Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Forty years ago, U.S. nuclear power was indispensable in ending World War II. In the postwar era, American nuclear superiority was indispensable in deterring Soviet probes that might have led to World War III. But that era is over, and we live in the age of nuclear parity, when each superpower has the means to destroy the other and the rest of the world.
In these strategic circumstances, summit meetings between leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union have become essential if peace is to be preserved. Such meetings will contribute to the cause of peace, however, only if both leaders recognize that tensions between the two nations are due not to the fact that we do not understand each other but to the fact that we do understand that we have diametrically opposed ideological and geopolitical interests. Most of our differences will never be resolved. But the United States and the Soviet Union have one major goal in common: survival. Each has the key to the other’s survival. The purpose of summit meetings is to develop rules of engagement that could prevent our profound differences from bringing us into armed conflict that could destroy us both.
With this limited but crucially important goal in mind, we must disabuse ourselves from the start of the much too prevalent view that if only the two leaders, as they get to know each other, could develop a new "tone" or a new "spirit" in their relationship, our problems would be solved and tensions reduced. If history is any guide, evaluating a summit meeting in terms of the "spirit" it produces is evidence of failure rather than success. The spirits of Geneva in 1955, of Camp David in 1959, of Vienna in 1961 and of Glassboro in 1967 each produced a brief improvement in the atmosphere, but no significant progress on resolving major issues. Spirit and tone matter only when two leaders of nations with similar interests have a misunderstanding that can be resolved by their getting to know each other. Such factors are irrelevant when nations have irreconcilable differences, which is the case as far as the United States and the Soviet Union are concerned.
The obsession with style over substance among some observers is ludicrous. The fact that General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev has a firm handshake, excellent eye contact, a good sense of humor and dresses fashionably is no more relevant to his policies than the fact that Khrushchev wore ill-fitting clothes, drank too much and spoke a crude Russian. Anyone who reaches the top in the Soviet hierarchy is bound to be a dedicated communist and a strong, ruthless leader who supports the Soviet foreign policy of extending Soviet domination into the non-communist world. We can "do business" with Gorbachev, but only if we recognize that the business we have to deal with involves intractable differences between competitive states.
President Reagan will be urged to prove to Mr. Gorbachev that he is sincerely dedicated to peace and that, despite his tough rhetoric, he is really a very nice man. President Reagan does not have to prove that he is for peace. Mr. Gorbachev knows that. What is vitally important is that he also understand that President Reagan is a strong leader, one who is fair and reasonable, but who will, without question, take action to protect American interests when they are threatened.
Debates about ideology will serve no useful purpose. Mr. Gorbachev is as dedicated to his ideology as President Reagan is to his. Neither is going to convert the other.
In the postwar era, no two leaders come to a summit with more political support at home or more endowed with charm and charisma. But for one to try to charm the other would bring not affection but contempt; this would certainly be Mr. Gorbachev’s reaction. An essential element of a new relationship is not sentimental expressions of friendship but hard-headed mutual respect. In 1959, before I met Khrushchev, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told me that he sensed in his meetings with the Soviet leaders that, above all, they "wanted to be admitted as members of the club." This is a small price to pay for laying the foundations for a new structure of peace in the world.
Can two powers with diametrically opposed geopolitical interests avoid war and develop a peaceful relationship? It is important to recognize clearly the major dangers which could lead to nuclear war. In descending order of likelihood they are:
1) War by accident, where one side launches a nuclear attack because a mechanical malfunction creates the mistaken impression that the other side has launched an attack;
2) Nuclear proliferation, which could put nuclear weapons in the hands of a leader of a minor revolutionary or terrorist power who would be less restrained from using nuclear weapons than the major powers have been;
3) Escalation of small wars in areas where the interests of the superpowers are both involved, such as the Middle East and the Persian Gulf;
4) War by miscalculation, where a leader of one superpower underestimates the will of the leader of the other to take ultimate risks to defend his interests.
In all four of these scenarios, the United States and the Soviet Union have a mutual interest in reducing the danger and risks which could lead to a nuclear war. They are, therefore, areas where tough-minded diplomacy culminating in agreements at the summit level can play a constructive role.
The next most likely danger is a Soviet preemptive strike to liquidate the Chinese nuclear arsenal. This is not a danger at the present time because China lacks the industrial base and military capacity to be a serious threat to the Soviet Union. But as China begins to develop such a capacity in the future, a Soviet leader could decide that it is better to strike before China becomes a major nuclear power. A nuclear war between major powers, like the Soviet Union and China, could escalate into a world war. That is why it is in the interests of the United States and the West to welcome, not oppose, efforts on the part of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China to reduce tensions.
