central importance to the Soviet Union. In this situation Soviet policy has tried to avoid any development that will disrupt good relations and tilt the delicate balance in favor of the proposed TNF deployment.

But the aims of Soviet policy toward Western Europe are not confined to credit and trading arrangements and the hope of stiffening West European, particularly German, opposition to TNF on European soil. As discussed earlier, Soviet policymakers hope that the mutually beneficial and benign Soviet-West European relations will induce West European governments to become intermediaries in Soviet-American relations, to act as a pressure group in tempering the extremes of American policy toward the Soviets, and to serve as a catalyst in propelling the United States toward a resumption of serious dialogue with the Soviets. Even if actual events fall short of this goal, the Soviets hope at least to achieve a further widening of the split in the NATO Alliance. Given the present state of East-West relations, with its bifurcated détente and a bellicose United States, the Soviet script calls for peace offensives, a posture of injured innocence, and an image of good sense and reasonableness displayed to the outside world.

A fourth reason for the relatively quiescent Soviet policy today reflects the onset of the period of succession in the Soviet Union. Not only was the old leader loath in his last years to inaugurate seriously needed domestic reforms, but, unlike his predecessors, he could not prevent public signs of the struggle for his mantle. The expeditious appointment of Yuri Andropov to succeed Brezhnev in the top post of General Secretary of the Party is the most dramatic event in a process that will inevitably involve far-reaching replacement of leading elites in all governing hierarchies within a relatively brief time. The unprecedented scale of leadership turnover will coincide with the unprecedented magnitude of domestic woes which exert tremendous pressures for change in the Soviet society and empire.

To face this challenge, the Politburo has chosen a leader whose experience supremely qualifies him to act in certain major areas of actual and projected difficulty while offering no evidence of serious competence in others. Andropov's professional biography may indicate, in part at least, how the Politburo assesses its priorities. Following his tenure as Central Committee official in charge of supervising Eastern Europe, Andropov served a good part of his career in the KGB, with responsibilities for the domestic secret police and the foreign intelligence services. Indeed, he headed that organization longer than any of his forerunners, including Lavrenti Beria. He has extensive knowledge of the affairs of the Soviet Union abroad as well as those of his country's foreign adversaries. Of all members of the Politburo, he is best trained to conduct domestic policies stressing law and order, social and labor discipline; to contain the potentially explosive non-Russian republics within the Soviet Union; and to handle the troubled and troublesome East European empire. But he has very little visible experience in management of the economy and can probably be expected to rely on old and new subordinate specialists.

With justification Andropov is regarded both inside and outside Russia as potentially a very strong leader, a man whose intelligence and experience prepare him well for his considerable burdens. If his office of General Secretary carries with it extraordinary power potential, however, in the final analysis how powerful the office becomes will depend on the skill, the vision, and the will of the incumbent. It would seem that Andropov possesses these attributes. At the same time, it is impossible to predict, solely on the basis of past performance, how he will conduct himself as a leader and which policies he will espouse. The combination of a highly centralized and bureaucratized system together with the premium placed on personal loyalty does not encourage subordinates like Andropov to dispute superiors like Brezhnev. Indeed, it is too early to anticipate the direction of Soviet policy that will proceed from continuing debates and struggles behind the screen of a smooth passage of authority.

If the past can be taken as a guide to the present and future, however, succession periods have an impact on Soviet foreign policies. During a succession period, the key goals of Soviet leaders are to insulate domestic politics and policies from foreign crises and challenges and to minimize the potential vulnerability of an unconsolidated leadership; to defend against foreign incursions and stabilize vital Soviet international positions; and-as happened after both Stalin and Khrushchev-to reverse as quickly as possible the corrosive damage of dubious foreign ventures inherited from the old leadership. It is likely that the new leaders will initially display considerable caution in their expansionist drive and in many respects continue the holding pattern of their predecessors. In an effort to avoid more international confrontation, they are likely to combine greater pliability in arms control negotiations and new proposals on arms reductions with concerted efforts to fan the growth of peace movements in the West and to launch a major peace offensive in Western Europe and the United States. At the same time, however, it must be realized that in the initial period of a succession the new leader cannot afford to appear weak and must therefore respond forcefully to any challenges from abroad.

