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U.S.-Soviet Relations: Goodbye to Détente

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After the events of 1980 the Soviet Union and the United States both must come to terms with new versions of each other. American hopes for a more reasonable, more conservative Soviet Union finally collapsed, replaced by a new eagerness to contest the Soviets for military superiority and global position. The Soviet leaders discovered both the exhilaration and the pain that accompany the dramatic and unexpected use of power; they were also reminded of the recurring dilemmas that beset any nation that manages a restless empire.

Recent Soviet-American relations can now be divided neatly into two historical periods, both of them ended. The first lasted for a quarter-century after World War II, and was typified by what the Soviets called-disdainfully but also enviously-American diplomacy from a "position of strength." During those years the United States was unmistakably the stronger power, but somehow its superior strength did not create a satisfactory Soviet-American relationship. Then in 1972 the policies of both nations changed. The United States decided to grant the Soviets at least the symbolic status of equal superpower, and that was the beginning of the second period, labeled "détente." In 1980 both countries decided that it, too, was unsatisfactory, so they terminated it.

The significance of 1980 is indisputable, if also still indistinct. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the workers' uprising in Poland and the election of Ronald Reagan to the American presidency have together caused a sharp break in the continuity of events. They have also created a good opportunity for reflection on what has happened and what is to come.


If the period of détente ended in 1980, the origins of its demise go right back to its beginning in 1972. This is not the place for a history of these eight years, but a few general points seem apt.

Most important, it is now clear that the Soviets and Americans never held compatible ideas about why détente happened or what it was meant to bring. The image of the relationship that Henry A. Kissinger articulated for the United States was of a web of interrelationships that would tie the superpowers together, maximizing cooperation between them while discouraging uncontrolled competition. In effect this was a new approach to a traditional American dilemma: how to "contain" the Soviet Union.

In the Soviet perception the beginning of détente was irrefutable proof that the "correlation of forces" in the world had shifted to the Soviet Union's advantage. For the Soviets détente was meant to provide not just the appearance of superpower equality, but the reality too. The idea that the United States and the Soviet Union could some day share responsibility for managing the entire world, perhaps even divide it up between them, appeals enormously to Soviet leaders. Originally, détente looked in Moscow like a first step toward just such an arrangement.

In May 1972, when Richard Nixon went to Moscow to formally inaugurate détente, the Soviets could be excused for thinking that they were gaining something (full superpower status) because the Americans were losing something (global superiority). Typically, the Americans tended to take a short-term, pragmatic view of what was happening. They saw that Soviet power was catching up with American power; they saw in Vietnam that "position-of-strength" geopolitics was not working as well as it used to; so they cooked up a new approach. But the Soviets took a longer term view. They regarded the beginning of détente as a vital stage in the evolution of Soviet power-the moment when no other nation could claim decisive superiority over the U.S.S.R.

As for the idea of containment-by-web, it was no more acceptable to the Soviets than any earlier form of containment. And the proposition that the Soviet Union should be more restrained at a time when its power was clearly on the ascendancy than it had been when its power was clearly inferior defied logic, or at least defied Russian logic.

On the other hand, of course, the Soviets had short-term goals that they hoped the détente relationship (as well as improved relations with Western Europe) would help them achieve. Many of these goals were economic; they sought both technology and capital to overcome the chronic bottlenecks in the Soviet economic system that the Soviet leadership was unwilling to address with internal reforms. Other goals were political, first of all a reduction of tension on the Soviets' western flank at a time of great difficulty in relations with China. Arguably it was Soviet fear of China and Chinese-American rapprochement that got the whole thing going in the first place.

In pursuit of these shorter term goals the Soviets were willing to moderate their behavior and make unprecedented compromises. They began to let large numbers of Soviet citizens emigrate; they welcomed unparalleled intercourse with the outside world that permitted tens of thousands of Soviet citizens to have direct dealings with foreigners; they stopped jamming foreign radio broadcasts in Russian and stopped describing the capitalist West in their propaganda as hopelessly retrograde, degenerate or fascist. They even offered some help to the United States in its efforts to negotiate a settlement of the Vietnam War.

Moreover, individual Soviet officials were susceptible to the comforts-both physical and psychological-that accompanied détente. Leonid I. Brezhnev clearly loved his summit meetings in Paris, Bonn and Washington, just as lower ranking Soviet officials thrived on the new acceptance they found in Western capitals. A Soviet bureaucrat who could bring home blue jeans and the latest LPs from the West was a hero to his family and his entire circle of friends. This détente business was fun.

For these and other reasons, the bloom of détente did not entirely fade, even under the strains imposed by events like the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the unprecedented use of Cuban troops to enforce Soviet policy in Angola in 1975. But the ultimate collapse of the Soviet-American détente that was born in 1972 was predictable because of the fundamental contradictions and expectations for their new relationship. Indeed, unless the two could have found ways to resolve those contradictions as the relationship developed, the demise of this Soviet-American détente was probably inevitable.


So the period of Soviet-American détente has passed. But it has not simply evaporated. During the eight years that it lasted the world was radically altered. Pre-détente, pre-1972 conditions could not be resurrected even if both parties wanted them to be. Even a partial list of the changes that occurred in those eight years suggests how profoundly different today's situation is:

1) In 1972 the Soviet Union was still essentially a closed society, still cut off from most outside influences, still living largely in the isolation that Stalin established. Today that description no longer applies; Soviet society is much more open than it has been at any time since the 1920s.

