Courtesy Reuters

Can America Manage Its Soviet Policy?

American policy toward the Soviet Union has been replete with examples of incoherence and inconsistency. Responding in part to Soviet moves and in part to the political competition inherent in our democratic politics, American attitudes have alternated between overemphasis and underemphasis on the threatening nature of the Soviet Union. The result has been inconsistent policy and missed opportunities.

During the cold war, our exaggeration of Soviet capabilities prevented us from negotiating at a time when our position was strong. Subsequently, the ideological interpretation of policy and domestic political constraints prevented American policy from exploiting the diplomatic opportunities in the Sino-Soviet split for more than a decade after it occurred in the late 1950s. Conversely, the enthusiasm for détente in the 1960s and early 1970s led American officials to underestimate the Soviet military buildup, delay an appropriate response, and encourage false domestic expectations of future restraint in Soviet international behavior. Certainly, changing Soviet tactics have helped trigger American policy changes, but the exaggeration in American attitudes may develop as much from domestic political processes and reactions toward previous swings of the policy pendulum as from the actual changes in Soviet behavior.

In the early part of the 1970s, American power was limited by introspective moral and social concerns in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. The United States spent less in real terms on defense, foreign aid, embassies and foreign broadcasting in 1980 than it did in 1960. Moreover, there was no political consensus on how to bring the non-military aspects of American power (such as our nearly two-to-one advantage in gross national product, our grain reserves, our advanced technology) to bear upon U.S.-Soviet relations. Different groups resisted linking issues or insisted on their preferred linkages. In these circumstances of shifting power, domestic disagreement, and ambiguous rules of conduct, it was not surprising that Soviet tactics were adventuresome.

By the end of the decade, American attitudes had changed again, well before the 1980 election and even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

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