It should be repeated that the holding pattern in Soviet foreign policy in no way affects the basic directions of Soviet interest. The Soviets are determined that both the overall and regional military balance remain unchanged. They continue directly or through surrogates their clandestine material support for revolutionary or anti-status quo forces everywhere. They expect only gain from a low profile. They wait for the deepening of crisis in the Western Alliance. They hope that conflict and civil war in Central and South America will distract and weaken the United States. They hope that small investments will enhance Soviet influence on the potentially dominant Middle Eastern power, revolutionary Iran. In short, at the present moment, for Soviet policymakers the tendency to profit from the troubles of others takes precedence over the tendency to make troubles for others.


If against this background the key elements of Reagan policy toward the Soviet Union are clear, the Administration's priorities and long-term purposes are not. From the remarks of the President and members of his Administration, one may suppose that the purposes are various. For some people in the Reagan entourage, the long-range objective is nothing less than to effect a gradual transformation or a collapse of the Soviet system of government-to sweep it into the "dustbin of history." For others, the main aim of policy would appear to be to magnify Soviet difficulties at home and to make Soviet military growth as costly as possible.

Yet another intention, it seems, is to convince Soviet leaders that the dangers and costs of foreign expansion are too high to contemplate, so as to redirect their attention and energies to domestic goals. Finally, the least ambitious purpose of Reagan's foreign policy toward the Soviets is the more traditional one of trying to influence Soviet international behavior in the direction of greater moderation and accommodation with the West by raising dramatically the dangers and costs of an alternate course. (One begins to doubt, however, that President Reagan's central goal is simply to moderate Soviet behavior. For the Reagan Administration the "means" of the policy toward the Soviets may well have displaced the "ends" of that policy.)

These aims, and especially the more ambitious among them, rest on assumptions that may not always be explicitly formulated but nevertheless shape the mood of the Reagan establishment. One such assumption identifies the Soviet system and leadership with the Nazi experience. Such an identification leads to an almost fatalistic belief in the inevitability of war with the Soviets should their system not change radically in the coming decade. It leads also to the return of the vocabulary and symbols of the 1930s, such as the predilection for the word and symbol of "appeasement" and the emotional atmosphere of a crusade. This is not the place to compare Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, or the decade of the 1930s with that of the 1980s. Suffice it to state one crucial difference. The Nazi leaders wanted war; their entire system of beliefs in German racial superiority pushed them inexorably to war as the crowning experience on their road to the thousand-year Reich. Soviet leaders do not want war with the West; they fear war as much as we, and are inclined to engage in relatively low-risk adventures to further their expansionist ambitions.

Beyond this broad initial perspective, the logic of the Reagan Administration's policy toward the Soviet Union is based on one key underlying assumption: that Western policy generally and American policy specifically has the capacity seriously to affect Soviet international behavior principally by exerting influence on internal Soviet developments. This assumption is simply fallacious and spawns maximalist and unrealistic objectives. It depends on the truism that the deepest sources of the foreign policy of any nation-state are rooted in domestic determinants. In this respect the Soviet Union is no different from other states; in its case, the determinants of its international conduct derive from the imperial ambitions of Soviet leaders and elites, their great-power and expansionist impulses, and their messianic Marxist-Leninist ideology which encourages them arrogantly to perceive the international role of Soviet power as the instrument of "historical will."

From this truism, the logic of the Reagan Administration's argument moves with some justification to the observation that during the entire post-World War II period, American policy toward the Soviet Union could significantly modify neither Soviet foreign policy nor Soviet tendencies toward expansion, regardless of whether it used "sticks" or "carrots." From here, some policymakers and ideologues of Reaganism draw the conclusion that the only way open, short of an all-out war, for Western policies to shape Soviet international behavior is to speed up the process of change and decline of the Soviet system. In this sense Reaganism marks an attempt to affect the domestic roots of Soviet international behavior rather than to deal with the fact of Soviet policy as the consequence of domestic pressures and tendencies. This argument is profoundly erroneous for at least five reasons.

First, while it is true that the roots of Soviet international behavior lie in the domestic system, the ability of the West to effect change within the Soviet system, let alone rapid change, is severely limited. Even were the West able to impose extreme economic choices on the Soviet Union, the system would not crumble, the political structures would not disintegrate, the economy would not go bankrupt, the elites and leadership would not lose their will and power to rule internally and to aspire externally to the status of a global power.