This is the cardinal change of the détente period. It is not irreversible, nor does it guarantee a different sort of Soviet Union in the future, though that is certainly likely. But there are new expectations in Soviet society now, and the West is vastly more knowledgeable about that society too.

The disintegration of many of the major "secrets" of Soviet society is an intriguing development, too little analyzed. Thanks to the revelations of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a long list of other writers, thanks to the information provided by hundreds of thousands of new emigrés, and thanks to the increasing ability of journalists and scholars to penetrate the false facades of Soviet life, we can now really understand a great deal about what is going on inside the U.S.S.R. We know now what the basic priorities of the Soviet leadership are, and after accumulating 16 years of evidence during the Brezhnev era, we can see clearly how these Soviet leaders have decided to allocate their resources. We can even see how external events (the workers' uprising in Poland in 1970 is a vivid example) have pushed the Soviets into new policies, and then how inertia or renewed self-confidence have brought them back to their earlier path. We can follow internal events quite closely; when an important official is promoted or demoted, the reasons are usually not impossible to divine. We know in detail how weak the Soviet economy is, and why. We know now how the hierarchical system of privileges has built a huge new elite that manages Soviet society and helps to keep it stable. We know (thanks not to new human sources, but to the wonders of the electronic age) a great deal about the workings of Soviet defense industries, the development and testing of Soviet weapons, and the deployment of Soviet forces. It is still common-place to describe Russia as a mystery, but in fact the mystery is largely solved. We despair at our inability to predict what will happen next in the Soviet Union, but if that were a basis for declaring the entire society a mystery, what would we call the United States?

At least equally important, Soviet society has been significantly infected with the foreign influences that Stalin worked so hard to obliterate. Every major Soviet university and institute now has on its faculty scholars who have traveled in the West, including many who have worked for extended periods in Western universities. Forbidden books, often typed and retyped privately, circulate throughout the country. Rare indeed is a serious young Soviet intellectual who has not read Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, for example, a work that raises agonizing questions for any thoughtful Soviet citizen. Some of the most popular literature in the Soviet Union today is written by the dozens of writers who emigrated to Israel and the West during the 1970s, creating a Russian culture in exile whose fruits quickly return to the homeland.

Soviet young people crave blue jeans and rock music, while their elders try to ape the latest Western fashions. Western radio broadcasts in Russian became a regular part of the daily routine for tens of millions of Soviet citizens during the 1970s, and the irregular resumption of jamming of those broadcasts in 1980 has not broken the habit.

None of this promises a new Russian Revolution, but it does guarantee the growing significance of both consumerism and cynicism in Soviet life. Moreover, new conditions of life are creating a whole new set of expectations among the younger generations. The events that shaped the modern Soviet Union-collectivization, the terror of the 1930s, World War II and recovery afterward-are slipping out of the collective national memory. Soviet citizens who will turn 40 during the 1980s are too young to have any strong personal recollection of the war or Stalin. They have lived through an extended period of peace and prosperity, and have personally experienced a revolution (albeit now a stalled revolution) in Soviet living standards. Capitalist encirclement strikes this generation as much less of a problem than the inadequate supply of meat or the chronic unavailability of coffee.

2) Just as Soviet society is no longer closed, the Soviet economy is no longer self-sufficient. This generation of Soviet leaders has decided (perhaps after careful consideration, but probably not) to abandon the Stalinist goal of economic autarky. The Soviet economy is now significantly intertwined with the world capitalist system. The Soviets are heavily dependent on the West and Japan for modern technology and the credits to buy it. Western markets and credits sustain the economies of the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. Economic bad times in the capitalist world mean bad times inside the Soviet empire, too.

The end of Soviet autarky is probably as significant for its sociological as for its economic implications. Like the general opening up of the society, this change tends to encourage a sense of Soviet participation in a larger world which may eventually have real influence on Soviet thinking.

3) The balance of military power has shifted significantly in the Soviets' favor, permanently ending the era of decisive American military superiority. This change has deeply shaken the United States. Americans are uncomfortable at the thought of a world in which America is not predominant. The idea that America should naturally be by far the world's strongest military power took hold in the United States with remarkable speed and force during and after World War II. Future historians will likely be stunned by the inability of contemporary American politicians to discuss frankly just how abnormal the period of great American superiority was, and how relatively easily a determined power like the U.S.S.R. could force the United States to choose between an endless, endlessly costly military competition and a world of more equally shared influence.

Soviet determination, including a willingness to maintain extraordinary levels of military spending over many years, has indeed enabled the Russians to catch up. The Soviets are still feeling their way toward the posture they want to adopt with their new power. They clearly do not feel quite as powerful as some American commentators believe they should, perhaps because they have a more vivid sense of the potential dangers they face than those Americans. On the other hand, they do feel much more confident than ever before. The invasion of Afghanistan was one monument to that confidence.

4) Conditions in Europe, both East and West, changed considerably during the 1970s in ways that will continue to influence Soviet-American relations. Western Europe prospered, and developed increasingly elaborate economic relationships with the Soviet Union and its satellites. West Germany, particularly, became much more confident about conducting its own independent diplomacy. The West Europeans now perceive their own interests in their relations with the Soviet bloc as separate from American interests.

