Mujahideen guerrilla have lunch near a Soviet helicopter shot down during a rebel attack in Nuristan, Afghanistan.
(Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Like a siege, instability in the Third World has laid hold of Soviet-American relations. From the Angolan civil war in 1975 to the Iranian revolution in 1978, the turmoil has overwhelmed all other considerations in the relationship, save for the growth of Soviet military power, whose menace it serves to accentuate. Or so it would appear from the most forceful commentary of the day.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for example, warns of the adverse "geopolitical momentum" now running against us from Angola to Afghanistan, an area that Zbigniew Brzezinski calls the "arc of instability" and others describe variously as the "crumbling triangle" or the "crescent of crisis." Kissinger paints a picture of looming tragedy if the United States cannot somehow draw itself together and disrupt the current pattern of events. Unless this country acts decisively to constrain Soviet expansionism and prove to the Soviet leaders "that a relaxation of tensions is not compatible with a systematic attempt to overturn the geopolitical equilibrium," Kissinger worries, then "sooner or later a showdown is likely to occur with tremendous dangers for everybody."1 Because the United States did not cut short Soviet (and Cuban) intervention in Angola and has not yet shown the wit or the will to discourage the Soviet Union from exploiting trouble elsewhere, according to him, it has imperiled the confidence of friends and allies. He speaks of countries like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia straying from their "clear-cut foreign policy orientation" to something "much more ambiguous," creating an "area of enormous uncertainty." Echoing him, the London Economist writes that "the Vietnam-mesmerised American reluctance" to counter "the Soviet-Cuban success in Angola in 1975 . . . led to the Soviet-Cuban success in Ethiopia . . . which, in conjunction with the turmoil in Iran and the coups in Kabul and Aden, is now having its effect on the political complexion of the whole triangle."2 Within the "triangle" extending from Kabul to Ankara to Addis Ababa, the Economist warns that "former neutrals" may become "pro-Russian" and "some of the former pro-westerners nervously neutral."

The result, it maintains, would be an alteration in the global balance more important than any of the Soviet Union's recent gains in Africa and even more important than "the growing strength of the Soviet military establishment in Central Europe."

Zbigniew Brzezinski approaches the problem with less alarm, but, as the only spokesman for the Administration who has attempted to formulate the threat, he too focuses on the danger of the Soviet Union short-sightedly "exploiting" the "massive global chaos and fragmentation" inherent in regional conflict.3 We face two problems, he says; one is "the growth of Soviet military power which has been sustained over the last 20 years" and which, unless "we take matching steps," could pose "very serious problems for us in the early 80s"; the other is "regional conflict, the fragmentation of wobbly social and political structures" all the way from Iran down to southern Africa. Worst of all, he asserts, the two trends may intersect.

For Kissinger, Brzezinski, and a great many others, regional conflict is not merely a serious issue between us and the Soviet Union; increasingly it is the prism through which they view the Soviet Union. What they think about that country, about its growing military power, about its foreign policy, even about its basic drives, depends in large part on their perception of its approach to the crises of Southwest Asia, the Horn, and southern Africa. Angola and all that followed has sharpened our growing fears of an eroding military balance. The image of Soviet and Cuban fighting in Angola and Ethiopia ripples all the way back to the level of the strategic arms race and the state of the balance in Europe. The assumption is that the Soviets are bolder because they are stronger than ever and, some would say, maybe even stronger than we.

The same events also remind many of the Soviet stake in turmoil and its penchant for exploiting trouble to increase the U.S.S.R.'s influence. At least that is the conviction and it deepens not only when the Soviet Union meddles in Africa but even when events go the Soviet Union's way without direct Soviet interference as, for example, in Afghanistan and South Yemen, where over the last year pro-Soviet regimes have emerged.4 Thus, the flow of recent events in these troubled regions has had the second effect of reinforcing the axiomatic notion that Soviet policy thrives on conflict in the Third World and follows a strategy designed to promote it. Third, and ultimately, the same events demonstrate to observers like Kissinger that the Soviet Union has arrived at a historic juncture: having escaped the continental limits of its (military) power, they assert, the Soviet Union is only beginning the truly imperial phase of its development.

The views of Kissinger and Brzezinski deserve this prominence not only because they are two of the most consequential foreign policy voices in this country, but for three more fundamental reasons. First, what they say has a powerful resonance, capturing the sentiments of a great part of the U.S. Congress, including an increasingly partisan Republican Party, conservative policy groups like the Committee on the Present Danger, and a sizable part of the public. Second, their approach has no competitors. No other coherent or comprehensive interpretation of the problem of regional instability or of the Soviet challenge is emerging, least of all from the current Administration. A partisan quarrel appears to be building over the ability of the Carter Administration to deal with the situation, but there are few hints that the framing of the problem will be at issue. Third, as their views predominate, or seem to, the rest of the world and, particularly, the Soviet Union will judge us accordingly. The prominence of this view unfortunately will make the problem of superpower rivalry more difficult.

For, whatever the merits of the Kissinger analysis, it oversimplifies the issues and neglects the other side's perceptions. In what follows I have tried to introduce some of the complexities of the problem and to suggest other dimensions that we need to consider as our response develops.

The analysis is divided into four parts. In the first, I have commented on the general nature of the problem-on the Soviet Union's enlarged field of opportunity, on its increased ability to intrude, and on the limited accomplishments of détente in creating mechanisms or standards constraining its intrusions. The second section deals with the Soviet view of the problem of regional instability and, in particular, the role of the superpowers, the third section with the complex nature of actual Soviet behavior. The final section is devoted to the implications for our own policy. In it I have ventured a framework for coping with the Soviet dimension of the problem and the problem's place in Soviet-American relations.


