Courtesy Reuters

The Gorbachev Succession

Two trendlines suddenly intersected in March 1985. The arms control negotiations between the two superpowers resumed, after a long break that had threatened to become a permanent breakdown. As the delegations were arriving in Geneva, Konstantin Chernenko died in Moscow, and Mikhail S. Gorbachev was quickly named the new general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The succession to Leonid Brezhnev had at last been completed.

The new talks in Geneva are indeed new: they begin against the backdrop of a threat of a revolutionary upheaval in the superpowers’ strategic competition. For the first time in the nuclear age, the possibility of strategic defense is being taken seriously: at issue is whether this prospect will prove to be the cause of a truly dangerous confrontation between Moscow and Washington, or the source of new common ground and even a political breakthrough.

In Moscow, for the first time, the leadership of the Soviet party has passed to a man born after the Bolshevik revolution. Change is in the air. A new generation is taking power. In his initial public remarks, however, the new general secretary elaborated on old and familiar themes: prosperity and reform at home, and peace and security abroad. He promised both, of course. But it was not a bad platform.

It is fashionable in the West to dismiss, with some contempt, the idea of any major changes in Soviet foreign policy simply because of new personalities. Nevertheless, the reelected President of the United States finally had a partner to deal with; a man who could easily survive well beyond the end of President Reagan’s second term. So the President extended an invitation for an early summit meeting. And the atmosphere of Soviet-American relations began to clear.

Much will depend on Geneva, and whether an acceptable resolution can be found to what looked like an immediate stalemate over American plans to proceed with a Star Wars defense and Soviet determination to block it. The resolution of this

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