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. As American policies switched from détente to renewed hostility, one could not help but wonder how such changes occur, whether a policy with fewer oscillations would be more effective in managing the relationship, and whether the United States is institutionally and politically capable of following a consistent and coherent policy toward the Soviet Union.


The record of American policy since 1945 is far from perfect, but it has not been disastrous. Moreover, incoherence in the process may not be the key consideration. Effectiveness is more important than efficiency, and some periods of relatively efficient management may not have been the most effective. Could one not argue that despite its messiness, U.S. policy has been relatively successful in the postwar period?

At a high level of abstraction, the United States has sought three broad goals in its relationship with the Soviet Union: avoiding nuclear war; containing the spread of Soviet power and ideology; and gradually encouraging change in the nature and behavior of the Soviet Union. It is evident that the United States has been quite successful in the first of these objectives, and that it has also been successful, to a lesser extent, with respect to the second and third.

Nuclear war has been avoided as has all direct conflict (though not limited war with Soviet allies in Korea and Vietnam). Nuclear arsenals on both sides have grown greatly, but there have also been some substantial if imperfect efforts at arms control. Most important, the nuclear arms race has not led to nuclear conflict, and both sides have learned some prudent practices of crisis management since the Berlin and Cuba crises of the cold war period. Attributing credit may be difficult: the fact remains that war has been avoided.

Our success in relation to the second general objective, the containment of Soviet power and ideology, has been subject to more debate. There is the undeniable fact of increased Soviet military capability. During the cold war period the United States enjoyed a distinct nuclear military advantage, which it saw as balancing superior Soviet conventional capabilities. This strategic advantage was at its peak after the Kennedy buildup of the early 1960s. Faced with steady Soviet military growth, American policymakers in the mid-1960s concluded that trying to maintain strategic superiority would be both infeasible and too costly to attempt. Subsequently, Vietnam and domestic turmoil diverted resources away from the strategic budget until Soviet gains in some categories, particularly land-based missiles (ICBMs), led some Americans to fear that even rough parity had been lost. While the significance of ICBM vulnerability is highly contested, and few American officials have expressed willingness to trade forces with the Soviet Union, most Americans agree that Soviet military power has greatly increased since the early 1960s. They have tended to disagree, however, over how inevitable that change was, and how significant it was for our foreign policy objectives.

American success at political containment is also debated in part because of ambiguities over whether the goal was the containment of Soviet power or of communist ideology. Some argue that communism is the threat, whether dominated by Moscow or not. From this point of view, the existence of Marxist regimes in Angola, Laos, Vietnam, Kampuchea, Mozambique, South Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Nicaragua is a serious setback for American foreign policy. Moreover, even those who do not worry about the ideological coloration of poor countries would admit that some of these governments are more susceptible to Soviet than to American influence. This represents an extension of Soviet influence to areas far beyond its borders.

On the other hand, it can be argued that there has been a diffusion of power from both superpowers since the 1950s. In key areas such as Europe and Japan, the political appeal of Soviet ideology has greatly diminished since the 1940s and 1950s. Yugoslavia began the fracturing of Soviet ideological power, and the Soviets as well as the United States "lost" China. The Soviets as well as the Americans have seen Third World clients collapse and governments turn hostile. Moreover, marginal Third World gains are nowhere nearly as significant to the global balance of power as the fact that the key areas of Western Europe, Japan and the Middle East-while geographically closer to the Soviet Union-have remained politically closer to the United States. In addition, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe is far from the politically secure bastion that the Soviets might hope. In short, while the United States has not prevented the Soviets from gaining some influence in the Third World, from a geopolitical point of view the Soviets have tended to win the small ones rather than the big ones.

In terms of economic power, while the Soviet economy grew impressively in the postwar period up until recently, so also did the American economy. In fact, in recent years, the Soviet Union has not closed the economic gap with the United States and still remains at little better than half the size of the American economy. Khrushchev's 1959 claims to overtake and bury the United States have turned out to be hollow boasts. Although American economic preponderance has declined in the postwar period, with the U.S. share of gross world product dropping from 33 percent to 22 percent of the total over the past 30 years, this relative decline has not been matched by a commensurate Soviet gain. On the contrary, the Soviet share of gross world product also declined in the past decade from 12.5 percent to 11.5 percent of the total.1 Moreover, most of the American loss of relative share in world product went not to the Soviet Union but to our allies in Europe and Japan. The recovery of Europe and Japan was our deliberate foreign policy objective, in part as a means of combating communist influence, and our success in maintaining those alliances means that our loss has not represented a Soviet gain.

A third general objective of American policy in the postwar period, albeit one that has not been pursued at all times, has been to encourage change in the nature and behavior of the Soviet Union. This has varied from George Kennan's conception in the 1940s of waiting for Soviet power to mellow to the Reagan Administration's efforts to use economic pressures to accelerate change inside the Soviet Union.