The origins of the Administration's belief in U.S. leverage over domestic Russian affairs-particularly economic affairs-are not difficult to identify. They lie in the patent deterioration of the Soviet economy, and the expectation that political disintegration and economic bankruptcy are imminent if only Western policy can be geared to accelerate the process. There is no shortage of literature about the "coming revolution in Russia," the "revolt of the nationalities," the widening dissident movement that will "engulf the Soviet intelligentsia," and, in an ironic reversion to dogmatic Marxist analysis, the expectation of an economic collapse leading to a political collapse. All of these expectations rely on a worst-case interpretation of abundant evidence that in the 1980s the political and social stability of the Soviet Union will be severely tried; that the Soviet economic situation will be more critical than at any time since Stalin's death; that the Soviet empire has probably peaked and already slipped into a period of decline.

That severe economic stress will provoke political collapse may be a possible outcome in the next decade, but it is nonetheless an unlikely one. What generations have wrought with so much sacrifice, cruelty and conviction will not change radically under pressures of economic decline or leadership instability. The Soviet Union is not now nor will it be during the next decade in the throes of a true systemic crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability that suffice to endure the deepest difficulties. The Soviet economy, like any gigantic economy administered by intelligent and trained professionals, will not go bankrupt. It may become less effective, it may stagnate, it may even experience an absolute decline for a year or two; but, like the political system, it will not collapse.

As for the related goal of inhibiting Soviet military growth by ensuring that the drastic escalation of costs in a new arms race will exert intolerable pressures on the Soviet economy, this too is unrealistic. Aside from the fact that the United States alone does not dispose of sufficient leverage to impose such costs on the Soviet Union without the committed cooperation of Western Europe and Japan, the United States cannot influence in any significant way the decision of Soviet leaders to engage in a military buildup should those leaders deem it essential to the security of their country, their empire, and their global influence. If threatened by the prospect of a radical shift in the present balance of military-especially strategic nuclear-power, Soviet leaders will certainly undertake to redeploy their economic resources, to restrict civilian consumption, to enforce harsh internal discipline, and, under the slogans of an artificially stimulated siege mentality and unbridled nationalism, to arm and arm and arm, regardless of the cost. This much is confirmed by Brezhnev's last speech, now echoed in Andropov's first.

It is unrealistic to believe that American policies can achieve a fundamental reorientation of Soviet policymaking that would concentrate the attention of Soviet leaders on domestic priorities. Not only does the entire direction of Soviet military and foreign policy over the very successful Brezhnev decades militate against such an eventuality, but the bleak prospects for internal developments could well compel Soviet leaders to seek more accessible and durable successes in the international arena. Moreover, during the next few years, foreign policy will certainly become more significant as a legitimizing element of Soviet rule in general and of Party rule within the establishment in particular.

The second major flaw in the Reagan Administration's effort to affect Soviet foreign policy through manipulation of internal Soviet affairs stems from the weakness of Western coercive options, given the political and economic realities in the United States and the Western Alliance. While lecturing the West Europeans on the need for severe economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, the Reagan Administration is unable for political reasons to impose a grain embargo on the Soviet Union. And, given the objective circumstances of their individual situations, and their different perception of the overall East-West relationship, the Western allies will surely not agree, as the pipeline affair has shown, to accede to Reagan's demand for curtailment of trade with the Russians.

The costs and limits of efforts to influence Soviet policy pose questions of acute importance for American policy. There is, without doubt, a general recognition in the United States among both mainstream Republicans and Democrats that the United States requires greater military strength to counter the Soviet challenge. There is, further, a general recognition that the detente of the early 1970s which permitted the Russians a military buildup at home and expansion abroad was a fool's paradise. Yet each new day exposes the vulnerability of the American economy and the perplexity of those who are called upon to restore it. Without the resources a healthy economic base provides, the United States may well be unable effectively to bear the kind of foreign policy burdens which the current Administration has set out for it.

The third central objection to the Administration's focus on Soviet internal affairs is that while the roots of Soviet foreign policy are to be found in the Soviet domestic system, the extent to which Soviet foreign policy is able to be expansionist depends very largely upon international factors: on the temptations and opportunities which the international environment offers, on the risks and costs of exploiting those opportunities. Here the potential ability of the West to increase the risks and costs of Soviet expansion has a significant influence on Soviet behavior. It is not within the West's power to effect a significant change in the Soviet system or to redirect the Soviet leadership's preoccupations from international to domestic concerns. It is within the West's power to frustrate those Soviet global ambitions which are most threatening to the West.

