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The Soviets' New International Stance: Tactical Moves or Substantial Change?

March 20, 1988|Robert M. Cutler | Robert M. Cutler teaches world politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

SANTA BARBARA — Last fall the Soviet Union caused the United States some embarrassment by paying all its back dues at the United Nations. Highlighting the fact that the U.S. account is significantly in arrears, this attention-getting move is only one of a series of initiatives taken under Mikhail S. Gorbachev to enhance the Soviet profile in international organizations.

Are these moves merely tactical and meant to improve the Soviet reputation, or do they have real substance and reflect a new attitude toward international cooperation?

The action that received perhaps the widest attention in the West was the Soviet application for observer status at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). This world trade organization, composed principally of countries with market economies, has admitted communist countries in the past. However, with the exception of China (which has created special economic zones to promote exports), they have all been East European countries. Because these countries have relatively small national economies, it has not been difficult to write special rules for them about disclosing closely held economic information and about regulating the relationship between world market prices and prices fixed by central planners.

The Soviet Union has the second-largest national economy in the world after the United States. In proportion to its gross national product, it participates in world markets much less than its East European allies. For both reasons, it would be much more difficult to write similar rules allowing the Soviet Union to participate in GATT. The Soviets seek such participation in order to gain greater access to Western capital and technology. For a similar purpose, they have also expressed a desire to join the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But other forms of international cooperation sought by the new Soviet leadership, particularly in non-economic fields, are not as easily explained by unilateral national interest.

For example, Gorbachev wants to give the International Court of Justice "mandatory jurisdiction" in more cases. This moves away from a longstanding and uncompromising Soviet defense of state sovereignty. For the first time since the United Nations' founding, the Soviet Union now supports its peacekeeping activities and is paying hard currency to assist in their upkeep. After the Chernobyl accident, Gorbachev advocated enhancing the International Atomic Energy Agency's authority to monitor nuclear power plants. After experiencing his own hostage crisis in Lebanon soon after coming to power in 1985, he proposed that the United Nations create a tribunal to investigate acts of international terrorism. The Soviet Union seems to understand that international cooperation is to its benefit in technical and specialized fields.

But there is a deeper significance to Gorbachev's initiatives.

Recent Soviet moves reenact a historical pattern of searching for multilateral security guarantees. The Russian Empire was one of several guarantors of the early 19th-Century international security order called the Concert of Europe. Between the two world wars in this century, the Soviets sought to use the collective-security provision of the League of Nations to restrain Nazi Germany. Current Soviet initiatives continue the Russian tradition of seeking multilateral security guarantees.

The new Soviet leadership declares that national security must be "mutual" and international in order to be effective. If this is a real change of mind, it would be a reversal of the longstanding Russian and Soviet belief that their own state's security is inseparable from their enemy's insecurity. Such a statement should be neither accepted at face value nor rejected out of hand. It is precisely the sort of declaration that the West must test. For example, the North Atlantic Treay Organization should seek to have Warsaw Pact forces redeployed away from their present forward positions in Central Europe.

Multilateral arrangements have modified Russian and Soviet interests in the past. In this context, Soviet advocacy of a multilateral U.N. force to guarantee freedom of the sea lanes in the Persian Gulf acquires an unexpected significance. Such a proposal would give the Soviets a foot in the water where they now have only a toe or two. However, it also signifies Soviet acknowledgement of legitimate Western interests there, because the United States, England and France--as permanent members of the Security Council--would also participate in such a force. Such developments reflect the Gorbachev Politburo's rethinking of the foreign policy and military security doctrines of leadership under Leonid I. Brezhnev.

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