As has been true of practically all American presidents since World War II, Jimmy Carter entered the White House with high hopes of effecting a major and salutary breakthrough in our relations with the Soviet Union. Also evident was the President's determination to achieve some substantial success in this direction quite early in his first term in office. The new Administration believed, as new administrations are prone to, that, unlike its predecessor, it had some special qualifications and opportunities to establish a more satisfactory rapport with the Kremlin. It had a fresh, though to be sure not overwhelming, popular mandate. The executive and Congress were now in the hands of the same party. The Republican Administration, despite its contribution to détente, eventually faltered because it was tainted and hobbled by Watergate and Vietnam, and its chief foreign policymaker unduly addicted to power politics. Now the new people, free of such burdens, would be able to turn a new leaf, not only in our relations with the U.S.S.R., but also in the arena of the growing competition between the two superpowers - the Third World.

There were other, more subjective reasons for America's new leaders to feel that they would succeed where their predecessors had faltered. Despite all the evidence that if anything the opposite is true, the American public and politicians have never quite gotten over the belief that the communists prefer to deal with people whose political orientation is, well, call it progressive, rather than conservative. "I go to see Mr. Khrushchev in Vienna. I go as the leader of the greatest revolutionary country on earth," said John Kennedy in 1961. In a sense he was right, yet it did not help him much on that occasion with Khrushchev. In 1977 it was still felt that the Soviets should react positively to the fact that the U.S. government was now in the hands of those who had been critical of our past involvements with foreign reactionaries, who had pledged to cut defense spending and who promised to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea.

What has been learned from bitter experience is that in addition to assuaging Soviet fears and countering misperceptions of what the United States stands for, it is also necessary to impress the Kremlin with America's firmness and determination to protect this country's and its allies' vital interests. Here Washington hoped that Mr. Carter's stance as elucidated during the campaign and upon his inauguration represented just the right blend of friendly overtures toward the Soviets and a warning that this country was not abandoning its historical role as the champion of democracy. This Administration was free of the old anti-communist obsession - it was even ready to discuss the establishment of diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba and Vietnam. At the same time, its stand on human rights would convey a warning to the communist world not to mistake friendly advances for signs of weakness. If for the Soviets, as Brezhnev had said, détente had not abolished the laws of the class struggle, then for the Americans, Mr. Carter implied, it had not weakened their traditional attachment and readiness to defend the ideals of freedom.


How, in fact, did Moscow view the results of the election and the new people with whom it would have to deal? It is most unlikely that the Soviet leaders were pleased. Being deeply conservative by temperament, elderly and set in their ways, they would have preferred that U.S. foreign policy continue to be run by those whom they had come to know and, if not exactly trust (a rare word in the Kremlin's vocabulary), then whose reactions to Soviet policies, they believed, could be gauged with some accuracy. Whatever the virtues of the new Administration's stand on the Soviet Union, whatever the benefits to be garnered through its inexperience, in the mind of the Politburo they were probably more than offset by the fact that a new element of unpredictability had been added to American policies, so lamentably unpredictable in any case: witness Korea in 1950, Cuba in 1962.

The first year of Carter-Brezhnev coexistence eroded most of the initial American optimism without dissipating many of the Soviets' initial apprehensions. There had been some nervousness in Washington that the U.S.S.R. might "test" the new President by contriving an international crisis. But it was the Soviets who should have been, and probably were, nervous. For all his previous pronouncements, would not Mr. Carter, now that the campaign was behind him, demand from them an explanation of their buildup in conventional and nuclear arms, take a strong stand on recent Soviet moves in Africa, and so forth? Before negotiating on specific issues, the new President might well have drawn Moscow's attention to the relevant passages of the Nixon-Brezhnev declaration of 1972 that had ushered in détente: "The U.S.S.R. and the United States attach major importance to preventing the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations . . . . Both sides recognize that efforts to obtain unilateral advantages at the expense of the other, directly or indirectly, are inconsistent with these objectives."

But the Carter Administration proceeded on the assumption that its first priority was to reach a quick SALT II agreement, and then in the glow of success resulting from it, take up those other bothersome issues during a summit meeting between the two Presidents. It is perhaps pertinent to quote what I wrote on the subject in 1976: "Strategic arms limitation has been considered by the United States as the very keystone of détente. This in itself made sure . . . that the negotiations over SALT I and II would be long drawn, with the Soviets constantly airing new demands and creating fresh complications."1 If you show that you want something very badly then it is usual for the other side (especially if it is the Soviet Union) to show itself as almost intractable, thus making it probable that it will get its own way, and perhaps additional benefits on other issues.

