There was some disappointment, though no great surprise, at the failure of the November 1985 Geneva summit to provide much hope of agreement on nuclear arms. But there was general satisfaction, in Europe as elsewhere, at the understanding reached there for regular consultations on regional conflicts.

Discussions of this kind, many believe, may be more relevant to the real problems of the modern world than the endless negotiations about nuclear weapons and other forms of disarmament that have proceeded so interminably over the past 40 years with so little apparent outcome. They will, after all, relate to the kind of wars that actually take place today rather than to the possibility of an all-out East-West confrontation, which few now think likely. The regional conflicts themselves usually involve one or other of the superpowers, occasionally both, and appear a more likely cause of a direct confrontation between them, even if only with "conventional" arms, than the situation on the East-West frontier. Indeed, since it is these conflicts that are the main source of tension between them at any one time—as in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and other places—an accommodation over such questions may be the essential condition of reaching an understanding on the more fundamental relationships between East and West. Far from being an irrelevant and unimportant sideshow, therefore, these conflicts, and the disagreements between East and West about the way they should be resolved, may lie at the very heart of the matter.

So what are the chances of significant progress being made in these discussions? What kind of arrangements and understandings, even direct trade-offs (such as Soviet concessions in Afghanistan matched, say, by U.S. concessions in Nicaragua) might be reached to reduce their dangers? Above all, are there any general principles governing superpower conduct in such areas that might provide the basis for a wider consensus over disputes of this kind, and so reduce dangers in the future?


Many of the most bitter East-West conflicts of recent times show only too clearly the lack of such a consensus at present. Conflicts have developed in many different parts of the world—as in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Central America and Africa—in which the superpowers were not originally directly concerned but into which they have been increasingly drawn, usually on opposite sides. Often each supports rival factions in a civil war. The action taken by one of them to support one side, whether government or opposition, is seen by the other as unacceptable interference in the affairs of another state or unjustifiable support for an unrepresentative regime. There are no agreed principles governing the limits of intervention by outside powers in such conflicts that might provide the basis for accommodation or for a restraint on superpower action.

What is more, because each side judges each situation in subjective terms, often hugely magnifying the evil intentions and Machiavellian activities of its opponent, there is little willingness to apply objective standards. Each power, it sometimes seems, wishes to apply one set of principles in one sphere and a different set in another. Thus the Russians appear to believe that their security interests justify them in seeking to dictate what type of government comes to power in Afghanistan, but dispute the right of the United States to do the same in Nicaragua or Cuba. Conversely, the United States may declare itself justified in supporting revolutionary forces seeking to overthrow the regimes in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and Afghanistan, claiming that they are undemocratic and unrepresentative, yet strongly resists efforts by other states to support revolutionary forces seeking to overthrow established governments in other places (such as El Salvador, Chad, Pakistan or the Philippines), efforts that are often based on similar claims. Neither superpower is usually ready to concede that its own conduct in one area is any way comparable to that of its opponent in another.

It seemed at one time that it might be possible to establish a tacit understanding based on the principle of spheres of influence. The United States would generally allow the Soviet Union a free hand in its border regions, such as Eastern Europe; while the Soviet Union would allow the United States the same in Central America and the Caribbean. For the first 30 years after 1945 this principle was generally applied: the United States did not respond, except verbally, to Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, nor the Soviet Union to U.S. action in Guatemala or the Dominican Republic. Today that situation is changing. The Soviet Union has felt obliged to provide arms—even if limited in capability so far—to its new allies in Nicaragua, while the United States feels equally justified in providing support for revolutionaries operating close to the Soviet border in Afghanistan.

Disagreements on the principles to be applied are thus more intense than ever. To the Soviet Union, the West, in supporting rebels in Afghanistan, is deliberately threatening its vital security interests in an area adjacent to its own border. But to the West, it is merely giving assistance to those who are justifiably resisting a foreign occupation of their country.

In El Salvador the situation is reversed. Here it is the United States which claims that the Soviet Union is supporting, at least indirectly through surrogates in the region, a revolutionary force that is seeking to overthrow a friendly government in an area close to the United States’ own borders. Against this the Soviet Union and its allies claim that the rebel forces in that country are merely seeking to establish a more genuinely representative government in a country that has long been effectively controlled by a small and unrepresentative elite (and in any case deny they are giving any assistance to the revolutionaries).