The fourth argument against the assumptions behind Reagan policy toward the Soviet Union is that, again, although the essential outlines of the Soviet global drive are defined by systemic factors, the range of Soviet foreign policies which can fit within those outlines is very broad. Soviet foreign policy may involve military engagement in regional conflict and civil war or outright Soviet invasion of neighboring countries; at the other extreme, it may involve ideological and political attempts to gain influence over the policies of other countries. From the point of view of the Western powers, the difference between various points along the broad spectrum of Soviet international activity is a difference between vastly disparate forms of Soviet expansionism, between competition with dangerous confrontation and without it, between a Western policy of containment that increases the danger of war, and one that can succeed at a lower level of intensity.

By making clear that the direct objective of American policies is not to work for the radical change of the Soviet system or its collapse, the Reagan Administration could be much more effective in mobilizing the West, influencing the course of specific Soviet policies, and diminishing the aggressiveness of Soviet international behavior. Those objectives fall far short of what any team of American policymakers may wish, but it describes what is realistic and attainable in dealing with the Soviet Union. The Soviets can hardly be expected to respond to policy overtures of an Administration whose avowed goals are the destruction of the Soviet system or at best the renunciation by Soviet leaders of their aspirations for international influence.

Fifth and finally, the assumptions underlying the Reagan approach are erroneous because they sustain a preoccupation with Soviet behavior that diverts energies from the resolution of other critical problems in the world to which the Soviets may contribute but which they do not cause. The Soviet Union does exploit and will continue to exploit every difficulty the United States encounters in the international arena. For American policy to be effective, it must deal not only with the complicating factor of Soviet involvement in these problem areas but also with the indigenous conditions that generate them.

Moreover, competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in the international arena is not always a zero-sum game where the interests of one side are diametrically opposed to the interests of the other side. In some instances the interests of both sides coincide. Both sides share an interest in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, upholding the nuclear test ban, and achieving equitable arms control and reduction. Even while engaged in worldwide competition with the Soviet Union, the United States should strive to work actively for the resolution of any issue where the interests of both sides at least partly overlap.

However surprising and paradoxical it may appear, the two extremes of American policy with regard to East-West relations-that is, the détente of 1972 vintage and President Reagan's approach-exhibit crucial common characteristics. Both are optimistic that changes in Soviet behavior can be achieved in a relatively short span of time: détente would influence Soviet internal and international behavior through the net of positive and negative linkages, Reagan's policies through irresistible coercive inducements. Both anticipate an easy way out to avoid facing the long-term Soviet challenge: détente overestimates the effects of combining incentives and disincentives on Soviet behavior, and Reagan's policies exaggerate the political consequences of Soviet economic and social difficulties.

Both extremes of policy display a lack of realism in assessing America's capacity to influence the Russians: the makers of détente, through no fault of their own, were approaching the Soviets from a position of weakness initially created by the Vietnam War and later sustained by the post-Vietnam syndrome and the Watergate affair; the drafters of Reagan's policies confuse escalated rhetoric with strength and ignore the realities of the American and West European economic situation, the state of the alliance with Western Europe, and the tenor of public opinion at home and in Western Europe.

Détente failed not only because it approached the Soviet Union from a position of internal and external weakness that could not prevent the Soviet expansion and military buildup in the 1970s. It failed also because it created in the American public exaggerated hopes and expectations. Reagan's policies have been successful initially because, as we noted, they coincide with Soviet overextension, with leadership succession, and with a retrenchment phase of Soviet foreign policy. Yet, in the longer run, they too will fail unless their goals and expectations regarding the evolution of the Soviet system are significantly readjusted and the policy instruments used to influence Soviet foreign policy appreciably broadened. Should they fail, moreover, the consequences will prove even more detrimental to American interests than the failure of détente, for they will entail the destruction in Western Europe, China and the Soviet Union of the credibility of the American claim to possess the will and strength to oppose Soviet expansionism with success.


Quite apart from the current transitory stage of retrenchment in Soviet foreign policy, we face a long-term situation where Soviet external expansion will accompany internal decline. If the new General Secretary will certainly try to arrest the latter, he will just as certainly try to pursue the former.