It was also not an insignificant mistake to send Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Russia. Protocol dictated that it should have been the turn of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to come to America to pay his respects to the new leaders and to initiate a diplomatic dialogue about the whole range of issues separating the two powers. But instead it was Mr. Vance who in March 1977 went to Moscow, carrying with him comprehensive SALT II proposals. The Administration must have known that the Soviets could not accept in toto the American plan. Its net effect would have been to reduce their numerical superiority in strategic launchers and put constraints on the most advanced Soviet "heavy" missile, while leaving the cruise missile, in which the United States was technologically ahead, as well as the Soviet "Backfire" bomber, outside the agreement. But it was hoped that the proposals would be seriously examined by Moscow and lead to comprehensive negotiations. In fact, the Soviets refused even to talk about them. Gromyko chose to read the new Administration a lesson: "One cannot talk about stability when a new leadership arrives and crosses out all that has been achieved before."2 And the Soviet Foreign Minister's statement made it clear that the rather rude reception accorded Mr. Vance was not unconnected with the President's recent utterances on behalf of the Soviet dissidents: "We shall not permit others to take the stance of tutors and teach us how to conduct our internal affairs."3

Some of Mr. Carter's subsequent moves in 1977 and early 1978, such as his vacillation over and then cancellation of the B-I bomber and deferring of the neutron bomb, must have reinforced the Russian impression that the President, for pressing domestic reasons among other things, felt it imperative to achieve a SALT II agreement. Hence for their own part they could afford to be both obdurate and relaxed about the whole thing. And while this attitude changed during 1978, the initial misstep did throw out of balance the entire American negotiating posture vis-à-vis the Soviets, and its aftereffects were to plague Washington's diplomacy to this day.

In addition to impatience and vacillation, the Administration's diplomacy in those first few months displayed another debilitating characteristic - inconsistency. There were signs before and during the elections that the Soviets had been taken aback by the strong reaction of American public opinion to the introduction of Cuban soldiers in 1975 in Angola. It is incorrect to believe that the Soviets never desist from some innovative form of international mischief unless we spell out in full and frightening (sometimes to ourselves, as well as to them) detail what we would do if they don't desist. There had been vague hints inspired by Moscow4 that the Cuban contingent might be gradually withdrawn, or at least substantially reduced. But rather than solemn warnings, what came from Washington on Africa was a chorus of discordant voices which must have strengthened the position of those in Moscow who argued that the Cuban gambit and other forms of Soviet intervention could be safely continued and expanded.

Where the Carter Administration did unpleasantly surprise the Soviet policymakers was in the intensity of its protests on behalf of Russian dissidents. Its campaign oratory on the subject must have been taken by the Kremlin as just that. Yet here was the U.S. government apparently reconciled to significant new areas coming under Soviet influence while making a fuss about how the Soviet Union was treating a few of its own citizens. The Americans, the Kremlin probably ruefully reflected, had never been so bold and nosy when their power vis-à-vis the Soviet Union had been much greater. There must have been people in the Soviet establishment who refused to take the whole matter very seriously: a few appropriate gestures could appease the President, bolster his political standing at home, and tend to make him more amenable on the really important questions separating the two countries. But for others in the ruling elite, the human rights issue when focused on the U.S.S.R. was not a trifling matter.

Soviet leaders tend to be what might be called power hypochondriacs: hence their fear that the trickle of dissent might turn into a torrent should the troublemakers be allowed to operate with impunity. If today you mollify the Americans on a few "refuseniks," what will they demand tomorrow? And even if the American human rights rhetoric was for the moment not very significant in relation to the Soviet Union, were the Soviets to show themselves susceptible to pressure, it could have sinister effects in the communist states of Eastern Europe.

But apart from any political calculations, the Kremlin's vehement reaction betrayed its hurt ideological-national pride. How could the Soviet Union, at the pinnacle of its power, give even an appearance of tolerating such interference in its internal affairs, and what did it portend for any long-run prospects of accommodation with the United States?