Instability in the Third World, of course, has always troubled postwar Soviet-American relations. Beginning with the Philippine and Malayan insurgencies in the late forties and preceding through the Korean War, the pact-building against communist infiltration in the Middle East in the mid-fifties, the Congo in 1960, the Vietnam War, and the repeated rounds of the Arab-Israeli conflicts, we have long regarded the Third World as a major area of Soviet ambition. But rarely have the setbacks to our own interests and apparent Soviet gains come in such an unbroken succession. And rarely has the shadow of further trouble seemed more ominous: the Iranian drama has not played out its last chapter and before it does the revolutionary Left may assume a more prominent role. Or, if Sadat's Egypt goes the way of Iran, as Khomeini's people predict, and falls under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood, the consequences in the Middle East would be exceedingly grave. On the Arabian peninsula, one can worry about the stability of U.S.-Saudi relations or, for that matter, about the long-term durability of Saudi rule. To the south of Saudi Arabia, the two Yemens seem regularly to totter at, or as this March, over, the edge of war. In Africa, there is the specter of great violence in Rhodesia and chaos in Zaïre. In South Asia, Pakistan faces the permanent threat of separatist wars in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. Because of such fears, Pakistan may already be executing something of a tilt toward Moscow. These events undoubtedly seem starker in contrast to the relatively long interlude from the late sixties through the mid-seventies when the Soviet-American competition in the Third World had lost much of its urgency.

In truth, Soviet opportunities are greater at the moment. Some of these flow from the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in southern Africa and the rapidly eroding position of the white redoubts. Should the fate of Ian Smith's regime be decided in violence or should a black civil war follow in the aftermath, the Soviet Union will have a natural role to play as military patron of the liberation movements. Elsewhere, a number of regimes have come to rely on the U.S.S.R. for protection or aid. Ethiopia is a clear case in point, but so too are Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan and, to a degree, some of the radical Arab states, including South Yemen. (Cuba has of course long been deeply dependent.) Similarly, in areas of permanent instability such as the Middle East, each eruption of war seems to rewrite the Soviet Union's field of opportunity.

Then there are the opportunities presented by insurgencies and separatist movements looking for military aid. Should the Soviet Union wish to support a Baluchi revolt against the central government in Pakistan, or a revived Dhofari rebellion against the authorities in Oman, or the simmering war in the Spanish Sahara, it could well have the opportunity.

Finally, the Soviet Union stands to gain from ferment any place it is now less favored than the United States (or China). This is one of the intimidating features of the new momentum behind a militant Islamic nationalism: for, not only does the Soviet Union benefit when the United States is put at arm's length as in Iran or potentially in Egypt and conceivably in Saudi Arabia, but, should the essentially conservative force of Islam fail to cope with the political and economic aspirations of the people, the Soviet Union may find opportunities as more radical alternatives assert themselves.

Beyond the U.S.S.R.'s increasing field of opportunity, the second factor accentuating the importance of regional conflict in Soviet-American relations is its increasing ability to capitalize on opportunity. Over the last 20 years, the Soviet capacity for bringing military power to bear in the most distant local crises has grown enormously. As Angola and Ethiopia prove, Soviet options thus are increased by the greater military wherewithal it has to offer friends. Two decades ago, in the Congolese civil war it could manage little more than a few trucks and 16 transport aircraft for Lumumba's forces; three years ago, in the Angolan civil war, it ferried in thousands of tons of arms to the MPLA, not to mention more than 12,000 Cuban troops. In the Somali-Ethiopian war two years later it arrived with the Cubans, still more material, and a command structure in place.

Once a massive continental power with great armies and a modest navy guarding its sea flanks, the Soviet Union has over the last 20 years turned itself into a major naval power, capable of making its weight felt in virtually every quarter of the globe. True, notable deficiencies remain, but given the momentum of Soviet military development, it might be expected that the U.S.S.R. means eventually to have long-range fighting forces on a par with ours, including some version of the Marines, real tactical air support, and an adequate underway replenishment capability. For those who fear Soviet ambitions, the prospect is intensified by the assertions of Admiral Gorshkov, the commander of the Soviet Navy, about the importance of seapower for great powers-in peace or war-and the role he would assign the peacetime navy in protecting the "national liberation movement" from imperialism's harm.

Anxieties about the Soviet Union's enhanced ability to project force are increased by the overall growth of Soviet military power. At the same time that it has been building a modern navy, the U.S.S.R. has also been continuously enlarging and modernizing its strategic nuclear forces, upgrading its already massive forces in Central Europe, introducing a new generation of theater nuclear weapons, and more than maintaining its end of the arms buildup in the Far East.

The third reason that instability in the Third World suddenly plays such a central role in Soviet-American relations owes to the disruption of the process of détente. The efforts of the Nixon Administration to seek a consciously restructured Soviet-American relationship created certain expectations. Unfortunately, the search was interrupted long before the two sides got around to developing groundrules for the superpower competition in the world's unstable regions. Nonetheless, the residue of our expectations leaves us with a sense of betrayal at the arrival of Cuban troops and Soviet arms in Angola. Because détente fostered the impression of something fundamentally new in Soviet-American relations, it has for many made Soviet actions in Angola, Ethiopia, and Indochina appear all the more treacherous.

Then and now, the Soviet leaders have insisted that they were merely fulfilling an obligation to the "national liberation revolution," which, they have said repeatedly, cannot be held hostage to détente. To the extent that neither the national liberation revolution nor change of other sorts is at issue-but rather the behavior of the two superpowers-the argument is neither helpful nor entirely relevant. One understands why at the time Henry Kissinger rejected the Soviet case as an attempt to have a "selective détente." For the same reason Zbigniew Brzezinski charged the Soviet Union with violating the "code of détente" when it intervened in the Horn of Africa two years later. The trouble is not that Kissinger and Brzezinski have evoked détente in the context of Third World instability but that they have done so without distinguishing between its mutually recognized accomplishments and its unfinished business. Because the recriminations of Kissinger and Brzezinski imply an elaboration of détente that was simply never there, they leave the two sides talking past one another.

