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Olympics: Behind the Bear’s Angry Growl

12 minute read
Strobe Talbott

What the Soviets really want is to get rid of Ronald Reagan

Part of the quarrel between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. is over the question of just how bad their relations are and whether they are likely to improve in the near future. One reason the Soviets announced their boycott of the Olympics last week was to buttress their argument that relations are very bad indeed.

To hear them tell it, the climate of relations is at its worst since the most frigid days of the cold war. Nor is the deterioration just a matter of degree, it is a quantum jump downward to a whole new level of nastiness. By Moscow’s estimate, the big chill is not merely disagreeable, it is dangerous: World War III, while not necessarily imminent, is more imaginable in the current atmosphere than before. Who do the Soviets blame for this alarming state of affairs? Ronald Reagan, whom they have recently started comparing to Adolf Hitler. The Kremlin leaders and their spokesmen have concluded that it is simply impossible to do business with the Reagan Administration. Soviet-American relations, they say, will remain terrible until the U.S. adopts a whole new set of policies under a new President. In the meantime, a thaw is impossible, the Soviets feel, because with someone like Reagan in the White House, the only heat that can be expected is the kind that is generated by constant friction.

The response to all this from Washington has been low-key and reassuring. While the Soviets wring their hands, pound their fists and wag their fingers, officials of the Reagan Administration shake their heads wearily but indulgently. Soviet-American relations are not all that bad, they say. Nor, the Administration implies, should they be all that good. The two nations are, after all, fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds over how their own societies—and indeed the planet itself—should be run. Détente was, in that sense, unnatural.

According to the Administration, the Soviets are screaming because they feel the pinch of a tougher, more resolute American policy. They miss the palmy days when they could get their way against Reagan’s gullible, accommodating predecessors; they realize that they are up against a new American leadership that will cooperate with them only on its own terms, that will compete with them vigorously and that will penalize them for their misdeeds. For that reason, Washington maintains, the Soviets’ howls of protest, insofar as they are sincere, should be music to American and Western ears.

Moreover, continue the Administration and its supporters, there is more than a little stagecraft in the Soviet temper tantrum. Moscow is deliberately exaggerating the troubles afflicting East-West relations. Many West Europeans are nervous about Reagan’s hard line, and the Soviets are trying to exploit those anxieties so that Bonn, London and Paris will distance themselves politically from Washington.

Finally, note American officials, the Soviets are playing American domestic politics. By repeatedly proclaiming, and last week dramatizing, how bad relations are, the Politburo is trying to influence the way the American electorate answers the Democrats’ inevitable question: “Are you living in a safer or more dangerous world today than you were four years ago?” By pulling out of the Olympics six months before Election Day, the Soviets may be calculating that they can cast an important vote as charter members of the Anybody but Reagan Club.

Reagan’s advisers are confident not only that Moscow’s ploy will fail and the President will be reelected, but that once the Soviets are faced with the reality of another four years of this Administration, they will swallow their pride, along with their words, and get back to the business of trade, diplomacy and arms control.

There is more truth to the American side of this quarrel than to the Soviet one. Soviet protestations of pique or even fury cannot be taken at face value any more than expressions of good will and friendship. The bear is a born actor: he growls to frighten his foes so that they will back off, and plays tame so that they will draw nearer to be hugged (sometimes to the point of suffocation) or bitten.

The Soviet Union is in essence a militarized political system that views history as conflict and the world (including much of the real estate within the confines of its own empire) as enemy territory. The Kremlin has always regarded peace as war conducted by other means, and that goes particularly for peace with its arch adversary. Nikita Khrushchev saw no contradiction between his hope for “peaceful coexistence” and his boast “We will bury you.” Similarly, Leonid Brezhnev made no bones about how the “ideological struggle” would continue despite détente.

For such a system, words are weapons. In addition to the salvos of self-righteous invective being hurled at the U.S. by TASS and Pravda, whole platoons of Soviet scholars, lawyers, journalists, scientists and even a priest or two have been visiting the U.S. in recent weeks and pounding away at the party line: Relations are awful and getting worse; Reagan is to blame; throw the bum out; otherwise, who knows what disasters may ensue.

As the Administration contends, these spokesmen are huffing and puffing to fan fears that could rebound against Reagan in November. The Administration, in turn, hopes that the tactic will backfire, vindicating Reagan’s depiction of the Soviets as heavyhanded troublemakers who cannot be trusted or engaged in normal diplomacy.

While Moscow and its minions are undoubtedly exaggerating, however, the fact is that Soviet-American relations are in a sorry state. The Reagan Administration is, for its own domestic and transatlantic political purposes, down-playing a very real crisis, for which it shares some responsibility.

Both before and since Reagan came into office, the Soviet Union has exacerbated international tensions by occupying and bullying its neighbors, stepping up its mischief-making around the world and arming itself beyond a level needed for self-defense or deterrence. In the face of such Soviet behavior, “hardheaded détente,” the notion that Richard Nixon has recently been promoting, would have been difficult to establish no matter who became President in 1981.

But the Reagan Administration has made a bad situation worse in two ways: first, by convincing the Soviet leaders that the U.S. no longer accepts military parity as the basis for relations with Moscow; second, by challenging the legitimacy of the Soviet regime, calling the U.S.S.R. an “evil empire” doomed to fail. The fact that these two themes have been muted of late in official American rhetoric does not mean that the Soviets believe they have been abandoned.