The least likely danger of nuclear war is a Soviet nuclear attack on Western Europe or the United States. The Soviet leaders are and will continue to be dedicated to extending communist domination over non-communist nations. But they are not madmen, and they are not fools. No matter how confident they are that they can win a nuclear war, it would be at the risk of great destruction to the Soviet homeland. Having Europe and the United States reduced to nuclear wastelands would be the bitter fruit of such a "victory." World war has become obsolete as an instrument of policy between the two superpowers. That is why the primary danger, as far as the United States and Western Europe are concerned, is not destruction in war but surrender to nuclear coercion.
Reducing the danger of nuclear war involves arms control, but it is a mistake to support arms control as desirable in itself and to believe that any agreement is better than none. The primary purpose of arms control is to reduce the danger of war. It is not the existence of arms, but political differences that lead to their use, which leads to war. A bad agreement that opens the way to Soviet superiority increases the danger of war. Even a good agreement will not prevent war if political differences lead to armed conflict. Thus, an agreement reducing arms but not linked to restraints on political conduct would not contribute to peace. If political differences escalate into war, it is no comfort to know that each side has the capacity to destroy the other only two times rather than twenty times.
President Reagan has been unfairly criticized for adhering to the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) treaty negotiated by President Jimmy Carter but not approved by the Senate. The critics contend that the reason the Soviet Union is ahead and that we are behind in land-based strategic missiles is because the Soviets are cheating on the arms control agreements and because those agreements restricted our strategic programs. There is no question that the Soviets will do all that is allowed under an arms control agreement and will stretch it to the outer limits and indeed will cheat if they can get away with it. But they gained their superiority in strategic land-based missiles not because of what they did in violation of arms control agreements but because of what we did not do within the limits allowed by the agreements. We must also face up to the hard reality that without a credible arms control initiative, it would be impossible to get congressional approval for adequate defense budgets to match the Soviet effort or to retain the support of our allies.
It is contended that because of the flaws in the agreements and the Soviet practice of violating them, the United States would be better off without any agreement. Yet, while there is strong evidence that the Soviet Union is probably violating provisions of SALT I and SALT II, it is complying with the limits on the fractionation of warheads agreed to in SALT II. If President Reagan had decided not to continue complying with SALT II, the Soviet Union would not consider itself to be bound by these provisions and limitations either; it could attach 30 warheads to each of its 300 giant SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles rather than the 10 allowed under the treaty. This would mean an increase of 6,000 warheads in the Soviet arsenal. The United States has no missiles of this size which would allow us to match such an action by the Soviets.
Looking to the future, without a new arms control agreement, even if the United States were to continue its own arms program at the levels requested by President Reagan rather than the far lower levels approved by Congress, and if the Soviets were to continue their programs at current levels, the Soviet Union will be further ahead in nuclear missiles in 1990 than it is today.
If we are to prevent otherwise inevitable Soviet superiority, our only option is to negotiate a new, verifiable arms control agreement based on strict parity that denies a first-strike capability to the Soviet Union as well as to ourselves. What is most urgent is to remove the threat of the SS-18s and the new ICBMs, the SS-24 and SS-25, which are designed not to attack our cities in retaliation for an attack on the Soviet Union but for a decisive first strike against our missile sites. Many senators and congressmen have voted for the 40 MX missiles in the hope that they would be an effective bargaining chip in the Geneva negotiations. But the Soviets are not philanthropists. They will not cut back their 300 SS-18s to only 40 without getting something in return.
That is why, contrary to the critics’ contention, the President’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is indispensable to arms control. Without it, the Soviet Union would have no incentive to limit its offensive weapons. It is important, however, to distinguish among three different defensive systems.
A defensive system to protect our entire population would make nuclear weapons obsolete and thus replace deterrence as our defense against nuclear weapons. But for such a system to be effective against an all-out Soviet attack, it would have to be virtually leakproof. In view of the dramatic scientific breakthroughs made in my lifetime, I do not contend, as some do, that this is impossible. But we cannot base our current strategic planning on a system which, at best, will not be ready for full deployment until the next century.
A system that defends our missile sites, however, is possible in ten years or less. Even if it is only 30-percent effective, it would effectively deny the Soviet Union a first-strike capability against our missile sites. The purpose of such a defensive system would be not to replace deterrence but to strengthen it.