There have been significant changes in the Soviet Union. While Lenin's authoritarian party structure remains, Stalin's excesses have been alleviated. Some of these changes have been influenced by contacts with Western society. Awareness of Western affluence and ideas stimulates popular expectations and makes it more difficult for Soviet leaders to portray America in terms of simple "demonology." It is far less certain, however, that deliberate American governmental efforts have had significant results in bringing about social change inside the Soviet Union, and in some instances they have had contrary effects. From time to time, efforts to foster emigration, internal liberalization and human rights through quiet diplomacy or increased contacts have had some marginal beneficial effects. But this third objective is a difficult one to manage when dealing with a society like the Soviet Union, and it may be just as well that, for the most part, this objective has tended to rank a distant third in our priorities.

Finally, one could argue that although oscillations have occurred in U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, the behavior is not purely cyclical. Things never return to exactly where they were. And oscillations are more typical of some aspects of the relationship than of others. For example, if one looks at defense spending or public attitudes of trust in the Soviet Union, the oscillation is quite striking. But if one looks at trade and social exchanges, there has been a continuing upward trend rather than a reversion to the levels of earlier periods. The return to hostility since the late 1970s was not exactly the return to cold war which some observers had predicted. On the contrary, a residue of trade and contacts, as well as arms control negotiations and careful crisis management, makes the current period of renewed hostility quite different from the 1950s trough in the cycle of attitudes.

Thus an optimist could argue that the United States has not done all that badly in pursuing its major objectives in the U.S.-Soviet relationship over the past four decades. The optimist might argue that American policy has been like a drunk coming home from a bar. He may wander from the path from time to time, and follow a circuitous and inefficient route, but the important point is that he eventually reaches home.

A pessimist would be less complacent. Maybe we have just been lucky thus far. Some of the wanderings were prolonged and painful detours, and in a nuclear age there is always the danger of a disastrous fall into an open manhole. Moreover, the metaphor can be misleading in implying that there is ever an end to the continuing need to be attentive in managing the relationship. Even if one agrees that the postwar record has not been all that bad, there are significant past and potential costs to a policy marked by incoherence and inconsistency. Certainly the recent experience of negotiating major agreements in trade and arms control and then failing to ratify them, or of applying sanctions inconsistently, makes it difficult to build a long-term framework for managing the relationship. There are several reasons why an inefficient process is likely to have costs, if only the cost of opportunities foregone. It may be that equivalent or better outcomes could be achieved at less cost to our society if we followed a more coherent and consistent policy process.

First, oscillation and incoherence can be costly in terms of encouraging Soviet intransigence, as well as wariness about cooperative U.S. positions when we turn toward them. Desired Soviet responses to our tactical moves will be delayed if Soviet leaders learn that by simply waiting they will find that the United States will drop the tactic and turn to something else. In negotiations, after the Soviets reject an American proposal, parts of the American polity often spend their time bargaining publicly with each other rather than with the Soviet Union.

Second, and more dangerous, incoherence and inconsistency can lead to Soviet misperceptions of American intentions and concerns. Stalin must certainly have been surprised by Truman's reaction in Korea so soon after the U.S. secretary of state had declared it to be outside our defense perimeter. Khrushchev seems to have been surprised by Kennedy's reaction to the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba so soon after accepting defeat in the Bay of Pigs episode. In the 1970s, the Soviets argued that the fall of Saigon and the failure to respond in Angola indicated that it was the vague Marxist notion of a historical change in the "correlation of forces" between capitalism and socialism which was compelling the United States to follow a policy of détente; they may have been surprised by renewed demands for defense spending and the return of a period of hostility at the end of the decade.

Soviet intentions are opaque to us because of Soviet secrecy. Our intentions may be opaque to them because of incoherence and cacaphony. If they are a "black box" to us, we may confuse them with "white noise." Efforts to sort out our intended from unintended signals and to understand the intentions of our policy must be difficult for the Soviets. For example, even practiced observers of the American scene disagreed on how to interpret the episode of an alleged Soviet combat brigade in Cuba in 1979-a clumsily handled incident that set back the ratification of strategic arms limitation talks (SALT II). Some saw it as an accidental product of the impending presidential election campaigns; others believed it was "no accident," but a signal that Carter had turned his back on détente and arms control. Sometimes creating uncertainty in the mind of an adversary can enhance deterrence. On the other hand, misperceptions may lead to unintended confrontations in which deterrence can break down. In dealing with a stronger Soviet Union in an age of nuclear parity, the United States may not have as much leeway for incoherence, inconsistency and inefficiency as we had in earlier periods. In an age when two such disparate societies aim 50,000 nuclear weapons at each other, the costs of miscalculation could be catastrophic.

A third cost of incoherence and inconsistency lies in weakening support from our allies and other countries. This might be called the "third audience problem." Most foreign policy issues involve at least two audiences. Political leaders try to mobilize domestic support for their policies as well as to send signals to foreign governments. But an effective policy toward the Soviet Union involves more than just the U.S. public and the Soviet government.

Success in balancing Soviet power is dependent on allying major countries to the United States rather than to the Soviet Union, and the economic role of other countries is becoming increasingly important. An effective strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union cannot be considered in bilateral terms alone. With reduced American preponderance, more attention must be given to the concerns of allied and other countries. Oscillation and inconsistency confuse not only the Soviets, but also our allies, and make it more difficult to maintain a common position. Not only was it impossible to obtain allied agreement to cancel the natural gas pipeline from the Soviet Union after the United States had lifted its embargo against Soviet grain exports, but the effort to do so managed to turn an East-West issue into a West-West dispute and presented the Soviets with a political windfall. Of course, dividing the Western Alliance has been a longstanding Soviet foreign policy objective, and maintaining such alliances is a key to an effective U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.