Thus 1977 was a year of mutual frustrations in the two powers' relationship. As to the atmosphere when 1978 began, these few press clippings have an eloquence of their own: "January 12. President Carter accuses the Soviet Union of interference in the Ethiopian-Somali dispute . . . . January 17. [At the Belgrade Conference] the U.S.S.R. submits a draft concluding document, which is termed unacceptable by Western participants because it fails to address the question of implementation of the human rights provisions of Helsinki. . . . January 23. Brezhnev has sent letters to the heads of governments of NATO warning them against the introduction of the neutron bomb. . . . February 11. Pravda expresses concern over the slow progress of the SALT talks . . . . a new agreement must include curbs on the cruise missile and reject the inclusion of Backfire bombers under the accords." Soviet-American relations had resumed their normal pattern.

Yet while discord prevailed, negotiations between the two powers continued. And now there was to appear an unmistakable note of urgency concerning them on the Soviet side. The Nixon-Kissinger concept of détente had been epitomized by the picturesque simile of the carrot-and-stick technique applied to the Soviet Union. After one year in office the Carter Administration realized that while the Soviets were enthusiastically munching the carrots - Western credits and technology (and it is important to bear in mind that the U.S.S.R. is also indirectly but vitally helped by Western trade and credits to its East European clients such as Poland) and America's virtual commitment to a strategic arms limitation agreement - for its own part it lacked a stick. "Linkage," the Soviet Union has always proclaimed, is essentially immoral; every issue under negotiation should be considered on its own (i.e., largely from the Soviet point of view) merits. But, more fundamental, to use trade and credits as an effective bargaining chip would have required the kind of synchronization of the West's and Japan's economies which, in view of the recession (not to mention the American farmer's aroused appetite for Soviet trade), hardly seemed practical.

Though they now were clearly eager for a strategic arms accord, the Soviets felt that in view of America's predicament there was no reason for them to cater unduly to Washington's sensitivities. Soviet intervention in Africa continued unabated. The Cubans' military presence was being expanded rather than curtailed, and with it came Soviet and East German military advisers and huge shipments of arms. The Soviets now assumed a prescriptive right to license any guerrilla group as a national liberation movement and to aid it in any way they chose. Mr. Gromyko could not help gloating at the West's impotent discomfiture: "Some people in Washington and other NATO capitals blame the Soviet Union for everything that is not to their liking. . . . apparently they need to create some kind of screen to cover their actions, to hide what happened in Zaïre." The U.S.S.R., the Foreign Minister continued, should be given great credit for its altruism and self-restraint: "Every fair-minded person should have a good word for the Soviet Union, which has assisted a victim of aggression with arms - I repeat with arms. Not one Soviet soldier with a rifle is in Ethiopia."5 Such public statements are usually carefully tailored to their expected impact abroad as well as at home, and rather than trying to mollify the sorely tried American Administration, Gromyko was conveying the message that insofar as any third party was concerned, the subject of the Soviet role in Africa was closed.

Yet some Soviet Americanologist may well have warned his political bosses that it was a mistake to push the Americans too hard, and exult so blatantly over the U.S. government's pusillanimity. In their frustration with the U.S.S.R. some American officials were beginning to talk about playing the "China card." As yet they were not quite sure what this card stood for or how to play it. But in time, and with Peking's help, they might find out. Solicitous of Moscow's feelings and eager to distance itself from the Nixon/Ford Administration's presumed wooing of Peking, the Carter Administration was at first circumspect in dealing with the People's Republic. But in May 1978 the President dispatched his national security assistant to Peking, obviously a gesture of exasperation over the Soviet tactics. Hence it became important for the Soviet Union to reach an accommodation with the United States and to breathe new life into détente before what was still a flirtation between Peking and Washington turned into a solid liaison with all that it might portend in terms of Western help for China's industrial development and defense capabilities.

Now it was the turn of the Soviet Union to grow anxious about the strategic arms limitation agreement, precisely at the point where the Carter Administration, though still eager for one, was encountering mounting difficulties in fending off domestic criticism of the treaty's probable impact on national security. The overall strategic picture, the critics claimed, was already dangerously tilted in favor of the Soviet Union, and under the agreement it might, sometime in the 1980s, become fatally so. How could the U.S. government acquiesce in an arrangement under which the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with their superior megatonnage and more extensive multiple warhead capabilities, would be in a position to knock out almost all of our land-based missile launchers? If the Soviets had indeed forsworn a nuclear first strike and accepted the validity of mutual deterrence, then how could one explain their meticulous and costly civil defense preparations?