The third kind of system, a thin population defense, which would not be adequate against an all-out Soviet attack but would be effective against an accidental launch or an attack by a minor nuclear power, is also feasible within the next ten years. This is an area where the Soviet Union could agree with us that developing and deploying such a limited system is in their interest as well as ours.
President Reagan is correct in insisting that research on all aspects of the SDI is not negotiable, both because a ban on research is not verifiable and because if there is even a remote chance to develop a total population defense it should be a priority goal of our defense establishment. We also must have in mind that the Soviet Union is spending twice as much as we are on defense against nuclear weapons.
But deployment, as distinguished from research, for defense of our missile fields is the ultimate bargaining chip, just as was the case with SALT I. We should agree to limit our deployment of defensive weapons only if the Soviets significantly reduce and limit their offensive weapons. The choice is Gorbachev’s. Either the Soviets cut back on their offensive forces or we will deploy defensive forces to match their buildup.
Arms control and political issues must go forward together. Progress on arms control can lead to stability and the reduction of political tensions. Reduction of political tensions can lead to a better climate for reaching an arms control agreement that is fair to both sides. Those who contend that we should seek arms control regardless of what happens on political issues should bear in mind that what destroyed any chance for Senate approval of the SALT II treaty was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Today, there is no chance that the Senate would approve an arms control treaty at a time when the Soviet Union is supporting anti-U.S. forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
A summit agenda, therefore, should have as its first priority not arms control but the potential flash points for U.S.-Soviet conflicts. It is highly doubtful that we would have agreed to SALT I in 1972 had we not settled in the Berlin Agreement of 1971 those issues which had led to so many crises since the end of World War II. A similar opportunity is presented in the Middle East and Central America today.
The most difficult and potentially dangerous issue which brings the two nations into confrontation is the Soviet policy of supporting revolutionary movements against non-communist governments in the Third World. The Brezhnev Doctrine of 1968, announced after Soviet troops crushed a rebellion against the communist government of Czechoslovakia, proclaimed that Soviet conquests in Eastern Europe were irreversible. Putting it simply, Brezhnev said, "what’s mine is mine." By Soviet probes in Latin America, Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Mideast against allies and friends of the United States, that doctrine has been extended to mean "what’s yours is mine." The Soviet leaders must be made to understand that it would be both irrational and immoral for the United States and the West to accept the doctrine that the Soviet Union has a right to support wars of liberation in the non-communist world without insisting on our right to defend our allies and friends under assault and to support true liberation movements against pro-Soviet regimes in the Third World.
We cannot expect the Soviets to cease being communists, dedicated to expanding communist influence and domination in the world. But we must make it clear to the Soviets that military adventurism will destroy the chances for better relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. We must also make it clear that the revised Brezhnev Doctrine of not only defending but extending communism will be answered by a Reagan Doctrine of defending and extending freedom. Our only common interest is to conduct ourselves in such a way that such conflicts do not escalate into nuclear confrontation.
In view of the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons, both nations have a mutual interest in working together to combat international terrorism, whether promoted by states or individuals. With the progress that is being made in the technology of miniaturization, the time is not far off when the danger of breaking the nuclear threshold will come from individuals and not only nations. If the nuclear genie gets out of the bottle, the fallout could affect all nations and particularly those which have nuclear weapons. The Soviets should be asked to join us in a declaration that terrorists and those who give aid and comfort to terrorists are guilty of an international crime and should be dealt with accordingly.
While we should hold the Soviets accountable for the actions they take that are opposed to our interests, we should recognize that they are not responsible for all of the troubles in the world. The income gap between nations that produce raw materials and those that consume them, famine due to climatic causes, radical Muslim fundamentalist and terrorist movements emanating from Libya and Iran—all of these problems would exist even if the Soviet Union did not exist. But rather than exploiting such problems, the Soviet Union should join the United States and other Western nations in combating them. The Soviets should be especially concerned about the rise of Muslim fundamentalism not only because one-third of the population of the Soviet Union is Muslim, but also because the Muslim revolution competes with the Soviet revolution for the support of people in Third World nations.
There is one phase of our competition which should be brought under control—competing with each other in fueling the arms race in the Third World. U.S. and Soviet arms sales to Third World countries run to billions of dollars. Most of these countries are desperately poor, and they need economic assistance far more than they need additional arms. For the Soviet Union to arm India, while the United States arms Pakistan, can only end in tragedy for the people of both countries. Even though these are only non-nuclear arms, they are instruments of war, and small wars always have the potential of escalating into nuclear wars. There is no prospect for reducing arms sales soon, if at all, but both the United States and the U.S.S.R. have an interest in controlling them and not letting them drag us into conflict.