The East European countries moved significantly closer to the West during the 1970s, with obvious exceptions. Controls over the populations of Hungary, Poland and East Germany continued to loosen. The standard of living throughout Eastern Europe rose, most sharply in East Germany and Hungary. East European debts to Western banks increased markedly, and the East Europeans significantly increased their dependence on trade with the capitalist world. However, East European dependence on the Soviet Union for energy supplies was also reinforced.

5) The world energy crisis created a new factor in East-West relations. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' oil cartel quickly became a considerable power. As the era of domestic self-sufficiency disappeared in America and began to draw to a close in the U.S.S.R., OPEC's oil became increasingly important to both superpowers and vital to the United States and its allies. In the 1970s oil became the principal consideration of geopolitics for the Western powers. And OPEC became a potentially destabilizing international force.

The 1970s also brought important changes in-or revelations about-domestic conditions inside both the Soviet Union and the United States that affect Soviet-American relations.

Ironically but indisputably, the 1970s demonstrated the frailties of the Soviet economic system, and suggested that the Soviets will have a hard time coping with the 1980s. During the 1970s all the important graphs charting Soviet economic progress flattened out or turned downward: total production, labor productivity, marginal utility of new investments, etc. The birthrate in European Russia approached zero population growth. Technological innovation lagged, and squandered investment resources became an increasingly discussed national scandal. Most significantly, agriculture failed to develop to meet the country's growing needs, and repeated disastrous harvests forced the Soviets into the world grain market, which suddenly grew tight once again in 1980.

The Brezhnev era began in the mid-1960s with a serious attempt at internal economic reform. It failed, and none has been made since. Historians will record that Brezhnev presided over a great increase in Soviet geopolitical power, but he also presided over the total failure to put the Soviet Union into the computer age, so that to this day only the highest priority enterprises make any use of the electronic miracles of the age. He presided over the stagnation of the great bureaucratic monster that keeps the Soviet state in operation, the State Planning Commission and its tentacles. In many areas the Brezhnev era will be remembered only for muddling through.

Arguably, an honest and thoughtful Soviet leader surveying his world at the beginning of the 1980s would have to be deeply frustrated. In some ways things have gotten so much better, but in others so much worse.

The era of Soviet-American détente also demonstrated a basic fact of modern American life from which Americans can draw no comfort: in these eight years the United States showed how incapable it now seems to be of conducting a sustained, intelligent and purposeful foreign policy. From the American side, the history of détente is largely a history of confusion, disarray, self-deception and self-inflicted diplomatic wounds.

In a book published five years ago this writer argued that because Soviet weaknesses were so great and the West's resources so formidable, the fact that the U.S.S.R. was indeed becoming a global power was no reason for the West to despair.1 If this argument had merit, it was only in principle. In fact, the United States has repeatedly proven itself incapable of consistently and intelligently exploiting either the grave weaknesses of the Soviet Union or the vast resources of the "free world" it purports to lead. As a consequence the emergence of the Soviet Union as a veritable world power has rightfully become a source of genuine concern, if not despair.

Instead of calling forth a strong, clear American policy, détente became a political pinball bounced off of countless independent points of power and interest in American society. Captains of American industry mistakenly perceived vast new opportunities for Soviet-American trade in an era of détente, and rushed ill-advisedly into grandiose deals that rarely turned out as intended-if at all. A powerful lobby developed that sought to use the leverage offered by détente for the benefit of unhappy Soviet Jews, a cause that proved irresistible in Congress even when it conflicted with basic diplomatic interests. Staunch conservative elements interpreted détente as a sellout, and used this French term as a pejorative oath to attack politicians they disliked. Watergate and the collapsing American position in Indochina became engrossing distractions that worked against the success of détente diplomacy.

None of the three American Presidents of the détente era managed the new Soviet-American relationship well. First Kissinger and Nixon raised unrealistic hopes for a "generation of peace," burdening détente with baggage it could not carry. When Watergate began to undermine his presidency, Nixon tried to turn détente into a shield that might help protect him, a ploy that probably discredited the underlying policy with the public. Gerald Ford, sensing his vulnerability to the right wing of the Republican Party, made a show of dropping the word détente. At the beginning of 1976 he decided to freeze the SALT process for his own political purposes, thus probably missing the best chance to get a SALT II treaty. Jimmy Carter could never choose between the fundamentally different policies toward the Soviet Union that Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance urged on him, so he tried (with predictably unhappy consequences) to pursue them both, simultaneously or alternatively.

While the American side floundered, the Soviets had a run of good fortune. They exploited the Cuban surrogates gambit to the fullest; they watched with some satisfaction as the Shah of Iran collapsed, transforming the situation in the Persian Gulf; they stood by and inherited the benefits of a raucous American debate which suggested to the world that the Americans suddenly considered themselves a second-rate power. They threw themselves into conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Ethiopia with a new boldness, and had the good luck to keep out of serious trouble in all these far-flung adventures.

This combination of Soviet successes and American failure jolted American self-confidence. The spectacle of American hostages held in Iran beyond the reach of American power, and then the botched mission to try to save them in April 1980, aggravated the growing sense of inadequacy. Polls of Americans during 1980 showed startling changes in perceptions of their country's relative power and standing in the world. Increasingly Americans began to think that the Soviet Union had become the world's predominant power, a thought that angered them. The consequences of this new public mood were quickly evident in Congress, where in a matter of a few months during 1980 the traditional skepticism about defense budgets disappeared, and the House and Senate began to compete with each other to see which could raise the Pentagon's budget further faster.