Thus, one can agree with the optimist that the overall management of the U.S.-Soviet relationship in the postwar period has not proven disastrous-but also accept the pessimist's argument that the past and potential costs of incoherence and inconsistency involved in the management of the policy are too high to allow one to feel comfortable for the future.


No foreign policy can be fully consistent. By its nature, foreign policy involves balancing competing objectives in a frustrating and changeable world. Every country faces a problem of relating ends and means-of defining its goals and interests so that they can be met within available levels of resources.

The inconsistency and incoherence in American foreign policy, however, are deeply rooted in our political culture and institutions. The eighteenth-century founders of the Republic deliberately chose to deal with the danger of tyrannical power by fragmenting and balancing rather than centralizing and civilizing the exercise of power. In a sense, a potential degree of incoherence and inconsistency in foreign policy is part of the price we pay for the way that was chosen to defend our freedoms.

In the constitutional "invitation to struggle" for control of foreign policy, the executive branch has certain natural advantages over the Congress. Even so, the Congress has a broad set of legitimate means to block, divert or alter foreign policy initiatives if it so chooses. The system tends to work best when two conditions are fulfilled: first, when the President has a relatively coherent strategy and a smooth policy process in the executive branch and, second, when there is a general executive-legislative compact, sometimes symbolized as "bipartisanship" in foreign policy. By and large, this was the situation during the cold war, when relative harmony between the branches of government rested on congressional deference to the President on the big things; sufficient centralization in the Congress to foster congressional leadership; and a general consensus on the Soviet threat.

But one should not idealize the cold-war policy process. The cold war era was marked by difficulty in framing and maintaining support for a strategy that established a consistent and effective relationship between ends and means in American policy. This difficulty was exacerbated by our liberal political cultural reaction to the harsh reality of Soviet expansion, and the resulting excoriation of the Soviets in our electoral competition. When liberal moralism faced the reality of amoral Soviet policy, there was a sense of shock and indignation. Analogies were drawn to the 1930s and Stalin was portrayed as similar to Hitler. In such circumstances, it was difficult to sustain Kennan's conception of selective containment by limited means since it depended on "the ability of national leaders to make and maintain national distinctions between vital and peripheral interests, adversary capabilities and intentions, negotiations and appeasement, flexibility and direction."2

The exaggerated threat described in the Truman policy document, NSC-68, called for means that were far in excess of what was domestically feasible-which in turn was part of the reason for the exaggeration. A gap developed between election rhetoric and policy implementation. The Republicans spoke of "rolling back" communism in 1952, but within six months Eisenhower adopted more modest goals and his fiscal conservatism led him to reduce the demand for military means. Similarly, Kennedy came into office sounding like an echo of NSC-68, but later in 1963 he tried to adjust goals and means in a more modest direction in some aspects of policy (though not in Vietnam). In short, even in the cold war era when the parts of the political system worked relatively harmoniously with each other, that harmony had to be purchased at a considerable price.

In an effort to relate ends and means, Nixon and Kissinger developed a strategy that placed fewer demands on American resources. An opening to China was used as a means to encourage better Soviet behavior. Arms control agreements codified Soviet parity, but were also to constrain further Soviet growth at a period when our defense budget was under domestic attack. Trade and a web of cooperation agreements were tacitly linked to improved Soviet behavior in relation to Third World crises. The Nixon approach to détente was dictated not by goodwill toward the Soviet Union, but by the need to adjust to changes in Soviet military power and in American domestic conditions.

An effective foreign policy strategy must set forth a general long-run vision that combines a reasonable and persuasive assessment of Soviet intentions and capabilities, combined with a clear picture of our long-term goals and the feasibility of our means for achieving these goals. In that regard, the Nixon concept of a two-track approach combining selective containment with economic incentives made sense. Equally important, a strategy must include a third dimension, which is the domestic political acceptance of the strategy as desirable and feasible. In that area the Nixon-Kissinger strategy was not successful.

The usual explanation is that Watergate derailed the Nixon strategy. Watergate certainly had an effect in contributing to public mistrust and sapping executive strength. It may also have emboldened the Soviets to take greater risks. But the trouble with Watergate as a full explanation is that it pays insufficient heed to some of the deeper trends in the American political structure. Not only was the Nixon-Kissinger strategy overly ambitious in its broad definition of American interests, but it was difficult to implement in our political system. It relied on a degree of fine-tuning always difficult to manage. It relied on secrecy in a system in which the media is a virtual fourth branch of government. It depended upon personal control, which worked when things went well, but which left few congressional and bureaucratic allies to share the burden when things went poorly. Moreover, it provided insufficient points of access for allied countries to learn what was happening. Only when there is such access can allied leaders gradually adjust their policies without suffering public shocks that are jolting to democratic politicians.

