WASHINGTON — Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the supreme Soviet leader, has now taken so many dramatic steps toward liberalization and reform that a critical debate has broken out in the West: Is it in the West's interests to help him?
In Europe, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has answered yes. He expresses concern that the West may pass up a historic opportunity if it remains immobile during this turning point in East-West relations.
In the United States it is much more dangerous politically to endorse a position in favor of helping any Soviet leader. But behind closed doors, study groups are springing up all over Washington to debate whether the United States has an interest in seeing Gorbachev succeed.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be a productive debate when it enters the public domain. For even today, 40 years after the height of the Cold War, there seem all too often to be two dominant positions in the debate: the soft-headed and the hard-headed, or what we will call the dupes and the dopes.
What distinguishes a dupe from a dope? A dupe is someone who contends that the Soviets can always be trusted. A dope is someone who contends that they can never be trusted.
Neither position is tenable. No nation, and certainly not one as hostile to American interests as the Soviet Union, is always to be trusted. Certainly Soviet commitments in areas of direct interest to American security must rest on more than trust to be accepted.
Indeed, though few admit it publicly, in some critical areas the United States does not trust even its closest friends. It tries to keep some sensitive information only to itself. Recently one of America's closest friends, Israel, was caught red-handed trying to steal some of this information. But Israel, which grew so confident of its ability to dominate the relationship that it grew careless and made a serious mistake, is not alone in its illegal behavior--a fact that only diplomatic courtesy prevents everyone from acknowledging. Every one of America's allies has probably engaged in some degree of espionage on American soil.
If we cannot trust our friends, how much more suspicious we must be of adversaries. But if it is foolish to place too much trust in either friends or adversaries, it is also unwise to express unremitting doubt about their actions.
We actually trust the Soviet Union in many areas. We trust them to pay their bills and conduct themselves according to diplomatic practice. If we did not, we would not trade with them or recognize them.
Most days we even trust them not to launch war. If we did not, the United States would move to a permanent state of wartime mobilization.
But we do not trust them not to take early advantage of us if we become weak. We think, correctly, that they press the espionage game harder than any other power. And we suspect that United States and Soviet interests are further apart than almost any other two powers.
So should the United States help Gorbachev succeed in his reforms? The correct answer is no--but we should also not try to thwart him.
The West should not try to help him because we do not know enough about his ultimate aims to become his informal ally against his domestic enemies. It would be a dupe's position to offer the Soviet Union new advantages in the hope that these could enable Gorbachev to prevail over his enemies.
But it would be equally wrong for the West not to recognize that something of great potential is taking place within the Soviet Union. For the first time since the period between the death of Josef Stalin and the fall of Nikita S. Khrushchev, policy seems to be moving in a liberal direction. Even Gorbachev may not know where his reforms will ultimately take his country.
The West's best policy is, therefore, one of pragmatic cooperation. Each deal should stand on its own in terms of the advantages it offers to both sides.
In the arms-control field, the West should probe Soviet seriousness by working for solid, mutually advantageous agreements that can be adequately verified. It should give nothing away but following this sound advice, it should also not throw away the opportunity to see whether new arrangements can be worked out with a more reformist Soviet leadership.
The West German foreign minister may be right that the world is at the threshold of a new age. But the West will be unable to enter if it is either too negative or too naive. The first approach leads to diplomatic sterility. The second engenders expectations that cannot survive the inevitable political setbacks.
Gorbachev should therefore not ask for nor receive Western support. The order of the day should be an open mind, not blind eyes or a soft heart.