NEW YORK — Talk of a "grand bargain" for the Soviet Union has been in the air. According to one version of the proposal, the Soviet Union, over a period of seven years, would move toward market economics, democracy and disarmament in return for an aid package of $25 billion to $35 billion a year. The Bush Administration's reaction to this and other Soviet aid plans has been guarded, but its prudent reserve has yet to go beyond the tactical. In the absence of a coherent position, it is in danger of finding itself propelled by well-meaning enthusiasts onto paths that will advance neither the cause of peace nor prospects for real Soviet reform.
Under the best of circumstances, the Soviet Union will have to undergo a traumatic period of austerity. This makes it hard to understand the eagerness of the "grand bargain" advocates to share responsibility for the belt-tightening by imposing conditions certain to become controversial and the focal point of internal Soviet opposition. Equally puzzling is their willingness to jump into a civil conflict where most of the democratic and reformist forces oppose the central government. Furthermore, the source of the money remains elusive.
Supporters of the "grand bargain" argue that the West, by "engaging" itself, can help Mikhail S. Gorbachev overcome hard-line opposition to his apparent commitment to market economics and political pluralism. An economically strong and politically pluralistic Soviet Union, it is said, will be far less threatening than the Soviet Union of the Cold War.
The starting point of U.S. policy must be the proposition that we are a country with interests and not a foundation with charitable objectives. After the trials of the Cold War, Washington is entitled to be more concerned with the external manifestation of Soviet policy than its internal debate.
One of the main assumptions of the "grand bargain"--that an economically stronger Soviet Union will automatically prove more peaceful--is hard to sustain from the historical record. Whenever a highly centralized state stood on the territory of the Soviet Union, it inevitably pressed against its neighbors.
During the last two centuries, no European country has had its armies so frequently on foreign soil. None has so consistently elaborated a doctrine of foreign intervention, from the czarist concept of the "third Rome" to the Holy Alliance, from Pan-Slavism to international communism. The centralized Russian empire, under czars and commissars, always maintained armies larger than those of any comparable country, because the military a unifying element in an empire beset by conflict among its nationalities. The invocation of foreign danger has served the same purpose to the present day.
For the outside world, the best outcome of the Soviet crisis would be a confederation of republics strong enough for common defense but not so cohesive as to conduct foreign aggression. Such a confederation--capable of coordinating economic policy and developing the Soviet Union's resources rather than launching ever new foreign adventures--would be in the interests of the Soviet peoples.
No outside power should presume that it can fine-tune this evolution. Today, Boris N. Yeltsin comes closer to advocating such an outcome than Gorbachev--though the players have periodically changed roles depending on their tactical requirements. For this reason alone, it would be unwise for the United States to get involved in a domestic contest that, in essence, is between the forces backing Gorbachev and those backing Yeltsin.
In this struggle, Gorbachev represents the reformist element of the communist power structure and Yeltsin the market-oriented, decentralizing tendencies. Gorbachev owes his position to co-optation; Yeltsin to a free election. Until these issues--especially that between the center and the republics--are clarified by the electoral process now en train , it will be no time for "grand bargains."
There has been much gratified speculation that Gorbachev and Yeltsin have submerged their dispute in the "9-plus-1" agreement among the center and the nine republics willing to remain in the union. But that agreement should be viewed as a tactical cease-fire. Currently, six republics have officially seceded, though Moscow does not recognize their independence. The remaining nine still have to agree on such issues as who has authority to tax, ownership of industry and whether Union laws supersede those of the republics. When these issues are formally settled, there will be endless disputes about meaning and interpretation.