Testing Gorbachev

Gorbachev (L) and Reagan begin their mini-summit talks in Reykjavik October 11, 1986.

Plato identified necessity as the mother of invention. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s recognition of the failures of the Soviet economy has inspired an inventiveness in Soviet policy, foreign and domestic, not seen since the death of Lenin. Gorbachev represents a rare combination of pragmatic realism on the one hand, and creative policymaking and public relations on the other. Just as economic determinants are finally imposing constraints that should make the Soviet Union a less formidable military adversary, Gorbachev has already made the Soviet Union a more daunting diplomatic competitor.

Across the East-West agenda, from nuclear and conventional arms control to Afghanistan and Cambodia, Gorbachev has seized the initiative. In the process he is winning too much of the credit for results achieved. Even when all he did was belatedly answer da to long-standing Western proposals on intermediate-range nuclear missiles, his skillful presentation of acquiescence persuaded most Europeans that the Soviet Union, not the West, deserved applause for both authorship and execution of this agreement. Today 63 percent of Americans give Gorbachev a "favorable" rating, ahead of any other foreign leader except Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. In the Federal Republic of Germany, Gorbachev’s approval rating tops President Reagan’s by almost two to one.

The American response to Gorbachev’s active diplomacy so far has been to hold fast, persisting in policies and proposals developed to address Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, not Gorbachev’s. Persistence can be a virtue, certainly preferable to reckless accommodation. Moreover, because Gorbachev is essentially dealing from internal weakness, his unilateral adjustments of Soviet policy are producing significant gains for the West. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the elimination of all land-based intermediate-range nuclear forces, acceptance of highly intrusive verification procedures (including mandatory on-site inspection), and encouragement of the projected Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia—these realize important U.S. objectives.

But by yielding the initiative to Gorbachev, the United States is defaulting on profound opportunities. The failure of American policymakers to develop any concept or strategy

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