In Cambodia, the United States and China are, in the eyes of the Soviet Union, cynically assisting discredited rebel factions that have even less right to call themselves democratic than the government of that country, merely in order to promote their own political and strategic ends. The United States and China, on the other hand, claim that Cambodia is an occupied country, and that they are merely helping the Cambodian people to throw off unwelcome Vietnamese rule.

Conversely, in the Middle East it is the United States which claims that the Soviet Union is giving support to disruptive regimes in Syria and Libya, more in order to do damage to the interests of the West than in the pursuit of any discernible political principles or overriding national interest. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, would claim that it is merely responding to the requests of these countries for justified assistance, and making it possible for them in turn to help the Palestinians to defend their inalienable rights.

It is thus not easy to see any consistent principle being pursued by either East or West in its approach to these various regional conflicts. It can no more be said that the West only supports "democratic" forces than it can be said that the Soviet Union only supports "socialist" ones. The West in many cases supports authoritarian governments—for example in South Korea, Chile, Pakistan and Morocco—that are resisting demands for democratic reforms, while the Soviet Union gives its assistance to many governments that are by no means socialist. Nor can it be said that one side supports legitimate and recognized governments and the other revolutionaries: both sides support both in different circumstances and all that can be said is that each supports those it believes to be its friends, whether they are in government or in rebellion against governments. Finally, it cannot be said of either that it intervenes only in its own immediate region, to promote its own immediate security interests; the Soviet Union has become increasingly involved at least indirectly in Angola, Ethiopia and South Yemen, just as the United States has been closely involved, whether directly or indirectly, in such places as Lebanon, Grenada and Afghanistan.


At present, therefore, there is little consensus between the superpowers on the principles that should be applied in negotiations on regional conflicts, and little consistency in the approach that each has taken in addressing the various conflict situations in which it has become involved.

Is it likely to be possible, therefore, to construct a set of more consistent principles that might govern intervention in civil conflicts elsewhere—that might, in other words, provide the basis for a more lasting understanding between East and West on such matters?

There is nothing new in the attempt to establish such principles. There have been many efforts at different periods to define rules governing the intervention of outside powers in civil wars elsewhere. Under traditional international law, for example, when a civil war had broken out and a significant part of a state’s territory was occupied by revolutionaries, other states were supposed to recognize the "belligerency" of these forces. Once that had been done, those states were under an obligation to adopt a position of strict neutrality. This meant that no assistance should be given even to the legal government, let alone the rebel forces, since aid to either would constitute a violation of neutrality. But despite the alleged "duty" to adopt this position, it was in practice largely a matter of discretion whether or not outside governments did so.

To recognize the belligerency of rebels was in practice a calculated act of hostility to the government of the state concerned. In practice help was freely given to governments and revolutionary forces alike. After the Napoleonic wars, France helped government forces in Spain (1823) and rebel forces in Greece (1826-29); Russia helped government forces in Austria (1849) and rebel forces in Bulgaria and Bosnia (1876-78); Britain helped rebel forces in Portugal (1833-36) and government forces in Spain (1835-40); Prussia helped rebel forces in Schleswig-Holstein (1848-50) and government forces in Poland (1863). Even after the First World War there was not much more agreement on such questions. The major powers began, as in more recent times, to help the ideological factions with which they sympathized. So in the 1930s Germany and Italy assisted the rebel forces in Spain, while the Soviet Union helped the republican government there.

By the end of the Second World War, the old idea that governments should remain neutral in the civil wars of other states had been largely abandoned. But there emerged a kind of consensus of a new sort. The general understanding came to be that intervention was legitimate when it was in support of an accepted government, but not so on behalf of revolutionaries. This view certainly was strongly supported in the West. Western politicians consistently denounced as "subversion" assistance to rebels elsewhere, regardless of whether a government was "democratic" or otherwise. Communist governments were widely condemned when it was believed they were giving support to rebel movements: for example in China, Greece, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, in Bolivia, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and other parts of Latin America, in the Congo, Angola and Rhodesia in Africa. There was a general presumption that the government in power possessed some kind of prescriptive right and, however unjust its policies, was to be brought down only by constitutional means. It was recognized that, if such action became the norm, a situation could come about in which rival external powers were providing assistance to revolutionary forces in almost every Third World state, sometimes in competition with each other. A policy of providing support to revolutionary movements elsewhere was therefore seen as a threat to international order almost as unacceptable as acts of aggression against the frontiers of other states. That is why, if the United States itself wished to bring down the government of another state, as in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Vietnam (1963) or elsewhere, this had to be done by covert means and never openly, in case it should be seen that the United States was breaking the generally accepted international rules.