Some of the protesting voices proclaimed that SALT I had been a grievous mistake - once again we had fallen prey to the delusion that those 20 to 30 men in the Kremlin who make all the decisions think the way we do and that the proposition "there can be no victors in a nuclear war" is as self-evident to them as it is to us. The 1972 agreement had greatly reduced if not totally destroyed the credibility of our nuclear deterrent insofar as Western Europe was concerned, and the new one threatened to have a similar effect on the defense of the United States itself.

In his March 17 speech at Wake Forest University, Mr. Carter tried to rebut the more extreme criticisms but also to put the Soviet Union on notice that America was not a supplicant anxious to conclude an agreement at any price. The President declared it to be a myth "that this country somehow is pulling back from protecting its interests and its friends around the world." Though it must have been painful for one who had promised during his campaign to reduce defense expenditure, Carter was realistic in citing the Soviet military buildup: "Discounting inflation, since 1960 Soviet military spending has doubled . . . . while our own military budget is actually lower now than it was in 1960." He still hoped for a strategic arms limitation agreement, but "before I sign [one], I will make sure that it preserves the strategic balance . . . . and that we will be at least as strong relative to the Soviet Union as we would be without any agreement."

If anyone had hoped that the Russians would be more forthcoming with concessions it would have been better to have phrased the last sentence the other way around: we were determined to be at least as strong as the Russians without a treaty as with it - and in view of our respective gross national products we could afford to be. Mr. Carter also mentioned that some new weapon systems, such as the follow-on ICBM, known as the MX, were in the works, but the bargaining value of this announcement was also rather limited since it was known that the MX would not become operational for several years. In any case the overall tenor of the speech implied that the era of unilateral American offerings on the altar of American-Soviet friendship - for that is how the Russians must have viewed the cancellation of the B-1 - was rapidly drawing to a close.

The official Soviet reaction was one of plaintive indignation. America, bewailed Pravda, was shifting the course of its foreign policy "from ensuring the national security . . . . through negotiations, limiting the arms race and deepening détente" to one of threats and arms buildups.6 But it is unlikely that the Soviets were as yet unduly concerned: obviously Mr. Carter's speech was directed mainly at his domestic critics and was intended to reassure the American public. And they were not going to alter their negotiating stand just because the Americans talked about new weapons it would take years to produce.

Moscow did not react with equal nonchalance to the President's other major speech on Soviet-American relations, delivered on June 7 at Annapolis. This time Mr. Carter found the kind of language that makes the Kremlin sit up and take notice rather than just indulge in journalistic harangues. "The Soviet Union can choose either confrontation or cooperation," he declared. "The United States is adequately prepared to meet either choice." Instead of vague talk about the strategic balance, the President spelled out clearly those aspects of nuclear weaponry in which the U.S.S.R. was superior: "more missile launchers, greater throw weight and more continental air defense capabilities." Against "more" on the Soviet side, he could mainly claim "better" on the American: "generally greater accuracy, more heavy bombers, a more balanced nuclear force, better missile submarines, and superior antisubmarine warfare capability" - a far from reassuring picture in view of the speed with which the Soviets often catch up with America's technological advantages where weapons are concerned.

The Annapolis speech could not be taken for yet another exercise in public relations, an attempt to mollify the Administration's critics, several of whose factual arguments the President this time acknowledged as being correct. The Soviet Union's public reaction probably came fairly close to what its leaders must have felt at this latest turn in American foreign policy rhetoric - irritation but also a degree of puzzlement. Did the President really mean what he seemed to be saying: that American public opinion should be prepared for the possible collapse of détente and for what it would imply in new burdens and sacrifices? A long Pravda article of June 17 examined the question in depth. Could the winds of change in American-Soviet policy be ascribed to anything the U.S.S.R. has done? Obviously not. And then a fairly standard type of explanation: "For some time that country's ruling circles have been enmeshed in an acute struggle over questions of détente and relations with the Soviet Union. . . . There are more and more indications that the forces gaining the upper hand in this struggle represent factions that would like to undermine détente and return the world to the cold war. . . ."