Eventually the Nixon strategy succumbed to the typical American pressure to exaggeration as a means of building and maintaining consensus. It was not the more traditional exaggeration of the Soviet threat, but the exaggeration of the degree of change in the Soviet Union. Pressed by Vietnam and domestic turmoil, Nixon compensated by exaggerating the durability of the new structure of peace that was being created. Détente was oversold to the American public. The net effect was a sense of deception and disillusion in response to Soviet actions that, in turn, accentuated the ensuing swing of the cycle in the direction of renewed hostility.

At the same time, the domestic problems of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy were also related to the period. It might have been a more successful strategy in an earlier period, but by the late 1960s the American political constellation was undergoing profound changes that would have made any strategy difficult. A basic trend was the ideological realignment of the two major political parties that started with the Goldwater candidacy in 1964 and culminated in the Reagan election of 1980. During the two decades of realignment, party activists tended to pull the two parties away from the center. Not surprisingly, two of the casualties were the post-1941 bipartisan tradition in foreign policy and the related custom of deference to the President-two of the conditions that had helped to smooth relations between the separate branches of government in the cold war era.

In this period, American society was torn by reactions to the Vietnam War, reactions against the welfare state, the cultural changes of the 1960s, the revival of religious fundamentalism, and the economic and demographic rise of the South and West. Television played a role in forcing international news upon the non-internationalist majority of the public, and this increased the volatility in public attitudes. The corrosive effects on public trust of deceptive practices by Presidents Johnson and Nixon contributed to the development of anti-establishment attitudes.

Accompanying the rise of anti-establishment attitudes was the "democratization" of institutions. This took several forms. In the Congress, the weakening of seniority and the committee system opened opportunities for younger congressmen, but also weakened congressional leadership. The net effect was to make executive-legislative bargaining more difficult and to open the way for more enterprising congressmen (and ambitious staffs) to create surges in attention and neglect of various issues affecting U.S.-Soviet relations. In the society as a whole, the emphasis on participation and reduction in authority tended to erode deference to the President.

Thus the 1970s would have been a difficult period in which to implement any strategy of relations toward the Soviet Union, much less one that depended upon fine-tuning, linkage, secrecy and personal control. As the decade wore on and the conservative trend in the cycle of American politics strengthened, the domestic climate for détente worsened. Renewed hostility at the end of the decade was a product of the coincidence of a conservative trend in American politics interacting with a Soviet military buildup and the extension of Soviet-Cuban military influence in several Third World countries. Given the earlier American exaggeration of a benign shift in Soviet behavior at the height of détente, some increase in defense expenditures and toughening of attitudes was appropriate in the 1970s, but the subsequent degree of renewed hostility was strongly affected by domestic politics.


Looking ahead, there are grounds to hope for improvement in our management of relations with the Soviet Union. Public opinion at the mass level is still centrist in its demands for a policy that balances "peace and strength," though mass public opinion does not weigh international issues very intensely and events can pull the non-internationalist opinion (of those little concerned on a daily basis) back and forth between its dual concerns. More important is the fact that the process of party realignment may be nearing its completion, with the attendant effect that party activist opinion may move back toward the center as the activists focus on winning the mass vote rather than struggling for the soul of the party.

If so, the result may be a return to stronger and longer presidencies. This would alleviate the discontinuities caused by the turnover of the top of the executive branch in our system following each change of presidency. In addition, it could improve the prospects for bipartisanship in foreign policy and thus ease the struggles between the executive and legislative branches. An optimist might add the hope that economic constraints and the lessons of the 1970s may deter the new Soviet leadership from peripheral adventures of the sort that proved such irritants in American politics in the last decade.

But even if the optimists are correct, there are still problems to be faced, as we saw from our inspection of the cold war period. The problems of exaggeration will remain-though ironically, if the optimists are correct, the next exaggerations may be of a benign change in Soviet policy rather than the current exaggeration of the Soviet threat. Developing a clear strategy for the long run is not easy in American politics. Indeed, it is difficult for Americans to think of relations with the Soviet Union as a long-term process to be managed indefinitely rather than as a near-term problem to be "solved."

The first requirement for successful long-term management is a flexible strategy that combines a sensible vision of the future and definition of our interests with appropriate means in a manner that can sustain domestic support. Since 1947, there have been variants of one basic strategy-containment. The broadest choice in strategy is between containment and totally new approaches. If one assumes that options such as isolation or a U.S.-Soviet condominium are not feasible in domestic or international politics, then there are two basic alternatives to containment; one in the direction of a more active confrontation with the Soviet Union and the other in the direction of a less active American role.

Those who are deeply pessimistic about our ability ever successfully to manage Soviet relations might be tempted to urge a less active American role. From this point of view, the only sensible strategy is to encourage the development of a multipolar world in which Soviet power will be balanced and contained by others as much as by the United States. So long as nuclear bipolarity is combined with ideological rivalry, the American public will remain obsessed with the Soviet Union, and election campaigns will press politicians toward exaggerations in the formulation of policy. In a truly multipolar world, one would logically have to consider the Soviet Union as a potential partner in shifting coalitions balancing Chinese, Japanese and European power. In such circumstances, our domestic politics could show less of a fixation on the Soviet Union, and policy might be easier to manage.

