We met, as we had to meet," President Reagan told Congress in November on his return from Geneva. A week later General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev said to the Supreme Soviet, "A dialogue of top leaders is always a moment of truth in relations between states."

1985 became the year of the summit, of a faster tempo and a softer tone in U.S.-Soviet relations. The President’s invitation to meet, issued in March, had been his very first message to the new Soviet leader and reflected a widespread hope that the passing of the Kremlin’s "old men" might permit East-West conciliation. Yet the leaders’ more direct involvement and even their apparently amiable personal relationship could hardly resolve the contentious issues between the two sides. For this purpose, the relative strength of their bargaining positions remained decisive. In the course of the year, each side therefore sought to overcome those problems that in the past had weakened it in the superpower competition.

For the United States, two problems continued to stand above the rest: the Soviet strategic nuclear buildup and Moscow’s military engagement, both direct and indirect, in the Third World. Both preoccupations date back to the decline of détente in the late 1970s; they figured prominently in the rhetoric of candidate Reagan in 1980 and then in the policies of the President’s first term. In the past year the Administration focused on two responses that are likely to be remembered as the most distinctive elements of its diplomacy: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and support for anti-communist insurgencies. These measures were the only foreign policy matters touched on in the President’s second inaugural address. They dominated the American foreign policy debate in 1985 (and meeting a crucial test of seriousness, acquired nicknames that have stuck—"Star Wars" and the "Reagan Doctrine").

As for Gorbachev, in the "inaugural" speeches that he gave at the outset of his tenure as general secretary, he also seemed to focus on two problems that had been growing since the late 1970s. The first was Moscow’s inability to compete with the United States for political influence in the major capitals of Europe and Asia. This weakness had recently been underscored by Soviet failure to block the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe and to prevent growing Sino-American security cooperation. The second was the slowdown of the Soviet economy, which threatens both the material resources and ultimately, perhaps, the domestic stability needed for an ambitious foreign policy. Gorbachev committed himself to tackle these problems by restructuring the country’s "economic mechanism" and by reconsidering policies that had restricted Soviet diplomatic options.

The Reagan Administration initiatives attempted, in effect, to reopen the "rules of the game" as played by the superpowers in the 1970s. Both SDI and aid to "freedom fighters" aimed to revise those rules that were most one-sidedly pro-Soviet. Similarly, the Gorbachev "administration" considered how to improve the East-West "correlation of forces" by regaining economic and diplomatic maneuvering room. Only in this way could the easy (and in Moscow’s view, probably avoidable) gains of U.S. policy be brought to an end. In the course of the year, although each side’s innovations paid some dividends, they also encountered real obstacles. The balance between the two did much to govern the Soviet-American dialogue of 1985 and its prospects in the years beyond.


The Reagan Administration’s interest in strategic defense has many sources. Yet it seems unlikely that any of these would be decisive if SDI did not address one goal above all others: to break out of the dead end into which American strategic policy was led during the 1970s, as the nuclear balance turned increasingly against the United States. As Paul Nitze has said, "The Soviet Union is pleased with the current strategic situation. . . . The U.S. SDI research program . . . threatens to find counters which would negate many of their advantages."

The Administration did not come into office trumpeting a doctrinal shift from offense to defense. At the outset it hoped to neutralize the Soviet strategic buildup by increasing the potency and survivability of the American intercontinental ballistic missile force. Yet it found that there was no guarantee of a stable political majority in favor of the necessary programs and able to overcome separate congressional, bureaucratic and public objections. The Scowcroft Commission’s recommendations to the President on strategic forces briefly restored a consensus, but their legitimizing power has waned since 1983. Thus, the appeals of Secretaries Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz in the winter and spring of 1985 succeeded in gaining congressional approval for only 50 MX missiles, despite the $13 billion already invested and the resumption of strategic arms talks with the Soviets at the beginning of the year. Other offensive systems (including the B-1 bomber and the new submarine-launched missile, the D-5) fared much better, but in the course of 1985 it became clear that Midgetman, the small, single-warhead, mobile ICBM that was the centerpiece of the Scowcroft package, might not be built at all; enthusiasm for it had dropped sharply both in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

Given such obstacles, SDI offered the prospect of flanking the Soviet buildup rather than matching it directly. To justify this new approach, the President pointed to the inadequacies of past arms control negotiations. In the 1970s, he said, "it was assumed the [SALT I/ABM] treaties would lead to a stable balance and, ultimately, to real reductions in strategic arms. But the Soviet Union has never accepted any meaningful and verifiable reductions in offensive nuclear arms. None."

