For three decades Soviet power has obsessed American foreign policy. By it we have judged our own; because of it we have committed ourselves far from home and justified our commitment in terms of the menace it represents; around it we have made a world order revolve. For us, Soviet power has been the ultimate measure and the central threat, a seminal idea and a source of orientation.

Should it still be, however, now that international politics are changing so? Or should it still be, because Soviet power is changing so? Is the evolution of the international setting altering the meaning of growing Soviet power? Or is the growth of Soviet power undermining the meaning of an evolving international setting? The ambiguous relationship between the two makes it much harder to know what role the Soviet Union ought to play in our concerns. Judging the significance of larger and more modern Soviet military forces becomes increasingly difficult when traditional frames of reference no longer hold, when the old rules and characteristics of international relations yield to new ones, when the uses to which military power can be put are depreciated, and when the concept of security as such loses its precision, swollen by strange anonymous sources of insecurity, many of them economic in nature. It is a world in which fewer and fewer of our problems are caused by the Soviet Union or can be solved by it, save for the ultimate matter of nuclear war.

Yet, amidst the loosening of the old order - the deteriorating hierarchies and orthodoxies, the growing number of political actors and political axes, the new imperatives of interdependence - there is also the distracting spectacle of ever-expanding Soviet military power. During these years of passage, the Soviet Union has busied itself with a vast buildup of its armed forces, introducing new technologies, enlarging numbers and most significantly venturing into areas far from its historic spheres of concern. The Soviet Union has spent the decade turning itself into an authentic global superpower able to apply military force in the remotest regions of the world. With the capacity has apparently come the vocation.

"Soviet Russia," Henry Kissinger and his closest counselors used to say, "is only just beginning its truly 'imperial' phase." The prospect does not fit comfortably with our image of the other processes reforming world politics. Hard pressed to reconcile these two perceptions - of an increasingly interdependent (and decentralized) world and of an increasingly "imperial" Soviet Union - we have tended not to try. We have responded rhetorically ("The United States seeks to give the Soviet Union a stake in a more stable and humane international order.") rather than conceptually. And having no clear concept of the relationship between the transformation of Soviet power and the transformation of the global political setting, we have concentrated on familiar apprehensions: Where there is instability, what is the Soviet ability to interfere? How do we keep the Soviet Union from intervening in Angola or in Yugoslavia? Or how do we frustrate Soviet intervention when it occurs? (Phrased by the last Administration, the question was: "How do we create a calculus of risks and benefits that will induce the Soviet Union to behave?") What is the political and psychological impact on our NATO allies of strategic parity or the growth of the Warsaw Pact's conventional forces? What does the Soviet Union hope to accomplish by adding to its military advantage in Central Europe? How well served are Soviet aims by the tensions between Greece and Turkey, the West's economic dislocations, or the possible entry of French or Italian Communists into their governments?

Like our apprehensions, our perception of the Soviet Union as such tends to be narrowly cast. There is a remarkable consensus in most of what is being said about the Soviet Union and the nature of its changing power. People may disagree over details and over what it all adds up to for us, but on the central characteristics nearly everyone agrees. The common portrait is of a late-arriving military leviathan, in the bloom of military expansion, self-satisfied at last to have matched the power of its great imperialist rival, and fascinated by the potential rewards in the continued accumulation of arms.

But most are also agreed that the Soviet Union is a seriously flawed power: economically disadvantaged, technologically deficient, bureaucratically sclerosed, and threatened by a society that is, in Zbigniew Brzezinski's words, "like a boiling subterranean volcano [straining] against the rigid surface crust of the political system." Something of a deformed giant, Enceladus with 50 withered arms, mighty in military resources and exhilarated by its strength, but backward in other respects and sobered by the need to enlist the West's help in overcoming these problems.

From these two perceptions it is only a short step to another widely shared impression: unable to influence others by the force of its ideology, plagued by an economy that does not measure up, and discredited by its repressive habits at home and among allies, the Soviet Union has but one major trump, its military power. Some argue that this is a historic condition, that all of the regime's expectations have been deceived, save for the accomplishments of force. The failure of the European revolution, capitalism's resilience despite the Great Depression and the constant cycle of lesser economic crises, the collapse of communist unity almost as soon as unity became a practical dream, the unruliness of change in the theoretically revolutionary regions of the Third World, all these are the wreckage of earlier hopes. The Soviet Union's triumphs, they contend - from the conquest of power to the spread of empire, from the early victories in the civil war to the historic defeat of Nazi Germany - have proved to generations of Soviet leaders the trustworthiness of force alone.

Others are simply commenting on what appears to be the Soviet Union's comparative advantage. But either way, because of this perception, our concluding observation takes on greater moment. For, in one form or another, nearly everyone who makes the Soviet Union an interest notes the contrast in what we and they want for the world. Even those who believe the Soviet Union is losing its taste for revolutionary transformations and settling down to traditional power politics nonetheless stress the conflict in the two nations' underlying values. Whether the reasons reach back several centuries, as some insist, or merely back to different political systems, as others suggest, the Soviet Union remains an alienated competitor.

If there is truth in this assessment - and, to a degree, it is utterly true - it is a narrow-minded truth, which does not help us sort out the subtler aspects of the Soviet challenge. I say narrow-minded truth because it bears so little relationship to the Soviet Union's self-image; because it is so thoroughly our view of the world. Claiming greater honesty and accuracy on our side is only a partial way out and no service to ourselves, not if the Soviet Union is acting according to its own view. Thus, we have twice handicapped our analyses: first, by not grappling with the interconnection between the evolution of the international order and the evolution of Soviet power and, second, by giving short shrift to the way the Soviet Union views these issues.