This way of thinking now seems to have been abandoned, at least in the United States. It is no longer seen as wrong to provide assistance to rebel movements elsewhere, or necessary (when it is done) to conceal such action. In Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Angola, for example, direct and unconcealed action is undertaken to assist revolutionary movements on the grounds that these represent "democratic" forces seeking to overturn a non-democratic government.

It would probably be true to say that thinking in Europe has not yet adjusted to this radical change of belief and strategy. On that continent there remains substantial doubt about the propriety (and often about the prudence) of external assistance to rebel forces in any country, whatever the character of the regime. In particular there is some perplexity concerning the principles that have been applied by the United States in deciding where such assistance is appropriate and justified.

If it is held that aid to rebels is justifiable in any case where a non-democratic government is in power, there would clearly be no shortage of suitable candidates. Something like three-quarters of the countries of the world today probably have governments that cannot be said to be democratic under most normal definitions. To hold that it was justifiable to support revolution in any of these countries would create a highly unstable international society. But it would at least be a principle of a sort.

It is difficult, however, to recognize this as the principle underlying current policies. There are many governments all over the world that are by no means democratic but that nonetheless are seen as friends of the West. In such places—Pakistan, Morocco, Chile, the Philippines until recently—Western governments, and the U.S. government in particular, do not view revolutionary movements with sympathy, however undemocratic the local governments are known to be. There would certainly be no willingness to accept that foreign assistance to revolutions in those countries, such as that given by the United States in Nicaragua and Cambodia, was justified in those cases.

Conversely, in cases where revolutionaries in other countries are helped (as in Nicaragua and Cambodia) it is not always clear whether the object is to ensure for them the government the countries want or the government the United States wants. Is it really believed that the people of Nicaragua can want the supporters of Somoza returned to power, or that the people of Cambodia want supporters of Pol Pot? Can assistance to such forces really be presented as support for "democracy"? It occasionally seems that the principle of democratic choice applied by the present U.S. Administration resembles the principle of consumer choice once favored by Henry Ford: have any government you like so long as it is not communist (or even rather left-wing).

Nor is it easy to see that assistance is provided for revolution at present where governments are most undemocratic: can it really be said that the governments in Nicaragua and Cambodia, which have had elections of a kind, however questionable, are those that are least democratic in the world (compared, for example, with those in Chile, Paraguay, Pakistan, Marcos’ Philippines, or even China and Yugoslavia)? It would seem rather that the distinction is that the governments in the latter category, however undemocratic, are seen as the friends of the West, while those in the former category are seen as our enemies. It is this distinction, rather than the niceties of the constitutional system in each case, it would appear, that determines whether or not a revolution should be helped.

If, therefore, any kind of consensus is to be arrived at with the Russians concerning intervention in regional conflicts, it is likely to have to be based on somewhat more objective principles than appear to underlie current policy. There are obvious difficulties: domestic political constraints, ideological antagonism, believed strategic interests. But if the dangers such conflicts represent—to the superpowers themselves as much as to their partners—are to be reduced, understandings of a sort may be necessary.


What should be the basis of such principles?

Let us begin by considering the most fundamental aspect of the problem: the strategic interests of the superpowers themselves. For the foreseeable future it seems likely that the superpowers will remain intensely interested in the type of governments that come to power, and the policies which those governments pursue, in areas of special concern to themselves. This applies particularly to areas immediately adjoining their frontiers. The record of their actions since 1945 demonstrates only too clearly the concern of the superpowers that political developments in such areas should not represent an unacceptable threat to their strategic interests. The Soviet Union has directly intervened, through large-scale invasions by its forces, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Afghanistan in 1979; and has undertaken a show of force against Poland in 1981. By these means it has ensured that, except in the case of Yugoslavia in 1949 (a country that was in any case at the furthest extremity of its sphere of influence), no government has come to power throughout that region which was ideologically unacceptable to it.