Our perspectives regarding Soviet opportunities and capabilities should also be sharpened. Doubtless much of what has happened in southern Africa and Southwest Asia over the last two or three years pleases the Soviet Union and doubtless Soviet opportunities have increased. But several distinctions are worth keeping in mind. First, though the course of recent events, on balance, may serve Soviet interests better than our own, it has not been sparked or controlled by the Soviet Union. None of the regional events we are discussing was initiated by the Soviet Union nor were more than two-the Angolan and Ogaden wars-decisively influenced by it.

Second, there is nothing inexorable about the pattern of recent events. Nothing in the swift sequence of events bringing a pro-Soviet regime to power in Afghanistan in April 1978 contributed to the turn of events intensifying the pro-Soviet orientation of the South Yemeni regime two months later. Nothing in the MPLA's victory in Angola in 1976 dictated Siad Barre's decision to attack Ethiopia in 1977. And the disintegration of the Shah's rule had little to do with the disorders in these other cases.

Third, there is a difference between Soviet gains (often defined as the West's losses) and Soviet opportunities; much of what might be termed a Soviet gain does not necessarily give the Soviet Union enlarged access to or influence in a country or a region. Fourth, merely to list the expanded range of Soviet opportunity without attaching opportunity costs seriously distorts the picture. Examined closely, many of the Soviet Union's theoretical opportunities turn out to carry heavy prices and may not in the end look like much of an opportunity to the Soviet leaders. Sponsoring insurgency against Pakistan is one thing in theory; in practice, disrupting a carefully nurtured set of political relations in the subcontinent is another, particularly when the spillover would profoundly affect Soviet relations with the major Western powers. Similarly, rallying to the side of South Yemen in a war against the North is one thing in theory; taking on the Saudis, backed by the United States, in a long drawn-out conflict is quite another.

Similarly, when it comes to the Soviet Union's ability to seize opportunities, primarily through military intervention, again, Soviet strengths should be kept in perspective. In many instances, not much military force is required to swing the tide of events, provided it can be applied unhindered. If we choose to obstruct the Soviet Union, however, or if the Soviet Union takes on a well-armed local opponent, its ability to sustain fighting forces at great distances is inadequate. It lacks the amphibious assault capability, the tactical air support, and the oilers, repair ships, and other vessels needed to operate far from the fleet areas. Close to home, it has the resources to impede U.S. intervention, but farther away, say, in the Persian Gulf and beyond, its forces are generally no match for ours. Not only is the Soviet Union far from having the strength necessary to intervene at will, in most places, including the Angolas and Ethiopias, it cannot bring nearly as much power to bear as we.

Granted it is no easy matter to define the challenge we face free of exaggeration and with perfect attention to all of its nuances. To the extent that our instinctive way of framing the problem leads us astray, however, there is an advantage in trying to transcend our immediate perceptions. One place to begin is with the other side's perceptions. We have an obvious stake in coping wisely and effectively with the Soviet side of the problem of regional instability.


The Soviet leaders know how great are the interests of the United States and its allies in the Indian Ocean region and occasionally their press even acknowledges these as legitimate. Speaking of the sealanes in the area (and, therefore, of the markets, ports, and resources they link), one Soviet analyst writes, "There is, of course, no denying the importance of these routes for the West. It is by these routes that the capitalist world gets a large part of its oil, more than half of which lies under the sands on the coast of the Persian Gulf." He goes on to cite not only the traffic of westbound supertankers and tons of oil but also the flow of rubber and tin from Asia and beryllium, gold, uranium, and chromium from other regions-indeed, according to him, up to 80-85 percent of the United States' supply of "these important raw materials." When he gets to his basic point-that others, too, have a stake in the region-he in effect reaffirms Western interests. "These routes," he says, "are also vitally important for the developing countries . . . which depend on imports of manufactured goods and equipment," and the Soviet Union, and so on.5

At the same time, Soviet commentary is aswirl with accounts of American ploys and maneuverings designed to consolidate U.S. positions in the area, to throttle uncongenial change, to damage the role of the socialist countries, and to undo the security of progressive or revolutionary regimes in the area. To an American reader, the dominant themes in Soviet analysis appear bizarre and strangely out of focus, even disingenuous-so much attention converges on American initiatives or stratagems, on trends or opportunities open to the intrigues of the Western powers and their local clients.

The West's plans for a pan-African peacekeeping force, in Soviet analysis, for example are transformed into a NATO subterfuge, designed to ease the way to Western intervention in Africa's turbulent regions-and are linked in turn to a South Atlantic counterpart to NATO, a SATO, comprising South Africa and "certain Latin American countries" and blessed by the United States. Soviet analysts go on to describe a maze of mini-blocs, collusions, and local axes: the Saudis with the Egyptians, mobilizing the Arab League against progressive regimes like that in Aden, attempting to weld together a network of conservative, anti-communist Arab states dedicated to destroying Soviet influence everywhere in the Red Sea area, and underwriting every counter-revolutionary intervention from the Arabian peninsula to the heart of black Africa. One day the Saudis are bankrolling the war against Ethiopia, the next day reactionary Muslim opponents of the new revolutionary regime in Afghanistan.

If it is not the Saudis with the Egyptians, then, according to Soviet accounts, it is the French and Belgians with the Moroccans and Senegalese, rushing in with their military power to control events in Shaba. Or it is the Chinese with a whole array of states, not only with the United States and South Africa against Soviet-supported forces in Angola or with the Somalis against the Ethiopians but in even more far-reaching ventures. Thus, according to reports repeated in the Soviet press, "NATO circles" would like to establish a "so-called joint Afro-Asian force" made up of "Chinese, Iranian, and Egyptian personnel," and the Chinese are interested, or so the Chinese foreign minister supposedly indicated when in Zaïre after the 1978 Shaba events.

No one can say how much of this the Soviet leadership actually believe or what weight they attach to whatever part of it they do believe. The contrast with American perspectives, in any case, goes much deeper. For the Soviet Union operates from two fundamentally different points of departure: first, it assumes that the United States and the West in general enjoys an illegitimate monopoly of influence in these areas. Viewed from Moscow, the West is overwhelmingly ascendant in all the key countries of Africa and the Persian Gulf region. Trade and investment patterns, economic and financial dependencies, and the educational and cultural residue of colonialism give the West an enormous advantage. This, a Soviet observer would argue, is buttressed by an elaborate infrastructure of military bases and a great deal of mobile military force. While recent events have conspired to weaken U.S. influence in several countries, Soviet analysts would be the first to note that the residual influence of the United States remains far larger than their own country's.

