Sovieticus

By Cohen, Stephen E. | The Nation, May 31, 1986 | Go to article overview

Sovieticus


Cohen, Stephen E., The Nation


SOVIETICUS. A crucial dispute over Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign to restore detente and end the arms race with the United States has developed in the Soviet political establishment. An embattled Gorbachev is arguing that his conciliatory policies are "necessitated by new thinking about the nuclear era," while his opponents charge that they are based on "dangerous illusions" about the United States.

The conflict cannot be fully understood apart from its history. In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration's anti-Soviet crusade and strategic weapons buildup had badly discredited Soviet proponents of detente-like political negotiations as an important component of national security. For the same reason, Soviet hard-liners, who have always insisted that the United States is bent on strategic supremacy and that therefore only abundant military power can guarantee Soviet security, had gained new influence in high-level circles.

But when Gorbachev became leader, in March 1985, he immediately set himself against that militaristic trend by calling for a "revival of detente." Why he did so is no mystery. Committed to a costly and long-term program of economic reform, he needs arms control to reduce defense spending, and improved relations with Washington to counter conservative protests that domestic change is too risky in times of international tension. Hoping to appeal to a "realistic" wing of the Reagan Administration, including the President, Gorbachev pressed hard for the Geneva summit last November. Since then, he has repeatedly defended his "new approaches" to Soviet-American relations against "stone-age ways of thinking" that seem to be entrenched in Moscow no less than in Washington.

The crux of Gorbachev's argument is twofold. First, as he told the party congress in February, in the nuclear age no country can "hope to safeguard itself solely with military-technical means.... Ensuring security is a political problem, and it can only be resolved by political means." Second, "security can only be mutual"; it cannot be achieved by "caring exclusively for oneself, especially to the detriment of the other side." More pointedly, as he said elsewhere, "there can be no security for the U.S.S.R. without security for the United States."

Gorbachev's reasoning is a tacit repudiation of previous Soviet policies, as some Moscow officials have privately confirmed. By emphasizing political means of national security, he is trying to rehabilitate detente as the highest priority of Soviet foreign policy and implying that the military buildup under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s was excessive. His recommendation that the Soviet Union "act in such a way as to give nobody grounds for fears," for example, suggests that the massive Soviet deployment of Euromissiles was a mistake because it provoked the current American buildup. Therefore, to achieve serious political negotiations on arms control and even nuclear disarmament, the Soviet Union should make concessions that will lessen American fears.

And indeed, under Gorbachev's leadership, there have been a series of remarkable Soviet concessions, including a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and on deployment of Euromissiles; a promise to remove all Soviet missiles from Europe if the United States withdraws its own, as well as to dismantle rather than relocate those weapons; and an acceptance of American demands for rigorous on-site verification of any arms-control treaties. …

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