In much the same way, if less brutally, the United States too has intervened, directly or indirectly, in Central America and the Caribbean, to try to prevent left-wing governments coming to power in that region. Six such administrations have been formed throughout the western hemisphere since 1945: in Guatemala in 1951, in Cuba in 1959, in the Dominican Republic in 1965, in Chile in 1971, in Nicaragua in 1979-80 and in Grenada in 1979. In each case the United States has intervened in one way or another to secure its overthrow, and failed to achieve that aim only in the case of Cuba in 1961 and in Nicaragua (so far).

Other countries have shown a similar propensity. Thus China has intervened several times in border areas: in Korea in 1950-53, on the Indian border in 1962 and in Vietnam in 1979 (in addition to reconquering Tibet and attempting to reconquer the offshore islands). South Africa and Israel have likewise intervened by force several times in areas close to their borders to protect their security interests. Such actions as these indeed represent the principal external use made of armed force in the modern world.

Is it therefore the case that, at least in immediately neighboring areas, superpowers are certain to demand a veto over the coming to power of politically unacceptable governments? Must this therefore represent one element in any understanding to be reached between East and West concerning conflicts in those areas?

To answer that question it is necessary to be clear about the fundamental motives of each superpower in intervening in that way. Though the immediate aim has always been to overturn a government, it is not the case that this was the fundamental concern. Of course the Soviet Union would prefer, for purely political reasons, to see communist governments in power in Eastern Europe. But that has not been the reason for its successive interventions. The reason has been to ensure that a government does not come to power there that might, it believes, represent a threat to Soviet security. Of course the United States would prefer to see democratic governments in power in Central America and the Caribbean. But that is not the fundamental reason for its successive interventions (otherwise the United States would have intervened in innumerable other cases as well). The United States has intervened to prevent a government coming to power that it believes might represent, directly or indirectly, an unacceptable threat to U.S. security.

The demand among major powers for security in immediately neighboring areas does therefore seem to be a fundamental feature of the contemporary international landscape, and it is one that must be taken into account in any attempt to arrive at settlements of the conflicts that arise within those areas. It is not the case, however, as the record of these attempts might suggest, that those security interests can only be safeguarded by according those powers a total veto over political developments in neighboring states. That view has come to be adopted, in practice if not in theory, because of a failure to distinguish between political and strategic concerns.

In an ideological world fears become focused on political doctrines, and on political factions that espouse those doctrines, rather than, as would be more logical, on the policies that the factions may pursue. Superpowers have therefore taken the view that their security interests can be safeguarded only if they are in a position to control the type of government that comes to power in particular areas. Thus the Soviet Union invaded Hungary—though the Western powers were totally uninvolved in the political developments taking place there, and though the new prime minister demanded nothing better than neutrality for his country—because it feared the emergence of a non-communist government that might lead to uncontrollable changes throughout Eastern Europe, and so to an unacceptable threat to its security. The United States supported an invasion of Cuba in 1961, despite a very limited Soviet presence there at that time, because it was feared that the continued existence of a communist-inclined government there might lead to unacceptable changes in Latin America as a whole. In all the subsequent uses of force—or support for its use—by both powers (Dominican Republic in 1965, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979, Nicaragua starting in 1982), the reasons have been similar.

There has been little disposition on the part of the superpowers to consider whether it might be possible to secure alternative safeguards for security that did not require the overthrow of the government concerned: whether, for example, the new regime might be willing to provide undertakings, concerning military dispositions and alliance policies, even concerning its political activities, that might provide the reassurance required. Above all there have been no efforts by the opposing superpower, whether through public statements or private undertakings, to provide assurances that it had no intention of seeking political or military advantages from the new situation.

In other words, in all these cases the political and military consequences of a change of government have been regarded as inextricably joined. So long as this assumption has been maintained, the strategic interests of the neighboring superpower could be seen to make the overthrow of the regime an inescapable necessity.

If understandings are to be possible between the superpowers about such areas in the future, it is likely to be only through the de-linking of these two elements: the political and the strategic. It is this that might make it possible for the peoples of small countries in the neighborhood of a superpower to determine their own political future free of external interference, without representing any threat to the security interests of a neighboring power. If there is any chance of finding solutions to the various conflicts of this kind existing at the present time—in Nicaragua as in Afghanistan, in Cambodia as in El Salvador, in Angola as in southern Lebanon—it is likely to be along these lines.


How might this principle be implemented in practice?