If a satisfactory balance could not be created either by increasing U.S. offensive forces or by negotiation, strategic defense commended itself as an alternative. The appeal of defensive technologies, however, went beyond strategic nuclear issues alone. Soviet-American competition would now focus on an area where the United States seemed to have a clear technological edge (an advantage that was all the more impressive in light of-long-standing Soviet research efforts in the field). As one analyst put it, "For the Soviet Union, the U.S. SDI program is quickly becoming symbolic of a more fundamental challenge between states—or perhaps, between social systems—calling into contention the political, economic and industrial, scientific and technological, and military potentials of the super-powers."

The Soviet leadership, trying in the course of 1985 to estimate just how serious the SDI problem was going to become, and how soon, had to sift through contradictory evidence. It could not afford to ignore the Administration’s successful test of an antisatellite weapon, conducted in the teeth of congressional opposition; nor the growing acquiescence of NATO governments that had been offered a share of the SDI research pie; nor the buoyant claims of Lieutenant General James A. Abrahamson, chief of the SDI program, about the pace and early results of research already carried out; nor, least of all, the firmness with which the President publicly turned back all thought of compromise.

Yet the past year also threw into high relief some of the constraints under which the Administration operated in trying to change the strategic "rules of the game." Soviet assessments noted that the pressure of the federal budget deficit had forced a freeze on U.S. defense spending, which might continue to delay research on strategic defense. (The squeeze reduced SDI spending for Fiscal Year 1986 by one third.) They noted that expert opinion remained sharply divided over the feasibility of SDI, with even enthusiasts acknowledging major difficulties, especially the question of how space-borne systems could themselves be defended. They noted that the French defense minister openly derided U.S. ideas as deriving from "ideology, not a strategic concept," and finally, that the Western media portrayed some of the President’s lieutenants as eager for an arms control compromise.

Even more important than these constraints, however, may have been a decision that the Administration took on its own: its deferral, at least into the next decade, of any decision to deploy defensive systems. This had been the approach of the Fletcher Committee, the presidential task force that had explored the problem over two years ago; it had recommended concentrating on high-payoff, long-range innovations that could radically transform the strategic regime, rather than on incremental changes that, although accomplishing less, could commence immediately. Whatever the scientific rationale for this approach, the decision to leave the historic turning point to another president was inevitably based on political considerations as well. By choosing to extend the unratified second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) agreement beyond its "expiration date" and to observe the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty more restrictively than required by its own reading of the treaty text and negotiating history, the Administration averted an even fiercer domestic (and alliance) controversy. It parried the attacks of those who would accuse it of scrapping arms control altogether. It gained the freedom to continue marching, however slowly, toward a distant goal.

This was no minor benefit, but the decision had its accompanying cost. It foreclosed an alternative course that would have put greater pressure on the Soviets in the short term: proposing to amend the ARM treaty in this decade to permit strategic defenses that current technology made feasible (i.e., protection of ICBM fields and other military targets like bomber and submarine bases). Renegotiation of the treaty would have forced the pace of current arms control and made the likelihood of further deployments in the distant future more credible to the Soviet side. The United States would thereby have enhanced its leverage in the short term, when President Reagan himself could still use it.

Taken together, these various constraints on SDI seemed likely to soften its impact on immediate Soviet conduct. They suggested to Moscow that it had both the time and the maneuvering room to compose a broad response. Both sides, of course, had many reasons to prefer a gradual pace to the comparative turmoil of a more rapid one. Yet a slow transition complicated the calculations on which bargains could be struck in the short term. Should the old "rules of the game" apply, or the new? Both Moscow and Washington had to devise some way of relating a fundamental but possibly far-distant change in the strategic environment to issues—and negotiations—of the moment. An early deal would risk overpayment. Delay would raise a different danger: that the other side might slip through with its advantages intact.


Like SDI, support for anti-communist insurgencies was far from a complete newcomer to the President’s East-West policy. It had in fact been actively practiced throughout his first term. Earlier, however, it had lacked both the explicit priority and the focused public rationale that it acquired in 1985.

Ironically, the growing American absorption with this issue grew in large part out of a setback for the President, one that seemed likely to limit the possible impact of such aid on U.S.-Soviet relations. The Administration began the year needing to make a major effort merely to revive its Central American policy after press revelations of covert, CIA-organized mining of Nicaraguan harbors in the spring of 1984. These revelations had been the basis for one of the most effective attacks on the President before the election, and for a congressional challenge to his management of foreign policy that many in his own party supported. The Administration campaign required to restore funding for anti-Sandinista forces consumed the President’s time and legislative capital throughout the first half of 1985; it hardly seemed a winning issue.