Second, the Soviet Union believes it is doing no more than Western governments have assumed the right to do for the last 25 years. To the extent that it means to play a larger global role, the Soviet Union insists on the prerogative of an active part in areas of instability. By and large Soviet analysts and presumably the Soviet leaders have convinced themselves that their country has played and will continue to play this role more selflessly than the West. They know that the Soviet Union has abetted revolution against legitimate governments in the name of the "national liberation revolution," but more of the time they view themselves as defenders of established or struggling progressive regimes. We are the more cynically subversive power in their eyes. Thus, our objections to their actions in Angola and the Horn come across as duplicity and as transparently self-serving.

Comparing U.S. and Soviet perspectives, the two are alike in the importance they give to the other's role. When thinking about the problem of regional instability those Americans who are most concerned tend to remove the United States from the picture, downplaying what it does or can do, focusing more on what may be done to it. In contrast, Soviet observers make us their point of departure. Our initiatives, ambitions, and jitters dominate their analyses and, to a great extent, shape their image of any given regional conflict. Indeed, if any factor possesses coherence in the Soviet view, it is the United States' efforts to dominate, that is, U.S. strategy.

As a result of the basic differences in the two countries' perspectives, however, the alarmed in this country worry about one set of trends; the Soviet leaders about another. While Americans dwell on the number of new Soviet clients from Angola to Afghanistan, the spread of Soviet military facilities and influence in the eastern Indian Ocean, and the destruction of our position in Iran, the U.S.S.R. emphasizes the assertiveness of old American clients such as the Shah's Iran, Saudi Arabia, and by Soviet criteria, South Africa, the reinforcement of American military positions from Diego Garcia to Northwest Cape in Australia, and the risk of the Western powers using instability as a pretext for striking against "anti-imperialist" regimes. While the Economist worries about a pincer closing on Saudi Arabia, the Soviets see Saudi Arabia and Egypt closing a pincer on South Yemen and Ethiopia. While U.S. analysts focus on Soviet activity which may disrupt Western mediation efforts in southern Africa and the Middle East, the Soviets resent efforts designed to cut them out.

To an extent all of what I have been describing amounts to a matter of mirror images. But equally if not more important are those areas where the two sides are operating on different wavelengths.

The first of these is the place assigned to the problem of regional conflict or, more precisely, the problem of the Soviet (or the American) role in regional conflict. People like Kissinger have come to make Soviet behavior in areas of instability central to the relationship; the Soviet leaders do not make an equal issue of our behavior. As a result, an important discontinuity exists between the preoccupations of the two sides. I am not suggesting that the Soviet Union attaches less importance to change in these areas than we do, though an argument can certainly be made that its leaders often view the character of change in any given region differently. Nor am I suggesting that the Soviet leadership believes less in the significance of U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the Third World in general or in areas of instability in particular. Nor am I suggesting that the Soviet leadership does not care whether the United States intervenes in Iran or some other crisis situation.

But the fact is that the Soviet Union has not made the role we choose to play in regional conflict central to the relationship, and this is not likely to change even should the United States attempt to influence future events in Iran, come to the rescue of a collapsing regime in Riyadh, or sustain North Yemen in a war against the other Yemen. There are several reasons for the contrast. First, in general, Soviet analysts tend to assume that over time American interventions turn out badly; many in this country do not yet have the same faith about the Soviet Union's. Second, while Soviet analysts recognize that much of what has happened from Kabul to Luanda serves their country's interests and damages ours, they see no inexorable pattern to events; many in this country do. Soviet observers are more inclined to stress the unpredictability of events-the impermanence of the regime in Afghanistan, the uncertain effects of developments in Iran, the possibility that Pakistan will grow increasingly frightened and drawn to the West, and always the possibility that Angola or Ethiopia will reverse its close relationship with the Soviet Union. Third, the attention we now give to the problem of regional conflict is largely a function of our fears about trends within one region, the Persian Gulf. Soviet concerns in the Third World, including East Asia and the Middle East, are more diffuse and less easy to focus in a single dimension.

In a second important respect Soviet and American perspectives diverge. Put simply, we judge change in the region essentially from the vantage point of a status quo power, they essentially from that of a revisionist power. "There is," someone like Brzezinski is the first to recognize, "no such thing as simply maintaining the status quo in order for American values and the American system to survive."6 But, when he then urges "an active and positive engagement by the United States in shaping a rapidly changing world in ways that would be congenial to our interests and responsive to our values," he is talking about reform of the status quo. As the beneficiary of the status quo in an area like the Persian Gulf-or at least as dependent on it-we worry about revolutionary change. By and large we judge change in terms of potential losses. In areas of our concern, Brezhnev and his colleagues are more interested in seeing the status quo destroyed. They judge change in terms of potential gains. We tend to fear the unknown; they to trust it.

This does not mean that the Soviet Union is ready to push every loose rock down the hill to see what may come of the chaos. On the contrary, as I suggested earlier, the Soviet leadership is not nearly so confident about the pattern of change in these regions as we are fearful of it and they have still less faith in their ability to guide change there. But the two countries do approach the problem of instability with a different tolerance for revolutionary change and a different sense of the stake each possesses in the status quo.

Two conclusions follow for the United States. First, by over-looking the discrepancy between our anxieties and theirs, between our image of trends and theirs, we run the risk of oversimplifying and overdramatizing the Soviet dimension of the problem. In addition, while doing so, we fail to face the deeper and more complex difficulties in store for us both. We run a similar risk when we interpret Soviet behavior in simplistic patterns.


