Mikhail Gorbachev recently expressed to a group of American visitors his hope that the United States and the Soviet Union would not appear to future historians like "two dinosaurs circling each other in the sands of nuclear confrontation." This colorful image well describes recent relations between the two superpowers: even though they are not marked for early decline or extinction, the two nations have shown a manifest inability to conduct their relations with a rational regard for their survival as great powers. Both the Soviet Union and the United States have been so constrained by parochial domestic interests and weighed down by outworn ideologies that they have been unable to summon up a competent and enlightened management of their affairs reasonably proportionate to their respective and common problems.

Both superpowers are heavily overmilitarized. In each country this has created a community with a stake in perceiving the other superpower as a mortal threat. The differences between the two powers are real, as is their competition. But it is a question of proportion. Those who seek to justify disproportionate militarization with a Manichaean ideological orthodoxy, whether out of zealotry or for economic gain, have undermined their countries’ real security and capacity to adapt to the requirements of a rapidly changing world. In the case of the Soviet Union, overmilitarization has deepened the stagnation of an inept system. In the case of the United States, it has undermined the country’s economic competitiveness, its financial solvency and the well-being of its society. This is the dance of the dinosaurs.

True, 1987 ended on a cautiously hopeful note. The atmosphere at the December summit in Washington was positive, and a beginning was made in controlling a marginal aspect of the nuclear military competition. But between shadow and substance is a great gulf. Atmospherics are gossamer, a creation of the manipulative arts; the stubborn reality remains that the military competition continues to spiral upward toward more unstable and complex systems, constrained only minimally by budgetary and resource limitations.

What gives the present moment a certain dramatic suspense, however, is the possibility that a new historical stage in the relationship is emerging, stemming largely from the radical efforts of General Secretary Gorbachev to modernize his country. The drama lies in the uncertainty surrounding two questions: whether he will succeed, even in part, against the formidable obstacles he faces at home; and whether he will be met by responsiveness and encouragement in this effort by the United States, and by a more enlightened American regard for its own self-interest.

If the future answers both questions affirmatively—and they are linked—the prospect exists for a management of the competitive relationship that is less irrational, dangerous and costly than it has been for the past four decades.


Like a suspension bridge, the relationship of the Soviet Union and the United States in 1987 hung on the events between two summits—Reykjavik in October 1986 and Washington in December 1987. Between these two occasions significant developments in the two powers’ domestic conditions and foreign policies have had determining effects upon their relations.

For the Soviet Union, 1987 was a year in which Gorbachev’s reforms were still rumbling down the runway, seeking to gain enough velocity for a takeoff. For each track of reform—economic restructuring, political revitalization, foreign and military policy—it was a year of starts, debates and compromises. Soviet "within-system" modernizers, who for 30 years have been seeking to overcome the dysfunctional effects of the Stalinist system, continued to struggle against the inert or resistant interest groups defending conservatism, orthodoxy, entrenched bureaucratic privileges, corruption and sloth.

Gorbachev’s efforts to begin the restructuring of the Soviet economy reached a high point at midyear, and later ran into heavy sledding. The major event was the plenary meeting of the Central Committee in June: Gorbachev succeeded, despite debates that had forced the postponement of the meeting, in marshaling majority support for the keystone legislation of his program. "The Law on the Socialist Enterprise," enacted at the June plenum and scheduled to take effect on January 1, 1988, signaled the beginning of major economic surgery. Gorbachev’s "new economic mechanism" called for increased autonomy for enterprises on the basis of self-management and self-financing, with a corresponding reduction in the authority of centralized planning organizations and the central ministries; steps toward the reform of the subsidized price structure; a "stage-by-stage" approach toward the international convertibility of the ruble; a rationalization of investment credits; and fuller implementation of legislation intended to encourage entrepreneurial activities in the service sector.

Leaving aside the complexities of the economic restructuring program, several of its features are relevant to U.S.-Soviet relations:

The fragility of political support for Gorbachev’s economic reforms. In the near term, the reforms mean loss of jobs, privileges and power for strong bureaucratic interest groups. The benefits of reform, on the other hand, are promised for the long term and can appeal only to diffuse and less organized groups whose support is further tempered by the prospect of price increases and a fall in the standard of living. Moreover, Gorbachev’s "kitchen cabinet" for economic reforms is notably less well placed politically than are his advisers on other tracks of his reform program.

The time factor. At the start the disruptive effects of reorganization, the application of quality controls and the introduction of new technologies may retard economic growth. (According to Western intelligence estimates, they already have done so.) The "new economic mechanism" is not scheduled to be fully implemented before the 1990s. It may be a decade or more before significant effects on the Soviet economy will be seen, even according to the most optimistic estimates. Arms control agreements offer no near-term prospect of relief from the economic drain of the military sector, which is estimated by Western analysts to be about 15 percent of gross national product, and which ties up critically needed technological resources.

Vulnerability to external factors. If the arms control negotiations with the United States do not progress to more significant levels, and if the United States continues to develop more technologically advanced weapons systems, the drain of military expenditures can be expected to increase.