For all its propagandistic tone, the article seemed to reflect various nuances in the Soviet elite's appraisal of the new turn of events. Was the President, after all, talking tough mainly to smooth the passage of SALT II when it comes before the Senate? But then surely he should adopt a different approach: "The government itself is plainly in no hurry to take a definite stand and to begin to defend the agreement both in Congress and to the public. . . . On the contrary, many government leaders in this complex situation are busy stirring up mistrust toward the Soviet Union and spreading lies about the 'Soviet military threat'." Those are the same people who are still trying "to link disarmament talks to other questions that are totally unrelated." Note also "Washington's latest intrigues, or to be more exact, 'petty intrigues' with China." Petty though they may be (and Pravda still did not want the Americans to think they could get very far in playing the "China card") they were still dangerous: "Soviet-American confrontation and, even better, war, that is Peking's cherished dream."

As is usual when the Kremlin is really worried, the main thrust of its message was intended to be soothing rather than menacing. For all the provocations on the American side, the U.S.S.R. will not desist from its peaceful endeavors: "we do not accept invitations to join in burying détente and the hopes of millions of people for a peaceful future." The dominant mood in Moscow, the article suggested, was one of cautious optimism: Mr. Carter still needed and wanted SALT II and the American people were not ready to face the consequences of another major international crisis. For the President Pravda had some rather unsubtle advice: "courage in politics is by no means the same thing as bravado and the readiness to resort to strong expressions and brandish a club. . . . By no means is everything that one can get away with in American domestic politics acceptable in foreign policy. . . . The price of miscalculation . . . will not only be measured by a drop in someone's popularity - it already threatens to result in new, costly spirals in the arms race, political crises, a growth in the tax burden, and even more severe consequences." And to underline this solicitude for Mr. Carter's political fortunes, Pravda reminded him that public opinion surveys clearly indicated that the overwhelming majority of the American people "favor the improvement of relations with the U.S.S.R., the achievement of an immediate strategic arms limitation agreement, and the development of economic ties with the Soviet Union."

All in all the Soviet leaders gave no evidence that the main lines of Soviet policies would be changed, or that Washington should have any reason to suspect that by raising its voice it could make Moscow back down. Rather, their policies would be pursued more circumspectly: there would probably be no further Cuban intrusions until SALT II was resolved one way or another. And the hand of American proponents of the strategic arms agreement might also be strengthened through a propitiating gesture by Russia on another issue. In June the Soviet Union offered new proposals in the force reduction talks (MBFR) in Vienna: it would be ready to accept the principle of equal ceilings on NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. This theme was given much prominence in Brezhnev's speech of June 25 in Minsk. He obliquely acknowledged the West's concern with the Warsaw Pact's preponderance in tanks, and reiterated the idea of "the same common ceilings . . . for each of the groupings in Central Europe . . . [which] corresponds to what the Western countries have proposed."7 If an agreement was reached, the Soviet Union was ready to pull out three divisions and one thousand tanks within a year.

In view of such goodwill gestures it might appear odd that at about the same time, in July, the Soviets tried and imposed heavy sentences on a number of dissidents whose imprisonment had already aroused considerable indignation in America and brought official protests from the U.S. government. But without casting undue aspersions on Soviet justice, one can see here some sound psychological and political reasoning. If the principle that the U.S.S.R. does not brook any interference in its domestic affairs was to be reasserted with the least possible damage to the business at hand, it was obviously advisable to incur the burden of American displeasure on that count well in advance of the crucial phase of the public debate in the United States over the ratification of SALT II. And it would not be surprising if the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet should decide to pardon Anatoly Shcharansky and he were permitted to leave the U.S.S.R. during the course of that debate.

In Baku on September 22, Mr. Brezhnev once again confounded the speculation in the West concerning his health by giving a lengthy speech, and once again gave vent to the growing Soviet impatience over SALT II. "Obviously the distance between the two sides' negotiating positions is not so great; it can readily be bridged with real goodwill and statesmanship." Alas, in Brezhnev's view some influential circles in the United States did not want "a stable peace and mutual cooperation." Those circles had already caused the cancellation of some American trade deliveries to the U.S.S.R. and were continuing to put all sorts of obstacles in the way of cultural and scientific exchanges between the two countries, yet the Soviet Union would patiently persist in seeking an understanding: "We shall resolutely rebuff any attacks on the rights and interests of the Soviet state, but we shall not let ourselves be provoked."8

In November Mr. Brezhnev talked with some visiting American Senators (an occasion that must be harder on the Soviet leaders' nerves than any other aspect of détente). Wearily, one assumes, he sought to rebut an insinuation which was gaining ground in the United States: no, the U.S.S.R. did not think it could win a nuclear war; it would be a catastrophe for both sides. How difficult it was, the Kremlin must have begun to realize, to impress the Americans with your power without frightening them to the point where it becomes counterproductive.