We need a broader and richer framework within which to judge the changing nature of Soviet power, one that also incorporates the Soviet understanding of the changing nature of everyone's power. That is what I have tried to sketch here, starting with what seem to me the most conspicuous features of change in the international order, but measured against the lingering and complicating influence of the old order. There follows a brief description of both the new and the faded forms of power and a few comments on Soviet power judged accordingly. My primary concern, however, is the Soviet perspective on these issues. Therefore, I have devoted the second half of the essay to their perceptions of the evolving nature of power within an evolving international setting.


Five elements of change strike me as central. The first of these is the transformation of alliances, a specific manifestation of the general erosion of hierarchies. Not that partnerships are ended or that the power to compel loyalty has in all instances dissolved, but the premises of unity are in most cases no longer what they used to be. Among the industrialized countries of the West, the will to subordinate parochial national interests to traditional security concerns and common enterprises thrives less. In the other camp, the core alliance remains intact, but the original socialist alliance long ago disintegrated with Tito's challenge and the Sino-Soviet split. Moreover, the Soviet Union's extended alliance with West European communism is foundering at the moment on the same reluctance to subordinate national concerns.

The second element of change is the exponential growth of interdependence, confronting nations with the peculiar risk of suffering more the more others suffer, and fusing their prospects for prosperity - no longer merely their prospects for tranquility. Gradually and timidly the socialist countries are being drawn into the same process, a process with unfamiliar rules of restraint and mutual concern.

Third, in this increasingly interdependent world, the collapse of the old international economic order and the challenge raised to a new one of, by, and for the industrialized capitalist societies, have rewritten the political agenda, converted economics to a still higher form of politics, and introduced a critical revisionism, sponsored this time not by the East but by the South instead. Together the second and third elements of change have made the issue of national security far more complex than defending the integrity of one's territory and political values. Increasingly the stake is also in the security of foreign markets and key resources, in the freedom from economically dislocating external price increases, and even in the success of other governments' domestic economic programs.

Fourth, there is growing regionalization of international politics, the particular form taken by the disintegration of a simplistically bipolar world. Ambitious states like Iran and Nigeria exert greater leadership within their own regions, and in the regions of Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia many of the local states make it increasingly plain that the stewardship of outside powers is no longer necessary. In Europe and Asia new or restored power centers have emerged, creating a looser and more complicated geometry underpinning the structure of international politics. And cutting across this new structure, the proliferation of nuclear weapons adds to the complexity and hazards of change.

Finally, at the pinnacle where power was once concentrated, a fundamental shift has occurred in the military balance between the two superpowers. The Soviet Union is no longer the United States' relative inferior in strategic nuclear power. For nearly a decade it has been our rough equal, and, in the minds of many, a self-confident military competitor eager to do still better.

This last development represents in fact a specter from the old order and is the chief reason we have been slow to think our way through the implications of the Soviet Union's altered power in an altered setting. For two things are at work and both stimulate ancient reflexes: one is the evolution of the whole of Soviet military power and the other is our enduring image of the role military power plays in Soviet conceptions.

Seeing the Soviet Union draw abreast in the strategic arms race has been hard enough. But to face in the same short period the realization that the Soviet Union is turning itself into a first-class naval power capable of challenging our mastery of the seas and meanwhile straining to improve its massive power in Europe has been vastly more disconcerting. All at once the Soviet Union has as many, indeed more and larger missiles than we; it has most of the same (though perhaps somewhat retarded) technologies, MIRV, mobile land-based missiles, and rudimentary high-energy lasers; and still it presses on with new generations of weapons systems. Just as suddenly its navy is out on the high seas, sailing oceans where it has never been before, assuming missions it has never had before, and building ships it has never needed before. But even more disturbing, in Europe, where it already had the advantage, the Soviet Union has not only improved the quality of its arms and the number of its forces on the Central European front, it has radically altered the balance in the Mediterranean and on the northern flank.

Add to this the place that we have long assumed war occupies in Soviet theory, and inevitably our perspective shrinks to a rather traditional set of apprehensions. For the assumption that the Soviet Union accepts the utility of war is deeply ingrained. Because the Soviet leaders have never repudiated Clausewitz's dictum of "war as the extension of policy," we have taken this to mean that they still regard the resort to arms as a legitimate instrument of policy. Hence their apparent conviction that war, even nuclear war, is "winnable," and their unwillingness to accept Western notions of strategic nuclear deterrence. Dedicated to the idea of prevailing in a nuclear conflict, they are, we assume, less intimidated by the prospect of its outbreak and therefore less concerned with doctrines designed to avoid it or, in the event, to limit it. Even granted that they want war no more than we, the way they conceive war and the way they prepare for it prove to us that the Soviet leaders believe in the practical effect of both the threat and the arsenal of war.

For many, the next step in the analysis is obvious: if intellectually the Soviet leaders acknowledge the utility of force and if practically they are dependent on it, then not surprisingly they appear bent on achieving the largest possible margins of military advantage. This is the culminating premise. The Soviet Union is driven - to the limits of its resources and our complacency - to seek superiority over us: to amass still greater forces in Central Europe, that the West Europeans may be properly cowed; to fashion a navy more powerful than ours, that we and our friends may be held hostage to our economic dependencies; to build the capacity for projecting power to the far corners of the globe, that new and volatile nations may be opened to Soviet influence; and, ultimately, to overshadow the American strategic nuclear deterrent, that all these other enterprises may be safely pursued.

Viewed like this, it is no wonder that the Soviet-American relationship is soon largely reduced to its military dimension, our attention fixed on the contingencies and circumstances in which the Soviet Union could exploit its military power, and the solution found in our own military strength. Those who think we find the solution in too much military strength simply reinforce the narrowness of our analysis. Because their arguments usually turn on a more optimistic assessment of the military balance - rather than on any disbelief in our original assumptions about the place of force in Soviet theory, something they are more likely to regard as irrelevant than as wrong - they confine the issue still further to a great debate over comparative military capabilities. Thus, they reduce the Soviet threat but not our preoccupation with it.