The most obvious way would be by seeking a solution based on neutralization of the area concerned. This is a formula with a long and respectable pedigree. It was applied to Switzerland after the Napoleonic wars; and that country has since been involved in no foreign war. It was applied to Belgium under the treaty of neutralization of 1839 and to Luxembourg in the Treaty of 1867 (though these saved neither country in 1914, they did have the effect of bringing major powers to their defense, which might not otherwise have been the case). In more recent times the principle was applied to Austria—a country lying precisely on the border between the two spheres of influence—since 1954; it was attempted unsuccessfully for Laos in 1962, and has been adopted unilaterally by Finland and Sweden. The record is thus a patchy one. But it is certainly not so poor as to make the attempt to apply it once more in comparable situations a hopeless one.

One obvious case where it might be applied is in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was in practice a neutral country until the revolution of 1978: a neutrality effectively recognized by both superpowers, each of which contributed to the development of the country before that year and neither of which sought to acquire a dominant position. It is unlikely that the Soviet Union will withdraw its forces, or allow an independent government to emerge in Afghanistan, unless it receives assurances of the country’s neutrality in the future. Recognition of that neutrality would need to be given not only by Western powers but by China (whose influence in the area appears far more dangerous than that of the West in Soviet eyes) and Pakistan. Such a recognition could and should be matched by undertakings from the Soviet Union and Afghanistan that they would not intervene in the affairs of Pakistan (the northern borders of which are populated by Pushtun people, more closely akin to the Afghans than to other Pakistanis and under strong Afghan influence), and particularly in the highly sensitive and unstable province of Baluchistan.

A formula based on neutralization might also have a role to play in other areas. If the main concern of the United States in Nicaragua is the potential threat the government there may represent to U.S. security, and to stability in Central America generally, an essential element in any settlement may be undertakings by that government concerning its military and political alignments. These might include pledges concerning the number of military advisers from Cuba and the Soviet Union, and perhaps concerning levels and types of armaments. Even this might not meet U.S. apprehensions unless it were accompanied by similar undertakings concerning interference, military or political, in neighboring countries, above all El Salvador. But pledges of this kind would not of course be given unless they were matched by undertakings of a comparable kind by the United States and Honduras that they will prevent intervention in Nicaragua launched from Honduran soil. And here too undertakings by the countries in the region would need to be matched by comparable pledges by external powers, such as Cuba and the Soviet Union. It is precisely because no region today is totally insulated from superpower rivalries that the projected discussions between the superpowers about regional conflicts can be of such importance.

In Cambodia, too, a similar principle may be applicable. It has always been apparent that Vietnam would be unlikely to withdraw its forces except in return for a cessation of all aid, whether from China or the West, to the coalition rebels. These matching undertakings would ideally be linked with a commitment to U.N.-supervised elections. A long-term solution will almost certainly have to include commitments against future intervention, whether by Vietnamese forces or those of rebel factions ensconced on Thai soil. Whether or not this is linked to a formal recognition of neutrality (of the kind that Prince Norodom Sihanouk so long demanded), some form of neutralization of Cambodia is likely to come about (whose people doubtless wish for nothing more than to pursue their own lives free from foreign intervention). Though it is not likely that any comparable neutralization will be possible for Vietnam or even Laos, the removal of the external pressures will at least mean that Vietnam will no longer be pushed into the arms of the Russians, as it has been by recent Western policies; and in practice there are many signs, including the recent improvement in Vietnam’s relations with the United States, which suggest that Hanoi might welcome the opportunity to pursue a more evenhanded policy.

In all these cases, therefore, the principle of neutralization—in fact if not in name—seems likely to form a part of the final settlement. For the superpowers themselves this represents in effect a kind of mutual self-denying ordinance. Usually in such cases the concern of each superpower is not to win unchallengeable political control for itself but to deny it to the other. A settlement based on a recognition that neither side will be militarily dominant in these contentious areas is the obvious way of procuring a settlement which may be acceptable to both. Since it insulates these areas from East-West rivalries it is often a solution that is also welcome to the state most directly concerned. Indeed one of the benefits of such arrangements is that they may provide a greater freedom of maneuver—except in the military field—to the individual Third World country concerned. Many Third World states wish for nothing better than to be "nonaligned" and they are therefore unlikely to feel too uncomfortably constrained in the one area where they are limited. But they will be freer in consequence to choose the type of government that they wish for themselves rather than having to fear intervention whenever their non-military policy preferences stray too far from those of the nearest superpower.