"Look at what has happened since 1975," Kissinger said in a recent interview, "in the space of a little more than four years, we have had Cuban troops in Angola, Cuban troops in Ethiopia, two invasions of Zaïre, a communist coup in Afghanistan, a communist coup in South Yemen, and the occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam, all achieved by Soviet arms, with Soviet encouragement and in several cases protected by the Soviet veto in the United Nations."7 It is a neat, cleverly integrated statement of the Soviet challenge, capturing one important aspect-but only part-of the truth. If one sets aside the question of timing as well as the question of scale, the Soviet Union has, indeed, been complicit in all these events, sometimes decisively so. The Soviets are creating a problem. They have seemingly ignored the effects of regional instability on Soviet-American relations, while exploiting opportunities that have come their way.

Still, it is important to recognize the ambivalence and restraint as well as the boldness in recent Soviet actions. To orchestrate our own policy shrewdly, we need to keep both sides of Soviet behavior in view-considering at the same time the aspects of Soviet behavior warranting concern and then the internal restraints and external constraints on their pursuit of global advantage.

The place to start is with the Soviet Union's increasing ability and decreasing reluctance to become militarily involved in Third World conflicts. What it did in collaboration with the Cubans in Angola and in the Horn is of a different magnitude and nature from anything before. Never has it taken charge of events so far from its own frontiers or, in peacetime, used military power so deftly or decisively outside Eastern Europe.

Rather than viewing the specific threat posed by Soviet interventionism as part of the evolution of the larger military balance, however, we would be wiser to define the problem more modestly, in terms of the specific difficulties specific capacities raise. This is so for two reasons. First, there is no real evidence in Soviet utterances that recent Soviet actions are the result of a new Soviet "arrogance of power." To the extent that Soviet risk-taking serves as evidence, there is little support for the impression of an emboldened Soviet leadership. The Soviet leaders, while acknowledging the continued improvement of their country's relative military position, deny that the equilibrium between East and West has given way to Soviet superiority; they neither boast of nor confess to a politically significant military advantage. On the contrary, they explicitly disclaim any such advantage. One is hard-pressed to argue that Soviet actions in Angola or the Horn, let alone Cambodia, rank with Khrushchev's in Berlin in 1958 and 1961 or in Cuba in 1962. That they are redefining what constitutes a risk is also difficult to demonstrate.

Moreover, if we assume that Soviet actions are merely a symptom of a larger problem, we will divert ourselves from the specific problem. Maintaining the overall military equilibrium between our two countries is an important task in itself. But when the challenge of Soviet intervention is submerged in the general military threat and other aspects of the relationship, such as SALT, are subordinated to the issue of intervention, then we handicap ourselves in dealing with the local situation.

Our second concern grows out of the effective partnership the Soviets and Cubans have formed in bringing military power to bear in situations like Angola and Ethiopia. There are two sides to the problem. The first and more commonly discussed dimension involves the Soviet assessment of the partnership as an enduring instrument of policy. To what extent do the Soviet leaders regard collaboration with the Cubans as a new policy recourse, giving them combat potential without risking their own combatants? In how many other instances are they prepared to repeat the collaboration? The trouble is that there are no answers to these questions-probably not even among the Soviet leadership. Unless one believes that the Soviet Union has commanded rather than merely assisted the Cubans to fight in Africa, the answers are likely to depend on how many opportunities appear and, more important, how many are viewed similarly by the two leaderships.

The other dimension of the problem is less discussed. Because Soviet observers see "proxies" as a general phenomenon in international life, they are not likely to feel constrained in rallying others to the Cuban role. For some time, Soviet analysts have been devoting increasing attention to the contribution the French, the Moroccans, the Senegalese and other third parties make to the defense of Western interests by supplying expeditionary forces. As a consequence, I think the Soviet leaders will be more and more inclined to turn to the Cubans or to willing East Europeans or even to the Ethiopians to "internationalize" the response of progressive forces to the challenge of regional conflict.

Our third concern, it seems to me, should be the emerging weave of Soviet commitments in key parts of the Third World. In the last year the Soviet Union has accelerated the conclusion of "friendship and cooperation" treaties with a variety of African and Asian countries. These now total seven (excluding the two earlier ones repudiated by Egypt and Somalia), and though they vary in their elaborateness (the one with India being the least involved, the one with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the most), all of them create a special relationship, providing for consultation, non-collaboration with other outside powers, in some cases, a coordination of foreign policy, and, in the case of the treaty with Vietnam, mutual security assistance.8

As we have learned over time and as the Soviet Union is now learning in Indochina, special relationships like these create commitments and impose responsibilities. These pressures, combined with the Soviet Union's self-confessed desire to play a larger, indeed a central, role in international decision-making on regional conflict, risk drawing the Soviet Union into local instabilities far more than it may now intend. Similarly, the rather casual or ill-considered decision to grant a special relationship to parties like the Vietnamese who want protection for their own aggressive purposes is fraught with dangers. Indeed, the extemporaneous, unplotted entanglement of the Soviet Union in Third World conflict is more worrisome than the likelihood that the Soviet Union is embarked on building a vast alliance system in the Third World designed to service the sprawl of its military power and provide it with platforms for interfering in neighboring troublespots. The latter implies more sense of purpose and a grander strategy than the rest of Soviet policy suggests.

Our fourth concern is related to the third. This is China and the impact that the Sino-Soviet competition has on the Soviet approach to regional conflict. Indisputably, Soviet initiatives and reactions are heavily colored by its concern with China, and, correspondingly, with China's preoccupation with the Soviet threat and its determination to blunt this threat wherever and by whatever means it can. The more China dedicates itself to compromising Soviet positions in the Third World, the more impetuous the Soviet Union will be in areas of instability. If, in turn, we appear to be forming de facto partnerships with the Chinese when crises come along, the Soviet leaders will find it still harder to act with restraint.