There are a number of problems with such a strategic vision. Our experience of multipolar balances comes from the pre-nuclear age. There may be greater dangers of miscalculation in the management of deterrence if coalitions shift quickly in the nuclear age. Moreover, even if the end result were desirable, it might be destabilizing to try to get from here to there, since the process could well involve the massive nuclear arming of Germany and Japan with uncertain effects on Soviet perceptions. In fostering such proliferation, we might be throwing wide open the lid on Pandora's nuclear box as others rush to emulation. Moreover, the benefits in terms of American politics and policies toward the Soviet Union may prove to be ephemeral. After all, there were ideological hostility and wide oscillations in our policies toward the Soviet Union in the period of multipolar balance before World War II.

There is a kernel of wisdom in the vision of the multipolar strategy. A degree of multipolarity exists at the political, if not the military, level. Containment of Soviet power is not a task for the United States alone, as Nixon's opening to China made clear. And the increased economic strength of Europe and Japan must be factored into any strategy. It is even conceivable that over the very long term, such a world may evolve. Yet a goal of creating such a world would not only be difficult to achieve: the mere setting of that goal would have the high cost of threatening the basis of the postwar alliance strategy that has worked so far, in return for uncertain domestic and international benefits in the future.

The other major alternative to containment is an active policy of confrontation designed to force change in the Soviet Union. At times the Reagan Administration has shown inclinations in this direction, though by and large the main lines of its policy have hewed to the existing path of containment. Those who urge a confrontation strategy offer a long-run vision of a Soviet empire in decline. Economic growth has slumped from six percent to roughly two percent a year. Corruption and inefficiency are rampant. Demographic trends could exacerbate the nationalities problem inside the Soviet Union, and there is restiveness in the empire in Eastern Europe. In these circumstances, it is argued, curtailment of trade and scientific exchanges and the threat of a new arms race could force the Soviets to change, or at least force the Soviets to turn from expensive external adventures to domestic economic reforms.

This strategy also raises fundamental questions. Is it prudent in a world of nuclear-armed powers to try to press an opponent to the wall? The reckless performance of Austria-Hungary on the eve of World War I would indicate that declining empires can be very dangerous actors in a balance of power. Moreover, do we really know how to bring about reform in the Soviet Union? Is there good reason to believe that faced with a choice, the Soviets will choose butter rather than guns? Or that they can be prevented from producing adequate guns? A recent CIA report indicates that "the ability of the Soviet economy to remain viable in the absence of imports is much greater than that of most, possibly all, other industrialized countries. . . . Consequently the susceptibility of the Soviet Union to economic leverage tends to be limited."3

Nor is it clear that in a period of low economic growth we have the means to implement such a strategy, either in terms of budgetary resources or in the curtailment of trade that is profitable to significant electoral groups like farmers, or to our allies. The effort to enforce such a strategy would certainly prove costly, yet the historical record shows that Soviet resistance is likely to be far more coherent and sustained than will be American persistence or consistency in the strategy. Once again, we are faced with a strategic option which presents formidable problems of feasibility combined with high present costs in return for very uncertain future benefits.

Thus the difficulties of the alternatives, both in terms of the uncertainty of their goals and the feasibility of their means, drive us back to the historically proven center ground of containment. But there are many paths among which to choose in the center, and the slogan of containment can be misleading. If containment is thought of as balancing Soviet power by a variety of political and diplomatic means, then it is merely the traditional common sense of international politics. But if containment implies a broad definition of American interests that leads to efforts to counter every Soviet or Soviet-allied action in the Third World, it would soon surpass our means, including the critical resource of domestic political support. The lesson of Vietnam is that an overly ambitious definition of interests which creates a gap between ends and means can lead to severe oscillations in foreign policy attitudes. One might label a centrist strategy as "containment with communication" or a "managed balance-of-power" approach.


The important point is that conflict with the Soviet Union is endemic in the structure of the bipolar relationship. Hopes to terminate the conflict quickly by accommodation or victory are unlikely to be realized. The problem is one of long-term management. At the same time, successful management of a balance of power requires communication and negotiation among the opponents. And a successful foreign policy for managing such a balance requires reliance upon multiple sources of strength-economic, political, military-and a selectivity in goals which relates ends and means. There are three principles to guide such a strategy.

First is the importance of a moderate design to insure that policy can be durable and robust. Some aspects of our policy process can be improved, but others are deeply rooted in our political culture and institutions. Our problems are more constitutional than organizational. There are no quick fixes. A basic principle for a durable strategy is to cut the coat of foreign policy to fit the rather rare eighteenth-century domestic cloth that we have inherited. The importance of this principle cannot be overstated: fine-tuning is impossible, secrecy difficult, oversimplification likely, and pluralism of views of the Soviet Union unavoidable. Thus a successful strategy must be moderate in three ways: in its definition of American interests; in its cautious rather than optimistic expectations of Soviet behavior; and in its assessment of American politics-meaning a hardheaded appraisal of what resources the electorate will devote to what interests and for how long. This does not mean a low profile in countering Soviet power. On the contrary, it means recognizing that only a moderate strategy will be robust enough to survive our domestic climate and durable in the face of any tendency toward pendular swings in attitudes. Only a moderate strategy will allow leaders to close the gap between ends and means. The point seems obvious until one reflects on how often we have failed to achieve it.