The successful outcome of the campaign, however, had effects that went far beyond policy toward Nicaragua. It helped to define and, more important, to institutionalize the Reagan Administration’s effort to put pressure on Soviet positions throughout the Third World. U.S. policymakers increasingly replaced their geopolitical rationale for helping insurgent groups with a more ideological one; as the organizing concept of this policy, the balance of power gave way to the spread of democracy. CIA Director William Casey bluntly characterized the Nicaraguan, Cambodian and Afghan regimes: "These are not legitimate governments. . . . Every U.S. President since Franklin Roosevelt has authorized support of rebels opposing an oppressive or illegitimate government."

With this change it quickly became clear that the Administration had identified a more potent base of domestic support for countering Soviet expansionism. President Reagan, moreover, sought to broaden his foreign support as well. The premise of the "initiative" he put before the U.N. General Assembly in October was that insurgent movements fighting pro-Soviet Leninist regimes deserved international recognition.

Some of the early consequences of this shift suggested its potential importance in the East-West competition. No sooner had Congress approved non-military aid to the Nicaraguan "contras" than it also repealed the decade-old Clark Amendment proscribing U.S. aid to the parties of the Angolan civil war (a step that the Reagan Administration had hesitated to advocate in its first term). At the same time, Democratic legislators put forward proposals to help the non-communist resistance to the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. There was more to this activity than just talk: the resumption of the official aid flow to the contras coincided with an extension of their military reach (as well as an increase in Soviet military assistance to Nicaragua). And by year’s end, again under congressional pressure, the Administration was carrying on a half-open discussion about whether (though the real issue seemed how and when) to aid the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) forces under Jonas Savimbi.

This new activism was christened the Reagan Doctrine by the media. Like SDI, it aimed to change the rules of the game. Suddenly the Soviet Union seemed locked into fixed positions that it had to protect, while the United States had gained a greater freedom to pick the terrain on which to challenge Moscow. Together with a broader slowdown in Soviet gains in the Third World, this shift seemed to give the West the initiative and to put Moscow on the defensive.

As with SDI, however, there were reasons to question how far-reaching or immediate the impact of the Reagan Doctrine would be. Quite apart from the changeability of American public opinion, the support for freedom fighters that sprang up in 1985 coexisted with great uneasiness about military aid and involvements in general, and about covert action in particular. For this reason, Congress wrested management of the Nicaraguan aid program from the CIA, and limited it to "humanitarian" items. Seeing this uneasiness, other governments with whom the United States needs to cooperate to implement the new Reagan Doctrine inevitably feared that they would not be protected against retaliation if their roles were exposed.

Their fear must have been made more acute in the past year by the possibility of conflict between the Reagan Doctrine and what some called the "Weinberger Doctrine." In several speeches during 1985, the secretary of defense specified a long series of conditions that must be met before the United States uses combat troops. To be sure, he expressed readiness to fight wherever American "vital interests" were at stake, and offered strong support for the contras, saying that, "if totalitarian rule is consolidated in Nicaragua, there can be no peace based on law in Central America." Yet this parallel debate about two "doctrines" intensified the predicament of countries like Pakistan and Honduras, which were asked, in effect, to help implement one doctrine in order to avoid testing the other.

The Reagan Doctrine’s potential impact was further constrained by the limited number of insurgencies to which Washington could extend aid. An outright victory for any one of these groups would have an enormous psychological impact on East-West relations and would raise questions in Moscow (probably already being asked for other reasons) about the wisdom of large political and material investments in shaky, radical left-wing regimes in the Third World. Nevertheless, such a victory would not undo the Soviet global presence, nor hamper it in those regions (like the Middle East) where Soviet policy, though often dangerous, has not depended on ideological affinity with its clients. Even where ideology has been a prime prop of policy, the Soviet Union retains some important advantages in countering the Reagan Doctrine. Moscow’s clients are (more or less) functioning governments, most of them able to receive and use quick, massive infusions of military equipment, advisers and other aid to turn back insurgencies. In Angola in the fall of 1985, for example, a Soviet-supported offensive suddenly threw UNITA on the defensive. A victory there by pro-Soviet forces might have had just as far-reaching psychological effects as a victory by an American-backed insurgency.

In sum, U.S. pressures mobilized under this new doctrine represented a significant new tool of policy, and were increasingly effective at the current level of Soviet investment. Whether they could actually turn back Soviet policy depended on many factors that Moscow might yet choose to test by upping the ante.


