PARIS — Returning from Moscow, one is struck by the vanity of the American effort to translate into immediate gain its perception that a newly favorable "correlation of forces" dominates the world scene.
Soviet society, under the weight of the Chernobyl catastrophe, is perhaps already becoming disillusioned with the reforms of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union gives the impression of being a very stable empire, one not to be diverted by America's ploys of the moment concerning critical matters.
The reaction of private Soviet citizens to the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster seems to combine cynicism and fatalism with an undeniable fear that was fed by the long silence of the regime.
The cynicism can be explained by the lack of ecological concern in a country that denounces the risks of nuclear war but has done little to educate its population about the dangers of civil nuclear energy. Fatalism is the product of a specific sense of time. How can one worry about a danger that may threaten you in 15 to 20 years when daily life is so demanding now in its simplest tasks?
The constantly unfulfilled promises of a bright future have immunized Soviet citizens not only against hope but also against fear. Yet fear is subtly present. Educated Soviet citizens crave some piece of reliable information about what to eat or drink, or what to avoid. Parents are especially worried. Rumor feeds on rumor in non-democratic societies in which secrecy prevails and the populace is manipulated.
The expectation of meaningful reform, not mere shuffling of personnel, has already been replaced by a sense of fatalism, which should not be equated with despair. Progress in the sense of the improvement of daily life has made some marginal strides, if only to foster the Politburo's notion that someday there will be a dacha for everyone. In a country where significant reforms cannot be conceded as a feasible and legitimate ambition, such privatization of human objectives can only be a welcome achievement for the regime.
Yet Soviet society, while stalemated, is also stable. The Reagan Administration basks in an illusion when it assumes that rapid and immediate gains can be scored against the Soviet Union. In spite of its growing economic difficulties and its blocked political system, the Soviet Union is a very resilient power that cannot be manipulated as Americans would wish.
It is also illusory for the Reagan Administration to believe that it can score points against the Soviet Union within the Third World while at the same time it reduces arms control to a fig leaf--sometimes an object of scorn, occasionally a glimmer of hope on the horizon, but never a subject for real progress.
The Soviets have been moderate in their reaction to America's newly proclaimed globalism and tougher stances on arms control, but this is the product of a tactical choice. Moscow has not at all given up the idea of using diplomacy to beat Ronald Reagan at his own game. Time is on its side. Gorbachev's rule is just beginning; Reagan has only two years left in office.
Despite the present tough American stance, the Soviets are pursuing a threefold objective with their multiple arms-control offers:
First, Moscow doesn't want to abandon the public-relations benefit of its diplomatic efforts, epitomized by the smile of Raisa Gorbachev. Thus its refusal to follow the United States into a battle of words and communiques.
Second, instead of confronting the American offensive and defensive nuclear programs head on, the Soviets have chosen an indirect approach--America's democratic system. The Kremlin is betting that the U.S. Congress will drastically reduce the defense budget and funds for the Strategic Defense Initiative, especially since it is an election year. The Soviets could only be elated by the debate and the psychological repercussion created in the United States over the space-shuttle disaster. For them, "Star Wars" can only suffer with America's loss of absolute confidence in its ability to master science and nature.
Finally, Moscow is using Chernobyl as a way to rekindle the anti-nuclear emotions of Western public opinion. It is trying to make nuclear power the issue in elections in Great Britain and West Germany, much the same way as it fed the pacifist movement during the Euromissile crisis.
Thanks in part to Soviet adventurism in the Third World, the United States no longer is viewed in many European countries as the archvillain on the international stage--that honor now goes to Moscow. But the Soviets could win big propaganda points if American foreign policy continues to combine the assertive Reagan doctrine in the Third World along with an effective rejection of the arms-control process.
The Soviets feel that they made the greatest compromise at the Geneva summit, only to be rewarded with U.S. intransigence. For Moscow, a second summit will have to be more balanced in its results. Contrary to Washington's thinking that the correlation of forces has been drastically altered in favor of the United States, the Soviets clearly will not be pushed around so easily.