WASHINGTON — When Presidents George Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev sit down Thursday morning to face each other across a small table in the Oval Office, their conversations will be dogged by the return of an element in the superpower relationship that recently had seemed obsolete: old-fashioned conflict.
From the closing months of Ronald Reagan's presidency through the first 13 months of Bush's term, in one decision after another, Gorbachev did mostly what U.S. officials hoped he would.
Then, in one tumultuous week this past March, all that began to change. The rush of events of Europe and inside the Soviet Union finally reached what Administration officials refer to as Gorbachev's "bottom line." A chill settled abruptly over the Kremlin's accommodating attitude.
As a result, this week's Bush-Gorbachev meetings will see an unwonted emphasis on areas of conflict and disagreement between the two superpowers.
"We were getting accustomed to an avalanche of Soviet concessions," says Raymond L. Garthoff, a Soviet expert at Washington' Brookings Institution. "We should have realized it couldn't really continue forever."
The inevitable end of the steady flow of Soviet concessions does not mean the Cold War has returned. The 45 years of intense ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union almost certainly are over if for no other reason than that few Soviets still believe in the ideology that once drove their society.
Moreover, the basic fear that drove the Cold War--the possibility that the Red Army could crash across the Central European frontier in a surprise attack--simply does not exist anymore, U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization military analysts say. So drastically changed is the military balance in Europe that even the sorts of potential Soviet moves Administration planners worry about--tanks crushing the independence moves in the Baltics, for example--are moves that might inflame public opinion in the United States, but not steps that would permanently upset superpower relations.
Indeed, as Bush said in a press conference Thursday, the Administration's real concern now is "unpredictability" and "instability," not war. Avoiding unpredictability, making sure that the top leadership of the two nations understand each others plans and motivations, is the chief reason Bush aides give for having frequent summit meetings. The meeting will be the seventh between the Soviet and American chiefs in the last five years, as many as in the previous 40 years combined. And yet another summit is likely to take place at year's end.
As Administration officials prepare for the summit, their task is considerably harder than it was six months ago, in the period before the Bush-Gorbachev meeting in Malta.
At that point, American officials were still not entirely sure what Gorbachev and his allies were up to. But, as a practical matter they had little to do but "stand back and applaud quietly so as not to disturb anybody," in the words of Michael Mandelbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the two years before the Malta meeting, Gorbachev had unilaterally pledged to remove Soviet troops from Warsaw Pact countries. He had pulled out of Afghanistan. He had promised to cut supplies of arms to Central American clients and he had signed a treaty to eliminate a large Soviet advantage in intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
In the most dramatic development of all, Gorbachev had refused to allow troops to put down the rebellions that toppled Soviet allies across Eastern Europe.
During all that time, virtually nothing Gorbachev did seemed to challenge U.S. interests. With the close of the Cold War, many confrontations that once brought the superpowers into conflict, either directly or through proxies, began to shut down, particularly in southern Africa, where the Soviets and the United States worked together to bring independence to Namibia, South Africa's former colony, and a tentative opening toward peace in Angola. The decline of superpower rivalry also helped dampen the fires of war in Central America.
So, six months ago, the dominating question concerned not conflict, but cooperation--what could the United States do to make the restructuring under \o7 perestroika\f7 work?
On March 11, however, Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union, the first of three long-restive Baltic republics to do so. One week later, on March 18, East German voters elected a slate of conservatives pledged to swift unification with West Germany, largely on terms that would submerge their former Communist state into the West.
All of a sudden, Soviet leaders "began to see their whole position vis a vis the West start to crumble," said Stephen P. Gilbert, a Soviet expert at Georgetown University.