We must have the will, the strength, and, most of all, the patience to wait out this phase of Soviet development. However difficult it is for American politicians and the American public to accept, there are no shortcuts and easy ways out of the historical conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. This conflict between two superpowers, two ways of life, two value systems will continue to dominate international politics to the end of this century if not beyond. Neither side can or will withdraw from the international arena in favor of domestic preoccupations, and neither side will be able alone or in concert with other forces to dominate the scene in the manner of the United States during the first 15 years after World War II. In this situation the United States must look for a long-range alternative to domination or withdrawal.

The long-range alternative may sound simple, but it is the most difficult to achieve in democratic societies, especially in a society like the American with its wild swings of public opinion, its sensationalist media, and its moralistic approach to foreign policy. Put simply, this alternative is neither total hostility nor total cooperation with the Soviet Union. It is not, as some American liberal leaders insist, the restoration of détente as we knew it in the early 1970s. A sound long-range U.S. policy requires a multidimensional approach which, while placing obstacles in the way of Soviet global aims, would attempt to regulate the competition and conflict. It is a policy of arresting Soviet expansion and perhaps of effecting discreet rollbacks, even at the expense of heightened tension. In some cases such a policy would require tough and determined U.S. opposition to Soviet moves, at other times serious efforts at compromise. The policy would aim for containment while minimizing the danger of actual confrontation.

The pursuit of such a long-range policy would start from the positive elements in Reagan's current positions toward the Soviet Union. Of course the United States must increase its military preparedness. But, the military buildup begun by Reagan has to be given clear priorities. The military thinking of the Reagan Administration should be directed away from the morbid preoccupation with fighting a "winnable" nuclear war and from the tantalizing chimera of attaining strategic superiority. Strategic superiority as a notion is meaningless, given the size of existing nuclear arsenals and the fact of strategic parity; nothing that either side does with regard to strategic weapons can have any rational military significance.

The Reagan Administration should concentrate instead on exploiting the superior potential of the United States and Western Europe to build up conventional regional forces, and to establish a credible deterrence in theater nuclear weapons by supporting NATO's 1979 two-track decision, which approved the deployment of new theater-level forces while committing the Alliance to negotiations aimed at limiting such weapons on an equitable basis. Along the lines of that decision, the U.S. military buildup as a whole should be accompanied-not followed-by negotiations undertaken with the Soviet Union. It should be made clear to American allies and to the American public that this is being done not for the sake of publicity but with the serious intention to achieve results on arms reduction and control, nuclear nonproliferation, and nuclear test ban treaties.

Of course the American government should convince the American public to accept and bear the burdens created by the Soviet challenge. But, the public can be mobilized without shrill, incendiary rhetoric. The exaggerations and crudeness of this rhetoric do particular harm among America's allies who recoil from it as evidence of warmongering. Of most importance, however, Reagan's anti-Soviet rhetoric is risky and unwise because friends and foes cannot know whether he is able to deliver on it. Indeed, one wonders which would be worse-"success" or failure to deliver on the objectives enunciated by an escalated anti-Soviet rhetoric. "Success" would bring confrontation with the U.S.S.R. where it cannot be predicted which side will blink first or whether either side will blink at all. Failure would bring a far-reaching and long-lasting destruction of U.S. leadership of the Western Alliance and U.S. credibility as the main force opposing Soviet expansionism.

Of course the United States should press its European allies to appreciate the dangers of Soviet expansionism and to bear a fair share in defending our common interests both inside and outside Europe, for today's bifurcated détente only enhances Soviet flexibility of action and undermines radically the impact of both economic and military leverage applied to influence Soviet behavior. But, given the depth of European official and popular hostility to U.S. pressures at the same time, any decision to exert pressure should be made on a case-by-case basis, after carefully weighing the advantage of European compliance on any specific issue against the disadvantage of further straining the Alliance. Reagan should press hard only in cases where the chance of success is good or the issue is crucial; this was clearly not the case with the gas pipeline deal, but it is the case, in our opinion, with the proposed deployment of theater nuclear forces in Europe.

Of course the United States should act to minimize and counteract the consequences of Soviet intervention in regional conflicts and civil wars. But, as mentioned earlier, even while the Soviet interest dictates policies which upset the status quo and aggravate and escalate regional conflicts, they do not cause them. The United States should not simply consider them as one dimension of East-West relations. American policy should attend to the indigenous sources of instability in the Third World and, by supporting evolutionary changes, work to deny the Soviet Union opportunities for exploiting revolutionary changes.