Continuing tension in U.S.-Soviet relations and escalating pressures in the form of SDI and the Reagan Doctrine may have raised concern among some members of the Soviet leadership about Gorbachev’s lack of experience in national security affairs. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had tacitly acknowledged such concern in March 1985 when he assured his colleagues that the man he was nominating to be Konstantin Chernenko’s successor had "iron teeth" behind his smile. Despite this assurance, some members of the Soviet national security establishment might have preferred to see Grigoriy Romanov, or even Gromyko himself, become the new general secretary. Due to earlier changes within the leadership, however, these preferences did not affect the outcome.

Whether Gorbachev’s inexperience in foreign and defense policy worried others, it did not seem to worry him. If it had, he presumably would have wanted to make full use of the most experienced and talented specialists at his disposal. Instead, he retained the superannuated Marshal Sergei Sokolov as defense minister, and consigned the formidable Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov to deeper oblivion (thereby confounding a still unexplained flurry of rumors about Ogarkov’s imminent return to Moscow). And he appointed the Georgian party apparatchik and policeman, Eduard Shevardnadze, to replace the highly capable and still energetic Gromyko as foreign minister.

Whatever else they indicated, these personnel decisions left no doubt that, despite his many domestic preoccupations, Gorbachev intended to be his own national security manager. They implied, furthermore, that he was considering significant policy innovations—not only the "profound restructuring of the entire economic mechanism" that he had identified as the cutting edge of his domestic program, but changes in foreign policy as well.

Given Gorbachev’s "iron teeth," there was no reason for anyone outside the Soviet Union to contemplate this prospect with equanimity. Yet for those Soviets—by no means all—who believed that major new departures were the only way to get the system moving again, both internally and internationally, it was a heartening prospect. For the first time in years there was a leader in Moscow who seemed willing and able to conduct an imaginative diplomacy in pursuit of the full range of Soviet national interests, while doing what had to be done to reverse an otherwise irreversible economic decline. This slowdown had already forced a curtailment in the rate of growth of Soviet defense spending and a more cost-conscious approach to Soviet undertakings in the Third World; unless reversed, it could eventually begin to force Moscow out of the superpower competition.

Hopes (and fears) that Gorbachev would be a major economic innovator diminished during the course of the year. In speeches he continued to dwell on the need for far-reaching structural reform of the sort that Western (and many Soviet) economists consider essential for economic modernization and sustained growth over the long run. He proclaimed that those who say "the present structures of management . . . are outmoded and fail to correspond to present-day tasks are right." Furthermore, he continued to insist that "there must be no delay or waiting, because there is no time left for warming up. . . ." Despite this tough rhetoric, however, the changes Gorbachev initiated were slow in coming, strictly palliative, and redolent of the past.

Gorbachev may merely be postponing a push for all-out reform until he has made further progress in consolidating his political power. It is possible, however, that what has deterred him is less the prospect of a "conservative" challenge to his still unconsolidated power than a "reformist" challenge to the system on which his power ultimately rests. While recognizing the need for decisive action, he may be as intimidated as his predecessors (who also had occasional shocks of recognition) by the possibility that a restructuring of the economic mechanism would generate irresistible pressures for the restructuring of the system as a whole.

Beyond exposing Gorbachev to this fundamental dilemma of reform, his elevation to the top position in the leadership may have made him more sensitive to the personal risks associated with the sponsorship of a reform that fails—i.e., that fails to pay off economically. He has to contemplate the telling example of Khrushchev, who was unceremoniously deposed when his "subjective and hare; brained" reforms made a bad but tolerable situation worse. Finally, there is substantial evidence that Gorbachev increasingly appreciates that even the best conceived and most rational economic reform would have immensely high start-up and shakedown costs in the form of disrupted routines, unemployment, retraining requirements, and so forth. However great the likely returns, these costs are hard to contemplate when available resources are already fully committed, and when both internal and external pressures seem to require increases in current output.

Whatever the future may bring, for the present Gorbachev seems to have shifted his emphasis from the long-term modernization of the economy to the acceleration of near-term growth. At his insistence, the just-adopted 12th Five-Year Plan calls for almost a doubling of recent growth rates, from slightly over two percent to slightly under four percent per annum. Because of underlying structural problems, these goals are probably unattainable. Yet Gorbachev’s hopes that there are production "reserves" to be mobilized by imposing greater discipline on the work force and greater pressures on management are not necessarily illusory, at least in the short run. The Soviet economy surely contains a certain amount of "slack," and some of the Andropovesque techniques on which Gorbachev is still relying may have contributed to the economy’s recent modest upturn.