A well-managed, coherent and consistent American policy from 1972 to 1980 could have done a great deal to make the situation of 1980 more acceptable to the United States than in fact it was.


There were five developments during 1980 that bore on Soviet-American relations and deserve mention here.

The first and much the most important was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an event comparable to the U-2 incident of 1959, the Berlin Crisis of 1961, or the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 in terms of its impact. Until the invasion of Afghanistan a case could be made that the two superpowers were keeping their détente afloat, if only by a lot of huffing and puffing. In fact the situation was bad long before the invasion, as Marshall Shulman in the State Department and many experts outside the government were saying during the last half of 1979.2 The invasion turned a bad situation into a crisis, and jarred the United States into a fundamentally new posture.

The Soviet move into Afghanistan was without precedent. From 1948 until December 1979, a combination of self-restraint and respect for other powers had persuaded the Soviets never to use their own military forces to annex new territory outside their internationally recognized postwar sphere of influence. With the invasion of Afghanistan that system of restraints ceased to work. Yes, Afghanistan was a unique country; none other was in a comparable situation vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Yes, there was an argument to be made that the 1978 Marxist coup in Afghanistan had persuaded the Soviets that this mountain kingdom on their border now was part of their sphere of influence; perhaps it had. Nevertheless, there was no avoiding that essential fact. The Soviets had broken a long-standing rule.

Why did they do it? Partly to show off their new military capabilities, and the new self-confidence those capabilities have created. For 35 years the Soviets endured periodic displays of American military force and mobility without any equivalent response. The Americans had established the ability to apply military force outside one's own territory as a measure of superpower strength, and the Soviets had already demonstrated eagerness to compete in this arena with their airlifts of military supplies to Egypt in 1973 and to Ethiopia in 1977-78. Afghanistan provided an opportunity for a more significant demonstration of Soviet power, a fact that probably encouraged the Soviet military to favor intervention.

But there had to be a political justification for moving into Afghanistan. The most important one, probably, was the feeling in Moscow that the alternative to invasion-the increasingly likely collapse of a new client regime on the Soviet border-was politically unacceptable. "The armies of socialism march only in one direction," a Soviet official who was himself unhappy about the invasion explained after it occurred. In other words, it was inadmissible that a self-described Marxist-Leninist state adjoining the U.S.S.R. could be allowed to revert to feudalism or "capitalism."

The source of this attitude is not mystical or ideological, but eminently practical. The Soviet leaders are determined to avoid precedents that might encourage any segment of their empire-either the non-Russian nationalities within the U.S.S.R., or the peoples of Eastern Europe-to hope that they might someday break away from Soviet domination. Allowing the regime of Afghan Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin to collapse might have been seen in Moscow as just such a precedent.

Before deciding finally to go into Afghanistan, the Soviet leadership had to weigh the costs that invasion might entail. Here the evidence is strong that they miscalculated the international repercussions.

No doubt encouraged by the vague signals coming from Washington, the old men in the Kremlin apparently did not expect the sort of American reaction they got. After all, Jimmy Carter just weeks before had declared the presence of a Soviet combat unit in Cuba unacceptable, then proceeded to accept it. Earlier, the Soviets must have felt, American vacillation over Cuban operations in Angola and Ethiopia indicated declining American interest in such matters. Indeed, the Americans had accepted Nur Mohammed Taraki's coup in Afghanistan in April 1978 and then the murder (in February 1979) of their Ambassador in Kabul, Adolph Dubs, with surprising equanimity. So the Soviets probably expected loud complaints but little of substance from the Americans when they went into Afghanistan to save the regime of Taraki's successor. But as it turned out, their invasion at the end of December 1979 scared the United States, provoking a basic change in the tone of American security policy.

The invasion mobilized the Carter Administration. The President told an interviewer that the Soviets' aggression "has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets' ultimate goals are than anything they've done in the previous time I've been in office." (Later, apparently realizing that this remark sounded naïve, Carter denied having made it.) Within weeks Carter set out a tough policy of concerted response: a declaration of vital American interests in the Persian Gulf; a partial embargo of grain and high technology sales to the U.S.S.R.; acceleration of plans for a new Rapid Deployment Force that could operate in the Gulf region; and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. The President had strong political support for all of these moves, though Ronald Reagan and all of the other Republicans save John Anderson who were running for President last January immediately attacked the grain embargo, apparently to woo Iowa farmers who were then about to vote in state caucuses.

While the basic line of American policy was drastically altered, the balance of influence within the American foreign policy establishment shifted decisively toward the hardliners. Significantly, there were no public apologies and few sympathetic explanations for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from American specialists or politicians. The argument that the Soviets were really not aggressive, and were really interested in a stable détente relationship-an argument made by many during the détente period-simply disappeared. Indeed, this school of thought may prove to have been the principal political victim of the invasion.

When the Soviets realized that they had caused an international furor much stronger than they had expected, they reacted bitterly, if also typically. Dr. Freud could have had the Russian nation in mind when he devised his theory of projection. Our fault? How could this be our fault? Clearly the Americans were to blame for the unhappy change in the international atmosphere brought on by the Soviet Union's fraternal help for the people of Afghanistan. This was the Party line, and because it so suited the national personality, a great many Russians obviously accepted it. Like people everywhere the Russians are gifted at presuming their own benevolence. If they were blameless, as of course they must be, then surely someone else was to blame. The most obvious provocateur of the international outrage against the Soviet invasion was Jimmy Carter; so Carter must have been to blame.