What should be our fifth concern grows out of a point made earlier. More than we often acknowledge, the Soviet Union finds one of its major missions in reinforcing the constraints on our policy-in neutralizing or counterbalancing our power, particularly in areas of instability where our role has been the most obtrusive. This parallels the U.S. aim of preventing the U.S.S.R. from exploiting targets of opportunity. Those in the Soviet Union who rationalize the growth of Soviet military strength do so in the name of staying our hand. As the Soviet ability to bring military force to bear in unstable regions swells, it will almost certainly arrogate to itself a larger responsibility for policing American actions. Brezhnev's warning to us in November not to intervene in Iran because the Soviet Union regarded this "as a matter affecting its security interests" reflects this intent. Ignoring this Soviet aim carries with it the risk of inviting confrontation once both sides set about containing each other's intervention.

Were the Soviet leadership clearer in its own mind about the implications of its growing web of Third World entanglements or more thoughtful about the implications of policing our behavior, the matter would be less worrisome. Unfortunately, and contrary to the assumptions of much Western analysis, all the signs are that the Soviet leaders apparently are not thinking systematically about these issues. In Africa, in response to our appeal for non-interference, for leaving Africa "to work out its own destiny," the Soviet press condemns this "neocolonialist ideological sleight-of-hand" intended to undermine "the trust of the African countries and people in the socialist states" and to "impel them to fall in with imperialist designs." In contrast, Brezhnev declared in regard to Iran that the Soviet Union "resolutely" opposes "foreign interference in the internal affairs of Iran by anyone, in any form, and under any pretext." The inconsistency between the Soviet position on southern Africa and on Iran is obviously self-serving; it also reflects the Soviet failure to think systematically about these issues.

Our sixth set of concerns relates to the effect of events. Quite apart from the reality or unreality of a "geopolitical momentum" or of an underlying pattern to events, if others-allies and friends, in particular-think there is a pattern, we have a problem, and the evidence is that many do. Second, even if the Soviet leaders do not see a pattern-and the evidence is that they do not-they may nonetheless draw the wrong conclusions from their success in Angola and the Horn. For they need not be persuaded of a great tide to events to underestimate the importance of the peculiar circumstances contributing to their success in these cases.

At the same time, in Africa and elsewhere, there has been an important element of restraint in recent Soviet policy, and this, too, deserves attention. Far from justifying Kissinger's allegation that in Iran "the margin between unrest and revolution came at least in part from the outside," the Soviet Union apparently did little to stir a boiling pot. Again, the Soviet Union has had no interest in getting dragged into the conflict over Spanish Sahara, even though some of the contenders are clients of sorts and the issue one of self-determination; indeed, the same can be said of Soviet behavior in the internal conflicts in Chad, Nicaragua, and so on. Obviously the Soviet Union is exercising restraint because it serves Soviet interests. The point is that holding back does in the view of the Soviet leaders serve these interests.

In some instances, as in Pakistan, Soviet restraint has been critical. Evidence of Soviet training camps for Pakistani insurgents in Northern Afghanistan is scanty, and some Western intelligence sources deny the existence of such camps. In some cases restraint has been the Soviet Union's point of departure: in the Horn the Soviet Union's first response was an intensive effort to mediate the dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia; in Angola its first response was to support the Alvor accords-a compromise intended to prevent civil war on the way to independence-provided its friends, the MPLA, did not suffer in the process. And in some cases restraint has come later. In Rhodesia, for example, over the last year Soviet commentators have begun to place less stress on armed struggle and to speak more tolerantly of a negotiated settlement. In Namibia, the Soviet Union has ultimately gone along with the Western plan for elections.

Second, where restraint has given way to active intervention, the Soviet Union has acted with caution. In neither Angola nor Ethiopia did the Soviet Union rush in impetuously. In both cases there were several decision points at which the Soviet leadership checked to see that the coast was clear before proceeding. In Ethiopia, for example, the intervention came only after the Soviet Union had (1) attempted to avoid the war, (2) tried to end the war once it was underway, (3) made sure the Somalis were halted in the Harare-Jijiga-Diredawa strategic triangle, (4) sent senior officers from the ground forces to investigate the situation on the spot, and (5) determined that no other major patrons were likely to come to Somalia's aid. The last of these stages was not reached until the end of October or beginning of November 1977, four months after the war had begun. In Angola, the evolution toward a large-scale Soviet and Cuban intervention passed through at least as many critical decision-making junctures, and, at any of them, down to the last one-the OAU meeting in January 1976-the Soviet Union would almost surely have retreated had the events gone another way.

Third, not only has the Soviet Union not integrated its African interventions into an overall strategy-the thought that Soviet involvement in the Horn follows from that in Angola and will be followed by the same in Zimbabwe can only be argued a priori, not from the evidence-but it has not even followed a fully thought-out policy in the individual cases. In each instance the Soviet Union has been led by events, with the result that it has ended up at a point not necessarily anticipated when the story began. Those seeing the U.S.S.R. passing from intervention to intervention-almost as though on a schedule-need to consider how unsystematic the Soviet engagement has been in each individual case.

Finally, in all cases the Soviet Union has operated within constraints and understood them as such. The Soviet Union was least constrained in its two major interventions, Angola and the Horn, but these were exceptional episodes. In one it challenged no legal government, faced no plausible U.S. or Western opposition, and risked no anti-Soviet majority with the Organization of African Unity (OAU). In Ethiopia, the same applied, and, in addition, the U.S.S.R. was upholding one of Africa's most sacred norms, the inviolability of colonial frontiers. Once the Soviet Union moves on to another level of intervention or another locale, the situation changes. In Eritrea and Shaba, it has had neither principle nor political sentiment on its side and it has limited or avoided involvement. Indeed, in the summer of last year the Soviets apparently attempted to mediate the Eritrean war in meetings in East Berlin between the Ethiopian leadership and Marxist Eritrean liberation forces. In the Ogaden war it apparently began warning its Ethiopian allies against crossing the Somali border long before we began warning the Soviet Union against crossing it, if one is to judge from the stress that Soviet speakers put on the issue before others raised it. In Zimbabwe, its influence and access are controlled by the policies of the front-line states and these, in turn, have supported Anglo-American attempts to achieve a negotiated settlement. And, in Iran, Soviet commentators in print and in private readily betray the large constraint on Soviet action imposed by the scale of the Western stake in the region.