A great deal rides on the extent of Gorbachev’s success. If the present economic upturn continues over the next several years, he could win time to consolidate his power, introduce meliorative changes in the existing economic structure, and disabuse the outside world of the increasingly widespread impression that the Soviet Union is an economic "basket case." Economic growth would simplify the resource balancing act that the Soviet leadership has confronted for over a decade, and make it easier to support both the defense burden and the "burden of empire" without dangerously overtaxing the Soviet consumer.

Yet the assumptions on which Gorbachev’s gamble rests are fragile. They would be undone if (as is likely) better discipline alone proves inadequate to sustain increases in labor productivity, or if (as is possible) U.S.-Soviet relations do not permit continued slower growth in Soviet defense spending. Setbacks in dealing with either of these two problems would, at a minimum, make institutional conflicts over resource allocation far more acute. Together, they could pose an even greater challenge to the Soviet leadership than its recent "time of troubles."


Gorbachev’s criticisms of his predecessors’ foreign policy failures have been much more guarded than his criticisms of their domestic failures. Nevertheless, his foreign policy pronouncements indicate considerable sympathy for the view of those members of the Soviet establishment (a sizable and increasingly vocal group) who hold that Soviet diplomacy was far too slow in adjusting to the emergence of what they contend is an increasingly multipolar world.

Without saying so explicitly, Gorbachev has tacitly endorsed the charge that Moscow’s diplomatic isolation was to some extent the self-imposed result of its continued de facto adherence to a Stalinist "two-camp" approach to the global correlation of forces. As a result of Soviet inflexibility, countries having no organic connection to—and in fact having numerous conflicts of interest with—the United States were forced into, and kept within, Washington’s sphere of influence. Soviet-American relations, Gorbachev said upon taking office, could not be the sole "prism" of Soviet foreign policy. Instead, what was called for was a more differentiated approach that would enable Moscow to capitalize on the sorts of opportunities envisioned by Alexander Yakovlev, a newly promoted Gorbachev protégé who held that:

the distancing of Western Europe, Japan and other capitalist countries [as well as China] from U.S. strategic military plans in the near future is neither an excessively rash fantasy nor a nebulous prospect. It is dictated by objective factors having to do with the rational guarantee of all of their political and economic interests, including security.

Efforts of this kind would help Soviet policy to ride out the deadlock in relations with the United States. Over the longer term, they might also bring closer the central goal of Soviet diplomacy since 1945, to weaken the global network of alliances and friendships that makes possible an active American foreign policy.

That Gorbachev put some stock in this assessment is suggested not only by Yakovlev’s promotion to a key party post, but by a number of Soviet foreign policy initiatives during the year. Gorbachev made several overtures to Beijing as part of an intensified effort to normalize Sino-Soviet relations. He also authorized Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to visit Tokyo, ending a long diplomatic stand-off and giving new impetus to a number of bilateral negotiations that had been held in abeyance. Finally, Gorbachev offered to negotiate a Euromissile arms control agreement directly with the British and French, and to negotiate closer economic and political ties between the European Community and the Council for Economic Mutual Assistance, the Soviet bloc’s economic arm. These initiatives, as well as several others—the transfer of MiG-23s to North Korea, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, reconciliation with Zimbabwe, and the initiation of more frequent and visible Soviet-Israeli exchanges—gave Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev a more multilateralist coloration.

In 1985, however, Gorbachev neither said nor did anything that indicated a willingness to make the sorts of concessions that would be required for a real breakthrough in Soviet relations with these countries. Instead, he consistently showed that he did not intend to bend on the security issues that make these relations essentially adversarial (and often openly hostile). Far from accompanying his overtures to China with hints of movement on Beijing’s "three obstacles" to normal relations, Gorbachev presided over an increase in the Soviet military presence in Vietnam, a further buildup of forces along the Sino-Soviet border, and an escalating offensive against the Afghan resistance. Similarly, his emissaries informed the Japanese that Shevardnadze’s visit to Japan did not signify any weakening of the Soviet position on the disputed northern territories. Likewise, his offer to negotiate a Euromissile agreement with the British and the French contained nothing that could even be construed as an offer to modify the Soviet Union’s generally overbearing theater force posture. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, Gorbachev’s policy was not conciliatory at all in its approach to the country that remains the key to revising Europe’s security order: West Germany.