Alton Frye of the Council on Foreign Relations met the essential Soviet reaction personally in a conversation with a Russian diplomat in Washington. The diplomat acknowledged that the Soviets might have miscalculated the consequences of the invasion; he acknowledged that it had done more damage to Soviet-American relations than expected. "And," this Russian added with emphasis, "I'm glad we did it." His anger neatly conveyed Soviet pride and the Russian inferiority complex hopelessly mixed up together.

The American reaction to Afghanistan surely stung the Soviets, though to what ultimate effect remains to be seen. The Moscow Olympics turned into a sullen event, one that failed to fulfill the national expectation for an international festival that could symbolize Soviet acceptance in the community of nations. Many ordinary Soviet citizens took the cue offered by official propaganda and outwardly blamed this on a bellicose American policy, but the true public reaction is surely more complex and harder to detect.

Much has been made of the fact that the American grain embargo did not actually deprive the Soviet government of great quantities of grain, but this seems to be too narrow an analysis. President Carter's demonstration of American willingness to link grain sales to general diplomacy must have had a deep impact on Soviet leaders, who previously assumed that the laws of capitalism required Americans to sell them grain regardless of political considerations. The upshot is more likely to be greater Soviet efforts in agriculture than moderated foreign policies, but either alternative can serve ultimate American interests. Moreover, if the Reagan Administration maintains the embargo through 1981, a year of tight international supplies and huge Soviet needs for imports, it will have a very substantial impact. Even in 1980 the food situation in the Soviet Union was bad, and the Soviet public knew that America had cut off large sales, so in that straightforward manner the embargo had an impact.

Given the harsh American reaction to the invasion, the Soviets put their hopes on Western Europe's attitude. Here the leaders in Moscow must have found some comfort. On the one hand both Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt delivered strong messages of disapproval personally to Leonid Brezhnev, but on the other, both France and West Germany demonstrated willingness to continue economic and political dealings with Moscow much as they had before the invasion. The Europeans were caught between tough demands from Washington that they respect new restrictions on high-technology sales to the Soviets and not take steps to undermine other American sanctions, and their own desire to maintain détente in Europe and profitable relationships with the U.S.S.R. Neither superpower could have been thoroughly pleased with their resulting ambivalent behavior, but the fact that the Europeans refused to succumb unreservedly to American blandishments must have heartened the Soviets.

The Europeans' reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan was revealing. At first a number of European countries expressed the hope-apparently heartfelt-that it might be possible to negotiate some compromise that would involve Soviet withdrawal. (Muslim countries made a similar proposal.) As events confirmed, this was not a serious prospect. The Soviets had obviously decided that they required a degree of control over events in Afghanistan that could only be assured by a puppet government and a large military presence. But the West European desire to find a compromise, like the later reluctance to follow the American hard line unreservedly, reflected the pain brought on in Europe by the prospect of losing détente.

The Europeans' stake in détente has been inadequately recognized in the United States. Political conditions in Europe changed profoundly during the 1970s-for the better. The resolution of the Berlin and German problems, then the dramatic increase in East-West trade and other contacts, created an atmosphere of stability and normalcy in Europe that had not existed for decades. Europeans naturally welcomed these changes, which had altered their lives much more substantively than détente had touched Americans. The Soviet Union understands Europe's independent interest in détente, and can be expected to continue to cultivate it.


The events in Poland were the second significant development of 1980 for Soviet-American relations. As of mid-January 1981, the situation there is volatile; a Soviet move against the Poles could occur at any time.

This is not the place for speculation, but it seems safe to predict that a full-fledged Soviet takeover of Poland with the use of force would have devastating long-term consequences for Soviet-American and East-West relations. In the United States great pressures would arise to reinstate a new version of the cold war-an American policy of active, hostile containment. Six million Polish-Americans, many of them still in close contact with relatives in Poland, will contribute to this pressure. Prospects for reviving the cooperative side of Soviet-American relations would disappear.

The West Europeans realized that Poland was different for them than Afghanistan, and at the end of 1980 the NATO powers committed themselves formally to stern (if unenumerated) countermeasures if the Soviets do invade. How the West Europeans will behave in the event of a Soviet move against Poland remains problematical, but they are certain to take it more seriously than the invasion of Afghanistan.

Even without a Soviet invasion or coup, the situation that evolved in Poland during 1980 demonstrated the difficulties inherent in trying to build a more stable Soviet-American relationship. The emergence of an independent trade union movement in Poland might well be interpreted as exactly the sort of development that relaxed East-West relations were meant to encourage-a plume in the cap of détente. In fact, the events of 1980 in Poland actually demonstrated the permanent frailty of a Soviet empire based on usurped power and illegitimate leadership.

The real culprit in Poland, arguably, was Edward Gierek, who lost his job as the Communist Party's leader in September. Gierek came to power in 1970 on a wave of national enthusiasm and goodwill, with a mandate to reform Polish society. He proved an ineffective leader, however, and by 1973 or 1974 knowing Poles acknowledged his failure. Gierek had a chance to initiate the sort of reforms that had made János Kádár the indisputable genius of Eastern Europe-reforms which, in Kádár's case, gave Hungary prosperity and a measure of internal liberalism without suggesting any diminution in the ruling role of the Hungarian Party. As long as the Soviet Union is ruled by autocrats so insecure in their own power that they reject any hints of pluralism, no East European country will be permitted to tolerate a reduction in the Party's influence and control. That was the lesson of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and it is most likely to be the lesson of Poland's flirtation with "Solidarity."

