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Reagan and Gorbachev: The Odd Couple

8 minute read
George J. Church

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are affable television performers who regard themselves as instigators of something approaching a revolution in their nations’ domestic policies. Otherwise, they are separated in age, personality and political fortune by a gulf about as wide as the philosophical chasm between the two superpowers. The 76-year-old U.S. President prepares to play host to their third summit meeting next week in Washington, smarting from a long string of setbacks that have raised grave questions about his ability to exercise leadership during the final 14 months of his term. The 56-year-old Soviet General Secretary, despite some troubles with conservatives over the pace of his domestic reform program, arrives Monday for his first visit to the U.S. as a strong and confident leader exercising unquestioned authority in foreign policy — indeed, as one who could be running the Kremlin long after the Reagan Administration has passed into history.

Yet as the two men who make up this oddest of odd couples begin huddling in the White House Oval Office Tuesday morning, they have a strong chance of forging a new superpower relationship more hopeful than either would have dared predict after the collapse of their meeting in Reykjavik just 13 months ago. That they will accomplish their stated goal became a certainty last Tuesday, when U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze resolved the last differences holding up a treaty to destroy all Soviet and U.S. missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,400 miles.

In Geneva, Shultz and Shevardnadze agreed on verification procedures that once seemed unattainable. Among other things, U.S. inspectors will mount an on-the-scene, round-the-clock vigil at a Soviet missile-assembly plant near the Ural Mountains to see what goes in and comes out; Soviet watchdogs will do the same at a U.S. plant in Magna, Utah. With that issue settled, Reagan and Gorbachev on Tuesday afternoon can stage the grand signing ceremony for the INF (intermediate nuclear forces) treaty that is the ostensible reason for the summit.

If that is all they do, the meeting will be only a formality. But there is growing hope on both sides for productive negotiations on the far more important Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty, which would cut in half the number of U.S. and Soviet long-range nuclear weapons. Main reason: the Soviets have backed away from the demand for a dead stop in the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) program that sank the Reykjavik summit. “They have become much more ambiguous,” reports a senior U.S. official. “They seldom mention SDI at all; instead they talk about strengthening the ((1972)) ABM treaty. Now, it may be that their real aim is to cripple SDI, and if so, no sale. But maybe we are seeing an evolution of their position that will provide leeway” for a compromise permitting SDI research and some testing while delaying deployment.

There is even some talk that Reagan and Gorbachev may sign a START treaty at a 1988 summit in Moscow. That, however, would require a breakthrough during next week’s talks that Reagan aides make clear they do not expect. One senior official predicts only that the “two leaders can make some progress” on the issue of sub-limits for specific types of long-range weapons. He adds a very modest hope that “they should be able to start understanding the nature of the verification problem,” which would be much tougher to deal with in a START agreement designed to reduce weapons than in an INF treaty that eliminates them altogether.

Moreover, Gorbachev would hardly be Gorbachev if he did not have some surprises in store, and he sprang a not entirely welcome one even before setting off for Washington. He unexpectedly accepted an invitation to drop in on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher en route to the U.S.; they will confer for four hours in London next Monday. Soviet diplomats hinted that their boss may be preparing to demand that the independent British and French nuclear forces be reduced as part of a START deal. Arms Negotiator Victor Karpov remarked that if a START agreement with the U.S. is reached, “we would expect the British to make an offer.” If that is in fact Gorbachev’s game, he will get a loud no from London as well as Washington.

Speculation on what else Gorbachev might have up his sleeve is running high in both Moscow and Washington. One possibility: Afghanistan, invaded in 1979 by Soviet forces that have been bogged down ever since in a guerrilla war that is highly unpopular in the U.S.S.R. This week, on the eve of the summit, the Soviet-installed regime in Kabul is due to announce a new constitution making Islam the state religion and giving opposition forces a nominal role in the government. Some diplomats think that at the summit Gorbachev may announce withdrawal of some of the 115,000 Soviet troops now in the country. In general, says a Western envoy in Moscow, “if you look back over Gorbachev’s first couple of years in office, you see a pattern of peeling away the irritants in East-West relations. It would be surprising if he did not make an effort to keep up the momentum in Washington.”

In any case, the summit will give Americans a close-up look at the Soviet leader: in addition to meeting with Reagan five times in the Oval Office, he is scheduled to confer with congressional leaders and intellectuals and hold a televised news conference before he and his wife Raisa depart next Thursday. Gorbachev’s image in the West as a humane reformer has been somewhat dimmed by the November sacking of one of his chief lieutenants, Moscow Communist Party Boss Boris Yeltsin, after a public disgrace reminiscent of the Stalin era. Since Yeltsin was an enthusiast for perestroika (restructuring of the Soviet economy), his peremptory dismissal has been interpreted as a signal that Old Guard bureaucrats are reining in the pace of Gorbachev’s domestic reforms.

; But experts on Soviet affairs insist that while Gorbachev may have to go a bit slower than he might like, his authority has in no way been threatened; on the contrary, by ruthlessly sacrificing a trusted aide whose abrasive behavior had become an embarrassment, Gorbachev may have actually strengthened his hold on the Kremlin. And he appears to have no significant opposition to his efforts to win a relaxation of international tensions while domestic reforms are battled out.

A hard-line Kremlinologist who advises Reagan agrees. “While they are not united on domestic policy, except in the need for some kind of reform, they are united on foreign policy,” he says of the Soviet leaders. “They really do need a grand detente, and Gorbachev has a considerable mandate to get it.” In particular, Gorbachev seems to have the support of the Soviet military. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of the Soviet general staff, accompanied Shevardnadze to the meeting in Geneva and, by Shultz’s account, was a “key person” in working out the verification measures that clinched the INF deal.

Reagan is in no such happy position. Since Reykjavik the President has suffered one disaster after another: loss of the Senate to the Democrats; the Iran-contra debacle; increasingly bold and successful congressional opposition on everything from taxes to funding of SDI and the Nicaraguan rebels. But as the end of his presidency approaches, Reagan seems to regard the INF treaty as his legacy to history and a vindication of his whole approach to foreign policy. Says an aide: “This treaty shows the wisdom of Reagan’s tough way of dealing with the Soviets.”

That assessment is by no means shared by everyone in the President’s own party. Among the six Republican candidates to succeed Reagan, only Vice President George Bush, ever the true-blue loyalist, has given the INF deal unqualified support. In the Senate, which must approve the agreement by a two- thirds vote if it is to take effect, a hard core of perhaps a dozen conservative Republicans is mobilizing to block ratification, and many more are dubious. One tactic they are likely to follow is proposing amendments, such as one making ratification contingent on proof that the Soviets are scrupulously observing previous treaties.

The inspection procedures spelled out last week may help overcome such opposition. After they were announced, Idaho Republican James McClure, who had been thought likely to help lead the fight against the treaty, left open the possibility that he might yet vote to ratify. But suspicions about possible Soviet cheating, even if they are overcome in the INF vote, could spell deep trouble for an eventual START agreement.

But next week’s summit, even should it produce no immediate results beyond the INF treaty signing, could signal a turn away from the arms race toward a better relationship between the nuclear superpowers. For all their differences, Reagan’s and Gorbachev’s interests, and those of the countries they lead, happen to coincide for the moment. It is an opportunity that if not seized and built upon, may not soon come again.

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CREDIT: Time Chart by Nigel Holmes and Cynthia Davis

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DESCRIPTION: Map showing location of meeting places; itinerary of Mikhail Gorbachev.

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