How ironic that we should be so easily seduced by our traditional apprehensions and so content to build our analysis around the military-political dimension. Interdependence, the other great theme these days, is supposed to depreciate the value of military power. Theoretically the rules are different in an interdependent world, requiring different means. (Theoretically - goes the response - the Soviet Union is not sufficiently a part of this world.)

Though old habits and a lack of imagination prevent us from adjusting, there is also a growing suspicion that conventional means of influence are not what we once thought. The notion that foreign aid, military assistance, cultural diplomacy or any of the other elements of a nation's presence actually translate into leverage over another nation's decisions convinces us less and less, even when it is our adversary's aid, arms, and propaganda effort. Except in rare instances, power is not something usefully approached as a matter of devising, accumulating, and deftly applying mechanisms of influence. Not primarily at least.

For power, we sense, is increasingly unrefinable; increasingly indistinguishable from the setting in which it exists. Power is the capacity to reshape parts of the international order and for the powerful that is a capacity to compromise - to make concessions. Power is allowing monetary regimes or the law of the sea to take another form, allowing the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), or the Common Market to be changed or supplanted, and allowing other global economic goals, such as income redistribution, to have their day. In this case, there is nothing tangible or portable about it, and by its "application" little chance of imposing change.

Power, however, is also increasingly a matter of managing interdependence and, therefore, increasingly a matter of the structure and range of one's dependencies. To be positioned at the intersection of numerous and different forms of interdependence is power - unless too many of them are seriously unequal. So is opting out of interdependent relationships to the extent that minimizing vulnerabilities enhances power; but by sidelining itself a nation also reduces its power to the extent that the rewards of participation are passed up. That is only the start, however, for power in an interdependent world also depends on how fungible others' dependencies are (that is, how easily their dependencies in one realm can be converted to offset yours in another) and how serviceable your vulnerabilities are (that is, when interdependence is asymmetrical, how much others hurt themselves by hurting you).


If power is to be measured in terms of a country's ability to ferry material support great distances to friends fighting in settings like Angola in 1975, the Soviet Union is immeasurably stronger than it was 15 years earlier when Patrice Lumumba needed help. But if it is to be measured in terms of a country's ability to intervene over the same distances with its own military forces when it does not have friends or when we move to prevent it, the Soviet Union is not strong enough. If it is to be assessed in terms of a country's ability to obtain the material resources that it needs without fear of outside interference, the Soviet Union is less well-off than it was ten years ago but a good deal better off than we. But if it is to be assessed in terms of a country's ability to influence the economic decisions of others impinging on its interests, the Soviet Union is better off now, but not nearly so well off as we.

The trouble is we do not know how to evaluate the power of the Soviet Union. We do not have a sufficiently comprehensive and systematic set of criteria by which to judge. We do not even have sufficient criteria by which to disagree among ourselves. Of course, if we reduce the task to evaluating Soviet military power, we have the grounds for disagreeing, but not for weighing its share of the many other resources by which nations try to shape world politics. To supplement the calculation of Soviet military power with other traditional indices - such as the strength of its economy, the stability of its alliance(s), or the character of its adversaries - accomplishes little. What is more important, that Khrushchev's precise timetable for exceeding our per capita GNP has been long abandoned along with his accompanying fanfare? Or, that the Soviet economy continues to grow more rapidly than those of the vast majority of the world, including our own? Or is the sharp decline in the growth of Soviet total factor productivity more important than either? What is more striking about the large percentage of Soviet resources devoted to national defense, the dedication that it implies or the burden that it represents? And what is more significant about our discovery that this percentage has been even larger than we originally thought, the still greater dedication that it implies or the inefficiency that it betrays? Were we sure of the answers to these questions, we would still have to decide how they balance off against, say, the evolving character of the Chinese threat or the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union's East European alliance.

Neither are we much helped by the tendency to substitute for an analysis of the resources serving Soviet foreign policy a summary of the trends favoring Soviet foreign policy, particularly when the summary is only that. In part, the problem is the same as with undifferentiated and unintegrated categories of power. Not only is it difficult to tell which trends matter most: the American failures in Indochina or the Soviet exclusion from the Middle East; the triumph of the MPLA in Angola or the destruction of Allende in Chile; the disruption on NATO's southern flank or the failed rapprochement after Mao's death. But it is still more treacherous discerning grand patterns among these trends, especially when many trends are quickly reversed. Moreover, the implications of any single trend often defy easy categorization. Take, for example, the case of Eurocommunism. Would the Soviet Union be strengthened by having the Italian Communist Party in government? Who knows? How does a leader in Moscow or one in Washington weigh the damage done to Soviet peace of mind in Eastern Europe by the PCI's heterodoxy, against the reinforcement of the U.S.S.R's foreign policy in Western Europe by the Party's lingering orthodoxy? How, when the Soviet leader wants a strong Left to constrain the Italian government but momentarily fears the effect on détente of a government that actually includes the Left?

In part, however, the problem with focusing on trends is in distinguishing their effects. After all, our concern with Soviet power is in what it can accomplish, and this cannot be automatically or easily inferred from what happens.

Given these pitfalls, it makes more sense to put a certain distance between ourselves and the problem of the Soviet Union's evolving (military) power. We need to stand back and contemplate the more basic question of the Soviet Union's ability to shape or alter different parts of its environment. Ultimately this is what determines the importance of the Soviet ability to affect events.

