When the United States and the Soviet Union concluded the SALT I treaty in 1972, Washington wags deadpanned: "This wouldn't have happened if Richard Nixon were still President." That joke is being recycled about Ronald Reagan, as he announces an "agreement in principle," on a U.S.-Soviet treaty to eliminate so-called Euromissiles. There is more than wry humor. The United States is again falling into an excess of expectations about the Soviet Union.
Dealing with the Soviets is always difficult for the American people and their leaders. U.S.-Soviet relations are a mixture of black and white, good and bad, confrontation and cooperation. But the American character is averse to ambiguity, and few leaders have the courage to explain complexity. During the Cold War, it seemed that we could accomplish nothing positive with the Soviets. Then came detente in the 1970s, and Americans expected rapid advances across the board. The Soviet Union, many people believed, was finally prepared to behave by rules acceptable to the United States. Disillusion set in rapidly. The Soviets rattled sabers during the 1973 Middle East war, only months after signing a summit document that seemed to preclude such actions. By the time of Jimmy Carter's summit with Leonid I. Brezhnev in 1979, a SALT II agreement was destined for trouble even in a Senate controlled by Democrats. And it died when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
Ronald Reagan came to power calling the Soviet Union the "evil empire," but now he will host Mikhail S. Gorbachev as the first Soviet leader to visit in 14 years. That might be seen as the natural outgrowth of the President's policies over six years. But both the Administration and the nation seem, once again, to be losing perspective. Detente II is here--with a vengeance.
Some lifting of spirits is justified. The Euromissile treaty can prove to be beneficial to the West. It is also better for the superpowers to talk with one another instead of snarling or sulking. Millions of people will rest more easily in those countries that have little say in world events but must depend on Washington and Moscow to prevent history's final war. And one agreement between the superpowers can lay the basis for the next.
But the hype that attends a superpower summit can get out of hand. Wishes father many thoughts with little foundation. This is already happening, and it will surely grow as the summit date approaches later this year.
Beyond the novelty and media value, much of this is due to Gorbachev's image as a new Soviet man. He is supposed to be eager to modernize his country, to seek a breathing space in foreign affairs and to reshape East-West relations by ending confrontation and reducing the role of military force. This is a man we can deal with, to mutual benefit.
That may prove to be true. It would be foolish to reject a chance to make U.S.-Soviet relations safer, more stable, more productive. But on the skeptic's principle of "what you see is what you get," Gorbachev has a long way to go to prove that he shares American hopes for decisive change.
The record so far shows a Soviet leader pursuing classic Soviet objectives with style and finesse. The long-time foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko--"Old Iron Pants"--has been replaced by a young generation of blow-dried diplomats, many of whom speak perfect American. New proposals come from the Kremlin so thick and fast that the United States seems unable to react. Most of these proposals, attractive in places like Western Europe, give a clear edge to Soviet interests.
The Euromissile treaty, for instance, advances the Soviet goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in Europe--thus reducing the cornerstone of Western alliance security. The treaty has caused trouble between the United States and some allies, especially West Germany, against a background of Soviet conventional force superiority. These handicaps can be overcome, but it will require diplomatic efforts hitherto beyond the interest or ability of the Reagan Administration.
Similarly, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Soviets deftly support calls for an international peace conference because it would deal them in more then ever before, probably at U.S. expense. And in the Persian Gulf, Gorbachev offers Iran a carrot while we brandish the stick. The upshot--particularly if there is a U.S.-Iranian clash--is steady encroachment of Soviet influence.
With due effort, the President can regain the initiative from Gorbachev. He can also test Soviet intentions, for example in pressing for major Soviet conventional force reductions in Eastern Europe. And he might be able to create a solid basis for a productive era in U.S.-Soviet relations. But unless he and the nation keep a tight rein on euphoria, Detente II will go the way of its predecessor.