Moscow’s traditional and continuing inflexibility in dealing with its European and Asian neighbors is not necessarily permanent. The Soviets could conceivably thin out their troops along the Sino-Soviet border; rising demographic pressures within the U.S.S.R. already argue for such a step. It is also conceivable that in the course of negotiating a long-deferred peace treaty (to which Shevardnadze agreed at the end of his visit), Moscow could agree to discuss a reversion to Japan of the islands of Shikotan and the Habomais, if not of Etorofu and Kunashiri. And under some circumstances (e.g., in order to facilitate a significant shift to European neutralism by a left Labour government in London or a Social Democratic counterpart in Bonn), it might be willing to reduce the number of its armored divisions in Europe. But before Gorbachev or any Soviet leader would contemplate such concessions, he would have to be convinced that they would yield very large, tangible and immediate returns. Otherwise the costs and risks of displaying apparent weakness (not to mention the actual loss in Soviet military capabilities and the opportunities for political and economic intimidation they provide) would almost certainly deter him. At least for the foreseeable future, it is hard to envision a situation in which he could count on such returns.


In the past year both the Soviet Union and the United States experimented, more or less seriously, with promising policy innovations. Yet it remained unclear whether they would be effectively applied and sustained beyond the short term. Each side retained legitimate doubts in 1985 that the other would persevere. For this reason each also displayed a certain skepticism that the other could force it into a fundamental adjustment of its policies.

Soviet statements, not surprisingly, were the more belligerent on this point. Gorbachev reminded his Time magazine interviewers that the Soviet Union had "not lost a war to the U.S., or even a battle," and could not therefore be forced into "capitulation" to Reagan’s demands. In December he told American businessmen attending the U.S.-Soviet Trade and Economic Council that "we won’t beg for anything." The same theme had appeared in Shevardnadze’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly:

Profoundly mistaken are those who may expect that the Soviet economy will fail to withstand the strain of a qualitatively new stage in the arms race which is currently being forced upon us. Our country and the Soviet economy have had to stand up to even greater pressures. Today the economic might of the Soviet state and its scientific and technological potential are such as to leave no doubt whatsoever in anyone’s mind concerning the ability and determination of our people to deal with the new challenge.

For their part, American officials were equally emphatic that U.S. policy would not be derailed. As Robert C. McFarlane put it in his last speech as White House national security adviser on December 9, "There are new opportunities before us now [in U.S.-Soviet relations], not because the President is changing his approach but precisely because he isn’t changing it."

Nevertheless, even as both sides considered how to gain a better competitive footing for the long term, they seemed to conclude that this goal was consistent with reducing tension—with what Gorbachev called more "civilized" relations—in the short term. For the Soviets, a better atmosphere would almost certainly serve to loosen restrictions on East-West trade and encourage U.S. allies to explore their own rapprochement with Moscow; a less confrontational climate would give Western supporters of these objectives new arguments to press their case. For the United States, a new climate could confirm (for both domestic and European audiences) the wisdom of the Administration’s overall approach to dealing with the Soviet Union, while presenting a chance to explore Soviet positions in greater depth.

Because each side was ready to experiment with a relaxation, their dealings became a contest to see who could reap the greater benefits from the new atmosphere. This struggle began in earnest with the agreement at midyear on a November summit meeting. From the outset, the two sides announced different conceptions of what the summit should accomplish. In the Soviet view, it was imperative to make a breakthrough on the allegedly most pressing danger, the incipient "militarization" of space. The Americans, by contrast, stressed that the Geneva conversations would have to be an across-the-board survey of all the issues troubling the relationship, from nuclear weapons to human rights and Soviet conduct in the Third World. Conversations were to air and compare perspectives, not produce detailed negotiations, much less major agreements.

In the months before the Geneva summit, the two sides maneuvered to gain acceptance for their conflicting views. While winning unprecedented personal publicity for Gorbachev and announcing a series of moratoriums on military tests and deployment, the Soviet campaign rested, in the end, on one dramatic initiative: the proposal, brought to Washington by Shevardnadze in late September, for a 50-percent cut in strategic arms and the full abandonment of SDI. This was an attempt to show that the President’s attachment to strategic defense had become the only real obstacle to a radical reduction in strategic arsenals; its terms implied at least some Soviet recognition of how serious an offer would be needed to accomplish this. The first Soviet proposal ever to provide for aggregate limits on strategic warheads ("nuclear charges" in Soviet terminology), it tacitly accepted the American proposition that the Soviet force of large ICBMs heavily equipped with multiple warheads was a source of instability; Moscow would not be able to abide by the warhead limits of its own proposal without significant cutbacks in those missiles that U.S. negotiators had declared the "most dangerous."