Finally, a more concentrated and constructive approach should be taken to the judicious pairing of incentives and disincentives, an instrument of American policy which remains valid despite the failure of détente. A well-crafted policy of American and Western incentives and disincentives can, however, be mutually reinforcing and effective only when three conditions are met.

First, disincentives must be credible and constant, as they were not in the 1970s. That is to say, the Soviets must not doubt the long-range determination and ability of American and West European power to face the Soviet challenge whenever vital Western interests are threatened. The United States and the Western Alliance should never again face the Russians from anything but a position of strength-something that depends as much on the will of Western and particularly American leadership as on the necessary material conditions. There are, of course, situations where only America's strength and the depth of its determination to halt Soviet expansionist moves will decide the outcome of a particular stage in the worldwide competition between the two systems. (In this sense, the last year of the Carter Administration and the first two years of the Reagan Administration are useful and even necessary correctives to the 1970s when the Soviets had good reason to suspect American will and ability to oppose their expansion.)

A second condition is essential for the effective use of linkage, however. In both the short and long terms, the makers of American policy should be prepared to reward Soviet foreign policy choices with a broad range of inducements. Trade, credit and exchanges cannot substitute for military strength and political determination, and they alone do not suffice as means to compel substantial change in Soviet behavior. They are very useful but must be joined with serious negotiations on matters of overlapping interest, consultations on regional conflicts, and summit meetings. These last cannot be abandoned as the Reagan Administration appears to have done. Only when disincentives are credible, strong, and continuous can incentives have any effect. But only when incentives are offered will disincentives have major effects.

Third, the combination of incentives and disincentives can work only if the aims of American and Western policies toward the Soviet Union are realistic. If some members of the Reagan Administration persist in priding themselves on the fact that they differ from their predecessors in seeking the radical change or disintegration of the Soviet system, they will create a psychological atmosphere in Soviet-American relations that is counter-conducive to compromise and mutually acceptable agreement and, in the process, they will erode American relations with Western Europe even further.

Moral revulsion at the practices of Soviet leaders and denunciation of Soviet expansionist aspirations cannot substitute for realistic and attainable goals with regard to Soviet foreign policy. The argument has been made that changes in or of the Soviet system and Soviet renunciation of the rewards of their great-power status can only result from internal processes, and the effects of Western policies on these processes can at best be a marginal by-product of the West's key aim-the moderation of Soviet international behavior. Considering that war and peace in the last decades of the century depend on the state of U.S.-Soviet relations, the attainment of even this least ambitious goal of U.S. policymakers is of unparalleled importance. The maximalist approach of the Reagan Administration is based on illusions about the weakness of the Soviet system, on rhetorical exaggeration of the strength of the United States and the Western Alliance, and on superoptimistic expectations of what U.S. policies can achieve.

To declare to the Soviets "We will bury you," as the Administration has in effect done, will induce the same reaction among Soviet leaders, elites, and public as did the famous remark of Khrushchev among Americans. It is difficult to exaggerate the seriousness with which a very influential part of the Reagan Administration takes the professed goals of Reagan's policies toward the Soviet Union. Very recently, a high official of this Administration declared that he would not be satisfied with Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and Angola as a precondition for altering American policy; he would require as well a major cut in Soviet military spending.

As now formulated, Reagan's policies offer the new Soviet leaders only confrontation or capitulation. If, as sometimes appears, the Reagan Administration believes that, owing to the nature of the Soviet system, Soviet foreign policies cannot be modified in the direction of a modicum of coexistence with the West, then American foreign policy is nothing other than an instrument for creating the best possible conditions for inevitable war between East and West. There is one question that must be forthrightly posed by American policymakers. Are peace and regulated competition with the Soviet Union possible without substantial change in the Soviet system? Most American specialists on the Soviet Union would answer with a clear "Yes, it is possible." Would President Reagan and his advisers agree?

It is not clear whether a carefully managed policy with limited aims, along the lines suggested here, can be conducted over time under the American system with the required steadiness and patience, or whether the shifting moods of the electorate and the media will again lurch from one extreme to another. It is clear, however, that the American political leadership in both parties has a duty to present to the public the grim reality of the prolonged conflict we face and the need for flexibility in the use of our foreign policy resources by American policymakers who will manage this conflict in the decades to come.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Seweryn Bialer is Ruggles Professor of Political Science and Director of the Research Institute on International Change of Columbia University. Joan Afferica is Professor of History at Smith College.
  • More By Seweryn Bialer
  • More By Joan Afferica