Much of the current discussion in this country leaves the impression that our alarm over Soviet behavior in regional areas is deepening as a consequence of our helplessness to deal with it. We are not helpless, of course, but we must go much further in designing a well-conceived response to the Soviet dimension of regional conflict, one adequate for the long run and inspiring confidence in the near term as well.

This, however, has to be part of an overall policy toward the Soviet Union that is considerably more systematic, coherent, and balanced than at present. To be more systematic, policy needs a clear, coordinated set of objectives. It is not enough to seek a SALT agreement that does no harm to our security, regulates the arms competition in one or two noteworthy respects, and keeps the negotiating process alive. Our efforts in SALT must grow out of and be constantly nourished by a clear idea of what is to be accomplished: precisely what dimensions of the strategic arms competition do we want to regulate and think we can regulate? How are we to relate one arms control area to another, say SALT with MBFR? And, most important, how are arms control ventures like SALT to be integrated into our defense planning and our defense planning to share with arms control ventures the responsibility for securing our safety?

Similarly, in terms of the economic dimension, it is not enough to decide what our policy on export licensing should be or how better to achieve the objectives of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the measure making most-favored-nation treatment (MFN) depend on a more liberal Soviet emigration policy. First we must decide the kind of economic relationship we want to have with the Soviet Union and how this fits into the larger relationship we are trying to build.

So, too, if we intend to formulate clearly and for the long run how we wish to deal with the Soviet Union in areas of instability and what we expect of the U.S.S.R., we must go beyond a desire to fend off Soviet intervention in an escalating war in Zimbabwe or to undo the impression that the Soviets are up and we are down in the unstable regions of the world. Rather, we must sort out in our own minds what restraints we want the Soviet Union to exercise and at what price to our own freedom of action.

To be more coherent, policy requires a strategy, at least in the loose sense of the term, a sense of priorities, an appreciation of the interaction among the different dimensions of the relationship, a steady hand, and patience. At the moment, we are too inclined to settle for narrow, tactical linkages, linking trade with Soviet emigration policy or SALT with Soviet behavior in the Horn. As a consequence, we are not dealing with patterns of Soviet behavior or putting them in the order that matters most to us. We are also too quick to settle for easy, mechanical responses, such as playing the "China card" when more direct solutions seem elusive and too long term.

And we have fallen into the habit of dealing with aspects of the relationship in isolation. The human rights initiative, meritorious in itself, should have been better integrated into our larger Soviet policy and the strategy by which it was pursued made more consonant with a practical general strategy. The same can be said of our approach to the Soviet role in regional conflict. Rather than face the larger problem of regional instability and the role of both powers, relating this to the broader competition, we are choosing to deal with Soviet actions only in specific instances, taking them episode by episode. Finally, the difficult challenge of giving policy greater coherence is accentuated by conflict within the Administration, particularly when the conflict is not resolved by the President and the contending approaches are allowed to flicker in the public view, leaving the impression of a disjointed and ambivalent policy.

To be more balanced, policy must place an equal emphasis on the cooperative and the competitive aspects of the relationship. At the moment, other than SALT, an uncertain attempt to negotiate a complete nuclear test-ban treaty, and a sputtering attempt to do something about anti-satellite technology, the relationship is almost without active cooperative ventures. But it is precisely when the United States puts its foot down in crisis areas, moves to correct adverse military trends, and confronts the Soviet Union with abuses within the U.S.S.R. to which we object that the Administration has the greatest need for, say, promoting economic cooperation-not as a counterbalance to our firmness or as compensation for our firmness but as partial proof that our firmness is aimed at a more constructive relationship.

Were we working harder to produce a more systematic, coherent, and balanced Soviet policy, our response to Soviet behavior in regional conflict would benefit in several ways. First, it is critical that we begin talking to the Soviet leadership about the problem. We get no place by scoring them publicly when we have made little or no attempt to speak quietly and directly. Communication cannot be by public diplomacy or at the pillory. If an early summit were held, the President and the General Secretary could come to know each others' minds on this issue, something that will not be achieved without great effort by both men and without careful thought by those planning the meeting.

Second, not only should we talk to the Soviet leadership about the problem, we should make a far more strenuous effort to reduce the risks and moderate the effects of our rivalry in areas of instability. To this end no initiative is more desperately needed than a restored search for "rules" helping to regulate the role of the two countries in areas of instability. By rules of the game, I do not mean negotiated principles but patterns of restraint, usually tacit, perhaps merely insinuated, but consciously pursued. In the case of the problem of regional conflict, the first step is to spell out the standards of behavior both sides expect of each other. It is difficult to imagine any Soviet leader, even one who wished to accommodate us, having a clear image of what range of behavior we find tolerable or intolerable-because we do not. Moreover, the deeper issue is how we are to persuade, induce, or force the Soviet Union to give up the right to involve itself in troubled areas, if we are not prepared to give up this right ourselves. And, if we give up the right to interfere, how can we be sure that events will work out satisfactorily in cases that matter greatly to us? Constraining the Soviet Union is only half the issue.

Rather than face this dilemma, too many people are inclined to reduce the challenge of regional instability to a Soviet challenge. Thus, to select a critical example, at the moment the leadership of the Republican Party links the future of SALT to Soviet conduct in areas like Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. "Conduct," in this context, stands for good behavior and threatening SALT is meant as a way of securing the Soviet Union's good behavior or of discouraging its "misbehavior," The perceptual dimension obscures the heart of the problem, the longer-term, more insoluble form of the problem, the problem as a mutual problem, the level where our own behavior enters the equation.