Gierek's failure is not surprising; rather, it is characteristic of the inflexibility shown by communist leaders throughout the Soviet bloc in modern times. Kádár's genius was as rare an any genius. Yet without more Kádárs, recurring events like 1980's in Poland seem inevitable in Eastern Europe. The last three have occurred in neat dozen-year cycles. When they occur they remind the West that Soviet power is not maturing, that its toleration of pluralism is not increasing. As long as these episodes continue to recur, the prospects for stable, improved East-West relationships are poor.


Third, 1980 will conceivably be remembered as the year in which significant Chinese-American cooperation began in the military sphere. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown went to China to open a dialogue on this possibility, and both countries seemed interested in pursuing it. A working Sino-American military connection would represent the realization of a Soviet nightmare and a grave setback for Soviet diplomacy. It might also be carried to the point of foolish excess by the United States.

The steady improvement of Sino-American relations is one example of trends visible in 1980 that may eventually make it appear a disastrous year in the eyes of future Soviet leaders. Though it was a heady year for this generation of Soviets, enabling them to show off their hard-won new international power, 1980 may also have given impetus to a military revival in Japan and a new determination in Europe (suggested by the NATO decision to deploy new medium-range missiles on the continent) to match increasing Soviet military power. At year's end, to cite another example, French nuclear policy appeared to be evolving in a way that should concern Moscow. For example, President Giscard seemed ready to approve a French "neutron bomb," a high radiation nuclear artillery shell.

Finally, there were two leadership changes. The American presidential election surely will prove to be an important event for Soviet-American relations, though just how remains to be seen. At year's end there was much wistful talk among conventional-minded diplomats, politicians and analysts that, in power, Ronald Reagan will probably turn out to be a lot like his immediate predecessors. To believe this one need only believe that neither Reagan nor the people around him really believe what they have been saying and writing for many years. It seems much likelier that American foreign policy is headed for real change, first of all in the arena of Soviet-American relations.

The elevation of Nikolai A. Tikhonov, 75, to replace Alexei Kosygin, 76, as premier of the Soviet Union was a less dramatic but also revealing leadership change. It indicates not change in any meaningful sense, but stagnation. That Brezhnev and his supporters turned to a man just as old as the one he was replacing, a man whose claim to power rests uniquely on his long ties to Brezhnev himself, vividly reveals the inability of these Soviet leaders to come to grips with the problem of choosing their successors. This inability foreshadows a sharp struggle for power when these old men finally do leave the scene, with unpredictable but potentially important consequences for Soviet policy.


Given the appalling state of Soviet-American relations at the beginning of 1981, there can hardly be an optimistic prognosis for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the new Reagan Administration comes to office with promises of a muscular, resolute new foreign policy which-if kept-could aggravate Soviet-American relations in the short term. The new President's advisers acknowledge as much, but predict that short-term aggravation will be followed by fundamental improvements. That prediction is questionable.

In effect the Reagan group has been suggesting (since before it took office) that the Soviets can be compelled to revert to an earlier version of superpower coexistence, allowing America to preserve a "margin of safety" in strategic weapons and protect its global interests with greater ease. To pursue this objective the new team now in charge in Washington has proposed an intensified arms competition, a formal break in the continuity of arms control diplomacy, and firmer responses to Soviet interventionism. Reagan himself and many of those now around him have said that the Soviets will have to accept this new American posture eventually, because they won't be able to keep up with the United States in an all-out competition.

The potential weaknesses in this approach seem serious. Most fundamentally, the idea that American superiority can be restored by unilateral American action implies, wrongly, that earlier American superiority was a product of such unilateral action. In fact the United States was unquestionably the world's strongest power for a generation after World War II because other countries were in no position to challenge it. That was largely a historical accident. Now the Soviets can challenge America and can be counted on to do so, particularly in a competition measured in military terms.

Conceivably the United States could "beat" the Soviets in an arms race and regain numerical superiority in many categories of weaponry, but to what end? Overwhelming American superiority in the 1950s and 1960s did not keep the Soviets out of Cuba or Indonesia or Egypt, and even overwhelming American superiority in the late 1980s and 1990s could not guarantee the containment of Soviet power and influence.

Realistically, the new Reagan Administration is unlikely to launch a new anti-Soviet crusade. The European allies-whose participation would be required to make such a crusade look serious-can probably prevent it by themselves. But it is even less likely that the new Administration will abandon its rhetorical positions, embrace SALT II without major changes, and adopt a conciliatory line. Even a second Carter Administration would have rejected conciliation, and SALT II's chances would have been bleak even if Carter had won reelection. So a period of bad Soviet-American relations-brought on by the invasion of Afghanistan-was in the cards.

Afghanistan is one of many reasons why good Soviet-American relations continue to be impossible. Both superpowers contribute others.