The principle that any settlement of a local conflict should satisfy the strategic requirements of the superpowers is clearly one that can be applied only in areas relatively close to their own borders. Of course, given the continual erosion of distance, especially strategic distance, in the modern world, it could be argued that each today has a strategic interest in the situation in almost every part of the world. And this means that some areas may be seen as important to the interests of both. The Middle East is essential to the interests of the United States because of its dependence on Middle East oil, as well as because of U.S. links with Israel. But the Middle East is important also to the Soviet Union because it almost adjoins the U.S.S.R.’s own borders (much of it is far closer to the Soviet border than Grenada is to the United States). The Horn of Africa, though not of similar vital importance, is seen as of significant interest to both because both have strategic interests in the area, and both have client states that look to them for support.

Even so, most would accept that somewhat different principles apply to these more distant areas. Distant powers have less right to demand that their interests should be protected, and usually less capacity to ensure that they are, in these cases. Moreover, often the interest is more indirect. The immediate interest may be that of some local state which is itself an ally of one or other of the superpowers. So, for example, both Israel and Syria have a direct interest in the settlement reached in Lebanon, just as both Vietnam and Thailand have an interest in the settlement reached in Cambodia; and each of these is supported by a superpower that will seek to ensure that those interests are protected in a settlement.

The more important difference, however, is not that the interest of the superpowers is more remote; as the size of the world declines there may be less and less willingness to acknowledge there is any area in which they are not interested. The real difference is that both have an equal interest: something that cannot be argued in the case of their own border regions. In these cases therefore it is likely that rather different principles will be required in securing the settlement of regional conflicts, and that these will need to take account of the different geographical configurations.

It will mean that often both superpowers will need to have a voice in discussions of the settlement to be arrived at. For some areas this is not a principle that many in the West will readily accept. In discussions of the Middle East, for example, it has for many years been taken for granted that a major aim was precisely to exclude Soviet influence.

Yet it is arguable that the West itself has an interest in recognizing Soviet interest. This results today not merely from the Soviet Union’s geographical propinquity but from the position it has acquired as a supplier of arms and other assistance to many governments, as well as from its naval presence in the Mediterranean. So long as Moscow feels that its interests are ignored and that it is being frozen out, the Soviet Union has every incentive to use its influence with its clients, above all Syria, in a way that is unhelpful to Western interests, and in a way that makes a settlement less possible. If brought into the process, it is more likely to use its influence to promote the prospects of peace in the area. The Soviet Union’s interest in maintaining a fruitful superpower relationship, in avoiding being dragged into a dangerous conflict and in improving (as it now seeks to do) its relations with the less radical governments of the area (including Saudi Arabia and Israel) means that discussions are probably more likely to prove fruitful if it participates than if the Arab states negotiate in isolation.

It is now increasingly unlikely that it will be possible to negotiate a separate Israel-Jordan settlement on the lines of the Camp David accords, as many had hoped and as Israel would still like to see. The recent rapprochement between Jordan and Syria, Yasir Arafat’s refusal to accept U.N. Resolution 242, as well as the reluctance of the Likud members of Israel’s coalition to make the kind of concessions in the West Bank that would induce Jordan to take the plunge without the Palestine Liberation Organization, make it likely that sooner or later Syria (and possibly Lebanon too) will have to be brought into the discussions. In this case the creation of the suggested "international forum," in which the Soviet Union (on whom Syria is so dependent) has a role to play, may enhance rather than diminish the chances of a settlement. Conversely, any proposed settlement that is not underwritten by the Soviet Union, and so by Syria, may have little chance of lasting success.

In the Horn of Africa a similar situation exists. Ethiopia, for all its economic and political difficulties, remains the dominant power of the region. There are even some signs that it might welcome a reduction in its dependence on the Soviet Union. But it is the presence of Cuban troops in that country that represents the factor of primary concern to the West. Here too, it is self-defeating to deny the reality of Soviet interests in the region: for it is concessions from the Soviet Union and their allies—above all the withdrawal of Cuban forces—that the West mainly wishes to bring about. In this case too, therefore, it may be necessary to recognize the right of the Soviet Union to a voice. Indeed, the inclusion of the Cuban presence in Ethiopia among the subjects that President Reagan listed for discussion at Geneva has already acknowledged the point. As in the Middle East, therefore, each of the superpowers may have an important part to play in securing the cooperation of its own client states; and each may need to have a continuing role within the area, economic as much as political, if stability there is ever to be restored.

