"The Cold War is over"--that cliche reverberated on the airwaves and found its way into countless editorials on the conclusion of the most recent Moscow summit. The historical accuracy of this assertion was matched by the intellectual acuity of the American journalists who repeatedly shouted at the President, "Do you still think of Russia as 'the evil empire?' " Both reactions reflected the fact that the summit was short on substance but long on symbolism. And symbolism is easier to manipulate, to exaggerate, even to distort.
The hard facts are less sensational but, unfortunately, more enduring. The Cold War is not over, and the empire is still evil. President Reagan, had he been better coached, could have easily responded to the badgering by saying that the Russian people are not evil but that imperial power has been and is--and even in the Soviet Union many would have understood him and agreed with him. Instead, placed on the defensive and determined not to offend his hosts, he contributed to the impression that the past is truly past.
Alas, it is not so. The Cold War--by which has been meant the reality of a historically significant competition waged without a war--continues. The clash of philosophy and geopolitics has not been terminated. The issues that precipitated the post-World War II collision have not been resolved. The growing unrest in East-Central Europe against the regimes imposed on that region by Stalin is but one manifestation of the unresolved past. New theaters of rivalry and conflict have since opened, both in the Middle East/Persian Gulf region and, increasingly, in Central America.
The summit, however, did underline two important changes in the character of that continuing Cold War, and they deserve serious comment. The first is that the West is now on the offensive, ideologically and even politically, in the Cold War. The cause of human rights, first raised high by President Carter, has put the Soviet leaders on the defensive, and they have been forced gradually and grudgingly to make concessions. Moreover, their own need to reform the Stalinist system creates additional openings for those who seek more freedom, and President Reagan was skillful in dramatizing the centrality of freedom in our age by his actions and words.
The President's meeting in Moscow with the oppositionists and political victims was truly significant. It communicated to countless others that they are no longer alone and that even the Soviet regime no longer dares to crush them. The comments on religion will doubtless echo within a Soviet Union increasingly aware that communism has turned the country into a spiritual wasteland. Dissent and religion have gained additional respectability--and that, too, puts the official ideology on the defensive.
More broadly still, for the last 40 or so years communism seemed to be on the historical offensive. Today it is receding even within the sphere of its power. All the reforms and changes being discussed and occasionally implemented testify to the failure of the communist system, its inefficiency and its basic misunderstanding of the impulses that guide human conduct. The result is a pervasive loss of historical optimism. The themes of the summit--even if the President was drawn into oversimplifying the Soviet reality and inadvertently contributing to an overly benign view of it--were far more compatible with Western notions than with the dogmas that have been institutionalized in the 70 years of the Soviet experience.
The summit's second change in the character of the Cold War pertains to military stability. Fortunately, President Reagan did accept the advice of those who had urged him not to sign jointly with Mikhail S. Gorbachev any grandiose declarations or even a so-called provisional framework agreement on strategic arms reductions, since a formal signature would contribute to the mistaken impression that unresolved problems have somehow been solved. Nonetheless, the President's comments about nuclear weapons, eagerly seized on by Secretary Gorbachev, have contributed to the further undermining of nuclear deterrence as the basis for military stability in the Cold War.
That war has remained cold in large part because of nuclear deterrence, and one is entitled to wonder whether the moment is ripe for the dismantling of that proven barrier to a more direct conflict. Denouncing nuclear weapons may be a popular sport, but in the absence of a grand political accommodation the effect is to make a conventional war more feasible.