Dependence on imports. The need for imported capital, technology and management skills, as well as grains and certain manufactured goods to offset domestic shortages, is acute, requiring Soviet foreign policy to maintain an international climate favorable to the expansion of such imports. The problem is only worsened by the U.S.S.R.’s shortage of hard currency. Reliance on imports, moreover, has been a matter of internal debate; some have argued against developing a dependency on foreign technology on the grounds that this creates a vulnerability to foreign manipulation and delays indigenous development.

In contrast to the uphill progress of economic reforms, the revitalization of domestic political life in the Soviet Union has been marked by dramatic developments—which have also, however, evoked reservations in orthodox quarters. Originally launched to enlist the creative intelligentsia to encourage entrepreneurial initiative and popular participation in economic reforms, the campaign for glasnost and democratizatsia (democratization) shows signs of taking on a life of its own. The campaign, if it is allowed to continue, could lead to greater autonomy and pluralism in Soviet society and culture.

Gorbachev’s ideas about "democratization" evolved during 1987 to the point where they became an integral aspect of his total reform program. At a Central Committee plenum in January, Gorbachev won an endorsement in principle for greater democracy in the selection of party officials, although reservations were expressed about his proposal for secret ballots and competition among two or more candidates for the same position. Soviet television programs, some journals, plays and motion pictures carried the widening of permissible criticism into areas few Western observers would have thought possible—not only exposing corruption and incompetence within the economic and party bureaucracies, but questioning the privileges of the party elite, and even, in a few cases, abuses by the KGB.

Gorbachev’s speeches, however, reflected the growth of concern within the party that freer criticism might lead to anarchy. Thus he insisted that control from the center would be maintained and that the one-party system would be preserved. Nevertheless, during the latter part of the year, the apprehensions and reservations of his conservative colleagues became more openly expressed. During the six weeks in which Gorbachev secluded himself, from mid-August to the end of September, Central Committee Secretary for Ideology Yegor Ligachev and KGB chief General Viktor Chebrikov were among those who warned against excessive latitude for the press and a permissive attitude toward democratization.

That Gorbachev felt the necessity of adapting to domestic political constraints seemed evident in his speech marking the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, delivered on November 2. He was guarded and selective in his targets: he criticized Stalin’s excesses as "unforgivable" but defended the necessity of forced collectivization and the Nazi-Soviet Pact. He signaled the partial resurrection of Nikolai Bukharin, an advocate of the New Economic Policy of the 1920s, now hailed as an antecedent source of legitimacy for the current economic reforms. He did not, however, rehabilitate another disgraced Bolshevik, Leon Trotsky, whose prescient criticisms of rampant bureaucratism are echoed today, but who continues to be regarded by the intellectual elite as no less dictatorial than Stalin.

The impression that Gorbachev was trimming his sails in the face of domestic political head winds was strengthened by his handling of the strange affair of former Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin. At the Central Committee plenum on October 21, one of Gorbachev’s opponents, Geidar Aliyev, "retired" from the Politburo, and a summary draft of Gorbachev’s 70th anniversary speech was reviewed and approved. Yeltsin, however, unexpectedly made a brief and highly emotional speech, which has not been published. Conflicting accounts were leaked—some claiming that he had bitterly attacked Ligachev and the party Secretariat for blocking reforms; others, less credibly, that he had criticized Gorbachev, whose supporter he had been. In any event, Yeltsin was removed as Moscow party chief on November 11 in a denunciatory session reminiscent of Stalin’s purge trials, complete with self-condemnation.

The Yeltsin affair sent a chilling signal. Supporters of the reform program had to ask themselves whether the pace of reform had been permanently slowed by the conservatives, or whether Gorbachev had chosen to make temporary concessions, pending the party conference scheduled for June 28, 1988, at which he will seek to alter the composition of the Central Committee and strengthen his position for a renewed acceleration of the reform program.

The point that has particular relevance to Soviet-American relations is this: it is misleading to measure the progress of Gorbachev’s political revitalization against Western standards of pluralism and human rights.

Glasnost and democratizatsia represent significant aspirations for modernizing the Soviet system, but they have to be understood within the context of a political culture historically rooted in the idea that authority and order descend from above. This heritage also ensures stubborn resistance to reforms from strong elements of the party and KGB bureaucracies, habituated to the ruthless and arbitrary exercise of police controls. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that while some political prisoners have been released from camps and prisons, many remain; that some who wish to emigrate have been allowed to do so, though many have not; that certain demonstrations have been permitted and others have been broken up; that some spontaneous political organizations have been allowed to form and function, while others are suppressed.

A relatively small group of "within-system" modernizers is leading the campaign for political revitalization, seeking over time to transform the political culture and to elicit mass support. Achieving their goals will take many years, even in the most optimistic projections. As is the case in his drive for economic reform, Gorbachev’s campaign for political revitalization has been operating under domestic political constraints that also must be taken into account in assessing his conduct of foreign relations.


