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Will a Reformed, Vigorous Soviet Union Prove Too Much for America?

December 07, 1987|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

When he came here in 1959, Nikita S. Khrushchev was barred on security grounds from visiting Disneyland. Mikhail S. Gorbachev has no need to travel beyond Washington; his trip is one big Disneyland of media hype. But despite the reams of copy and reels of tape about the Soviet Union's first superstar, we are hardly closer to answering the key questions: Is Gorbachev good or bad for the United States? And should the West try to help him succeed or fail?

The very posing of these questions says much about popular expectations for the Soviet leader's success. To any Westerner who has traveled in the Soviet Union, perestroika, or "restructuring," must seem a daunting task, one that will be achieved in the next century, if at all. Glasnost, loosely translated as "openness," is more palpable, but it is still far from licensing the free exchange of knowledge that is critical to an efficient society, much less a democracy. Yet the man is new, things are different, and he might just pull it off--in the process making the Soviet Union mightier than ever before.

These expectations--fears, really--are akin to the exaggerated view that many Westerners have always had of Soviet power and potential. Indeed, Soviet political influence has long benefited from inflated images held by people who either have known little or should have known better. Thus it is not surprising that Gorbachev is widely viewed as a miracle worker who will, in short order, provide the Soviet Union with new means of confronting and confounding its competitors.

The sober first lesson is that, should Gorbachev and his successors succeed at the new Soviet experiment, it will take many years, if not decades. Mimicking Western media style or management techniques will not provide quick results, any more than it has in other societies, even those that do not have the Soviet Union's social and cultural handicaps. In these terms, Gorbachev's Russia is not even Deng Xiaoping's China.

The second lesson is that the outcome of the Soviet experiment will not depend very much on what the outside world does. There remain sound reasons for limiting the flow of Western technology that could directly augment Soviet military might. But it has always been a bit absurd to believe that modest traffic in Western goods and technology--begged, borrowed or stolen--would be decisive in determining the fate of an economy of 250 million people. By the same token it is preposterous to think that, in terms of economic power, the West would, in Lenin's words, "sell the rope to hang itself." That fear says more about lack of confidence in Western vigor and invention than about Soviet prowess.

As for foreign policy, it is true that Gorbachev has shown more tactical deftness than any other recent Soviet leader, perhaps more than anyone since V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky were in charge. This Western-wise Soviet leader has established himself in Europe as more of a man of peace than the U.S. President. He is outmaneuvering the United States in the Middle East, taking initiatives in Asia and making so many proposals on major issues--not least arms control--that the State Department cannot keep up.

Yet there is no reason, save indolence or ignorance, for the United States to find itself outclassed on the world stage by Gorbachev's Kremlin. Ironically, a Soviet Union so long dominated by myths about the world and the Soviet role in it has traded places with the United States and its once-vaunted capacity for realism. The vacuous slogan "standing tall" must daily be measured against the drop of the dollar and doubts worldwide about U.S. leadership.

It is also important to assess the content of Gorbachev's diplomacy. Although the details can be critical, surely it is better that he is proposing to limit or reduce nuclear weapons rather than fomenting a crisis over Berlin. It is better that he is seeking a way to become associated with the Arab-Israeli peace process rather than prompting Israel's enemies to make war. It is better that he is challenging America's diplomatic ingenuity rather than the fighting ability of its military forces.

To be sure, for the West to prefer that the new Soviet revolution not go into reverse entails making a historic gamble: that a Soviet Union able, relatively, to prosper under Gorbachev's leadership will be less threatening to Western interests than was the truculence of his three immediate predecessors or--worse--the paranoia of Josef Stalin. But it is surely a gamble worth taking, to the degree that Western actions, say, on valid arms-reduction agreements or some expanded trade, will have a significant impact on the Soviet future. Ronald Reagan exaggerates when he says that democracies do not commit aggression. But it is still possible that a Soviet Union that is less closed, rigid and economically bereft may pose less of a threat to its neighbors.

There is prudence in testing Soviet intentions. There may be value in making a substantially greater flow of Western technology contingent on different Soviet policies in places like Afghanistan. But to fear the Soviet Union as much when it shows the face of reform as when it is being reactionary is to view the future as a dead end.

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