Turning to collateral issues, while it is an illusion that trade by itself will lead to peace, an increase in unsubsidized trade in nonmilitary items can provide a strong incentive for the Soviet Union to avoid conduct that increases political tensions between our two countries. Trade and political issues are inexorably linked. For the United States to increase trade, which the Soviets need and want, at a time when they are engaging in political activities that are opposed to our interests, would be stupid and dangerous. No nation should subsidize its own destruction.
One of the most widely held misconceptions is that person-to-person programs and cultural exchange will significantly reduce tensions. As a longtime supporter of such programs, I must reluctantly point out that this is not the case. "Getting to know you" is not the issue between the Soviet Union and the United States. What are called the three Cs—consular, cultural and commercial issues—will and should receive appropriate attention at summit meetings. But since Soviet authorities decide who is to go to the United States and what and whom foreigners can see in the Soviet Union, no one should be under any illusion that agreements in such peripheral areas by themselves have any significant effect on the nature of the conflict between the two superpowers.
The most highly charged emotional issue is that of human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. The Soviets insist that under no circumstances will they allow their internal policies to be a subject for negotiation with another government. We should make human rights a top-priority private issue but not a public issue. We saw this principle in practice in 1972. In my summit conversations with Brezhnev, I privately urged that he lift limitations on Jewish emigration in order to gain support for détente in the United States. A record 37,000 exit visas were granted in that year. The following year, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the trade bill put public pressure on the Soviets to increase Jewish emigration. The Soviets reacted by sharply reducing the number of visas rather than increasing them.
For the past five years I have strongly urged holding annual summit meetings. Such meetings can serve useful purposes apart from reaching any major substantive agreements. Most important, they can substantially reduce the risk of war from miscalculation. This will be the case not because the two leaders will charm each other or find that they like each other but because they will understand each other’s interests, respect each other’s strength, and know the limits beyond which they cannot go without running the risk of armed conflict. This was a factor after the 1973 summit which probably helped to convince Brezhnev that I was not bluffing later in the year (October 1973) when I ordered an alert of our forces to back up our demand that he not intervene unilaterally in the Middle East war.
Moreover, when a summit meeting is scheduled, it inhibits one side from engaging in actions that would be clearly against the interests of the other during the period before the meeting; thus each party will have an incentive to avoid conduct which might poison the atmosphere. This factor probably also played a role in cooling the 1973 crisis.
A summit meeting is also a very useful tool to get a bureaucracy moving. The Soviet bureaucracy is notoriously and maddeningly slow, rigid and inflexible. The U.S. bureaucracy is not free of such faults. There is nothing like the deadline of a summit to knock heads together and to shape up a bureaucracy. The danger which must be avoided is pressure, especially from the bureaucracy, for agreements for agreements’ sake to ensure the success of the summit. It is far better to have no agreement at all than to negotiate a bad one.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed with incredible foresight:
There are at the present time two great nations in the world which seem to bend toward the same end although they start from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans—the Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common sense of the citizens; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom, of the latter servitude. Their starting point is different and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.
This was written long before the communists came to power in Russia. We must recognize that while Russians and Americans can be friends, our governments are destined by history to be adversaries. Yet while we are destined to be adversaries, we have a mutual interest in avoiding becoming enemies in a suicidal war. This requires a candid and honest recognition of our irreconcilable and permanent differences, not a superficial glossing-over of them. A difference not recognized can be dangerous. A difference recognized can be controlled.
The one absolute certainty about the Soviet-American relationship is that the struggle in which we are engaged will last not just for years but for decades. In such a struggle, one advantage the Soviet Union has over the United States is that its foreign policy has consistency and continuity. The leaders change but the policies remain the same. Khrushchev wore short-sleeved shirts and Brezhnev wore French cuffs, but both set the same foreign policy goals: the extension of Soviet domination and influence in the world.
Every eight years and sometimes every four years, American policy, with bipartisanship virtually ended by the Vietnam War, oscillates between extremes of underestimating and overestimating the Soviet threat. What is needed is a steady, consistent policy with bipartisan support that does not change from one administration to another. This is a long struggle with no end in sight. Whatever their faults, the Soviets will be firm, patient and consistent in pursuing their foreign policy goals. We must match them in this respect. Gorbachev, at 54, is a man who does not need to be in a hurry. He may live long enough to deal with as many as five American presidents. We must not give him the opportunity to delay making a deal with one president in the hope that he might get a better one from the president who is to succeed him.