Gorbachev showed a continuing evolution in his foreign policy thinking in 1987. This policy is still subordinate to and derivative of his domestic economic priorities, and still seeks to avoid confrontation and new commitments. But Gorbachev has also been increasingly active and skillful in his diplomacy and his efforts to gain wider acceptance by world public opinion. More important, in what he has called "new thinking," Gorbachev has continued to widen and deepen the conceptual underpinnings of his policy, and the precedent-breaking pragmatism of its implementation. Here too the ideological implications of Gorbachev’s conceptual departures have been a source of contention with party ideologues, and have required him to trim and blur the ideological revisionism implicit in his "new thinking," as was evident in his November anniversary speech.

In the course of the year, Gorbachev filled out a quadrilateral design of Soviet geopolitical thinking. His four points of emphasis were: the United States, Europe, the Pacific and Far East, and the Arctic.

Despite frustrations, relations with the United States remain the central preoccupation of Soviet policy. "There is no getting away from each other," Gorbachev observed in his new book, Perestroika. It is the key to everything else: reducing the danger of nuclear war, reducing military costs, increasing trade, resolving the main international issues.

The visits of major West European leaders to Moscow during 1987 demonstrated that the Soviet Union views Western Europe as diplomatically critical: as an instrument of political leverage on the United States; as a source of trade, credits and technology; and as a potentially independent factor in international politics. To encourage the latter possibility, Gorbachev developed the formula of "the common European house." The concrete meaning of this notion was not made clear, though it suggested an interest in movement toward a pan-European development. It was also not clear if this conception implied a willingness to accept closer functional bonds between Eastern and Western Europe and a greater degree of Soviet flexibility in exercising control over Eastern Europe.

Some evidence was suggested by Gorbachev’s visit to Prague in April, during which he encouraged the East European allies to seek their own paths toward economic reconstruction. The Soviet Union was not necessarily the model to be emulated, he said; it appeared that he was prepared to tolerate a greater degree of diversity in Eastern Europe, perhaps even a communist "commonwealth" that emulated Britain’s path toward reducing the costs of a dependent empire.

By the end of 1987 each of the East European countries was experiencing economic and political upheavals. Many of the Warsaw Pact allies—each in its own way, with no clear direction from Moscow—were struggling against economic stagnation with various reform programs. The effort seemed likely to bring to power a new generation of leaders, as it already had done in Czechoslovakia, where Miloš Jakeš replaced Gustáv Husák as party secretary in December.

As for the Pacific and the Far East, Gorbachev had emphasized the greater significance of the area in his speech at Vladivostok in July 1986. In his new book he referred to the area as "the place where civilization is stepping up its pace," and "where world politics will most likely focus [in the] next century."

Most of the proposals in the Vladivostok speech seemed designed to achieve an improved modus vivendi with the People’s Republic of China. Vague Soviet schemes for a comprehensive system of security and economic cooperation in Asia now seemed intended not to isolate China, as in earlier iterations, but to draw it into closer functional relationships. By encouraging Mongolia to diversify its diplomatic contacts, by pursuing a political solution in Afghanistan and by encouraging the Vietnamese to consider diplomatic solutions in Cambodia, the Soviet Union seemed to be taking steps toward meeting conditions laid down by China for an improvement of Sino-Soviet relations. Japan, however, remained an unresponsive object of Soviet attention: despite offers of a possible Gorbachev visit to Tokyo, Japan remained obdurate, due to Soviet unwillingness to put discussion of Japan’s claim to the Northern Territories (a group of four islands just north of Hokkaido) on the bargaining table. Public skepticism about Soviet intentions reportedly remains high in Japan.

The future of the Arctic as a forum of geopolitical attention was alluded to by Gorbachev in a speech at Murmansk in October: "The Arctic is not only the Arctic Ocean, but also the northern tips of three continents . . . also a problem of security of the Soviet Union’s frontiers." He set forth a checklist of economic, military and political actions that must someday be taken in order to respond to the significance that technology will give this area.

In contrast to these points of greater emphasis, Gorbachev’s foreign policy in 1987 continued to downgrade the prospects for Soviet gains in the Third World. This tendency was first signaled at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party in February-March 1986 and in its revision of the party program. Soviet analysts now see little revolutionary potential in the Third World, diminished utility in the Nonaligned Movement and little promise in national liberation movements when measured against the costs of supporting such efforts and the risks of interfering with more important objectives in relations with the United States.

Notably absent from Soviet analyses of Third World developments was any of the ideological optimism of earlier periods. This somewhat implicit challenge to ideological orthodoxy regarding the Third World was among the year’s most striking conceptual advances in Soviet foreign policy. For example, in his September visit to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze stressed Soviet economic interests rather than political concerns and took pains to emphasize that the development of Soviet-Latin American economic relations was not intended to conflict with the region’s relations with the United States.