If one starts with interdependence, that complex network of involvements dominating so many of the stakes in international politics, including the structure of the international economic order, the Soviet Union's influence remains marginal. It will not do to dismiss this state of affairs as the Soviet Union's choice, as a game it prefers not to play, and may be the better off thereby. For clearly the Soviet Union has chosen to play and would like to play more, were the rules more within its control. Increasingly it has a stake in interdependence but little leverage over the governing institutions and rules. The Soviet Union, as the economist says, is a price-taker.

A third of the animal protein in Soviet diets comes from fish mostly caught off other nations' coasts. To fish there, the Soviet Union is increasingly obliged to enter into joint ventures aiding the development of the poorer countries' fishing industries. Since the early 1960s, the annual increase in Soviet food imports has exceeded that of Japan, the world's largest food importer, and the Soviet Union is now contractually bound to buy at least six million metric tons of American wheat and corn every year. The Soviet Union counts, and has for some years, on buying substantial quantities of foreign technology to reverse productivity lags in Soviet industry and agriculture; to pay for it, it exports a growing portion of its petroleum production - but if it is to maintain these levels of export, it must tap its more inaccessible reserves, and for that it needs more Western technology. Together with its friends in Eastern Europe, it now owes $46 billion to outsiders, including $28 billion to foreign commercial banks.1

For all that, however, the Soviet Union has precious little voice in shaping the larger system in which it buys, sells, and borrows. It is a member of none of the major international economic institutions, unless the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) be one, and there it is generally disregarded. It has not been much consulted by anyone, including the South, when monetary schemes, balance-of-payment adjustment arrangements, commodity agreements, and regulations of direct foreign investments are discussed. And its own particular pet concerns - such as most-favored-nation agreements, bilateral trade agreements, and a larger role for gold - wait on the goodwill of the capitalist powers and often on their diminished apathy.

Our standard explanation misses the point: the point is not that the organization of the Soviet economy makes the Soviet Union an unsuitable participant, but that the international economic order need not accommodate the national organization the U.S.S.R. prefers. Our notion that this is no comment on Soviet power is plainly wrong; in an interdependent world, self-sufficiency is inefficiency, increasingly so in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet leadership knows it. How much of a world power is a nation without much power in the world economy?

On the other hand, not all crucial transactions take place in the economic sphere and not all crucial stakes are material. There is also, for want of a more revealing term, the political order. In theory, the maximum concern is with the Soviet capacity for making the world over in its own image, but few believe any longer in putting the issue so simplistically. Rather, we respond to an incoherent muddle of concerns, beginning with the pace at which the Soviet Union is acquiring footholds or facilities around the world, which jeopardize our power, and finishing with the pace at which change is occurring, which jeopardizes our values. In a place like southern Africa the two become confused - but that is more a matter of our weakness than Soviet strength. Not that we fear for racism, but violent change may give rise to radical regimes and many think there are too many of them already. More immediately, radical regimes may well accord the Soviet Union new facilities for its expanding global military power, which, according to the more pessimistic among us, could be used to shut off the flow of indispensable resources to Western economies. Worried about the fate of our own power and values, we tend to be sloppy about distinguishing between the aggrandizement of Soviet power and the advancement of Soviet values.

Our carelessness arises out of the mistaken apprehension that the growth of Soviet (military) power, and change, like that in Angola, necessarily aid Soviet foreign policy in dealing with its various tasks: that they interact to make it easier for the Soviet Union to sell its Asian collective security scheme or mobilize opposition to Diego Garcia. It also blinds us to the possibility that change may work against the Soviet Union, even in its own camp, quite apart from the growth of Soviet (military) power.

In the military realm, the Soviet Union is unquestionably stronger than it was, but the nature and sweep of its strength is worth exploring. Where arms are an uncontested entree, the Soviet Union has a growing capacity to influence and, in some rare instances like Angola, to decide events. But sometimes, as in the Horn of Africa, even where order is breaking down and the Soviet access considerable, confusion and crosscutting interests foil effective Soviet influence. In general, the Soviet Union has a conspicuously greater capacity than it did to constrain our use of military force and, to that extent, to influence events. But where it is the shadow of Soviet power that worries us, as in Europe, if Soviet influence grows, it will largely be influence that we have created; when the actual resort to force is so implausible, then dangers like that of "Finlandization" are far more a matter of our state of mind than of actual Soviet capabilities.

Moreover, the capacity to influence, even to control, events guarantees neither control after the event nor control over the larger patterns of change. By and large the Soviet Union is, as we are, the beneficiary or victim of the processes of change, not their source. Nothing in the evolution of Soviet power is altering that. Some have used the images of gardener and architect to identify the nature and limits of our power: the Soviet Union, like us, remains a gardener.


None of what has been said so far addresses the constraints a changing international order does or does not impose on Soviet behavior.2 This, it seems to me, has a great deal to do with the way the Soviet Union judges these issues. For while in some respects it judges these issues as we do, in other important respects, it does not. Thus, Soviet writers and leaders are as sensitive as our own to the rapid transformation of world politics. Like our own, they recognize the fragmentation of power ("the multiplicity of forces each standing up for its own interests"), the transformation of capitalist and proletarian internationalism, the emergence of other axes, North-South and West-West, to compete with the East-West axis, and the growth of interdependence (in its praiseworthy form, the "international division of labor"). But they superimpose on these common perceptions a fundamentally different conception of the underlying forces at work.

For them, the key to the current transformation resides in the shifting "correlation of forces," the balance between history's progressive and retrograde forces - their sense of linear history, predicated on the eternal advance of the Soviet Union and those with whom it identifies and the equally certain retreat of those with whom it does not. At the moment, they contend, the correlation of forces has been radically altered by the dramatic increase in Soviet military power, the continued success of the socialist economies, the growth of the national liberation struggle, an unprecedented convergence of crises in the industrialized capitalist countries, and the strengthening of "democratic" and "peace-loving" forces within the other camp.