A second principle is that the Soviet Union is also unlikely to change quickly, but it does evolve slowly and unevenly. We will continue to be faced with a closed and secretive society which is difficult to understand. On the other hand, the Soviet Union has opened up somewhat over the past 30 years. There are more contacts. There is more sophistication in the perception of outside reality. There are more pinholes letting light into the black box. Moreover, recognition of this second principle helps with our domestic politics. Specifying a broadly shared long-range goal is an important precondition for giving legitimacy to the policy choices needed to undergird a durable strategy. Avoiding nuclear war by balancing Soviet power and gradually reducing the risks associated with nuclear deterrence is such a goal. If misperception and miscalculation are the conditions most likely to foster a breakdown of nuclear deterrence, then one of the long-term security objectives in our strategy should be to encourage that process of evolving transparency and communication.

The Soviet Union remains opaque to us, as a number of legislators noted when trying to decide on how to vote on the MX missile. "When you play cards against someone," noted Congressman Dan Glickman of Kansas, "you ought to know something about them. Unfortunately, our judgments turn out to be highly subjective for the most part." Or in the words of Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, "We try to figure out where they're coming from, but it could well be the blind leading the blind."4 Increased contact and communication can help to poke holes in the "black box" of Soviet society and gradually increase its transparency.

Change inside the Soviet Union will be gradual and hard to gauge, and we can at best encourage, rather than hope to guide it. Nonetheless, this possibility suggests that a managed balance-of-power strategy should involve routine and regular communication. From this point of view, our tactics should include engaging the Soviets in prolonged strategic discussions; holding talks at high level on force structure and stabilization measures; and efforts to consider crisis prevention techniques, not necessarily in the expectation of signing formal agreements, but as a means of enhancing transparency. It also follows that trade, scientific and cultural exchanges, and tourism should be evaluated by the same standard and not solely by the current criteria of economic benefits and short-term security interests. A managed balance-of-power strategy does not rest on expectations that increasing engagement will win Soviet trust or greatly constrain Soviet actions. Nor does it rest on any immediate liberalizing effects of "goulash communism." In the first instance, it rests on the importance of enhancing transparency and communication.

The third principle to guide a more consistent strategy is that indirect means of containing or balancing Soviet power are as important as our direct dealings with the Soviets. Both because the Soviets will resist efforts to change them quickly, and because our politics tend to undermine our own persistence in pursuing such efforts, our direct efforts will often face frustration. An indirect approach is more likely to succeed both at home and abroad. We may be most successful in containing Soviet power by constraining their opportunities in the rest of the world. Maintaining the Western Alliance has been the key to the success of containment thus far, and this is an area where the pluralism of American institutions can be a help rather than a hindrance by providing multiple points of access and reassurance.

The growing complexity of world politics, with more actors and issues, and the inevitability of turmoil in the Third World mean that we can never hope to completely control the milieu of world politics as an element in a strategy of containment. But a recognition of these problems and of the diffusion of economic power to our allies should reinforce our attention to the indirect dimensions of our policy in managing relations with the Soviet Union. A strong world economy with effective linking among the non-communist market economies may be a more robust economic strategy than one which tries to fine-tune East-West trade. An effective strategy rests on the comparative advantage of America's economic power and presence in the world economy as well as on the traditional political and military aspects of balancing Soviet power.

In addition to these basic principles, a managed balance-of-power strategy has important implications for dealing with the main issues in the relationship: defense, crisis management, trade and human rights. Managing the defense and nuclear issues is basic. A strong defense and clear signals are essential for an effective policy of deterrence toward the Soviet Union, and domestic and allied confidence in the strength of our deterrent is a necessary condition for all the rest of policy toward the Soviets. Uncertainty about security exacerbates the domestic debate and hinders effective steps toward arms control. The practice of exaggerating the Soviet threat as a means of generating support for the defense budget encourages inconsistency when the public eventually reacts to the exaggeration. To counter this tendency requires improving estimates, integrating arms control with defense planning, negotiating in smaller (but related) packages, and avoiding the rhetorical excesses that prove disruptive to retaining allied and domestic support for a consistent defense program over the long term.

In the area of crisis prevention and crisis management we should eschew large dramatic gestures and formal agreements such as those of 1972 and 1973, but engage the Soviets in quiet discussions of classic techniques (neutralization, buffer states, spheres of concern) for avoiding crisis escalation. Such talks could extend or be related to discussions of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons or of particularly dangerous conventional weaponry. Equally important will be efforts at home to redefine our interests in the less expansive terms of selective containment. As originally outlined by George Kennan, the most cost-effective way of containing Soviet power was through reliance on the nationalistic currents of other states. This entails learning to live with disagreeable regimes, and distinguishing those Third World situations where our interests would be deeply involved (e.g., Saudi Arabia) from those where they are less centrally involved (e.g., Southeast Asia).