Another radical departure from previous Soviet positions was an acceptance of the United Nations as a mechanism for the realization of an international order. In an extended article published in Pravda and Izvestia on September 17 (with cadences suggesting it might have been drafted as a speech to be delivered before the General Assembly), Gorbachev argued for a strengthening of the United Nations. It was a far cry from the historical Soviet rejection of international organizations as expressing the class interests of the dominant nations. As a concrete demonstration of its acceptance of the validity and utility of U.N. peacekeeping functions, the Soviet Union promptly offered to pay $245 million in past obligations for the support of these operations.

This advance was of a piece with one of the cornerstones of Gorbachev’s thinking, that the revolution in science and technology had created an inescapable global interdependence, notably in economic matters but also in international politics. One of the implications of this interdependence that had a direct bearing on the general secretary’s domestic programs was the recognition that the Soviet economy was inextricably involved in developments abroad, such as the stock market crash in October, the unsettled condition of currency exchange rates, the world price of oil and the possibility of stagflation in the West.

The development of new security concepts also continued, notably Gorbachev’s insistence that the political aspect of security was more important than the military aspect, and that security was a mutual affair. "We can never be secure so long as the United States feels itself insecure," he said on several occasions. A concomitant proposition, he argued, was that it was necessary for every nation, including the Soviet Union, to give due account to the legitimate interests of other nations.

It remains to be seen how and to what extent these ideas will be translated into action in Soviet foreign policy. Often, as with his notions of a "comprehensive system of international security" and a "collective security system for Asia," Gorbachev tends to advance his concepts as ideas for international discussion, rather than as concrete proposals.

In particular, Gorbachev has been reticent to spell out the ideological revisionism implicit in his "new thinking" on foreign policy. His notion of a commonality of interests with capitalist countries calls into question the centrality of the "class struggle" in Marxism-Leninism, and the "contradictions" and "antagonisms," leading to crisis, stagnation, collapse and war-making inclinations, traditionally thought to be inherent in Western imperialism.

In his November anniversary speech Gorbachev sought to reconcile the prevailing ideology with his policy of seeking closer relations with capitalist countries—without precipitating a fight with the party’s ideological bureaucracy. He cast the problem as a question:

Since an alliance between a socialist country and capitalist states proved possible in the past, when the threat of Fascism arose, does this not suggest a lesson for the present, for today’s world which faces the threat of nuclear catastrophe and the need to ensure safe nuclear power production and overcome the danger to the environment?

And as for the related questions—whether a capitalist economy can develop without militarization, and without exploitive neocolonialist relations with the developing countries—these are choices that capitalism must face up to, under the conditions that now prevail.

In short, Gorbachev was saying that, although the Leninist analysis correctly identifies the destructive tendencies inherent in capitalism, history will show whether capitalism will be able to adapt itself in an enlightened way to the imperatives of the modern world. Whether this concept was more cautiously phrased than it would have been without the apparent hardening of internal resistance to his reforms during the latter part of the year, or whether these formulations accurately reflect Gorbachev’s own blend of pragmatism and ideological preconceptions, remains a matter of speculation.


Tension between Soviet supporters of innovation and traditionalism was also evident during the past year in another track of Gorbachev’s reform program: military policy. Certain trends in this debate require particular attention.

The relative autonomy previously enjoyed by the armed forces appears to have lessened, due to the death and replacement of a number of leading military figures and the party’s consolidation of control over the military leadership. The bizarre landing on May 28 in Red Square of a private plane piloted by the young West German, Mathias Rust, provided the occasion for the dismissal of Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov. He was replaced by General Dmitri Yazov, who was promoted from relative obscurity by Gorbachev over a number of more senior military officers. In arms control, staffs were created in the International Department of the Central Committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give greater weight to the initiatives of party civilians, although Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of the general staff, played a prominent and supportive role in international negotiations.

On matters that might have been expected to arouse resistance from the professional military, such as the 18-month unilateral nuclear test moratorium that ended on February 26, the incorporation in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of on-site inspection of Soviet military facilities, the admission of a group of American congressmen to the controversial radar site at Krasnoyarsk in September, and successive concessions in Soviet arms control positions during the course of the year, the party leadership appears to have had no great difficulty in getting its way. While the military press cautiously nuanced its position on some doctrinal innovations, and though some apprehensions about arms control agreements and anticipated budget reductions were reported among middle-level officials, the top brass appeared to recognize a self-interest in Gorbachev’s efforts to divert resources to strengthening the industrial and technological base of the economy.

In the course of the year Gorbachev continued and extended the military doctrine that was first noted when Brezhnev declared, in the city of Tula in January 1977, that there could be no victors in a nuclear war and that the Soviet Union could see no advantage in pursuing military superiority. From that acceptance of parity, Gorbachev moved, in a speech at Prague in April, to making sufficiency the standard of Soviet military requirements. But whereas Gorbachev and the civilian analysts who further developed the concept tended to use the term "reasonable sufficiency," military writers more often qualified it as "defense sufficiency," implying more traditional requirements.