Whether they really believe the balance of trends has shifted so swiftly and so unambiguously is difficult to tell. But, in a sense, that is not crucial: first, because the Soviets do not underestimate the residual strength of capitalist societies, least of all the United States, nor overestimate their own military strength. On the contrary, they have the deepest regard for the powers of recovery in Western societies, for their economic dynamism even when decelerated, and for the United States' preeminence among and continued dominance over them; they also seem to understand the limitations of their own military power - in fact, in contrast to many in the West, they still tend to see themselves as militarily inferior to the United States in most respects.

Second, the precise level of Soviet optimism is less important than the conceptual framework sustaining it. It is more important that the Soviet Union, however sensitive to specific trends, still ultimately reduces the evolution of international relations to a single contest. It still imposes (a Soviet speaker would say, understands) the juxtaposition between two historic forces, between two social systems and in these terms judges the ultimate significance of global change.

We make a mistake, therefore, to doubt the force of this idea, to consign it to that category of devices by which the Soviet regime finds self-justification, or to repress it in our haste to transform the Soviet Union into a historically recognizable problem. The mistake has three consequences: it obscures a basic asymmetry in our two conceptions of international change; it conceals the trouble a Soviet observer has with our conception of international change; and it makes it more difficult to understand the role that the Soviet Union assigns itself in promoting international change.

In the first instance, Americans have gradually learned to divide their preoccupations. One of the consequences of a changing environment, we think, is the increasingly diffuse quality of the challenges that it raises. Our problems and the solutions, to the extent that our problems have solutions, exist on different planes and in separate contexts. However much these are interwoven, they cannot any longer be forced into one dimension. On the other hand, the Soviet view of this increasingly intricate environment is still refracted through a single dimension.

Thus, for example, we take the contestation over the new international economic order (NIEO) to be a serious new focus of American foreign policy, and, because the challenge comes from the South, distinct from our competition with the Soviet Union. (Indeed, as an acknowledgement of interdependence and a moderated East-West contest, we now invite the Soviet Union to join us in aiding the developing nations.) But for the Soviet Union the North-South emphasis is misconceived, not merely because this tends to feature a "rich-poor" dichotomy, and the Soviet Union does not like its own ranking, but because a rich-poor dichotomy makes the issue income redistribution, and income redistribution has to do with buying off the oppressed, not revolutionizing the system. Properly conceived, the struggle over a new international economic order is between the two social systems, with the socialist countries in the forefront. As a symptom of imperialism's vulnerabilities, the Soviet Union supports the struggle for a more equitable international economic order; but, recognizing how powerful the industrialized capitalist states remain in this sphere, it prefers to emphasize other areas of change, ones better served by the "shifting correlation of forces," ones that have more to do with restructuring East-West relations, or, as Soviet writers put it, ones more directly concerned with reducing the risks of war, strengthening peaceful coexistence, and advancing "extensive and constructive cooperation."

In the second instance, our insensitivity to Soviet conceptions prevents us from seeing how much we remain the Soviet Union's preoccupation. (Too many people who do take Soviet formulas seriously are no exception, because they confound the "struggle between two social systems" with a struggle between two states or two sets of states.) If there is one great impediment to progressive change, one great benefactor of a reactionary order, in Soviet eyes, it is the United States. China may be a more immediate and noxious threat to the Soviet Union, but its larger meaning is as an objective ally of the anti-progressive forces led by us. Thus, when our theorists and leaders speak of adjusting to systemic change, creating new equilibriums, fashioning a sounder balance of power, and building on interdependence, these are not treated by the Soviets as concepts for a safer, more stable, and more humane international order, but as a design for saving as much as possible of the old one.

Because of Vietnam and the growing strength of the Soviet Union, Soviet writers say, the American leaders have a more realistic appreciation of the limits of their power and a more constructive approach to relations with the Soviet Union (until the human rights initiatives of the current Administration). No leader more symbolized that change than Henry Kissinger, but Kissinger the theorist, it has often been noted in Soviet analyses, believes in the "balance of power system" and, "however praised or embellished" that concept may be, it is designed to preserve the status quo not only in the international-political but, above all, in the social sphere - "to maintain and strengthen reactionary regimes," to stifle "revolutionary changes in the life of the people."

According to Soviet observers, it is not the imperatives of interdependence, particularly those of reciprocity and mutual restraint, that move American leaders, but rather the opportunities they see in the fragmentation of power. (The concept of interdependence, they say, becomes in our hands a rationalization for Western exploitation of the Third World and an artifice for salvaging imperialist collaboration under American leadership.) By capitalizing on the conflicts among various "power centers," Soviet analysts maintain, the United States hopes to make itself the arbiter of the system, the regulator of the "equilibrium," and the equilibrium that most bothers them is the so-called "pentagonal world" (the U.S.S.R., the United States, China, Western Europe and Japan). It is not restraint that we are attempting to build into the system, according to them, but flexibility for ourselves, the kind that preserves others' dependencies and frees our hands to control adverse change, to "export counter-revolution."

In turn, Soviet commentators make no bones about their own country's large and active role in the evolution of the international order. As they say, the restructuring of international relations "can never be spontaneous or automatic." Marxist-Leninists cannot rely on "spontaneous development" in international affairs. "Any fundamental restructuring of international relations must be duly planned, controlled, and corrected." Since international politics, in contrast to the imperialists' view, are not a social system, subject to endless, directionless mutations - a "system" whose structure cannot be rectified, only manipulated and exploited - but a process, the progressive forces of the world can and must act to protect and foster this process. The process, of course, is the shifting "correlation of forces," and the Soviet Union, according to its spokesmen, has a growing responsibility for its advance.

Ambitious, militarily strengthened, buoyed by the course of events, persuaded that we are the key obstacle to a more preferable international order, this seemingly is not the kind of Soviet Union that we want to live with. Nor is it one much in step with an encumbered international environment dominated by mutual dependencies. How much worse that it also, according to many of us, invests military power with a high instrumental value.