The presence of Cuban forces in Angola was another subject mentioned by President Reagan in proposing these talks. Here too it is unlikely that the Soviet Union will be willing to confine discussion of the question to that specific point alone. Indeed it has long been evident that the withdrawal of Cuban forces was only one element in a series of trade-offs that need to be negotiated if a settlement covering both Angola and Namibia is to be reached. Such a withdrawal is likely to be undertaken only in return for the cessation of all assistance, whether from the West or South Africa, to Jonas Savimbi’s rebel forces. Similarly, an undertaking by Angola to prevent incursions into Namibia from its territory may need to be matched by corresponding guarantees of Angolan territorial integrity from South Africa. If it is the case, as Western spokesmen have often maintained, that the Cuban forces are merely "surrogates" for the Soviet Union, and that Cuba acts in this respect only on behalf of the Soviet Union, it may be logical (even if it is unwelcome to South Africa) that the Soviet government be directly involved in discussions. If Cuban forces are unlikely to be withdrawn without Moscow’s assent, or if Angola is unlikely to accept their withdrawal without some external pressure, there is a good case for the Soviet government to become more immediately engaged than it is at present.

These three areas—the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Angola—are merely examples of current crisis spots that do not immediately adjoin either superpower yet in which each has some interest; they therefore could well feature in negotiations. Other areas of mutual concern will no doubt continually be added to the list. Southeast Asia generally, the Koreas, Chad, Western Sahara and the Antarctic are examples of other questions on which a degree of understanding between the superpowers would be valuable. Since the interests of each power are now worldwide, the potential agenda can scarcely cover less than the world as a whole.


Is it possible to sketch out any general principles that might be observed in discussion of this kind?

The individual situations encountered in different parts of the world are of course unique, and it would be absurd to suggest that they can all be resolved according to some uniform formula to be applied in a mechanical way. It is nonetheless possible to suggest a few broad principles that could usefully be observed by those on both sides who take part in negotiations of this kind.

The simplest and most obvious is that it is important in all such discussions to understand what are the basic, and minimal, objectives and interests of the opponent. In most negotiations each side has objectives that may play a large part in their rhetoric, yet are not really fundamental concerns; while there are others—sometimes strategic considerations—that are rarely spoken aloud yet are often the most profoundly important. It is indeed precisely the purpose of negotiations of this kind to increase understanding of the fundamental interests and objectives of the opponent. It is only this which can reveal what kind of compromises may best reconcile the interests of each, and indeed of all parties (including the local governments and peoples). The objective must always be to secure a balance of advantage that, while it does not secure the maximum objective of either side, is nonetheless an outcome that each can live with. This is precisely what the nineteenth-century European Concert, operating through protracted and secret diplomatic negotiations, was often able to achieve. In that way it secured settlements of a number of major issues that were acceptable to all the five major powers of the continent.

Second, it is important to seek settlements that will avoid provocation, especially military provocation, whether to superpowers or lesser states. As we have seen, there is ample evidence that the most powerful motive of the superpowers in recent times is the protection of their strategic interests, and this aim usually proves even more powerful than purely ideological objectives. No settlement that is incompatible with the strategic interests of either side, therefore, is likely to be possible (or prove stable if attained).

Third, there will be more chance of success if each individual crisis is discussed on its own merits and, so far as possible, divorced from extraneous considerations. There are sometimes apparent attractions in "linkage," in using concessions made in one area to extract corresponding concessions from opponents in another. But in most cases each individual problem—say the Middle East—is already so complex that it is made virtually insoluble—or even more insoluble than before—if an attempt is made to inject cross-bargaining of this kind. It is almost certainly better, therefore, that discussion should be undertaken in separate compartments, probably by different teams of officials.