During the decade after their humiliation in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Soviets dedicated themselves to narrowing and ultimately closing the gap between themselves and the U.S. in overall military strength. By the early 1970s, they believed they had succeeded. So did many American analysts and policymakers. Meanwhile, the U.S. had greatly increased its own powers of overkill. Détente and its diplomatic accompaniment, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), were based, quite explicitly, on the mutual acknowledgment that equality between the superpowers existed and should be preserved.

Reagan came into office challenging both halves of that proposition. He and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger repeatedly asserted that the U.S. had fallen behind the U.S.S.R. across the board. That contention was dubious on its merits, since Reagan and Weinberger chronically undervalued the components of the American arsenal in which the U.S. enjoys significant advantages: offensive and defensive submarine warfare, bombers, cruise missiles and precision-guided conventional weapons. Superiority in those areas compensates for others where the Soviets have a numerical lead over the U.S., particularly land-based ballistic missiles. There are trends on both sides that augur badly for the stability of the military competition, but the superpowers are still in a state of rough equivalence.

There is room for technical debate in the U.S. over exactly how to calibrate the overall military balance and how to redress any imbalances that may have developed in particular categories of weapons or regions of the world. But the Administration seemed, certainly to Soviet ears, to be making a provocative political statement, especially when Reagan spoke of the need to establish what he called “a margin of safety.” There is no question how that phrase translated into Russian: the Soviets were convinced that the U.S. was determined to force them back into a position of inferiority.

Moscow’s fears were reinforced by the Administration’s conduct of arms control, particularly the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). The U.S. proposal would have required the Soviets to dismantle large numbers of their most modern, powerful weapons, ones already deployed, in exchange for an American promise to scale back in the future. In addition to demanding drastic, one-sided cuts in Soviet forces, the proposal left the U.S. free to proceed, albeit at a somewhat reduced level, with a number of new programs that greatly worried Moscow: the MX intercontinental missile, the Trident II submarine missile and a variety of cruise missiles. Thus to reach a bottom line of equality, the Soviets had to subtract, while the U.S. could add. A proposal based on such arithmetic, even as adjusted late last year under pressure from Congress, was simply nonnegotiable with the Soviets.

The other theme in American policy that the Soviets found so objectionable—that their leadership is illegitimate, aberrational and doomed—resounded through Reagan’s rhetoric for nearly two years. The President repeatedly charged that the Soviets “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat” and would end up on “the ash heap of history.”

That rhetoric, of course, is no harsher than what the Soviets have been saying about “capitalist imperialists” for decades. Nor is Reagan alone in making bleak judgments about the nature and destiny of the Soviet system. Any number of Kremlinologists, political scientists and other commentators do so all the time. But when a chief of state talks that way, he roils Soviet insecurities and implies that it is the aim of the U.S. Government to bring the Soviet regime down. That tends to confirm the Soviets’ pessimistic and alarmist view of Reagan and make them all the more obstreperous.

On the advice of Secretary of State George Shultz and other advisers, Reagan dampened his tough talk for much of 1983. Then came the downing of the Korean airliner on Aug. 31. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly one month later, Reagan said that the incident was a “reminder of just how different the Soviets’ concept of truth and international cooperation is from that of the rest of the world.”

Significantly, only two days later TASS released a statement in Yuri Andropov’s name effectively proclaiming that Soviet patience was at an end: “If anyone had any illusions about a possible evolution for the better in the policy of the present American Administration, such illusions have been completely dispelled by the latest developments.” Not long after that, the Soviets stomped out of the arms-control negotiations in Geneva. The immediate pretext was the arrival of new U.S. missiles in Western Europe. But, as a Soviet spokesman made clear last week, “there was a generalized decision that our leaders could not do business with this Administration.”

The White House and the State Department responded by putting the most sanguine and self-serving interpretations on events: the Soviets would get over their sulk and come back to the negotiating table once they recognized that Reagan was almost sure to be reelected; Konstantin Chernenko was a would-be détentenik who would not feel bound by Andropov’s last-straw statement. There were also carefully orchestrated hints out of Washington that despite the crust of ice over Soviet-American relations, encouraging developments were bubbling under the surface, that a “constructive dialogue” was going on in the channels of “quiet diplomacy.”

The normally quiet diplomat Anatoli Dobrynin and other Soviets furiously denied that anything constructive was going on, and they denounced what they saw as the Administration’s attempt to manipulate appearances. Quite possibly one motive for the Olympic boycott was the desire to put the lie, once and for all, to official Washington’s smug assurances that there is no reason for American voters or allies to get upset about the state of U.S.-Soviet relations.

Still, if relations are worse than the Administration would have the world believe, they are almost certainly not as bad as Soviet growling is meant to convey. If Reagan is reelected, the Kremlin leaders will be just as much stuck with him as he is with them. Neither will be able to wish the other away. The Soviets have a number of strong incentives to resume something like a modus vivendi with the U.S.: their economy is increasingly troubled; their difficulties with Poland and Afghanistan show no signs of abating; they need an increase in East-West trade and limitations on the arms race.

But while such a modus vivendi would be in the interests of both sides, it will not come about unless Reagan, if reelected, changes the orientation of his second Administration. He would have to leave behind—on the ash heap of history, as it were—three vestiges of his first term: the mistaken belief that the U.S. is No. 2; the misguided belief that it can regain its former pre-eminence over the U.S.S.R. as No. 1 in nuclear might; and the temptation to engage in bearbaiting from the bully pulpit of the presidency.

—By Strobe Talbott

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