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Great Powers Argue Their Own Insecurities

July 06, 1986|Nathaniel Davis | Nathaniel Davis, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, is a professor of humanities at Harvey Mudd College. This article is adapted from "Essays on Strategy and Diplomacy," published by the Keck Center for International Strategic Studies.

As messages between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev go back and forth on matters of a summit and arms control, this is a moment to reflect on the delicate nature of diplomacy between rivals.

All great powers have undirectional lenses which enable them to discern the injustices and inequalities perpetrated by their adversaries more clearly than those initiated by themselves. A searching look at American insecurities would lead an impartial observer to conclude that its reassurance would be almost as difficult as for the Soviet Union, even if the Soviets were to embark on an earnest and dedicated attempt to offer true reassurance.

It is not in the nature of great powers to be easily assured. In the 1970s, the United States did not willingly accept parity with the Soviet Union in strategic arms. "Equally" happened, partly as a result of the Vietnam War. Currently, the Reagan Administration, while bemoaning strategic inferiority, is dedicating its efforts to maximizing U.S. power. As does the Soviet Union, the United States sometimes redefines its terms and recuts its measuring sticks in furtherance of its own purpose. This is not to equate American and Soviet disinterestedness and candor; it is simply to acknowledge the melancholy fact that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States is very likely to make an overall judgment that the nuclear strength of the two sides is solidly equal, and therefore the time has come to halt the arms race.

If equality in arms is a concept which deludes agreement, "equal security" is even less likely to find mutual acceptance. It is conceivable that the West might come to a willingness to balance Soviet nuclear arsenals against U.S., British, and French arsenals. One has to acknowledge, after all, that the Soviets have a point in this regard. But it is difficult even to imagine Western compensation to the Soviets for Chinese arms, and virtually impossible to conceive of agreed compensation for geography and the other imponderables the Soviets include in "equal security." Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) would rise from his grave to smite the perpetrators of any such sell-out of U.S. security and the equality in arms that undergirds it.

There are other factors that affect Soviet arms-development decisions. Certainly, pressures of resource allocation influence the Russians' defense budget. It now appears that the slowdown in Soviet economic growth not only produced a cutback in the growth of investment--which has been long acknowledged--but also a cutback in the latter 1970s to about a 2% annual decrease in defense outlays. One can be grateful that resource-allocation pressures influence budgets in both the Soviet Union and the United States.

So do bureaucratic and personal politics, as many observers have pointed out. For example, Khrushchev tried to cut military outlays at the end of the 1950s, including both army and navy weapon systems and officers' perquisites. These actions clearly contributed to his ouster in 1964 and none of his successors has made the same mistake.

The onrush of technology sometimes snatches away the decision-maker's power to decide. Weapons come to be made because they can be made. The actions of the two superpowers do, of course, produce responses, but the lead-time of years--even a decade--necessary in the development of new strategic systems means that these responses come slowly. Recently we have seen indications of Soviet defense expenditure turning upward in probable reaction, at least in part, to the Reagan Administration's defense buildup. That is the trouble with catch-up policies. The U.S. perception is that we are redressing the balance disturbed by massively increasing Soviet arms outlays over 25 years. The Soviets no doubt see themselves as responding to the higher rate of increase in defense expenditures of the United States in recent times. "Equal security" eludes us both, and the arms race goes on.

The adherence of the United States to the "principle of equal security" can probably be judged as having been a mistake. It is almost always unfortunate to sign a formal undertaking with another power which one does not mean. Moreover, it sits badly if one trivializes a commitment which the other power regards as highly important. It does not help to perpetuate the misunderstanding through solemn but vacuous repetition, as the United States appears to have done.

"Equal security" may not even have served the Soviets very well. Surely they are too practical to believe that the United States would grant important concessions simply because Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter signed documents affirming the abstraction. In fact, the United States never granted such concessions.

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