A critical problem, of course, is maintaining domestic support for carefully graded degrees of interest in Third World conflicts, particularly since adventuresome Soviet policies such as those pursued in the 1970s may create a degree of American interest where none existed before. And such questions can become weapons in domestic political debates. Two devices can be used to prevent such debates from driving a managed balance-of-power strategy seriously off course. The first is presidential education of the public about the problem of limited ends and means. The second is a continuing quiet dialogue with the Soviet Union about the interests they should have in the process of crisis prevention, if they wish to avoid a repetition of the escalation in public hostility toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s with its concomitant effects on defense issues and trade. This is not the tactic of linkage; rather it is educating the Soviets in the inevitability of inherent linkage through a better understanding of public opinion in the United States.

As for the economic component of a managed balance-of-power strategy, we must avoid too ambitious an approach. While it is important to control a narrow set of technologies where we are sure of the direct military relevance, we know too little about the net effect on the Soviet economy and have too poor a grasp of our own or of allied political processes to engage in a policy of detailed linkage or fine-tuned leverage. The signals we would try to send would inevitably come across as too confusing to justify the costs that we would incur in trying to send them. Because interest groups will always be hard to control-witness Reagan's capitulation to the farmers-and the effects of restrictions on the Soviet Union are debatable, it is better to focus controls on those situations (such as trade in technology that shortens military lead times) where a clear and present danger is demonstrable.

Moreover, an effective policy of broad denial is simply not available at levels of cost acceptable to the Western Alliance-which remains a central factor in a balance-of-power strategy. Whatever Americans may think of the wisdom of their position, the Europeans and Japanese can be expected to weigh the economic dimensions of any policy toward the Soviet Union quite heavily. At the same time, any effective efforts at denial will increasingly require their cooperation. Since a broad denial policy is ruled out as infeasible and costly to Alliance relations, the United States should concentrate on obtaining Alliance agreement to restrict a narrow set of strategic technologies. It is critical that disputes over East-West economic ties not be allowed to disrupt an effective intra-Western trading system. In short, the American comparative advantage lies in strengthening the open international economy in which we loom large and the Soviets small, rather than squandering Western unity over futile efforts to prevent the Soviets from gaining any benefits from that economy.

Finally, we need caution and realism in our expectations of bringing about social and political change in the Soviet Union. An idealistic concern for human rights is a domestic American reality which a managed balance-of-power strategy must accept. Americans cannot live by balance of power alone. Nonetheless, a confrontational human rights policy is likely to be counterproductive in terms of the interests of Soviet citizens. Sometimes, however, minor improvements can be made through quiet diplomacy. In general, the fate of human rights in the Soviet Union is adversely affected by the worsening of the overall climate of U.S.-Soviet relations. Government actions that promote social contact and quiet diplomacy rather than public government efforts targeted at individuals or Soviet policies are more likely to serve both human rights and our long-term objective of enhancing the degree of transparency and communication in the relationship.


Even if a managed balance-of-power strategy must be matched with American political reality, there are still some specific steps that might be taken to improve the quality of the fit. One device would be to establish a joint legislative-executive "Soviet assessment commission" to produce an annual assessment of the military, economic, and political aspects of the Soviet Union and its policies. Four members might be appointed by the President and four by the opposition leadership in the Congress. They might jointly select a ninth member to chair them. Their task would be to assess intelligence information and produce an annual report which would be the subject of annual hearings before the foreign affairs committees (or possibly a joint select committee). Such a report need not, indeed probably would not, be unanimous; but it could provide the focal point for debates which might well have a more central tendency than the current situation where zealous congressional staffers (usually from the wings of the two parties) work with executive-branch leakers to produce a national debate over estimates that stress extreme positions. For example, a commission could lead to a more careful discussion of the intelligence estimates on Soviet military spending that are currently often misused to support particular objectives.5 While a Soviet assessment commission is not a panacea, presidential commissions have frequently worked to depoliticize issues in American politics, and this pattern might be adapted to an interbranch mechanism.

A variety of suggestions have also been made for organizational improvements of the executive branch's conduct of Soviet policy. For example, Marshall Brement, a State Department official with Soviet experience, has suggested the appointment of one official to oversee all aspects of the relationship; creation of a special bureau in the State Department; and improved development and use of expertise, including our Embassy in Moscow.6 Others have suggested that centralization of control over special subjects such as technology transfer be located in the White House. Such organizational changes have their pros and cons, depending on the circumstances of particular administrations and the presidential style in foreign policy. But they are of minor importance when compared with the question of a clear executive process and the importance of having a single authoritative spokesman on foreign affairs. The Carter Administration developed a useful interagency coordinating procedure to inform the diverse arms of the executive branch of the various activities in U.S.-Soviet relations, but such a procedure was dwarfed in importance by the President's lack of clear strategy and failure to insure that only one person spoke for him on the issue.

The American system allows only one czar of U.S.-Soviet relations-the President-and he should either use his secretary of state as his sole spokesman or replace him. While the National Security Council must play a role in coordinating the efforts of many agencies, the role of the National Security Advisor should be restricted to that of facilitator of the policy process. Not only would this clarify who is in charge, but using the State Department provides more regular access for allies and a better use of our own expertise.