And another irony, as 1978 drew to its end, was that it was the Soviets, hitherto resolute opponents of "linkage" of any kind, who were now hinting that, much as they desired SALT II and the continuation of détente, all, and much more, would be placed in jeopardy if the West transgressed certain bounds in its relationship with China. Mr. Georgi Arbatov, whose job is to interpret the Americans' quaint customs and thought processes to the Politburo and to pour oil on the troubled waters of the two powers' relations, had some rather somber reflections to share with an American journalist: "If China becomes some sort of military ally of the West, even an informal ally . . . we would have to reexamine our relationship with the West. . . . Then there would be no place for détente." Mr. Arbatov had also some advice for Peking, in fact strikingly similar to what the U.S.S.R.'s American well-wishers have long been urging on the Soviet Union: instead of throwing its weight around and creating trouble all over the world, the People's Republic of China should "turn all its efforts toward the tremendous internal problems they have developing the country and improving its standard of living, etc."9

What might be called the social side of détente could in 1978 be deemed a qualified success. Thousands of American tourists visited the Soviet Union, and cultural and scientific delegations went to and fro with but an occasional interruption due to some unfortunate development on the human rights front. Trade between the two countries still reflected the after effects of the Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson Amendments, denying the U.S.S.R. most-favored nation status and access to government credits and guarantees. The Soviets imported about two billion dollars worth of American goods, but more than half of it was accounted for by foodstuffs. There were some, on the whole minor, chicaneries directed against American journalists, whose interest in dissent, almost to the exclusion of all other news, must be a major inconvenience to the secret police.

Despite all this brisk intercourse, unimaginable some ten years ago not to mention during the Stalin era, the basic problems of Soviet-American coexistence remained unsolved. This year once more demonstrated what unhappily has been true during most of the postwar era: quite aside from the concrete issues separating them, it is the very nature of their general approach to foreign policy that makes it so hard for the United States and the Soviet Union to carry on a meaningful diplomatic dialogue, let alone solve some of their outstanding differences. On the Soviet side, the obsessive secrecy in which decision-making is veiled and the camouflage thrown over their real hopes and fears, and, on the U.S. side, the excessive volatility of American foreign policy and the diffusion of responsibility for its conduct, combine to undermine that mutual credibility which is a basic condition of fruitful negotiations. It is as difficult for the Americans to believe Soviet promises as it is for the Kremlin to heed seriously the U.S. government's warnings.


Since the Soviet system will not change basically in the foreseeable future, what can be done by the United States to alter the unhappy pattern of the two powers' relations? Perhaps not very much, but the record of the last few months offers some helpful hints. It was shown in 1978 how illusory it is to expect that by trying to resolve just one of the major issues dividing the two superpowers, even one as supremely important as strategic arms limitation, the United States can bring about a magic improvement in the overall situation. In some ways, "linkage" is a synonym for diplomacy, and that is what the original concept of détente was all about.

To be sure, within two years Nixon's version of détente was destroyed, buried under the debris of the political and economic crisis of the West. It is a sobering thought that nothing the U.S.S.R. has done since the war has dealt as devastating a blow to the West as the actions of OPEC, and that no Soviet move or ruse has undercut the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy as much as what the Americans have done to themselves in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. It was probably genuinely incomprehensible to Brezhnev and his colleagues how anyone could think that what was still called détente placed them in 1978 under the same obligations and restraints they had been ready to accept in 1972. Hence it is clear what some of the basic priorities for the United States must be before it can expect to begin to work for a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union. The ghosts of Geneva '55, Camp David '59, and Moscow '72, are there to warn us that that cannot take place before the West puts its own house in order, and as long as the American view of the Soviet Union vacillates between unrealistic hopes and unreasonable fears.