This, however, misconceives the problem, and no part of it more than the military dimension. For the instrumentalism we see in the Soviet approach to military power is, in the first instance, the instrumentalism they attribute to us. The interplay is not easy to sort out, but it starts with our misrepresentation of their theory. Thus, the Soviet concepts that we consult to prove their instrumentalism are in fact those analyzing ours. Their loyalty to Clausewitz, for example, has nothing to do with rationalizing war as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy; it is a way of explaining the phenomenon of war and imperialism's proclivity to war as a means. In twisting their meaning, Soviet commentators complain, we "deliberately lump together the theoretical proposition characterizing the essence of war and the proposition concerning the expediency, or otherwise, of war as a means of achieving political objectives." (This disclaimer we may believe or not, but we have no business using Clausewitz to prove their commitment to war as an instrument of foreign policy).

Seeing military power as an instrument of foreign policy, of course, is much different from proposing war as an instrument of foreign policy. We, they say, have made military power not only an instrument, but the instrument, of our postwar foreign policy. And we have not only made it the instrument of our foreign policy - that is, our frequent and ultimate recourse in controlling international change - but we have turned the threat of (nuclear) war into a prop for our frequent military interventions. That is why, according to them, we seek strategic superiority, why we reject parity, why we resort to the subterfuge of "strategic sufficiency" (the formula of the early Nixon years), why we concoct concepts like the "doctrine of limited nuclear options" (deterrence in the late Nixon and Ford years) - why, in short, we struggle to make nuclear war safe, and why we chase so frantically after technological advantage. Our particular approach to deterrence theory, they think, represents our never-ending struggle to salvage political utility for nuclear arms, to make them a shield for the exploitation of other forms of military power. (Our equivalent is the notion that the Soviet commitment to "winning" a nuclear war represents a commitment to an arms buildup that will permit winning without fighting - not, as Soviet theorists claim, a way of fighting a war that others start and hope to win.)

There is no way of knowing whether some or all within the Soviet leadership would be willing to try where we "have failed," whether they can imagine a plausible structure to the strategic balance that would profit Soviet foreign policy. But three lesser conclusions are within our reach: first, to the extent that the Soviet leaders are wrestling with the problem of integrating military power and foreign policy - and they are - it is at the lower end of the spectrum, where we have regularly applied military force to foreign policy ends. To judge from their building programs, they have not yet decided how far they want to go in developing an ability to project force, how far they want to go in preventing or duplicating our practices. Second, the areas where foreign policy and military power are the most likely to mingle are those geographically and naturally isolated from the central balances. And, third, we pay an unnecessary price for our original invidious image of the Soviet Union: in truth, the Soviet Union feels better about itself and the course of events than we assume; trusting events, it is more likely to assign its military power the task - beyond defense - of preventing others from interfering with change than of imposing change.

For in fact the Soviet Union does not see itself as only militarily potent and otherwise as economically disadvantaged, technologically deficient, bureaucratically sclerosed and so on. Its leaders admit to a broad range of problems and limitations but, where we constantly view these in terms of fundamental systemic weaknesses, they regard them as normal and corrigible defects. And where we focus on these defects, treating them as a basic disparagement of the Soviet experience, they tend to downplay them, instead emphasizing their accomplishments, and thus retain a genuine faith in the transcendent significance of that experience. (One could exchange "they" and "we" in these two sentences; that is, the same contrast exists in reverse.)

On the other hand, we tend to analyze the effect of Soviet ideology in narrow, utilitarian terms, that is, by the impact that it has on others, by its power to attract, and by this standard we see the Soviet Union still more weakened. While a Soviet leader is also concerned with the force of ideology, as a practical matter he is more likely to focus on trends that correspond with his values than on the precise number of orthodox disciples that his country inspires (outside the critical sphere of Eastern Europe). Rather than judge the issue only by the number of socialist states in the world or genuine Marxist-Leninists, he will take heart from the number that merely reject the other way; even more will his optimism depend on the basic rhythm of change, say, in Indochina or southern Africa.

There is another side to the story. For the Soviet Union is not only, or even first, the servant of history; it is also a state with mundane interests, like adding Western computers to its economy, securing recognition for the territorial status quo in Eastern Europe, and discouraging the United States from deploying cruise missiles. Its recourse has been the process of détente, which the Soviet leaders say is not only compatible with the process of an evolving correlation of forces, but an essential part of it. Détente is the refinement and restraint that the Soviet Union brings to the basic contest between two social systems. Theoretically, it is the framework within which the Soviet Union bridges the gap between its private needs and the historic vision, but the recriminations of the French Communist Party (against those who would sacrifice social change to détente) and of "some representatives" of national liberation movements indicate that it has not been fully successful.

Were the Soviet participation in détente but a tactical expedient, a kind of winter quartering of the troops, a policy choice to be discarded at the first sign of inconvenience, we might have a right to a more primitive view of the Soviet approach to international change. But it is not. It is a profound and long-term commitment dictated by the Soviet leaders' inability to conceive a better way to pursue their three elemental objectives: (1) nurturing both the processes that restrain the change the Soviet Union fears and those that ease the way to the change it desires; (2) sanctifying the Soviet Union's status as a global power coequal with the United States (that there may be, in Andrei Gromyko's words, "no question of any significance which can be decided without the Soviet Union or in opposition to it"); and (3) securing the economic and technological benefits of the "international division of labor." By the last, the Soviet Union engages itself in the interdependent world. This interdependent world, which includes collaboration between socialist and capitalist states, now has the status of a phenomenon determined by "objective realities and laws." And Soviet leaders admit that "no single state is able for long to achieve full development if it cuts itself off from the rest of the world."