The issue of expertise in the executive branch is important. Although controversy over the U.S.-Soviet issue in domestic politics has always tended to tar the experts, that tendency seems to have grown worse in the past decade. Moreover, bureaucratic conflict in Washington increases the temptation to deal with the Soviet Embassy in Washington rather than go through the difficult process of clearing instructions to be sent to our embassy in Moscow. The result is to deprive ourselves of the benefit of important expertise. And the use of our embassy provides more occasions for our ambassador to make contact with top Soviet officials, as well as to insure that the messages are delivered in the terms that are intended.

Using our expertise is crucial when one is dealing with societies organized as differently as the United States and the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders are recruited by very different routes, and their frame of reference is unique to their own society. The temptation of mirror-image thinking even infects some intelligence analysts. The intelligence services have tended to share rather than counteract the assumptions common to Washington at any given time. The remedy must be a greater investment and broader institutional use and protection for people specially trained to understand the Russian language and Soviet political culture.

Greater public sophistication about the Soviet Union is also an important component of improvements that have been suggested at the attitudinal level. Educational efforts in schools and for the media can help. But most important is the President's use of what Teddy Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit." No other figure in the society commands the same attention. Presidents can help to shape public attitudes to expect less drama, fewer "solutions," and more consistent long-term management involving both conflict and cooperation in U.S.-Soviet relations. They can also stress the importance of a strategy which is more modest in defining interests, and combines balancing Soviet power (by various means) with communication and continuous engagement.

The way a president presents his programs can have a strong effect on the public attitudes that are necessary to sustain his efforts. Given that public opinion polls show sustained support for a policy of "peace and strength," a two-track policy would seem a natural one in terms of domestic as well as international politics. But the non-internationalist majority can be pulled back and forth between its two concerns by random events and electoral campaigns. Depending on which value seems more threatened at the moment, the non-internationalist majority is drawn into a coalition with those who stress peace or those who stress strength. In practice, presidential leadership and communication are essential ingredients in explaining to the public how the balance is being maintained between firmness and cooperation in the actual implementation of a two-track policy. The best hope to moderate this volatility in attitudes is for a president to elaborate a two-track approach such as the managed balance-of-power strategy.


In sum, while a number of specific measures can be taken to improve the process by which we manage our relations with our principal adversary, there are strict limits to what such changes can achieve. We can alleviate the tendency to oversimplify and exaggerate which tends to amplify the oscillations in our policy. We can improve executive and legislative procedures and try to reduce the incoherence of different parts of our polity speaking with different voices or taking contradictory actions. And we can hope that the tides in our storms of political realignment will eventually ebb sufficiently to allow the return of the centrist orientation, bipartisan policy, and cooperation between the branches that reduce the excesses that otherwise grow out of our constitutional structure.

But our political culture and institutions do not change quickly, or easily. The implications of this simple-sounding proposition are very significant. It means that there will always be limits to the types of strategies that we can successfully follow. As stated earlier, our ability to manage the Soviet relationship is less a matter of organization than of choosing an appropriate strategy. The basic principle for a durable strategy is to cut the foreign policy coat to fit our domestic political cloth.

This does not mean appeasing the Soviet Union or failing to balance Soviet power. Quite the contrary. What it means is that if we pick an inappropriately ambitious strategy, we will fail in the long run, because the American domestic political process will produce oscillations and inconsistency. In a nuclear age, we ignore such reality at our peril.

An appropriate strategy must be modest enough to fit our domestic capabilities; it must focus on indirect effects through maintaining our alliances as much as on the direct bilateral relationship with the Soviet Union; and it should combine balancing Soviet power with economic engagement and continual communication. Over time, such a strategy may gradually increase the transparency in the relationship, reducing the dangers of miscalculation and increasing somewhat our understanding of what goes on within the opaque Soviet society. Our strategy should not only manage the current threat of Soviet power, but should gradually seek to improve the conditions that make it so difficult for a society organized such as ours is to manage the relationship with the Soviet Union.

1 Herbert Block, The Planetary Product in 1980: A Creative Pause? Department of State, Washington, 1980.

2 John L. Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 88.

3 Henry Rowen, Chairman CIA National Intelligence Committee, quoted in The New York Times, January 9, 1983, p. 16.

4 "Gambling on the Russian Response to the MX Missile," The New York Times, June 4, 1983.

5 "CIA specialists responsible for Soviet military spending now say that their previous estimates of increases of 3 to 4 percent each year, after inflation, may be wrong and the rate of growth may have been no more than 2 percent." The New York Times, March 3, 1982, p. 1. The problems lie not in CIA methodology, but in political misuse of inherently uncertain estimates.

6 Marshall Brement, Organizing Ourselves to Deal with the Soviets, RAND Corporation Study P-6123, Santa Monica, 1978.


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  • Joseph S. Nye Jr. is Professor of Government at Harvard University, and was Deputy Under Secretary of State, 1977-79. This article is adapted from The Making of America's Soviet Policy, edited by Professor Nye, to be published in mid-May by Yale University Press for the Council on Foreign Relations.
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