Has the Soviet Union gone soft?
Has Ronald Reagan gone soft?
Is the INF treaty just a treaty or a watershed?
Those are the questions that are teasing observers of the 1987 summit meeting, and they were the key questions that Ronald Reagan dealt with in a private interview with me and three other columnists Wednesday afternoon in the Oval Office. The President's answers will likely disturb many conservatives.
Reagan does not think that he has gone soft at all; he is highly displeased with outspoken conservatives who think that he has. He believes that he has negotiated from strength and that the Soviets may have changed in a serious way--still at odds with the West, but at least somewhat softer and perhaps no longer seeking the world domination that cold-warrior Reagan warned against for so many years. And, accordingly, this can indeed make the Washington summit meeting the first formal step on a new road.
Reagan was asked whether he thinks that he is dealing with a new kind of Soviet leader. "Possibly the fundamental change is that in the past Soviet leaders have openly expressed their acceptance of the Marxian theory of the one-world communist state . . . ," he said. "Their obligation was to expand and make the whole world (communist). I no longer feel that way; I think we're dealing with a (Soviet) administration that--and this doesn't mean that I'm dropping my guard or anything, but that we have a potential here of a recognition that we have two systems that are competitive, that aren't alike, that have different values, but a desire to prove that we can live in the world together in peace. And this is what I've been seeing in these three meetings, and more in this last meeting, with the general secretary."
Challenged that Mikhail S. Gorbachev has never stated that the old standard communist global-domination goal is no longer in effect, Reagan responded, "No, he has never said that, but . . . he is the first and only (Soviet) leader that has never affirmed that (it is so), that has never stood up there before the great Soviet congress and openly stated that goal as the others all have."
Reagan believes that the absence of a positive claim to eventual dominance is an example of new thinking that is leading to a new form of dialogue: "In our discussions, just the things that he's willing to discuss and talk about in the relationship is evidence to me that he's looking for us (to be) competing but living together peacefully in the world."
This in no way means that the President thinks that this competition will be, or should be, anything less than hardball. Reagan was reminded of his speech to the British Parliament in 1982, when he said that the "Soviet Union runs against the tide of history" and that "Marxism-Leninism is on the ash heap of history." He was asked if, in that context, he thought that the United States and the Western world were winning the contest--that the Soviets signed on to the INF treaty because the West Europeans deployed missiles, that the Soviets are interested in deep strategic missile cuts because they are afraid of the Strategic Defense Initiative, that they may withdraw from Afghanistan because they are losing there, and that Gorbachev's perestroika is an admission of defeat.
Dancing away from any direct confrontation, Reagan said of the treaty that "the winners are the people who are going to benefit."
Reagan was pressed again: "Do you still think that Marxism-Leninism is going to end up on the ash heap of history?"
Reagan laughed and said that Gorbachev "probably thinks capitalism is going to end up on the ash heap of history." But Reagan's answer was: "Yes. I've always believed that the greatest revolution in the history of man is in the country with three words, 'We the People' . . . . Over the years, 200 years now, our revolution proved to be the correct one."