A greater emphasis on defense, particularly regarding conventional forces in the European theater, was a doctrine that developed during 1987. Soviet writings sought to distinguish between "offensive" and "defensive" weapons, and to argue for a shift to a defensive operational strategy, instead of the combination of mobility and concentrated firepower for rapid exploitation of breakthroughs which has created apprehension in Western Europe and stimulated NATO’s corresponding development of more forward strategies. Although the Soviets have manifested an interest in the application of advanced technology to conventional weapons since 1983, when Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov was chief of general staff, more recent Soviet writings have reflected a mounting concern that Western technological superiority gives NATO an advantage in this competition. This awareness appears to have supported the Soviet interest in encouraging less offensive operational strategies on both sides. It is not clear whether these notions will go beyond words; no changes in deployment patterns have yet been observed—although it might be some time before such changes would be made, and before they would come to our attention.

One further development should also be noted: there are indications in military writings, both by civilians and the professional military, that the Soviets have come to assign a higher value to stability and predictability as a result of arms control negotiations with the United States. Another shift of emphasis has been a growing Soviet attention to the importance of conventional arms control. This reflects a number of considerations: Gorbachev’s emphasis on the political aspects of security; the necessity of assuaging West European apprehensions about the scale of Soviet conventional capabilities, especially in the period after the conclusion of the INF treaty; and a recognition that without some progress on conventional arms control further steps toward limiting strategic nuclear weapons would be more difficult—if not impossible.

While the Soviet Union has not yet advanced a detailed conventional arms control proposal, it has taken a number of steps designed to meet Western objections. In April 1986 Gorbachev proposed broadening the geographical zone for force limitations from the two Germanies, Poland and Czechoslovakia to an area "from the Atlantic to the Urals." For the first time, the Western military districts of the Soviet Union would be included in the negotiations, and these areas would be open to on-site inspection. In June 1986, as part of the Warsaw Pact’s "Budapest appeal," Gorbachev added a proposal for phased troop reductions of up to 500,000 men, and reductions in tactical nuclear aircraft and nuclear weapons with ranges over 1,000 kilometers, to diminish the danger of surprise attacks. In February 1987, at an international forum on peace in Moscow, Gorbachev said that "all armaments should be limited and reduced," and added that the most threatening kinds of offensive weapons should be removed from the zone of contact between blocs. He addressed Western concerns about military force asymmetries by saying that they should be dealt with by asymmetrical reductions, and repeated this offer in Prague in April.

Progress toward a comprehensive conventional arms control agreement is likely to continue to be slow, but political advantages and potential savings in costs and manpower make this effort attractive to the Soviet Union. Some of these advantages could be realized by limited unilateral steps, as an interim measure, if the party feels able to manage the opposition of the military bureaucracy.


For the United States, relations with the Soviet Union during 1987 continued to be subject to the vicissitudes of domestic politics, as has been the case during the four decades since the end of World War II.

For almost a decade the United States has experienced a conservative political tide and a related resurgence of nationalism in foreign policy. This mood has been expressed through the elevation of anticommunism to be the main organizing principle of foreign policy. Reacting against what it characterized as the "liberal illusions" of the previous period, this view has supported greater activism abroad and increased military strength to counter what was perceived to be a heightened threat from the Soviet Union.

Popular attitudes toward the Soviet Union hardened in response to Soviet actions in Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, as well as to Soviet abuse of human rights and the continuing large Soviet military programs. These feelings were intensified by a backlash against the unrealistic expectations aroused by the so-called détente period, and by a widespread sense of impotence arising from the experiences of Vietnam and, more recently, Iranian hostage-taking—all during a period marked by the passing of American military superiority.

These were the themes on which the election of 1980 brought in a president of immense popularity and political influence, and they were the themes that dominated foreign policy during Ronald Reagan’s first term and half of his second term. Given an intellectual foundation by the neoconservative movement, the prevailing political climate regenerated an orthodox view of the Soviet Union as an inherently and unchangeably aggressive and totalitarian entity, with which no productive negotiations were possible. The policy that derived logically from this view was the application of external pressures with the aim of forcing the Soviet system to change its fundamental character. It followed from this view that the security of the United States could only be assured by military superiority—that arms control agreements would be disadvantageous to the United States, leading to de facto unilateral disarmament.

Fixated on the Stalinist model as the unchanging and unchangeable pattern of Soviet behavior, the dominant orthodoxy remained committed to confrontational relations through the later Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko regimes. This conservative and anticommunist outlook, with skeptical reserve, began to question its assumptions only well into the first year of Gorbachev’s leadership.

When it came, this questioning was accelerated by a mounting series of domestic problems, which came to a head during 1987. The precipitate decline in the Administration’s influence and effectiveness resulting from the Iran-contra affair, and from the loss of control of the Senate to the Democrats in the November 1986 election, made the conduct of foreign policy more contentious and erratic, particularly because the principal issues—Nicaragua, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, defense appropriations and arms control issues—highlighted the ideological divide between the two parties and the two branches of government.

