• U.S.

Let’s Change the Subject

14 minute read
George J. Church

The speech was one of Ronald Reagan’s best: measured, forceful and, in his own keynote word, “realistic.” His immediate audience was the United Nations General Assembly, crammed with heads of state and government gathered to commemorate the U.N.’s founding four decades ago. But the wider audience was a world listening for clues as to what to expect from the President’s summit meeting with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva Nov. 19 and 20. Reagan’s answer: “I look to a fresh start in the relationship of our two nations,” but that cannot be accomplished by “averting our eyes from trouble.” So the summiteers must address, as “a central issue in Geneva, the resolution of regional conflicts in Africa, Asia and Central America.”

In effect, Reagan was using the U.N. as a forum to shift the emphasis of, and moderate expectations about, the much-awaited superpower summit. His message might be bluntly paraphrased: we are not going to let you focus entirely on control of nuclear weapons, Mr. Gorbachev. You have been milking that subject adroitly for propaganda advantage and arousing unrealistic hopes. But the arms race is not the only threat to peace; we insist on discussing the others, including those you would rather not hear about. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for instance. And, while we are at it, your behavior in Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Angola and Cambodia. In all five nations, the President told the U.N., governments propped up by the Soviets or their allies are “at war with their own people.” Reagan proposed a “regional peace process” focusing on negotiations to remove Soviet and Soviet-allied troops and military advisers and limit arms.

Moscow refused to rise to the bait. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, following Reagan to the General Assembly rostrum by only two hours last Thursday, kept his government’s focus almost exclusively on arms control. Repeating Soviet proposals for sweeping reductions in nuclear weapons that the U.S. regards as promising but deceptive, Shevardnadze issued what amounted to a dare to the U.S.: “Are you ready, as we are, to scrap hundreds of missiles and aircraft, thousands of nuclear charges? Say yes and we shall certainly be able to agree on verification.” Shevardnadze also renewed the Soviet demand for abandonment of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly called Star Wars. Said he: “The Soviet Union is proposing a world without weapons in space.”

The U.N. speeches were the highlights of a week of intense jockeying by both the White House and the Kremlin to bolster their positions in advance of the summit. Shortly after his talk, Reagan convened a minisummit in New York with U.S. allies. He met for two hours after lunch, and again for two hours at dinner, with the government leaders of Canada, Britain, West Germany, Italy and Japan. He also held bilateral sessions with each of these leaders. (French President François Mitterrand boycotted the proceedings out of pique that he had not been consulted before the meetings were scheduled.) The sessions yielded somewhat mixed results: some allies seemed a bit uncomfortable with the shift of emphasis away from arms control and urged Reagan to make a new effort on that front.

In a hectic swirl of diplomatic activity, Reagan also met with such Third World leaders as President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, and for 30 minutes, following then” speeches on Thursday, with Shevardnadze. At a jammed reception on Wednesday night, the President shook hands with scores of other foreign dignitaries, including Nicaraguan Leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra. “Hello,” said Reagan stiffly to the leader he once called “a little man in green fatigues.” “Thank you for inviting me,” replied Ortega, who the next day denounced the President’s remarks about Nicaragua as “full of lies.”

Gorbachev meanwhile journeyed to Sofia, Bulgaria, for a minisummit of his own with the U.S.S.R.’s six Warsaw Pact allies. Though there are serious continuing strains within that alliance (see WORLD), the Soviet chief had no difficulty pulling the East European leaders into line behind Moscow’s effort to keep the summit pinpointed on arms control, and in particular on the Soviet attempt at a diplomatic zapping of Star Wars.

In seeking to refocus the summit agenda, Reagan may have regained some of the momentum from Gorbachev hi the contest for world opinion. The gambit was an attempt to put the Soviet leader on the defensive during the summit. As one adviser bluntly explained: “We were looking for a way to recapture the propaganda initiative.”

The question was whether this would further jeopardize any chance for negotiating the beginnings of an arms-control accord. That chance was never scintillating: the Soviets have offered deep cuts in nuclear missiles only if the U.S. cancels SDI, and Reagan at the U.N. reaffirmed his determination to proceed with that program. Reagan’s introduction of other topics does not improve the prospects for bargaining on this score, and his proposals on regional conflicts, although justifiable, are unlikely to prove negotiable. It is remotely possible that the Soviets, seeking a way to extricate themselves from the endless guerrilla war in Afghanistan, might at length agree to some U.N.-sponsored compromise on that subject. But there would be general astonishment if Gorbachev accepted the President’s proposals for talks looking toward an end of Soviet involvement in Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Angola and Cambodia.

