NEW YORK — Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's restraint in responding to the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe has won over many skeptics in the West. He has been credited with inspiring, even encouraging the removal of the leaders of the ossified communist regimes in the region. That explanation misstates reality.
In fact, the millions who demonstrated in the streets of the great cities of Eastern Europe were inspired by Western ideals, by the failure of their communist economic systems and by the hatred of the puppet regimes that ruled on behalf of Moscow for four decades. The rhetoric of the East European reformers paralleled the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the preamble of the Constitution, not the discredited theories of Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin to which Gorbachev continues to swear fidelity.
All Gorbachev's actions have been directed toward two geopolitical goals. To revive his moribund economy, he wants to gain access to Western capital and technology. He knows his economic reforms cannot succeed without this assistance, and he is willing to pay a geopolitical price to achieve this key objective. Gorbachev also wants to divide his adversaries and to end the political isolation of the Soviet Union. His predecessors had succeeded in uniting all the world's great powers--the United States, Western Europe, Japan and China--against the Kremlin. His foreign-policy actions are largely aimed at loosening the ties of that anti-Soviet bloc.
That's why when popular uprisings threatened the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev declined to enforce the Brezhnev doctrine. In doing so, however, he was pursuing his own interest. He faced an unenviable choice. If he had intervened, the entire region would have exploded in a violent revolutionary upheaval. That, in turn, would have aborted his efforts to improve relations with the West and eliminated any chances Moscow had of gaining access to Western capital and technology to reinvigorate the Soviet economy.
So far, Gorbachev's strategy for keeping his empire together has been to keep his hands firmly on the reins of central power, while tolerating more protests against it than most of his predecessors would have done. But as one analyst has noted, allowing the non-Russian nations freedom of protest without being willing to redress their basic grievances is a recipe for revolution.
If these nationalist forces are ever unleashed, they will be all the more explosive for having been suppressed for so long. Once demands for autonomy and freedom by non-Russians in the Soviet Union grow more extreme, there could be a conservative backlash of Russian nationalism, and the Soviet Union could well sink into a grim cycle of revolts and crackdowns.
In the end, Gorbachev will probably survive--not because his reforms will succeed, but because he will back away from them. This does not mean that he does not favor reforms. It means that if he is forced to choose between reforms and power, he will choose power.
The conventional wisdom is that the West has an interest in the success of Gorbachev's reforms. In responding to Gorbachev, however, our concern should center primarily not on how his reforms affect life inside the Soviet Union but on how his reforms affect our interest outside the Soviet Union. If these changes simply make life better for the Soviet people, we should help him. If they also make life harder for us, we should not.
For the Soviet Union to receive Western assistance, we should insist on six conditions.
* Moscow must establish a free-market economy.
* Eastern European countries must complete their transition to full independence.
* NATO and the Warsaw Pact must establish parity in conventional arms.
* The United States and the Soviet Union must conclude a verifiable START agreement ensuring stable nuclear deterrence.
* Gorbachev must cease his aggressive policies in the Third World.
* The Soviet Union must adopt a political order that respects human rights and reflects the wishes of people expressed in free elections.
Until Gorbachev meets these tests, Western assistance to the Soviet Union would be premature. It would be futile to provide aid before the Soviets overhaul their economy. A banker does no favor to the borrower when he makes a bad loan. Such aid would reduce the pressure on the Soviets to reform their economy and to reduce their massive military budget.
It is true that much has changed. But much has not. The Soviet Union is still a global superpower with decisive superiority in land-based nuclear weapons and in conventional forces. Its leaders are committed to an ideology that is diametrically opposed to ours. They support regimes around the world that are highly detrimental to our interests.