Fourth, the kinds of arrangement arrived at must not simply be imposed by the two superpowers to conform with their own interests, but must clearly take account of the interests and views of local governments and peoples. If this is not the case, a settlement is unlikely anyway to be enduring, and externally imposed settlements may therefore in time only discredit the entire system of superpower dialogue. What this means is that each of the superpowers needs at all times to remain in the closest contact with the local governments and groups concerned—above all their own partners and protégés—so that the superpowers may be understanding of the latter parties’ concerns and in a position to secure the maximum possible consent for any arrangement arrived at. In the final resort local agreements can only be reached by local governments. The role of the superpowers, therefore, is rather to propose the general character such agreements may take and use their influence to secure their acceptance. In many cases it will not be easy to reconcile the views of local parties; if that were not the case there would be no crisis. And one of the benefits that the participation of outside powers may bring is that it may be easier for them to recognize the kind of compromise solutions that are necessary, and eventually to induce their local partners to show a similar realism.

The last point to make is one that will perhaps be more readily accepted by members of the present U.S. Administration than many of those that have gone before. It is that the only final answer for many local conflict situations is a resort to democratic elections. Most of these conflicts result from situations of civil conflict—as in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Cambodia, El Salvador, Angola and Western Sahara at the present time—where two or more factions are struggling for power, each invariably claiming to be "more representative of the people" than its opponents. The only unchallengeable way to resolve such disputes is by resorting to the polls, by allowing ballots, not bullets, to determine the issue. Admittedly it is still necessary to ensure that such elections are fairly and impartially conducted, if only to make it less likely that their results will subsequently be challenged: a condition by no means easy to fulfill, as many recent examples (for instance, the elections in Uganda in 1980, El Salvador in 1982 and in the Philippines in 1986) testify. If Western governments are to be true to the principles they claim to stand for, however, the demand for fair, impartially conducted, externally supervised elections should play a central part in the negotiations undertaken on such questions.


Though the proposal for regional discussions has so far been fairly widely welcomed, in Europe as elsewhere, it could come up against important difficulties, which need to be confronted. The idea of superpower discussion is welcomed mainly because it is disagreement between the superpowers about such matters that at present arouses most concern. That disagreement is not only dangerous to the superpower relationship, but may reduce the prospect of successfully resolving the local conflict in question. The discussions between them, it is therefore hoped, may help reduce difficulties.

In time, however, a dialogue that was confined to the two superpowers might begin to appear increasingly exclusive. There could be pressure for the discussions to be opened up. When Far Eastern affairs are in question, it would not be unreasonable for China to wish to have its say, and even to denounce discussions about its own region in which it played no part. When questions concerning the Mediterranean, or even the Middle East, are discussed, Western Europe might increasingly wish to have a voice (especially since its view on those questions has in recent times often been different from that of the United States). When African trouble-spots are discussed, African states may begin to query the relevance of a discussion between two non-African powers, unless they themselves are in some way represented in those negotiations. And so on.

It may come to be believed that there is a need for something not altogether unlike the old Concert of Europe, but enlarged to cover the world as a whole: in other words a body far smaller than the Security Council, less cluttered with the representatives of several very small states, yet far more representative of the principal centers of power in the world than discussions confined to two states alone can be. Such a body would have to include, as a minimum, China, Japan, and the European Community (in practice this would be a single Western European country representing the EEC for a term). Even this would leave Latin America, Africa and South Asia unrepresented. In time these too might demand to be represented by suitable states (perhaps their own "great powers," Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt, India), thus creating a body of eight or nine, not altogether unlike the five or six "great powers" that took part, with substantial success, in the negotiations of the Concert of Europe.

Such a prospect is of course still far away at present, if indeed it is ever realizable. Moreover, it could be argued that even if such a concert were finally to come about, it would be no substitute for continued regular consultations among the two greatest powers about the issues causing dispute between them. The latter talks are required only partly as a means of arriving at solutions to the difficult disputes that exist in many parts of the world, though it is certainly to be hoped that they may contribute to bringing about such solutions. They are required mainly as a means of reducing tensions and disagreements between those powers themselves, disagreements that may intensify local conflicts but are in themselves a source of danger.

For the next decade at least, such discussions clearly have a major part to play. It is thus important that the way in which they are conducted, the mechanics that surround the meetings, the spirit in which they are held, and the principles that they seek to apply are such as will maximize their likelihood of success. The allies of each superpower may increasingly seek a voice on such questions. This will reflect a recognition of the importance that the negotiations could have, if conducted in a genuine spirit of goodwill as well as realism, in helping to establish a more stable and peaceful international environment.

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  • Evan Luard is a British writer on international affairs. He was formerly a Minister in the Foreign Office with responsibility for international organization affairs, and was twice a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.
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