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Correlation of Forces Turning Toward Soviets

August 23, 1987|RICHARD N. HAASS | Richard N. Haass is on the faculty of Harvard University's John F. ennedy School of Government

One of the things we would do well to learn from the Soviets is their notion of the "correlation of forces."

This measure goes far beyond any table comparing warheads, tanks, ships or aircraft. The correlation of forces is a comprehensive assessment that embraces such factors as national will, the degree of political consensus, alliance cohesion and economic and technological developments. Trends matter as much as actual capabilities.

For much of the last decade--one can date the change from the American reaction to the fall of the Shah of Iran and the hostage crisis, the impact of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan over Christmas, 1979, or the Reagan presidency--the correlation has moved in the direction of the United States.

Indeed, the debacle in Iran and the Soviet willingness to enter Afghanistan marked the end of an era of American decline that was both caused and dominated by the draining Vietnam and Watergate experiences. While the United States was rushing to retrench, the Soviet Union was looking to expand. In different ways, the Nixon, Ford and Carter Administrations were all characterized by policies of decline: Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford sought to minimize it through detente and asking allies to do more, Jimmy Carter sought mostly to create a consensus in favor of accepting decline with good grace.

But then a change in national mood took place. A new consensus favoring an increase in defense spending was born. The U.S. economy boomed. Despite unprecedented Soviet intimidation, the Atlantic alliance met one of its greatest challenges and deployed a new generation of missiles. The ideas of democracy and free markets gained adherents around the globe. Ronald Reagan's optimism both contributed to and reflected the new mood.

Meanwhile, this country's principal adversary was undergoing a series of trying tests. A succession of Soviet leaders proved too infirm to lead. Soviet economic performance was miserable--owing to too much regulation, poor labor productivity and low levels of technology. Alcoholism was up; life expectancy down. Abroad, the Soviets found their allies challenged by insurgencies backed by the United States. U.S. interest in strategic defense threatened to undo Moscow's massive investment in offensive systems. And Afghanistan had become the Soviet Vietnam.

Together, these developments made for a correlation of forces decidedly in the advantage of the United States. But what goes around comes around, and there are signs that this decade of American recovery and dominance is coming to an end. The American economy faces an uncertain future. Defense spending has dropped off. And once again, the U.S. presidency is weakened.

Similar trends are affecting foreign policy. The debate over U.S. policy toward the Persian Gulf indicates that popular and congressional reticence continues to constrain U.S. willingness to use military force abroad. Despite the recent bid for negotiations sponsored by the Administration and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), there is no certainty that the Reagan doctrine of support for anti-communist forces will pass its most important and controversial test when Congress votes sometime after Sept. 30 on funding for the anti-Sandinista contras .

Meanwhile, protectionism threatens the relatively open trading system that has provided the context for global economic growth. And NATO is being shaken by the Reykjavik summit and the possibility of an arms control pact that raise anew fundamental questions about the role of nuclear weapons and the reliability of the United States.

By way of contrast, the Soviet Union is undergoing a revival. The key to the new optimism is Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose relative youth and vigor offer a sharp contrast to his predecessors. Already policies are being instituted that should improve worker morale and increase productivity and wealth. Soviet diplomacy in Europe, Asia and the Middle East is more active and imaginative than has been the case in years.

There are some important exceptions to these trends. The Soviets are finding it more difficult to leave Afghanistan than it was to enter, and Gorbachev has still to consolidate his authority. The Soviet economy must travel a long way before it can compete with this country or Japan. The appeal of democracy and free markets is greater than ever, and the West will continue to develop and exploit new technologies far more efficiently.

On balance, though, the era of Soviet decline and American ascendance appears over. We can anticipate a correlation of forces far more balanced than it has been for a decade. What it all adds up to is a challenging inheritance to Reagan's successor. The next presidency could prove to be one of this century's more difficult; one wonders whether the many would-be successors have thought through all that awaits them, should they succeed.

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