The Soviet initiative had an undeniable effect on U.S. summit preparations and on the outcome. It elicited a U.S. "counter-counterproposal," it drew Secretary of State Shultz and National Security Advisor McFarlane to Moscow for a last round of discussions in early November, and it provided one element (the principle of a 50-percent reduction) of the joint statement to which, in the end, the two leaders subscribed in Geneva. All the same, it failed to impose the Soviet conception of the summit’s purpose.

American efforts were effective in broadening the agenda beyond arms control and in precluding real bargaining under the severe time constraints of a two-day meeting. Moreover, the President’s categorical rejection of limits on SDI research at his mid-September press conference (where he spoke of it as "too important for the world" to consider trading away) had cooled press speculation and frozen any consideration of compromise formulas within the Administration. Later, the President’s plan for resolving regional wars waged by the Soviets or their clients in five Third World countries dramatized U.S. policy toward a "recurrent pattern of [Soviet-supported] conflict that ought to be broken as soon as possible."

In the event, the summit outcome fully rewarded the efforts of neither side, but each could easily accommodate the result to its broader strategy. For all the interest it had raised, the Soviet proposal on strategic reductions contained far too many unacceptable elements (widely recognized as such, even by the Administration’s critics) to create real take-it-or-leave-it pressures before or at Geneva. On the question of which systems should be classed as "strategic," for example, it seemed to revive old Soviet positions that had long since been given up in negotiations as far back as SALT I. Even as a "going-in" position, it seemed to envision a long negotiation, not a quick overcoming of differences at Geneva. As a result, the summit seemed to follow the American script.

At the same time, Washington, having insisted for months that the meeting address the U.S.-Soviet relationship in all its aspects, accepted a joint statement that dealt overwhelmingly with arms control, especially with strategic arms control. Its terms, to be sure, reflected well-established American preferences. The agreement by Reagan and Gorbachev to seek progress in areas "where there is common ground" supported the Administration’s position that agreements on deep offensive reductions, or on intermediate-range systems in Europe, should not be held up by Soviet objections to SDI. Yet even this outcome reflected American leverage less than it did Gorbachev’s shift to a strategy of playing along so as to demonstrate reasonableness and produce a harmonious result.


After the summit, each side went to considerable lengths to dispel any impression that it had allowed the other to set the agenda, either for the meeting itself or for the future evolution of the relationship. President Reagan and his lieutenants denied that arms control had dominated the summit dialogue and emphasized that no "fundamental improvement" in U.S.-Soviet relations was possible unless Moscow curbed its appetite for expansion. Gorbachev also took pains to correct any thought that he had relaxed either the Soviet Union’s requirements for a settlement in Afghanistan or its insistence on a "complete ban on space-strike weapons."

Yet, for all this, the post-summit statements on both sides appeared to suggest new possibilities for movement. While setting stringent requirements for a "fundamental improvement" in U.S.-Soviet relations, Washington continued to move further away from a doctrine of all-or-nothing linkage, which official statements early in the Administration had sometimes seemed to support. Secretary Shultz had disavowed any such doctrine in the fall of 1984. Now, thanks in part to the Reagan Doctrine (which reflected Shultz’ argument that Soviet "outrages" must be met by steps that directly counter the action in question), there seemed to be a general consensus that a policy of "rigid linkage" would be counterproductive. A "fundamental improvement" in relations (whatever that meant) might require across-the-board changes in Soviet behavior, but bilateral agreements that served U.S. interests would be actively pursued even if they stopped short of "solving" the underlying problem.

On the Soviet side, Gorbachev’s post-summit warnings that continued U.S. intransigence on SDI "would make the atmosphere at the Geneva [arms control] talks problematic" were much weaker than his pre-summit assertions that without an agreement to ban SDI "the Geneva negotiations will lose all sense" and might have to be broken off. In speaking of SDI, he did not dwell on the necessity of a complete ban on out-of-laboratory research (as he had, for example, in his Time interview). And he conspicuously refrained from saying that a continuation of current SDI programs would preclude any agreement on reducing strategic offensive forces. Stressing that a "radical reduction" depended on "tightly closing the door through which weapons might penetrate outer space," he seemed to imply that lesser reductions might be negotiable even if the space door remained partially open.