Clearly we do not want the Soviet Union arriving with military power to depose governments it dislikes; nor do we want it to decide the outcome of local civil wars, revolutions, or anarchy with its military power or that of friends. But are we prepared to insist that it bring its military power to bear in no circumstance of disorder or threat menacing a legitimate government, even when sought? Equally important, are we prepared to reciprocate? Clearly we do not want it training insurgents to filter across borders and start or sustain separatist, civil, or regional wars, but may it not go to the aid of governments established by insurgent movements once they are installed? Clearly we do not want it to go about forming pacts with aggressive local powers who regard these as umbrellas permitting them to indulge their ambitions, but are we opposed to all Soviet pacts, including those that have a mutual security provision? If so, do we also deny ourselves in this regard? Granted that first we must sort out the answers for ourselves, eventually the answers will have to be clearly communicated to the Soviet Union if policy is to be effective.

One has to be realistic. Neither leadership has any inclination to draw up a "code of conduct" spelling out what it will and will not do in the next Third World crisis. Both are even less eager to negotiate further documents formalizing broad principles of behavior. Neither really trusts the other to speak honestly about the problem or to give a fair hearing to its concerns. And, most seriously, neither side will readily yield the right to intervene in troubled areas even were the other to do so.

Nonetheless, the Soviet leadership does acknowledge the need to give the overall competition stability and predictability. Moreover, Soviet foreign policy specialists are now discussing the importance of developing "rules of the game." While these are not yet raised in the context of superpower rivalry in areas of Third World conflict, it is perfectly conceivable that the Soviet leaders are ready to begin a serious discussion of the problem, provided our purpose is not simply to upbraid them.

Third, the success of American policy also requires a greater readiness to discriminate among different patterns of Soviet behavior and acknowledge restraint on the Soviet part, when we suspect the possibility. Take the case of the second Shaba invasion: We chose to dramatize Soviet complicity, even though there was real question about how directly involved the Soviets were and even though the Soviets themselves stated that they had acted with restraint. The justification was that after Angola and the Horn a message had to be delivered and, if the reaction to Shaba exceeded the situation, it nonetheless served a larger purpose. The cost, however, was to raise further doubt both in the Soviet Union and in Africa about our ability to distinguish Soviet restraint from activism.

On other occasions the failure to discriminate has meant lost opportunities. In November, in the same Pravda interview containing his warning against American intervention in Iran, Brezhnev underscored his country's opposition to interference in the internal affairs of Iran by "anyone in any form and under any pretext." The latter idea has been labeled by the Soviet press "mutual non-interference," and it contains a distinct appeal for mutual restraint. The warning required a direct response and that the President gave in his press conference the following month. But the appeal, too, deserved to be picked up and that he did not.

Fourth, rather than focusing on Soviet (and Cuban) actions, we should address regional problems themselves, counting on solutions or partial solutions to place the healthiest limits on Soviet opportunities. To an important degree this has been the approach of the Carter Administration to the problem of change in southern Africa.

Finally, none of what I have proposed above is prudent or politically feasible unless the United States retains the capability and the option of responding forcefully where there appears to be no other way of inducing Soviet restraint and where other of our interests are not seriously jeopardized thereby. The quest for patterns of mutual restraint assumes that each side will unilaterally protect interests that cannot be protected by regulating the competition between us. As with arms control, the incentive to success will inevitably be a mutual awareness of the risks inherent when each side acts on its own to deal with its fears. In this spirit, Harold Brown's plan for a "mobile strike force" and, in general, the Administration's efforts to prepare this country for contingencies in which force may have to be used are sound.

But we must observe three conditions: (1) We should think carefully about the use of force, applying it only where it is a direct and appropriate recourse, not a "quick fix" substituted for other more difficult solutions. Force might indeed be wise in Iran if the Soviet Union were to intervene with force, but not otherwise. It would probably not be wise if our attempts to achieve a negotiated solution in Rhodesia fail and the Soviet Union chooses to underwrite the war that follows. (2) Our readiness to use force ought not to be regarded as a permanent imperative but as a momentary necessity until both countries come to a clear understanding of the role they intend to play in regional conflict and the way they intend to play it. And (3) we must face squarely the dilemma of when, where, and how we ourselves would contemplate using force to influence change.

To be fair to the other side, the available evidence does not show that the Soviet leadership is going to be hard to divert from regular and ruthless intervention in areas of regional conflict or unintimidated by the prospect that we will answer intervention with counter-intervention. But, if we want to ensure that the resort to force does not become an increasingly necessary recourse, we must set out now to deal with the Soviet Union to regulate the role of the superpowers in areas of instability. Like each of the other critical dimensions of the Soviet-American relationship, this is a tall order because it takes us back to the essence of contemporary U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.


1 "An Interview with Kissinger," Time, January 15, 1979, p. 29.

2 "The Crumbling Triangle," The Economist, December 9, 1978, p. 12.

3 "The World According to Brzezinski," New York Times Magazine, December 31, 1978, p. 11.

4 This comment deserves explanation. While the Soviet Union has been deeply involved with the principal group which triumphed in both South Yemen and Afghanistan for months and years beforehand, what limited evidence exists does not suggest that the Soviet Union had any direct role in the immediate events leading to the overthrow of President Salim Robaye Ali in South Yemen or President Daud in Afghanistan. Thus, in Afghanistan the Soviet Union doubtless contributed to the Khalq penetration of the Afghan military and doubtless pressed for unity of the Khalq and Parcham (Marxist-Leninist) parties, but apparently had no major role in creating the disturbances leading to the arrest of Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammad Taraki or in formulating the coup that followed. Similarly in South Yemen, the Soviet Union doubtless pressed for the radicalization of the FNL and the erosion of President Robaye's power, but apparently had nothing to do with the murder of Lt. Col. Ahmed Hussein al-Ghashani or Robaye's execution. On the latter point, see Jean Gueyras' article in Le Monde, February 27, 1979, page 4.

6 "The World According to Brzezinski," loc. cit., p. 9.

7 "Kissinger's Critique," The Economist, February 3, 1979, p. 22.

8 The seven are: India, Iraq, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

  • Robert Legvold is Senior Fellow and Director of the Soviet Project at the Council on Foreign Relations and Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.
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