The cold war has dominated American foreign policy for four decades. For all of this time the American aim has been to encourage fundamental changes in the Soviet Union's relations with the rest of the world. For forty years the West has waited for signs of such changes. Now they have begun to appear. Mikhail Gorbachev has launched the most ambitious, sweeping and, from the West's point of view, promising program of reform in the history of the Soviet Union.
While the outcome of the process that he has set in motion is by no means certain, there can no longer be any doubt that something of extraordinary importance is taking place in the Soviet Union, with potentially profound consequences for American foreign policy. A marked improvement in Soviet-American relations has already occurred, and even more dramatic improvement is possible. It is now time to think seriously about what is required to end the cold war.
This is not, to be sure, the first time that a dramatic improvement in Soviet-American relations has seemed to be at hand. Indeed, declarations of a new day of harmony between East and West have been a recurrent theme of the postwar period. Hopes for a durable accommodation and expanded cooperation between the two great powers were highest at the time of the détente of the early 1970s, and its failure led to deep, bitter disappointment. The parallels between that period and the present one do not, at first glance, offer grounds for optimism.
Then, as now, a series of summit meetings between the leaders of the two countries took place. Then, as now, there was talk of expanded economic relations. Then, as now, many who wished to leave the Soviet Union were allowed to do so. Yet the détente of the 1970s did not bring a lasting improvement in relations between the two superpowers. Why should things turn out differently now? There are, in fact, two important differences between the two periods
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