If this were indeed what Gorbachev meant, the range of acceptable agreements would obviously increase, making a gradual relaxation of the arms control deadlock more likely than it seemed before the summit. The two sides could, for example, eventually converge on a strategic arms limitation agreement that provided for substantial (if not radical) offensive reductions, while leaving SDI—and its Soviet counterparts—more or less intact. It is also possible, of course, that Gorbachev will remain adamant about the need for stringent constraints on SDI, but will offer deeper and less one-sided offensive reductions. This seemed to be the meaning of his unusual emphasis, in post-summit statements, on Soviet readiness for "compromise."

In 1985, Gorbachev was unable or unwilling to come up with an offer that was either strategically or politically compelling. After the summit, however, he had a much greater incentive to do so, since only the prospect of a major reduction in the Soviet offensive threat, together with American budgetary pressures and other domestic factors, seemed likely to put the U.S. position on SDI under significantly greater pressure. Some elements of his comprehensive mid-January initiative suggested that he was moving in this direction.

While the negotiators in Geneva may find the going at least a little easier than before, progress will be harder for the participants in the all-encompassing regional talks that both sides have agreed to institutionalize. Post-summit American optimism about Soviet interest in an Afghan settlement appeared to reflect a misunderstanding of Gorbachev’s message to President Reagan as well as of the Soviet "Afghan dilemma" itself. Furthermore, Moscow has made it abundantly clear that in Afghanistan, as well as Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Vietnam, it has no intention of withdrawing and, if pressed, is prepared to raise the stakes. Soviet policy has conveyed this message in the most convincing way—militarily, on the ground.

If this remains the Soviet approach, then even an intensified and upgraded dialogue on regional trouble spots will be, at most, an opportunity for Washington to reiterate its well-known concerns. Moscow’s own familiar charges (about U.S. export of "counterrevolution") will also fall on deaf ears. Its efforts to use the talks to win U.S. assent to its plans for international conferences on the Middle East and on Asian security are unlikely to succeed unless Moscow makes some of the hard decisions and concessions necessary to implement an effective "multilateralist" strategy. Otherwise, the talks are likely to confirm Gorbachev’s conclusion, on the basis of his conversations with President Reagan at the summit, that U.S. and Soviet views on the sources of and solutions to regional tensions are "not just different but directly opposite."


Perhaps the most frequently made judgment on U.S.-Soviet relations at year’s end was that the change in tone had outrun the change in substance. The judgment usually carried with it this further thought: that such a disparity could not continue for long. Concrete achievements would be needed to prevent the resurgence of hostility and tension between the two sides. As a consequence (so the argument concluded), the upcoming summit of mid-1986 would be more decisive than the first meeting.

How precarious was the disparity between tone and substance? In the history of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, there have been few periods in which the most important indicators of the relationship—the level of rhetoric, the correlation of forces, the "rules of the game," the feasibility (and durability) of agreements—all pointed in the same direction. For 30 years and more, at least since the first Geneva summit in 1955 when Eisenhower met Khrushchev, the norm in U.S.-Soviet relations has in fact been a mixture of confrontation and conciliation, a mixture in which tone and substance were usually imperfectly aligned and often sharply divergent.

This was certainly true, for example, of the period between the conclusion in 1963 of the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the onset of détente at the end of the decade. In those years the climate improved even though no further bilateral agreements punctuated the slight easing of tensions. While still essentially adversarial, the relationship became harder to capture in a single word or phrase. The lack of sharp definition reflected different motives on each side, but it served the interests of both.

As was true then, so in 1985 each side seemed to believe that a less confrontational climate would serve its interests. This outlook represented a change from the immediately preceding period, when many in Washington insisted that strictly atmospheric improvements were apt to be counterproductive, and when Moscow actually sought to create an atmosphere, internally and internationally, of imminent crisis. The Soviets did succeed in raising tensions, but the failure to attain any of their other objectives was a severe setback.

At the beginning of the new year, despite warnings in both capitals about the need to sustain the momentum of Geneva, it was not at all clear that a failure to make negotiating progress in the near future would lead either side to reconsider its course. In both Washington and Moscow, the tentative relaxation of the past year seemed consistent with (and to some extent even helped to support) policies to wage the superpower competition more actively and effectively. Far from being precarious, then, this combination of policies expressed each side’s strategy for advancing its interests over the remainder of the decade. As often in the past, both sides may prefer ambiguity to the alternatives.

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  • Jeremy R. Azrael recently joined the senior staff of the Rand Corporation after three years as a member of the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Council. From 1961 to 1981 he was professor of political science and chairman of the Committee on Slavic Area Studies at the University of Chicago. Stephen Sestanovich is a Soviet specialist on the National Security Council staff. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the U.S. government.
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