Soviet foreign policy is the product of a peculiar dialectic. What, to eschew euphemisms, must be called imperialism is a vital element of the rationale of the Soviet system. Now that the unity of the world communist movement is irretrievably lost and the doctrine itself has become discredited or irrelevant insofar as the majority of the Soviet people is concerned, the regime strives to demonstrate its viability and vitality through foreign expansion; despite its internal shortcomings, it is under communism that the Soviet Union has steadily advanced in power and world influence while the democracies, for all their alleged freedoms and riches, are in retreat. That is the lesson the Kremlin wants to inculcate in the Soviet people.

As against this motif, we have a countervailing one: the Soviet leadership's recognition that imperial expansion, whether in military or political terms, cannot by itself guarantee the security of the Soviet system. The more extensive the Soviet gains and Western losses, the more likely the danger of a confrontation, or what to the Kremlin amounts to the same thing, a virtual alliance between the United States and China. The Americans may consider the "China card" as a mere bargaining device, but as Pravda's June 17 article on the Annapolis speech makes clear, the Soviets do not believe that the cumbersome machinery of American foreign policy is equipped with an effective braking mechanism: "As we already see today, the 'tough line' has every chance of changing from a tactic into a dangerous and uncontrollable political course, acquiring a momentum of its own that would be difficult to overcome, and that would call forth an appropriate counteraction." And the Soviets lack sufficient introspection to perceive how often this has been true of their own policies.

It is not the nature of the Soviets' ambitions, but rather that of their fears which makes the problem of peaceful coexistence so difficult. Years before anyone in the West thought this possible, Moscow perceived the possibility of Sino-American rapprochement: "With a stubbornness worthy of a better cause, the Chinese leaders attempt to prevent the improvement of Soviet-American relations. . . . At the same time the Chinese government makes feverish attempts to improve relations with Britain, Japan, West Germany. . . . They would not refuse to improve relations with the United States, but as yet do not see favorable circumstances for such an endeavor."10

To be sure, Soviet policies greatly contributed to U.S.-China détente, and have unwittingly endowed it with such sinister (from Moscow's point of view) possibilities. In their more reflective moments, Russian leaders may well regret having succumbed to those temptations which, because of the West's disarray and indecision, appeared so irresistibly alluring. What would a future historian deem more significant about 1978 - the fact that Soviet interest became paramount in Afghanistan and South Yemen and was on the rise in Africa, or that Washington and Peking drew much closer and that China was on the threshold of a new relationship with the West and Japan, one which promised to bring her massive foreign credits and arms?

Some of the past achievements of Soviet foreign policy also called for a reappraisal: Egypt, on which the U.S.S.R. had lavished so much help, was no longer a client. There were still ties with the "hard line" Arab states, but while they were useful in making the danger of real peace and stability in the Middle East more remote, they were otherwise of little direct benefit to the Soviet Union. As in the case of other imperial systems, yesterday's conquests often tend to become today's burdensome liabilities.

But if such somber reflections pass through the minds of Politburo members, nothing in 1978 has suggested that they influenced them to the point of altering the pattern of Soviet foreign policy. On the whole, the present leadership believes, current world trends favor the U.S.S.R., and the West will not in the foreseeable future be able to reverse them. Witness Iran.

And as for China? The Soviets had expected much more there in the way of turmoil and factional strife in the wake of Mao's death than has actually been the case, but they are still hopeful that internal instability will for some time keep China from realizing her full potential in world affairs. And, perhaps after all, one of the contending factions will feel constrained to turn to the Soviet Union for friendship and support. Moscow also remains skeptical about the ability of a democracy, and especially one such as the United States, to play successfully the balance-of-power game. If all other calculations fail, the Soviets may count on the silent persuasiveness of the statistics of Soviet ICBMs and tanks to deter the West from seeking too close a relationship with Peking. And it is probably this view of arms as a political as well as military deterrent that has been the main reason for the magnitude of the Soviet arms effort of the last 14 years and that may incidentally help explain Mr. Brezhnev's agitation over the neutron bomb.