I remember those maps from early television programs on the Soviet Union - or on the communist world as it was then. How the color spread like spilled paint across the areas of Soviet control and ambition. Whatever else it may be, 20 years later, the Soviet global thrust is not that. Indeed it is not even a proper "global thrust," much less an "imperial thrust," if by that we mean the extension of power and control, or the attempt to control. The Soviet empire still ends at the Elbe River. And, as far as power is concerned, while the Soviet Union's is clearly enlarged, at least that part of it that is military, we should remember that the portion of military power that is abroad is largely redeployed, not additional, power and remains vastly inferior to our own. That is, while the Soviet Navy is modernizing, it is less its transfiguration that should catch our eye, for this has been slow and ambiguous, than the simple decision to send the old navy out to sea. Moreover, of all the naval-related areas, the one in which the Soviet Union lags farthest behind us is in its ability to project force.

It is entirely possible that the Soviet Union intends to improve its capacity for projecting power, that it is ready to try to influence events more actively in various parts of the world and that it believes the timely application of military power may be a primary means. But, if so, the effort will be made with relatively few illusions about the permanence of change or about the limits of influence or about the permanence of influence yielded by change. The closer to home (and to the central military balances), the less utility military power has for Soviet foreign policy, and the more the Soviet Union must rely primarily on processes like détente to influence the trends of concern to it. In the grey area in between, like Yugoslavia, there is no evidence that the Soviet Union regards its military power as an important part of policy, but neither is there any evidence that it disregards the fear that it may be.

In general, the notion of a Soviet global thrust has less to do with the application of power (toward control) than it does with status and access (derived from power). That is, the key proposition is Gromyko's: namely, the Soviet Union as a participant in decisions of concern to it. This indisputably depends, in the Soviet mind and, in part, in reality, on the growing mass of Soviet military power, strategic nuclear power in particular. But it also depends, in larger part, on the nature of local circumstances and, as events in the Middle East have proved since the 1973 war, these are often more powerful.

Phrasing the problem so basically, of course, does not help much in dealing with specific aspects or applications of Soviet power, but this kind of framework (not necessarily this particular one) is essential if we are to have a perspective in which to fit our specific judgments. Too often these days, we focus on particular dimensions of Soviet power without the broader perspective - and end by inventing implications.


Looked at from a distance, what ultimately is the significance of a changing setting in assessing Soviet power? And where do these considerations intersect with the problem of competing Soviet and American perspectives? The answer to the first question, it seems to me, comes out of the fundamental evolution in our perception of the constraints on Soviet power. At the outset, that is 30 years ago when George Kennan wrote his famous essay on the subject, we viewed these constraints as too frail and so we substituted ourselves. Faced with what we deemed to be a messianic expansionist state, which for whatever reasons - the one Kennan stressed was the regime's failure to consolidate its absolute power at home - was struggling to fill "every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power," our response was fateful and straightforward: we must, Kennan argued and we agreed, "confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."

Since then, however, the international setting has grown constantly more complex, adding powerful new constraints and rendering our own role less obvious. The filled power vacuums in Europe and Asia, the fractured monolith of socialism and most of all the shadow of nuclear war have transformed the context in which we contemplate Soviet ambition. To these commonplaces, we might add the Soviet Union's growing stake in what for it has long been a repugnant international order. The paradox stems not only from the Soviet Union's commitment to economic cooperation with the West and the utility it sees in, say, a stable law of the seas, but also from the disruptions it cannot afford to sponsor if it counts on Western forbearance in the face of its growing global role.3

Within this sturdier environment - sturdier because of the obstacles it raises to crude expansionism, not because we have been able to maintain our own mission of checking Soviet power at every point - the Soviet-American rivalry has now evolved into something less intensive and something more extensive. The elusiveness of opportunity and the distractions of multiple international challenges account for the loss of intensity. The broadening of the rivalry reflects the U.S.S.R.'s developing global vocation, or, to extend Kennan's original notion, it reflects the shift in Soviet preoccupation from the struggle to secure Soviet power against the external world to a quest for a larger place in it.

Détente has been the process by which we come to terms with both circumstances-with both the changing constraints on Soviet power and the changing nature of the threat it poses. It is also the nearest we have to a replacement for the policy (or process) of containment, now that the extension of Soviet dominion has been essentially contained. The new task is to temper the use of its extended power. (A Soviet speaker would say that détente is the process by which his country capitalizes on its growing power to curb American excesses, or the process by which the United States is led to embrace the principle of peaceful coexistence.)

The contest between us continues - that is the essence of peaceful coexistence - but for us, and presumably for the U.S.S.R., détente introduces the new prospect of managing, not merely maintaining, our rivalry. It is an historic opportunity but one with almost insuperable internal tensions. For, on the one hand, we in our rivalry are challenged to collaborate consciously and explicitly in order to moderate the contest; on the other hand, we in our collaboration must cope with the permanent reality of the contest, a reality constantly underscored by global instabilities and constantly heightened by the evolution of the Soviet Union's military power. The delicate task of designing and perhaps even codifying the "rules of the game," if that is what we set out to do in the Moscow agreements of 1972, is continually interrupted by moments of chaos when in Chile, Angola, Indochina or perhaps Yugoslavia our conflicting interests are reemphasized.

The unhappy consequences of this problem are essentially three, each of which carries its own implicit resolution, though none is within easy reach. The first is the preeminence reserved for the military dimension. It is inevitable and, frankly, desirable that both sides maintain their defenses. Regrettable as it may be, the probable truth is that nuclear weapons, in some rough equilibrium, have kept the peace between us in the past and will be needed to keep it in the future. And the other parts of our military establishment are equally essential, not because the U.S.S.R. is demonstrably eager to sweep across the North German plain at the first opportunity, but because, as the last war in the Middle East demonstrated, events in which the U.S.S.R. has a heavy stake, but over which it has little control, may tempt it to invoke the threat of military intervention.