On the economic front, the stock market crash in October focused attention on a federal budget deficit of nearly $200 billion, a continuing trade deficit in spite of the dollar’s drastic exchange rate decline, the American economy’s uneasy dependence on foreign capital and the possibility of a recession. What gave these immediate problems greater significance, however, was the growing perception that they might be manifestations of a long-term systemic decline in the world position of the U.S. economy. Not only had America’s share of world industrial manufacture been declining, but it also appeared that the United States was losing its leading position in some important aspects of advanced technology. The decline in agricultural exports, diminished American competitiveness in world markets and the consequent financial vulnerability of the United States to the decisions of foreign creditors and debtors all contributed to uncertainty over whether these trends were transient and correctable or indicated a long-term relative decline. Protectionist sentiment grew within the United States as a consequence of these developments, as did strains in relations with America’s West European and Japanese trading partners.

There are many factors involved in these complex developments, but one inescapable conclusion is that the disproportionate growth of the military sector has been a major factor in the budget deficit’s growth, the decline of American competitiveness, and inadequate support for education and social services in the United States.

Military expenditures approximately trebled in the past decade. They approached two trillion dollars over the past six years, and now constitute about 30 percent of the federal budget—between six and seven percent of our gross national product. Part of the explanation for the scale of these military expenditures is that it is easy to invoke unexaminable estimates of the Soviet threat, and difficult in the present climate for a politician to withstand charges of being weak on defense and soft on communism.

A more fundamental reason is that defense policy decisions result from the interplay of parochial pressures and interests, rather than a comprehensive and rational determination of the national interest. Matters are left to bargaining between the military services, to the influence of defense contractors, and to the vying economic and political interests of congressional districts.

The consequences of this disproportionality are manifold. Although there is some spin-off benefit to the industrial sector from defense expenditures, it is far outweighed by the drain of research capabilities—laboratories, scientists, engineers—to the military sector, at the expense of America’s competitiveness in civilian technology. The pursuit of military superiority has forced development of increasingly complex weapons technology, making future prospects for rational management of the nuclear military competition more difficult. Like the Soviet Union—which has been equally irrational on this score—the United States has assembled unprecedented power for destruction beyond any reasonable measure; as a result, the security of both countries has been diminished.

As already noted, however, the year ended on a hopeful note. A few days before the Washington summit the president signaled a shift toward a more centrist position on the possibility of improved Soviet-U.S. relations: he broke with the right-wing ideological extremists who had long regarded him as their champion. Following the summit the president restated his position that the Soviet Union, under its new leadership, may have changed in fundamental ways and no longer sought world domination. Mr. Reagan hinted that this development implied no change in his policy because a change in Soviet policy was the long-intended culmination of his military buildup.

In any case, the implementation of this new stage in the president’s thinking was made more feasible by the recent resignation of several leading hard-line officials. Their departure, the ascendancy of more centrist officials and the alienation of right-wing extremists represented a significant change in the political spectrum.


The net effect of these developments within the Soviet Union and the United States was a cautious trend toward improved bilateral relations during 1987. Each side had domestic incentives for improvement, and each side also met strong domestic constraints that limited how far that improvement could go in substantive matters. On balance, the result can be characterized as a notable easement in tone, a modest start toward arms control, and a steadiness in matters of continuing disagreement.

After the Reykjavik summit of October 1986, the relationship was in disarray. Gorbachev had dangled the prospect of substantial cuts in Soviet heavy missiles and the possibility of a total elimination of nuclear weapons in ten years in an effort to move the president to accept limitations on the development of SDI. The president had responded on the spot with improvised offers to accept the abolition of nuclear weapons, or of all ballistic missiles (it was not clear which), but he had refused to accept limitations on SDI. The talks broke down on this issue, although both sides sought to put a cheerful face on what was a disappointing setback. The most serious consequence was a deep alarm among America’s NATO allies that the president could contemplate such far-reaching changes in the West’s defense posture with so little consideration, and so little consultation. Western Europe has been slow to recover from this loss of confidence in American leadership.

However inclined Gorbachev may have been after Reykjavik to give up hope of dealing with the Reagan Administration, it became apparent in the following months that such was a luxury he could not afford. He resumed a dogged effort to work toward whatever limited agreements might prove feasible, on the grounds that without any agreement, the military competition would continue to mount during the Administration’s remaining two years, and that any agreement with a conservative president with strong anticommunist credentials would ease the American political community’s acceptance of future agreements.

In the absence of effective back-channel communications that had served in contacts with previous U.S. administrations, Gorbachev opted in January 1987 to upgrade the Geneva venue by appointing the highly capable first deputy foreign minister, Yuli Vorontsov, as chief negotiator. In the following months a more serious effort began to draft an agreement on INF, as well as on central strategic systems, testing and chemical weapons. As difficulties arose, the process was facilitated by a series of meetings in Moscow, Washington and Geneva between Foreign Minister Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George Shultz.