The waning days of the year were signaled by a development of central importance to U.S.-Soviet relations. On December 15, 1978, Mr. Carter dropped the other shoe by announcing that the United States would establish full diplomatic relations with the People's Republic and withdraw recognition from as well as terminate its defense pact with Taiwan. The step was not unexpected; its timing was. One suspects that the Administration hoped that this dramatic display of the China card would make the Soviets more amenable to some last minute adjustments, admittedly not of major importance, in SALT II, as well as improve the chances of the agreement being ratified by the Senate. The first assumption may very well be correct, though by the same token the Soviets are unlikely to hurry forward with the actual signing of the treaty so soon after the announcement of the new relationship between China and the United States. And Mr. Brezhnev must bridle at the idea of traveling to Washington either shortly before or in the wake of the visit there, now scheduled for the end of January, by the mercurial Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping.

In fact, Brezhnev hastened to send a personal message to the President. No, it was not to congratulate the United States on recognizing a fellow communist regime with which the U.S.S.R. has had diplomatic relations for all those 30 years (not to mention a treaty of friendship and alliance, theoretically still in force). If President Carter's first reading of the message was that Brezhnev saw the recognition as a contribution to world peace, then Tass, in an official paraphrase of the Soviet leader's words, chose to put a somewhat different interpretation upon it: "Of course" the Soviet Union does not object to the normalization of relations, but it had to express its unhappiness about the phraseology of the Peking-Washington communiqué, which spoke of the two countries as being opposed to any power seeking "hegemony" in Asia or elsewhere. Whom could they have in mind? Mr. Brezhnev then went on to state the obvious, but in language rather unusual in a formal message to a friendly power, for the uninitiated could take it as a threat: "The Soviet Union will most closely follow what the development of American-Chinese relations will be in practice, and from this will draw appropriate conclusions for Soviet policy."11

We have seen how throughout 1978 Soviet attitudes toward U.S.-China relations oscillated between two beliefs - one, that the talk about the China card was an empty threat, and the other that the United States might overplay the card and be enticed by Peking into a situation which could create a major danger to the U.S.S.R. It is at least arguable that the American policymakers should have been quite candid in pointing out to their Soviet counterparts that the character and extent of U.S.-China ties depended largely on the Soviets' own behavior. The "appropriate conclusions," which the Soviets should draw from U.S.-China relations as well as other policies, are, on the one hand, that this country will not acquiesce in the Soviets' "efforts to obtain unilateral advantages" at the expense of the West, and, on the other, that such policies will not develop an "uncontrollable political course, acquiring a momentum of its own," which would constitute a threat to the legitimate security interests of the U.S.S.R.

As yet the Kremlin remains to be persuaded on both counts. Certainly, 1978 has presented Soviet leaders with some evidence that the U.S. government can be mindful not only of their presumptions, but also of their fears and sensitivities. At the Belgrade conference the U.S.S.R., to no one's surprise, refused even to discuss its domestic conduct in regard to human rights. And for their own part, Mr. Carter and his advisers seem to have tacitly recognized that direct pressure on this issue can be counterproductive, and that the U.S. government can be most effective in alleviating the lot of the dissidents by communicating quietly to the Soviets the intensity of American feelings on this subject.

On the one hand, it is illusory to think that as long as the Soviet system remains authoritarian - that is, for the foreseeable future - it could ever observe human rights as they are understood in the West. On the other hand, were the Soviet Union to adhere to the original concept of détente, that in itself would have a beneficial effect on its domestic policies, just as even the present flawed state of détente makes its rulers sensitive to world public opinion. But it is only when Moscow is fully convinced that the American political system is capable of producing and adhering to realistic and consistent policies that the Soviet Union is likely to reexamine the premises of its own foreign policy.


1 "Detente under Soviet Eyes," Foreign Policy, Fall 1976.

2 The New York Times, April 1, 1977.

3 Ibid.

4 See The New York Times, May 26, 1977.

5 Pravda, June 3, 1978.

6 Pravda, March 17, 1978.

7 Pravda, June 26, 1978.

8 Pravda, September 23, 1978.

9 Interview with Jonathan Power, International Herald Tribune (Paris), November 11-12, 1978.

10 M. Suslov at the Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU, February 1964: Moscow, 1964, p. 495.

11 Quoted in The New York Times, December 22, 1978.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Adam Ulam has been Professor of Government at Harvard since 1959 and a research associate at the Russian Research Center since 1948. He is the author of, among other books, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-67, The Rivals: America and Russia Since World War II, and Stalin: The Man and His Era.
  • More By Adam Ulam