Still, we both have - or believe we have - an interest in holding these forces to a minimum. Because neither side trusts the other's conviction, however, because the "rules of the game" remain so rudimentary and suspect, and, in these circumstances, because those responsible for national security in both countries demand large margins for error, we move constantly the other way. And the motion becomes our preoccupation: those who see the Soviet side in the arms race in sinister terms judge détente accordingly; those who worry about the dangerous or destabilizing aspects of the arms race base the viability of détente primarily on success in controlling arms. In the process, neither group is coming to grips with the instrumentalism the United States and the Soviet Union each sees in the other's approach to military power.

The first group doubts that the Soviet Union could misunderstand the character and purpose of our military forces, and is thus led to a heightened mistrust of Soviet motives; as a consequence, it places its faith instead in further arming - even as the soundest avenue to arms control. The second group, preoccupied with the enormous specific problems of negotiating SALT, MBFR, and now the proposed demilitarization of the Indian Ocean, tends to repress the dilemma of mutual U.S. and Soviet misperceptions about the role of force in each other's foreign policy. For ultimately the dilemma can only be dealt with by relating our defense preparations to our arms control efforts; it can only be addressed by weighing the secondary costs in the other side's distorted perceptions of the significance of the way we choose to defend ourselves, the arms we build and the doctrines we formulate. Until both countries make that effort, arms control - whether SALT, MBFR, or other negotiations to follow - will remain a fragmented and unsystematic enterprise that may produce agreements but only marginal and ambiguous progress toward a moderated contest.

The second consequence flows from the first. Because of the central place accorded the military dimension, key aspects of the U.S.S.R.-U.S. relationship are broken down and split from their context. I have just commented on how much the processes of arming and of negotiating arms control become divorced from the basic problem of military power in both sides' perceptions. Similarly, because of the prominence granted traditional security concerns, the natural effects of processes like interdependence are distorted and in their place we substitute a preoccupation with their manipulation - by us for gain, against us we fear to our disadvantage. Finally, and in the long run, the process of restructuring U.S.S.R.-U.S. relations tends to lose its coherence and we end, as in Kissinger's last days, by focusing on specific tension areas that threaten to accentuate East-West conflict or be accentuated by it or, as in the current instance, by concentrating on disembodied elements of the relationship such as human rights and arms control.

The third consequence - that is, the interruption in the search for more explicit "rules of the game" - follows from the other two. Though we tend to forget it now, relatively concrete patterns of restraint were discussed at the outset of détente. At the time, the two sides consciously set out to reduce the dangerous, extraneous, or unproductive burdens of competition, actually writing some of these restraints into the Basic Principles of United States-Soviet Relations (the document signed at the May 1972 summit). They included the crucial principle of parity - as stated in the Basic Principles neither side would "either directly or indirectly seek unilateral advantage over the other" - an idea most relevant to the strategic arms race, but in the Soviet mind one sanctioning equality in all forms of power. There were others such as the notion of substituting economic interdependence for (our) earlier economic warfare against the Soviet Union and (their) economic autarky, which was again, in implication, written into the Basic Principles. There was also the important concession, on each side's part, that the other's claimed dedication to peaceful coexistence, that is, to restraint in its foreign policy, might now have real meaning. Indeed, the idea of peaceful coexistence was written into the Basic Principles.

Others might be added, derived more from the observer's imagination, but the point is that the search in general was long ago disrupted: parity as a principle fell victim to the widespread suspicion on both sides' part that it was for the other only a momentary indulgence for want of a choice. Interdependence as a principle has been eroded and partially discredited by the politics of linkages; and peaceful coexistence as a principle suffers from the effects of Angola and the 1973 Middle East war.

The dialectical quality of détente, with its competitive/cooperative essence, makes it hard to revive the search for "rules," for a more explicit modus vivendi, for a moderation of means in lieu of agreement over ends. But the search is ultimately the only hope we have of restoring coherence to the quest for a restructured Soviet-American relationship. It includes new and untried standards of behavior like those suggested by Marshall Shulman some years ago - one, the principle of "noninterference by force in processes of internal change," the other, the "right of free access," permitting nations to "compete, not for the control of territory, but for the establishment of mutually beneficial and nonexploitative relations, and thereby for political influence." These are the decisive "rules of the game," for it is they that will tell us how much either side really trusts a moderated contest and wants its advantages.


2 In urging that we cast our evaluation of Soviet power more broadly, I am aware that I have slighted considerations that many others feature. I have made no effort to appraise the impact of change within the socialist world on Soviet power; no effort to judge whether Soviet power is diminished by the continued erosion of "proletarian internationalism" beyond Eastern Europe but enhanced by its preservation within Eastern Europe; or whether it is enhanced by the rising influence of communists and their allies beyond the Soviet sphere but diminished by the cost of maintaining its own influence within this sphere. Or, whether the combinations are the opposite (because I do not know and because the judgment is history's). I have not attempted to explore the impact on Soviet power of the conflict with China and of our China diplomacy (because the impact is obvious). Nor have I commented on the power that the Soviet Union derives from our growing bilateral economic cooperation - from the so-called "hostage capital" it possesses or the ready-made lobbies that it inherits (because the leverage flows both ways and because this is a marginal consideration in the larger scheme of things).

3 If after Angola and the 1973 Middle East War this sounds doubtful, we should not lose sight of the relatively narrow limits within which the Soviet Union acted in both instances, neither case ever being the reckless incursion that many in the West imagined.

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  • ROBERT LEGVOLD is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, and during 1977-78 Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science and Acting Associate Director of the Russian Institute at Columbia University.
  • More By Robert Legvold