A curious hitch developed during the October 22-23 meetings of Shultz and Soviet leaders in Moscow. Gorbachev showed a reluctance to give his expected assent to the Washington summit, saying that he felt "uncomfortable" with so thin a package. Whether it was the unsettling effect of the Yeltsin affair at the Central Committee meeting the day before or whether, as seems more likely, Gorbachev was making one more effort to make progress on the SDI issue, relying on the pressure of Congress and the budgetary strictures that could be expected to result from the stock market crash of October 19, is still not clear. In any event, the negative reaction to Gorbachev’s hesitation was clearly greater than he had intended, and he quickly sent Shevardnadze to Washington to nail down the summit with a face-saving agreement that SDI and the Strategic Arms Reductions Talks (START) would also be open to discussion. The INF treaty was then finished and the date for a signing ceremony in Washington was set.

In the meantime other aspects of the relationship developed in a businesslike manner. In April agreement was reached on joint activities in the exploration of space, reinstating an agreement originally negotiated in 1972. In May agreement was reached for the sale of four million tons of wheat by the United States to the Soviet Union, and in the same month negotiations were completed for the establishment of risk-reduction centers to improve communications in the event of certain crises. Also in May the Soviet Union ceased jamming the broadcasts of Voice of America.

A number of events that might in previous periods have resulted in high tension were managed at more moderate levels. The most serious was the arrest of several marine guards on charges that they had collaborated in KGB efforts to penetrate the U.S. embassy in Moscow, together with the revelation that the new Moscow embassy building had been so thoroughly implanted with Soviet listening devices that it would be unusable without major changes. In February the Soviet Union grumbled over its unfavorable characterization in a television dramatization, "Amerika." In June the president, in a speech in Berlin, challenged the Soviet Union to dismantle the Berlin Wall, a call the Soviet Union characterized as "reckless." In September an American soldier was shot but not seriously wounded while on a routine patrol in East Germany. Also in September, the United States remonstrated when a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test-flight landed uncomfortably close to Hawaii.

When President Reagan made a number of speeches in the late fall reaffirming his earlier negative characterizations of the Soviet Union, Soviet commentators were inclined to dismiss them as a necessary political propitiation of his right-wing supporters. It was a mark of the two countries’ steadiness of purpose in this period that none of these matters was given more than passing exploitation.

The Soviet-American summit, which began on December 7, was limited to three days in Washington. The president had expressed the hope that the general secretary would make an extended visit across the country, but Gorbachev’s preference was for a brief and businesslike session, on the grounds that the one agreement to be signed would make a larger occasion inappropriate.

A measured judgment at this time would suggest that the Washington summit was successful in launching a marginal but significant arms control agreement, but not in achieving agreement on most political issues on the agenda. The summit’s greatest significance was in the positive tone it established for the relationship.

On December 8 the president and the general secretary signed a treaty which provided for the dismantling of all Soviet and American medium- and shorter-range missiles and established the most extensive system of weapons inspection ever accepted by the two countries. The treaty requires the United States to destroy 859 missiles: 429 medium-range Pershing 2s and ground-launched cruise missiles deployed in Europe, 260 medium-range missiles not deployed, and 170 Pershing 1A shorter-range missiles stockpiled in the United States. The Soviet Union is required to destroy 1,752 missiles: 470 medium-range SS-20 and SS-4 missiles deployed, 356 medium-range missiles not deployed, 387 deployed shorter-range missiles and 539 of these weapons in storage.

With regard to the negotiation on central strategic systems, the two leaders referred the unresolved problems for further discussions at Geneva, in the framework of the 50-percent reductions agreed at Reykjavik. Some sub-ceilings on weapons categories were agreed during the summit: within an agreed overall ceiling of 6,000 warheads, a compromise figure of 4,900 was agreed to for a sub-ceiling on land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles. The objective of a 50-percent reduction in heavy ICBMs was also affirmed. The negotiations about sub-ceilings for each category of delivery system involve changes in each country’s force structure, which will make the negotiations difficult and prolonged, as will the working-out of detailed verification measures, building upon the precedents established in the INF treaty.

The two leaders were unable to agree on SDI, which was discussed in terms of "broad" versus "narrow" interpretations of the ABM treaty. At the last moment the two leaders accepted compromise language to patch over their disagreement, which nevertheless resulted in the first post-summit argument between them. The president first claimed that the summit agreement left the United States free to go forward with research on and development of SDI as it chose. ("As required" was the language of the joint statement.) He was contradicted by Gorbachev, who made it clear that if the United States, in pursuing SDI, violated the ABM treaty as originally interpreted, the Soviet Union would not go forward with proposed reductions in central strategic systems.

Other arms control issues, concerning nuclear testing, chemical weapons and conventional weapons and forces, were discussed at the summit, but their status was left unchanged.

Among the regional issues, the discussion of Afghanistan was lengthy but inconclusive. The Soviet Union sought a commitment from the United States that it would cease aid to the insurgents concurrent with the beginning of the staged withdrawal of Soviet forces, apparently in answer to a question Gorbachev posed before his arrival: whether the United States did or did not want to see a political solution of the problem. Negotiations on Afghanistan are, however, continuing under the aegis of the United Nations, and more progress may have been made in the private discussions than was reflected in the final summit communiqué.