On the level of basic communication, the Soviet Union and the United States remain out of touch. Neither side's political leaders are skilled at interpreting or predicting the other's reactions or behavior. The Soviet leaders still cannot believe that America and its capitalist allies will ever accept the Soviet Union unreservedly unless they feel they must. Assurances of "equal security" only seem to tempt the Soviets to stretch the definition of "equal" to their own advantage. Ultimately, these Soviet leaders seem to feel secure only if they are sure that everyone else feels a little insecure.

Americans have been mired for years in a debate over Soviet "intentions," a debate that begins with the wrong question. If we ask, "Does the Soviet Union seek military superiority and a dominant world position?", and insist on a yes or no answer, we get an irrelevant answer. Yes, in some abstract way, these Soviet leaders are sufficiently insecure, proud and ethnocentric to dream of dominating the world. They justify their own rule in ideological terms, and their ideology predicts that communism will inevitably replace capitalism. But how do the Soviet leaders plan to pursue this dream? Do they expect to see it fulfilled? Those are the relevant questions.

Like a religious Jew patiently anticipating his Messiah, the Soviet ruler dreaming of world domination is not structuring his life around this still-unforeseeable occurrence. As Seweryn Bialer has put it so aptly, the Soviet leaders dream of world domination but do not expect to achieve it. By discounting the likelihood of success themselves, the Soviets can easily forgive the steps they take (subjugating Afghanistan, for instance) that arouse in Americans the fear that they are really bent on imminent world domination. In the minds of the old men who have risen to the top of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, any step that enhances Soviet security is easy to justify. Equally, moves that enhance Soviet prestige and power without endangering national security are difficult for them to resist.

A prominent American politician has suggested an extremely useful metaphor for Soviet behavior, but unfortunately it has not taken hold in the American debate over Soviet intentions. Senator Henry M. Jackson has compared the Soviet Union to a hotel burglar who walks down the corridors trying every door. When the doors are securely locked the burglar moves on; when a door opens to his touch, he moves in. The metaphor captures the opportunism that is so central to Soviet behavior. Lenin himself was first of all a consummate opportunist, not a grand strategist.

And this is not the sort of irrational burglar who, if he finds long corridors of well-locked doors, will respond by burning down the hotel, himself inside it. Caution is one enduring Soviet quality for which we can all be grateful.

But caution does not compensate for other Soviet instincts that help insure the impossibility of sensible, steady Soviet-American relations. These Russians want to be admired and respected by Americans and all foreigners, but part of them detests us all, too. We are the object of awe and envy for the Russians, a bad combination. They feel, rightly, that they cannot match us on our terms, so they insist on pressing their claim to power and prestige partly on their own terms. To Westerners this often appears as a Soviet insistence on behaving outrageously. For example, the Soviets insist that we accept the inviolability of their empire, and enunciate a "Brezhnev doctrine" justifying any action needed to preserve it. This is really the doctrine of the divine rights of autocrats, rights America and its allies are unlikely ever to embrace. Similarly the Soviets insist on absurd fabrications like the official explanation that Hafizullah Amin invited the Soviet invasion force to Afghanistan (presumably so that he could be speedily executed by it). This is "Soviet reality," the description of things as they ought to be, without regard to their true nature.

More fundamentally, the Soviets do not share America's interest in preserving international stability. Partly this is a "generational" matter; the United States is a relatively mature great power, one instinctively devoted to maintaining the status quo. The Soviet Union is an adolescent great power, still looking for new ways to show off its power. Furthermore, the Soviets tend to perceive the status quo as inherently favorable to its adversaries; the present international situation does create an overall balance of economic, political and military forces that favors the capitalist world. The Soviets' insecurity and competitive instincts insure that they will continue to try to change this situation to their own advantage, particularly at a time when they perceive real or incipient weaknesses on the capitalists' side.

To the Soviets, superpower equality means more than equal numbers of land- and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. As Murrey Marder has put it, the Soviets interpret equality as "an equal right to shape the world order-or to alter it." No American President has been willing to grant the Soviets that right, and none should.

In recent years the American side has also put obstacles in the path of sensible, constructive Soviet-American relations. Since the 1960s there has been no strong American consensus on a definition of United States interests in its relations with the U.S.S.R. America has sent out contradictory signals, sometimes looking ferocious, as in the 1973 nuclear alert during the Yom Kippur War, sometimes helpless, as in 1975, when Henry Kissinger reverted to bluster after Congress refused to support his response to the Soviet-Cuban operation in Angola. Though Governor Reagan was elected President on promises of a tougher line, he made no attempt in his campaign to establish a clear definition of American interests. This remains a grave weakness in American diplomacy.

So does the absence of practical political and diplomatic techniques for pursuing clearly stated American interests. Both carrots and sticks are necessary to conduct a sensible American policy toward the Soviet Union. In recent years the American political system has been unable to sustain either. Carrots have been vulnerable to all sorts of unpredictable pressures, as demonstrated by the classic example, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which undid the Soviet-American Trade Agreement of 1973. At a moment when a stick might have proven invaluable-when the Soviets were airlifting Cubans into Angola to sway the outcome of a civil war-the American Congress precluded any action.

Recent American governments, and particularly the Carter Administration, have been unable to find an effective diplomatic voice for communicating with Moscow. Thus Carter alarmed and bewildered the Soviet leaders in the first weeks of his Administration (to no good effect, as it turned out) by writing a formal letter to Andrei Sakharov and sending it through the diplomatic pouch. To the very end Carter misunderstood how to send the Soviets a message. In his last weeks in office he insisted on repeated public threats of "the most negative consequences" if the Soviets invaded Poland, threats delivered in an "I dare you" tone, but which were pure bluster given the total absence of sticks and carrots in Carter's political larder at the time.

