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A Petty Slap at the Soviets

March 23, 1986|JERRY F. HOUGH | Jerry Hough is a professor of political science at Duke University and a staff member of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

During the last five years opinion polls repeatedly have shown public uneasiness about the foreign policy of the Reagan Administration, but this discontent has never been translated into real opposition. The recent decision to force a reduction in the size of the Soviet mission staffs at the United Nations provides a perfect illustration of the problem.

On the one hand, the President has "stood up" to the Soviets without any danger of war. He has probably killed the chance of a summit in 1986 or 1987, but responsibility for that will be ambiguous. Moreover, the decision is hard to criticize, for, unquestionably, the Soviet U.N. mission is large, it does engage in espionage, and the FBI does have a surveillance problem. So politicians and editorial writers who are inclined to disapprove just let the matter drop.

Yet the decision creates a vaguely unhappy feeling. Why, in the midst of a series of summits with a brand-new Soviet leader and with a long-time ambassador to the United States, Anatoly F. Dobrynin, just elected to the secretariat, does the United States choose to offend the Soviet Union deeply on a matter that it has tolerated for decades--and, indeed, for five years of the Reagan Administration? It has the smell of nastiness for the sake of nastiness.

In order for the United States to formulate an intelligent Soviet policy for the rest of this century, the American public must think through its objections and learn to articulate them. In many ways the decision to reduce the size of the Soviet mission epitomizes what has been wrong with U.S. policy and attitudes towards the Soviet Union.

The basic problem with the decision on the U.N. mission is that it is mindless symbolism--and what is worse it is the mindless symbolism of an attitude that is contrary to our deepest principles.

A forced reduction in the size of the Soviet mission (like aid to the contras in Nicaragua or Jonas Savimbi in Angola) makes no practical sense. Given all the Soviet bloc personnel in the United Nations, in Washington, and in various trade delegations and consulates, 100 Soviet diplomats is a drop in the bucket. Indeed, the President just agreed to the establishment of a new Soviet consulate in New York City.

The decision makes even less sense if the President is sincere about expanding cultural ties, emigration and tourism. What if the Soviet Union takes us up on this? What if the Soviet Union offers to send not 100 students, but 13,000, as the Chinese have done? What if it allows thousands of tourists to come? What if (as I expect) it sends thousands of businessmen to buy and sell goods? What if (as I do not expect) it allows free emigration? Obviously these groups would include Soviet spies, and they would have greater access to technology than Soviet diplomats. Do we put up an Iron Curtain?

If not, why are we so concerned with 100 diplomats? We are spoiling the spirit of Geneva, we are threatening the valuable exposure that America would get on Soviet television as a result of a visit by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and we are violating international law in a way that a status quo power such as the United States should not.

But why? This Administration is the first in 50 years to come out of the isolationist wing of the Republican Party. It seems to have many remnants of old fears and paranoias. In its fears about the sanctity of our technology and military secrets, it seems to go back to the communists-under-every-bed panic of the 1940s and early 1950s. In its concern for a flood of refugees from Central America, it seems to go back to the Yellow Peril scare of the 1920s. We have gone far towards getting over the fears and insecurities generated by the loss in Vietnam, and we need to move beyond the fears of our isolationist past.

If we are concerned about Soviet espionage, the way to cripple it is to flood their system with false information. If we send a number of our agents to Soviet diplomats with offers of information and then expel diplomats who take us up on it, then the Soviet Union would not be able to trust an American who makes a genuine offer to spy.

But, basically, we need to be philosophical and self-confident. The Soviet Union has spies, but their number is limited by budgetary considerations just as FBI surveillance is. They are going to get some secrets--just as we will get some of theirs--but we will survive if we concentrate on protecting our most important ones.

Above all, our fears must be balanced by other considerations. The emigration of the 1970s justified the risk of accepting a few spies. It is worth taking a similar risk to encourage large-scale Soviet cultural, business, tourist and student travel to the United States, for such exposure is the only way to reduce Soviet paranoia and its sense of the need for vigilance against spies under every bed. A senseless and illegal decision on the U.N. mission situation simply strengthens the hands of the paranoids in the Soviet Union.

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