Another regional issue, Nicaragua, left some unanswered questions. Gorbachev was reported to have mentioned in passing a willingness to cut military aid to Nicaragua under certain conditions. The matter was not followed up at the summit, but several days later the United States brought forth a Nicaraguan defector who reported that his country had sought extensive military aid from the Soviet Union as part of a plan for a buildup of a 500,000-man armed force with modern equipment. The news helped to influence congressional support for appropriations to aid the Nicaraguan contras. Gorbachev was not asked about the defector’s report.

While no progress at the summit was reported on the issue of Soviet support for a U.N.-led weapons embargo against Iran, Soviet statements several weeks later reflected a more open attitude toward the question, linked however to the earlier Soviet suggestion that any embargo’s enforcement be left to a naval force under the U.N. flag.

Human rights proved to be the prickliest issue at the summit. In contrast to the forthcoming tone taken by Foreign Minister Shevardnadze during his visit to Washington on October 30, and his agreement to set up a channel through Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Adamishin for the discussion of individual cases in which the United States had an interest, Gorbachev bristled truculently in public and private summit sessions when asked about Soviet human rights policies. In the final communiqué only 22 words were devoted to the subject, and they simply reported that the matter had been discussed.

While it seemed apparent that Gorbachev did not want to be in the position of making concessions on the issue under public pressure, the Soviet Union appears anxious to get the issue out of the way. The monthly number of Jewish emigrés rose from 98 in January to 910 in November, and it seems likely to have exceeded an annual total of 8,000 by the end of 1987. The Soviet government has agreed to act upon pleas submitted by the United States on behalf of divided spouses, dual nationals and persons refused emigration visas. It may be interesting to note that the emigration of ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union rose from 1,000 a month in April to 2,000 in October, and Armenian emigration from the Soviet Union rose from six in January to 682 in November.

While not much progress was reported on the trade issue, expanded exchanges and cooperative programs on science and technology, a probe of Mars, and environmental programs were agreed upon.

Perhaps one of the most significant results of the summit was that Gorbachev successfully projected himself to the American public and the Congress. Public interest in and knowledge of the Soviet Union has been substantially increased by his visit, and it is reported that travel by Americans to the Soviet Union projected through this summer is running about 60 percent higher than it was last year.

Although Gorbachev spoke warmly about the beginning of a "new phase" in Soviet-American relations and "a deepening political dialogue" in his final ebullient press conference in Washington, he made the point somewhat more soberly in his televised report to the Soviet people on his return to Moscow. On that occasion he acknowledged that "it is not easy to comprehend" whether changes were occurring in the position of the United States, and he added: "I must tell you that if one sticks firmly to the facts and does not slip into exaggeration, then it is too early at the moment to speak about a fundamental turning point in our relations. Too early yet."

Inevitably in the post-summit tristesse and fatigue, and amid conflicting interpretations of the agreements reached, there will be some letdown from the warmly positive tone of the summit. One storm cloud on the horizon is the discussions between the British and the French of possible joint production of an air-launched cruise missile to replace the U.S. and Soviet missiles scheduled for destruction. But the United States and the Soviet Union have agreed that the follow-up visit of President Reagan to Moscow, tentatively scheduled for the spring of 1988, need not be dependent on the successful conclusion of a START treaty. After its repeated attempts to persuade Mr. Reagan to bargain for cuts in Soviet missiles in return for limitations on the SDI development program, the Soviet Union seems to have concluded that the best it can hope for from this president is some progress on the details of an agreement for reducing strategic systems, in the expectation that a strategic arms treaty may be consummated with the next administration.


In the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, the decisive question is likely to be which country can most effectively adapt its institutions and its policies to the new requirements of international life as we approach the 21st century.

Gorbachev addresses the problems of the changed conditions of international politics. What he calls "new thinking" is an effort on a heroic scale to adapt his nation’s stagnant economy and outworn ideology to face the world of advanced technology, the danger of war, the costs of overmilitarization and the interdependence of the global economy. The problems he faces are formidable, larger in scale and more complex than those of any other leader anywhere. At this point one can only be agnostic about his chances for success, even in part.

The United States starts with many advantages, chief among which is the capability of its political system to correct its failings. But preoccupied as it has been with its domestic politics and problems, the United States shows little sign of understanding the requirements for its survival as a great power in a complex and rapidly changing world. Will it be capable, in this period of its resurgent nationalism, of rekindling the bipartisan spirit of internationalism that enabled it to provide constructive leadership in the postwar period? Will it be capable of giving reassurance and enlightened leadership to its anxious allies, and preserving the vital core of democratic values as the nucleus of international order, constraining the egoism of nations? These are among the questions the two countries face as they begin to understand the importance of the international context of which their relationship is only a part.

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  • Marshall D. Shulman is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, Columbia University.
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