In the judgment of Reagan and his lieutenants, however, the risk of coming down from the summit without any kind of significant agreement was increasing anyway. According to senior U.S. officials, Soviet representatives have been unexpectedly balky in preparing even the minor pacts that were expected to be approved in Geneva, such as agreements to open more consulates, increase scientific and cultural exchanges and resume direct airline flights between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Some White House ears detect an unspoken Kremlin message: no little deals without a big deal on arms.

Reagan’s intelligence analysts doubt that Gorbachev does, in fact, really expect to succeed in negotiating an arms deal at the summit. His purpose, they claim, is to build world political pressure on the U.S. to abandon Star Wars by dangling alluring prospects of sweeping reductions in nuclear weapons if only SDI is canceled. For all the flaws and deceptive snares the U.S. finds in it, Moscow’s September proposal for a 50% cut in offensive nuclear weapons has already dazzled world opinion. Example: meeting with Reagan before his U.N. speech, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher complained that leaders of only three of the 46 nations represented at the Commonwealth conference a week earlier had been aware that the Soviet offer was actually a counterproposal to U.S. arms-reduction plans advanced as early as 1982.

Thus Reagan judged it high time to remind the world of Moscow’s large share of responsibility for global tensions. In his U.N. speech, the President called a roll of countries torn by war between Soviet-supported governments and guerrilla forces. The specifics of these conflicts vary, he said: “In Afghanistan, there are 118,000 Soviet troops prosecuting war against the Afghan people; in Cambodia, 140,000 Soviet-backed Vietnamese soldiers wage a war of occupation”; in Ethiopia and Angola, the foreign forces are Cuban troops and Soviet military advisers; in Nicaragua, there are “some 8,000 Soviet-bloc and Cuban personnel, including 3,500 military and secret police personnel.” All these nations, said Reagan, are victims “of an ideology imposed from without” by the Soviets or their proxies, “creating regimes that are, almost from the day they take power, at war with their own people. And in each case, Marxism-Leninism’s war with the people becomes war with their neighbors.”

Reagan proposed a three-step peace process: 1) direct negotiations in each nation between the Marxist government and the guerrillas; 2) separate talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to promote “verified elimination of the foreign military presence and restraint on the flow of outside arms”; 3) once an internal settlement has been reached, “welcoming each country back into the world economy,” presumably by aid to a new and peaceful government. The U.S., said Reagan, would contribute “generously.”

Propaganda was not the only purpose of this proposal. Reagan and his advisers genuinely believe that the superpowers must discuss their basic disagreements if they are to make any “fresh start” in reducing tensions. The Administration is determined to convey this message to a new Soviet leader who may be in power for the rest of the century, and to the world: if Gorbachev really wants a new and less menacing relationship with the U.S., he must be prepared to modify Soviet behavior that the U.S. finds threatening. That amounts to a revival of the old Kissinger concept of “linkage,” though the Administration does not use the word. Says one senior Reagan adviser: “It is fundamental to any prospect of stable U.S.-Soviet relations that there should be an end to efforts to expand influence through force and violence.”

In U.S.-Soviet discussions already under way on regional problems, however, Soviet representatives have been arguing that Moscow has as much right to back pro-Communist regimes as Washington does to support the governments of such countries as El Salvador and the Philippines in their struggles against Marxist insurrections. Gorbachev is perfectly prepared to repeat that argument at the summit. Reagan, for his part, made a point of telling the U.N. that “America’s support for struggling democratic resistance forces” in the five countries he named “must not and shall not cease” until there is “definitive progress” in negotiations for an internal settlement.

Another part of Reagan’s strategy is to downplay hopes for a quick arms-control agreement. In his U.N. speech he was careful not to close the door; he asserted that in the Soviet 50%-cut proposal “there are seeds which we should nurture.” Otherwise, though, what the President had to say about nuclear weapons was primarily a reassertion of his determination to press ahead with SDI “research and testing” as a way “to escape the prison of mutual terror.” With fully conscious irony, he quoted a 1967 comment by the late Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin that “an antimissile system … is designed not to kill people but to preserve human lives.” The U.S. subsequently spent five years convincing the Soviets that Kosygin was wrong and that defensive systems must be limited in order to preserve a nuclear balance based on deterrence. In effect Reagan was rejecting the conventional wisdom in both the East and the West by saying that Kosygin was, after all, right and that subsequent Soviet leaders–along with Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter–were wrong.