The United States has also been bedeviled by an inability to sort out the problem of "linkage," or the interrelationships among various strands of Soviet-American relations. This is a consequence of Americans' inability to agree on a clear formulation of their country's interests.

Cyrus Vance and President Carter argued for a time that there should be no linkage between Soviet behavior in some areas and American responses in others. As a general proposition this is utterly unrealistic. Americans are not by nature turners of the other cheek; they are bound to respond to certain kinds of outrages. Thousands of American scientists, for example, are presently boycotting contacts with Soviet colleagues to protest official Soviet treatment of Sakharov. Such expressions of indignation are inevitable and desirable.

As Carter himself discovered in his angry reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan, there are also certain carrots that can and should be withdrawn from the Soviets in response to clearly inadmissible Soviet behavior. The grain embargo was a constructive form of linkage, one that imposed a real punishment on the Soviets that the United States could easily afford. One hopes that President Reagan will realize this too, and abandon his campaign promise to end the embargo, particularly when it is just about to become much more effective.

If there were a consensus in America on what precisely the United States needed from its relations with the Soviets, then there would also be a list of items that should not be used in any applications of linkage. Carter said repeatedly that the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was one of those items-that it was in America's interest regardless of how outrageously the Soviets were behaving. Events may well bear out this evaluation, but Carter failed to build a strong consensus behind the arms treaty, so it too became an unwitting victim of linkage. And Carter himself took some steps in response to Afghanistan that looked like wrong-headed linkage-for example, ordering American diplomats in Moscow to cease most dealings with Soviet officials, as though such diplomatic intercourse was somehow a favor to the U.S.S.R.

President Reagan and his associates indicated before taking office that they agreed with the latest Henry Kissinger line on linkage-that it now must be imposed firmly and universally. Kissinger argues that there should be no new Soviet-American agreements until the Soviet leaders agree to moderate their behavior throughout the world. This may sound like odd advice coming from a principal author of the "Basic Principles Between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.," the 1972 "code of conduct" that the Soviets happily signed and trumpeted but never really respected, even allowing for its deliberate ambiguity. Kissinger's is also a formula for no progress in any Soviet-American negotiations for the foreseeable future.


If the United States is to find better ways to protect its interests in the competition with Soviet power, it will have to reach some internal consensus about its objectives, and then improve its skills as a good locksmith. The best way to dissuade the Soviet burglar from a life of crime is to put strong locks on the doors in his path. But that is no easy trick.

Ironically, the Carter Administration's Third World policy may have been a good locksmith's gambit-ironically, because the Reagan Administration seems destined to abandon Carter's efforts to align the United States with Third World aspirations for independence and human rights. Just two or three years ago the prospect of Soviet-Cuban involvement in a Rhodesian civil war was a principal American anxiety; the Carter Administration, Britain's Conservative government, and a crucial dollop of luck put it to rest. Though comparable situations could easily develop in the 1980s, it is now impossible to predict how the United States will react to them.

But the Carter Administration had no idea how to lock the door on the most ominous potential avenue for Soviet adventurism, the door to Iran. The greatest foreseeable danger to Western interests in the near term is probably a left-wing coup in Iran followed by a call for "fraternal" Soviet assistance. This is all too easy to imagine, and the Western powers would have no easy means of responding. Equally dangerous and also uncomfortably plausible is the thought of a sudden turn in Saudi Arabia, one that might replace the royal family with new leaders unsympathetic to Western oil requirements but susceptible to Soviet blandishments. This, too, is a door that no locksmith can promise to lock.

Neither of these developments is inevitable, though, and there are other, more comforting possibilities for the United States. First among them is the prospect that the Soviets' great internal problems and the strains of empire will combine to induce more caution in Moscow, even if all the doors cannot be firmly locked. Some theorize that domestic troubles actually provoke foreign adventures, but this has never been the case in Soviet history. There are finite limits to Soviet resources, and it seems possible, even likely, that the Soviet leaders will resist the temptations to new adventures until they have better resolved the consequences of previous ones. The Soviet leaders are still cautious men, and very old ones. These are not modern-day equivalents of Adolf Hitler, bent on conquest, marching to well-articulated plans. They lack both faith and assured self-confidence, though their confidence is obviously growing.

And the Soviet Union is changing, conceivably in a positive way. During the last generation all the countries in the Soviet empire except Czechoslovakia have become steadily more responsive to popular desires. If a similar trend becomes demonstrable inside the U.S.S.R., the outside world will be able to take some comfort. And this is certainly possible. The 1980s will surely be a decade of discontinuity in Russia; ten years hence the Soviets could look much less dangerous-or very ominous indeed.

The United States might find some satisfaction in a new sense of national purpose, which the events of 1980 may portend. There will be a stronger American military establishment, a fact that might have some functional value, and is likely to have a positive psychological effect after too many years of perceived "weakness." With any luck, Americans in the 1980s will even come to terms with a world they cannot dominate just because they would like to.

But there is no point in ending on an optimistic note. There are no prospects for good Soviet-American relations-a fact that does not preclude the evolution of better relations in the future, but a fact nevertheless.

1 Russia, The People and the Power, New York: Atheneum, 1976.



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