Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Summit : The Cycle Built For Two

May 29, 1988|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA," is a contributing editor to Opinion

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — For the first time, U.S. and Soviet leaders may be sitting down at a summit table for roughly the same reasons--because each personally needs an agreement that will free them to pay deeper attention to the things the folks at home really want.

When President Reagan's political advisers tell him there's gold in Moscow--a chance to give his final year in the White House the rosy glow of a popular success--they're right. A new arms agreement appears to be out of reach, but that doesn't matter. The U.S. public isn't paying attention to details. What they love about summits are the champagne toasts, the First Ladies in their spring dresses, leaders putting pen to paper--any piece of paper. A ballet exchange is as good as missile reductions. This is peace, official permission to quit worrying about the "evil empire."

They haven't always felt this way, of course. What George Orwell used to call the "big public" is notoriously fickle, but cannot safely be despised. The American people appear to be fundamentally peace-minded, but they can be whipped up by events. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 sent out a long earth-tremor of fear, just as residual shocks followed the Soviet shoot down of a Korean airliner a few years later. These fears now appear quieted by the Intermediate Nuclear Force agreement, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev's determined campaign to convince the world that the Soviet Union is undergoing a fundamental change. Trying to decide whether this change is real or cosmetic has become a cottage industry in academic circles. The military-intelligence Establishment, most suspicious of all, is still muttering over the dark promises of Vladimir I. Lenin to communize the world--that's what they're paid to do. But the big public is in a sunny frame of mind, and Ronald Reagan would find it difficult, from the purely political point of view, to come back from Moscow with a renewed call to shore up the barricades with a huge commitment of money and energy for "Star Wars."

This is a fact of life. Whether it can be put into legal language is another question. The odds against a new arms treaty limiting strategic weapons any time soon are formidable. The strengths of these treaties--and both sides have been amazingly faithful to their letter--is the result of long debate, a slow growth of consensus among professionals and painstaking negotiations. Typically they take years. The anything-is-possible mood that followed the INF Treaty is typical too, but no one should be surprised if four or five years of debate will be required before a strategic arms reduction (START) treaty will be ready for signatures. This is not a cause for despair; it's the drift that is important, and a brisker pace would only provoke a deep anxiety of the gut among professionals who must dot the i's and cross the t's.

We have been here before, close enough to glimpse a world where the threat of war did not lie coiled at the heart of every crisis--but a glimpse was all we got. Old quarrels, new arms and the balance of terror were the devil we knew. One side was unmistakably ready to talk turkey, the other always found a way to raise the ante, then the moment grew stale with talk and the Cold War prospered anew. The timing was always off. What was needed, but lacking, was a time of trouble for both sides, when both were equally fatigued by conflict, embarrassed for funds and pressed by problems at home.

This may be just such a moment. For the first time, U.S. and Soviet leaders may be sitting down at a summit table for roughly the same reasons--because each personally needs an agreement, not just a piece of paper to wave but a durable understanding that will free them to pay deeper attention to the things the folks at home really want. The pessimist in all of us may scoff; 99 times out of 100, the safest prediction about anything that matters in the affairs of nations is "more of the same." But a break in the Cold War is what each side needs, the law does not forbid hope and the mood in both camps on the eve of the summit offers gentle promise of something more than the usual shoving match at the door.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|