The gulf between U.S. and Soviet ideas of what to concentrate on at the summit was emphasized again at a meeting between Shevardnadze and U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz Friday morning. The Soviet Foreign Minister insisted that the main business of the summit should be to reach “agreement in principle” on arms control. Shultz cautioned that even if that could be done, there would be endless details to iron out before an actual pact could be reached. He also emphasized the U.S. desire to set a broader “agenda for the future, a sense of direction on where we and they think this relationship should go.” They did reach one notable agreement: Shultz will visit Moscow next week to discuss summit preparations directly with Gorbachev.

Reagan’s attempts to unify U.S. allies behind his approach to the summit also were something less than an unqualified success, despite initial attempts by Shultz and other Administration spokesmen to so portray them. The five allies at the New York minisummit were cautiously sympathetic to Reagan’s attempts to focus on Afghanistan and other regional problems, but they clearly did not accord them as high a priority as the President did.

Prime Minister Bettino Craxi of Italy did lavish effusive praise on Reagan’s speech in a bilateral meeting on Thursday. But then Craxi and Reagan were both eager to demonstrate renewed friendship after the angry exchanges over the Achille Lauro hijacking and the Italian release of Suspected Plotter Abul Abbas that led to the fall of Craxi’s government (he is now forming a new one). Thatcher was more reserved. She told British reporters that Reagan’s proposal for a regional peace process “requires a great deal of thinking before we dash into comments on it.”

Allied leaders who must contend with large and vocal antinuclear movements within their own countries also expressed worry that Reagan is not countering Soviet arms-reduction proposals vigorously enough. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was impressed by Reagan’s private notes, which he showed the allies, detailing various arms-control scenarios that might be played out at the summit. But Thatcher, supported by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, thought more was required. A spokesman quoted her as telling Reagan at the minisummit that “you have to re-present or reformulate your arms-control position before Geneva or there will be trouble.” Reagan could not give her a clear answer because, as Shultz put it the next day, “the President has made no decision yet on just what is an appropriate response” to the latest Soviet proposals.

Indeed, divisions within the Administration on arms control are continuing through the pre-summit maneuvering. Last week, Arms Control Adviser Paul Nitze expressed cautious interest in a Soviet proposal for a freeze on intermediate-range nuclear missiles, such as Soviet SS-20s targeted on Western Europe, and U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe capable of hitting the U.S.S.R. The proposal is unacceptable because it would leave the Soviets with a huge lead, Nitze told reporters, but at least the Soviets are now willing to include missiles in Asia as well as Europe in the freeze. At about the same time, however, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger accused Moscow of violating the SALT II treaty by deploying a new type of single-warhead strategic missile, the SS-25 (the Soviets contend it is only a modification of an earlier design). Although the two statements were not contradictory, they did differ sharply in tone.

Reagan’s initiative on regional issues was, his advisers say, only the first step in an effort to emphasize other issues besides arms control before next month’s summit. In his U.N. address, the President portentously pledged that “before leaving for Geneva, I shall make major new proposals” to overcome the division of Europe, which, he said, “nothing can justify.” Advisers indicate that “major” might have been an overstatement; the proposals are likely to involve more open communications and greater movement across East-West borders. Then there will be human rights, always a touchy topic for any Soviet leader and one on which Gorbachev is preparing a vigorous counter-campaign. In his U.N. speech, the President asserted that “we Americans do not accept that any government has the right to command and order the lives of its people” and placed this philosophical belief “at the core of our deep and abiding differences with the Soviet Union.” Aides affirmed that Reagan will have a good deal more to say on that subject before, and at, the summit.

There is one intimation of optimism about the upcoming summit: the scrimmaging is being conducted with reasonable civility on both sides. Reagan pulled no punches at the U.N. in propounding his view that the Soviet Union is still an expansionist dictatorship, but his sober rhetoric lacked the strident edge so notable during his first term. Shevardnadze, for his part, was quite diplomatic when asked if he found any encouraging aspects to Reagan’s speech. “If there were no positive seeds,” said the smooth Soviet as his private talk with Reagan was about to begin, “we would not have met at all.” The challenge of Geneva will be to nourish, rather than trample upon, seeds that by even the most optimistic reading are exceedingly rare and fragile. –By George J. Church. Reported by Laurence I. Barrett/Washington and Johanna McGeary/New York

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