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PLAYING Straight : Manipulation of Moscow Obscures Common Ground

April 12, 1987|Nathaniel Davis | Former U.S. Ambassador Nathaniel Davis, Hixon Professor of Humanities at Harvey Mudd College, served as senior adviser on Soviet affairs for the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration

CLAREMONT — Good Reaganauts in Washington believe the Soviet economy is faltering, and a vigorous arms race will drive it into the ground. A key Democratic leader who came to do some politicking in Southern California a few days ago said a better approach would be to "seduce" the Russians with the hope of economic gain, technology, loans, most-favored nation tariff treatment and other "taming" enticements. I doubt that either strategy makes much sense.

The Republican strategists' hope of breaking the Soviet economy in arms competition would probably break the U.S. enthusiasm for guns over butter long before it shattered the Soviet economy. It is true that the gross national product of the Soviet Union is only 55%-60% of the American GNP. But the Soviets' gross industrial product is at least 80% of ours. They have consistently been spending more than we have on arms, at least since the Vietnam War. Their military outlays buy more research and more hardware than ours because half our military budget is spent on personnel costs, including salaries to attract a volunteer army and amenities such as PX stores. In contrast, the Soviets devote only a quarter of their military budget to personnel--and feed Ivan cabbage soup. Ours is a democratic society, thank heaven, and voters are already beginning to conclude--absent a clear and present danger--that social needs, including education and fiscal health, require a slower military buildup, not a faster one. So the Soviet-American race to bankruptcy is not one we can really hope to win.

Then there is the liberal Democratic delusion. The difficulty is that it takes two to achieve a successful seduction. Actually, the idea of taming the Soviets through progressive enmeshment in the Western economic order was Henry A. Kissinger's plan in the 1970s. The objective was that of the Lilliputians when they tied down a sleeping Gulliver with gossamer strands. Kissinger explained his failure in legislative terms, pointing out, correctly, that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment tied economic benefits to Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, an arrangement meaning the Soviets would have to acknowledge our influence over their internal jurisdiction. Moreover, the Stevenson Amendment, which came at the same time, severely limited Export-Import Bank loans. Understandably Kissinger asserted that these restrictions deprived him of potential enticements, leaving him no carrots and only sticks. His memoirs also express the deep conviction that Watergate and a weakened presidency then deprived America of sticks.

It is unlikely that Kissinger's dream of domesticating Moscow by enmeshment would have provided a real solution anyway. Just as it takes two for a seduction, it takes a sleeping giant--or at least a highly inattentive giant--to accept being entangled and restrained. If anything is true of the Soviets, it is that they are utterly determined not to allow their economy or their strength to become subject to Western manipulation. They demonstrated this when President Carter ordered the grain embargo after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the cost of temporary disruption, the Soviets found alternative suppliers and they have not since allowed themselves to become as dependent on U.S. grain supplies. The Soviet Union is an alert and wakeful giant.

So what is the solution to our dilemma? Play it straight. Straight means not trying to manipulate but finding areas of potential agreement. Since World War II tides of detente and confrontation have risen and fallen in alternating rhythms, but common interests and Cold War antagonisms have never been altogether absent. We must recognize that U.S.-Soviet relations will be mixed for the indefinite future. Our task is to define places where cooperation truly serves us both while never giving away the store. Controlling nuclear arms and avoiding a holocaust are obviously the primary areas of true common interest, where it is supremely important to play straight.

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