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Our Stake Is in Process of Soviet Reform

June 26, 1988|MICHAEL MANDELBAUM | Michael Mandelbaum is director of the project on East-West Relations and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He is co-author with Seweryn Bialer of "The Global Rivals," which will be published in September by Knopf.

The Moscow summit drew the world's attention to the changes that Mikhail S. Gorbachev has set in motion in the Soviet Union, changes that have the potential to transform that country. Because the other superpower is so important for the rest of the world, the Gorbachev reforms raise an important question for American policy: Should the United States support them?

It is important to be clear, first of all, about how American interests are not identical with those of the Soviet leadership. One of their driving purposes is to enhance the power, prestige and influence of the Soviet Union. An important motive for reform is the Soviet elite's alarm that their country is falling further and further behind the West, especially in economic terms. The Soviet system no longer stands as an attractive model for other countries. Gorbachev, as far as we can tell, wants the Soviet Union to be a "full-service superpower," competitive with the United States and the West in economic, social and political as well as military terms.

The West does not share this interest. It has been the central aim of American foreign policy for 40 years to oppose the international designs of the Soviet Union. We have no reason to look with favor on, let alone support, an effort to promote those designs more effectively.

Neither, however, need we regard the present efforts with alarm. There are limits to what the Gorbachev reforms can accomplish in the foreseeable future. The Soviet Union is not about to become one of the world's most dynamic, modern, vibrant, attractive societies. The reforms will do well if they keep the gap between the Soviet Union and the West from widening further.

Moreover, while the United States has no interest in the ends that Gorbachev has set for his country, we do have an interest in the means on which he is relying to attain them. The changes that he has introduced in order to strengthen the Soviet Union have the promise of changing the country in ways congenial to the West.

This in turn holds the promise of making the Soviet Union a less harsh and forbidding country. So the West has an interest in the process, if not the product of the Gorbachev reforms, and in the journey on which he has set his country, if not in the arrival that he envisions.

Most Americans feel this way instinctively. It is perhaps worth spelling out the basis of this feeling in order to clarify our own values and assumptions.

First, we take an interest in internal conditions in other countries. Scholars and statesmen debate whether the internal affairs of others are proper concerns of American foreign policy. The fact is that the American public deems it proper; that is why the issue of human rights, for example, counts for so much in the foreign policy of this country. Gorbachev's liberalizing reforms offer the hope of making the Soviet Union a better place to live for many of its citizens. On that basis it has a claim on American sympathies.

Second, the process of reform evidently involves an emphasis on internal affairs at the expense of foreign policy. International issues are, as far as possible, to be put to one side in the Soviet Union so that the leadership and the society can concentrate on the huge task of internal reconstruction. The United States has generally opposed Soviet international initiatives, so the fewer there are the better this will suit us. The improvements in Soviet-American relations and particularly the progress on arms control that have occurred since Gorbachev came to power stem from this clear sense of priorities. There is every reason to hope that it persists.

Third, a more liberal Soviet Union internally is likely to be a more moderate, accommodating and less hostile and threatening power abroad. Again, scholars debate what, if any, connection exists between a sovereign state's domestic order and its international behavior. No consensus on this question has been reached. Nonetheless, there is a view, widely shared if seldom articulated in the United States, that a Soviet Union in which the Communist Party has less power, and in which there is greater freedom for individuals, will be a country less dangerous to the West.

This view, it must be admitted, is in part a matter of faith--faith ultimately in democracy. It is unwise to rest a major foreign policy on faith. Fortunately, there is no occasion to do so. The question of whether successful reform would indeed benefit the West would be an important issue of policy if this country had the power to help or hinder it significantly. The United States does not have that power. The Soviet Union is a large, powerful, self-sufficient, remote and, in many ways, alien country. Outsiders have little direct leverage over its internal affairs.

Yet we do have an interest in the outcome. The reforms will affect our lives as well. But in the great drama that is being played out in the Soviet Union today, and that may well continue to the end of the century and beyond, Americans will be spectators, not participants.

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