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Coming Down from the Summit


The third summit meeting between President Reagan and Secretary General Gorbachev was very different from the two previous ones.1 In Geneva in 1985, nothing concrete was achieved; Reykjavík ended in failure after an unexpected trip to utopia. The Washington meeting was much more carefully prepared for. The treaty eliminating intermediate and shorter-range missiles provided for elaborate and unprecedented verification procedures inside the Soviet Union. Some progress was made in the difficult negotiations for the reduction of strategic nuclear arsenals by as much as 50 percent; but an agreement continues to depend on a reconciliation of the two governments’ positions on strategic defenses. In Washington Reagan and Gorbachev merely agreed to continue to disagree on the subject, and to postpone a showdown. Regional conflicts and human rights were discussed, but the two sides remained far from agreement on such issues as Soviet extrication from Afghanistan or Soviet emigration policies.

The Washington summit raises three issues for the future. One is the fate of the Strategic Defense Initiative. The gap between the two sides has narrowed somewhat, because the Soviets have become more flexible concerning the development and testing of defenses allowable under the ABM Treaty of 1972. Moreover, the refusal by Congress to accept the so-called broad interpretation of the treaty advocated by the administration—an interpretation that makes the treaty banning the development and deployment of defensive systems largely meaningless—has constrained the President’s drive toward unlimited research, development, and testing. But it remains difficult to imagine that the Soviets would accept a 50 percent reduction in offensive nuclear weapons unless the two sides agree either on banning the deployment of defensive systems or on strictly limiting them, say, to the protection of the fixed land-based nuclear ballistic missiles among those that would remain after the 50 percent reductions.

If the US refused to settle for such a solution, the Soviets would try to negate the effects of the American defensive effort, probably not by building a matching defensive system, which would be too costly and could be technologically unreachable, but by devising countermeasures and by multiplying the offensive weapons that could overwhelm American defenses.

It is unlikely that President Reagan will accept any limits on his dream of perfect defenses; but it is conceivable that his successor will be more awed by the costs of the combined defensive and offensive arms races that a failure to accept such limits would provoke and that he will be more aware of the laws of physics. Most of the US scientific community has expressed its skepticism about the feasibility of the President’s project. The Soviets are playing a waiting game, carrying on their own laser research while reminding us that they will not give up their policy of linking reductions in offensive weapons to the curtailment of “Star Wars.”


The second issue for the future is raised by the INF treaty. It concerns the relations between the US and its West European allies. They have formally applauded the treaty but there is a huge difference between a facade of unanimity and the genuine disarray of the NATO alliance. While the public, in the nations of Western Europe, seems to greet the dismantling of hundreds of missiles stationed in Europe or aimed at European targets with relief, the political and intellectual elites are divided. In West Germany, ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whose 1977 speech about the danger created by the Soviet SS20s led to NATO’s 1979 decision to deploy new American missiles, has firmly endorsed the agreement. A variety of politicians, including Christian Democrats and right-wing leaders, would like arms control to extend soon to sharp reductions in, or even elimination of, a third category of nuclear weapons: the short-range systems (under 500 kilometers), whose most salient characteristic, for a good many Germans, appears to be that they would mainly kill Germans (East and West). But others worry about the removal of nuclear weapons altogether, and cling to the remaining short-range ones (whose modernization threatens to become a very controversial issue); and they agree with the French politicians who have been the most severely critical of the agreement. The British ones are also divided, along party lines, and British conservatives have talked of a sharp halt in further nuclear reductions; but Mrs. Thatcher’s friendship with Reagan has muted criticism.

The French have once more been the most outspoken in their hostility. On the right, only former president Giscard d’Estaing has approved the treaty. Mitterrand has been cautiously favorable, but many Socialists have joined in the attack, led by diplomatic and military experts. The main arguments in this attack deserve to be described, all the more so because they are to be found in Britain and West Germany as well. There is, first, a sense of deep frustration at having been, once more, left out: a strategic decision concerning Europe was reached by the superpowers behind the backs of the Europeans, and America’s allies were merely informed of the progress of the deal, given soothing words by their senior partner, and asked to applaud. A French conservative intellectual, Jean-Marie Benoist, writes:

This agreement is like a procedure by which a landlord eager to protect himself against burglars through an alarm system invites the chief burglar to come to his table to discuss the quantity and quality of the systems necessary to his survival.2

This expresses perfectly the fear and bitterness about dependency that many West Europeans have had whenever the two great rivals seemed to be getting together. In France especially, the “Yalta analogy,” often in a misleading version, is always present.3

There is a deep divergence in strategic conceptions between the French (and many other Europeans) and a growing number of Americans. The French are unconditional believers in nuclear deterrence. Conventional deterrence has only rarely succeeded; nuclear deterrence, as they see it, has protected Europe from war—any war—for more than forty years. Nuclear weapons preserve peace; the more nuclear weapons, the more peace. The French, and the governments of several NATO countries, supported the deployment of American intermediate nuclear forces in Western Europe because they had become convinced that, at a time of growing Soviet nuclear and conventional power, only such weapons stationed on European soil could be sure to deter the Soviets from dangerous moves on the Continent. Many West European strategic experts had accepted the views of a faction of US strategic planners, according to which the risk of escalation to nuclear war of any armed confrontation on the Continent was not a sufficient deterrent; rather, the only credible nuclear deterrent would be one that matches the Soviet forces on every rung of the hypothetical ladder of escalation. 4 Thus the Soviets’ SS20s had to be faced with weapons like the Pershing II, which are capable of hitting military targets in the USSR. The French (unlike their neighbors, in this respect) have always been suspicious of arms control. They have also been afraid (like the British) that nuclear agreements between the superpowers would sooner or later lead the Americans and the Russians to request that the French and British nuclear forces also be subjected to limitations or reductions.

In the beginning of the 1980s what might be called European officialdom, while deploring loose talk by the Reagan administration about possible limited nuclear war, applauded its determination to strengthen deterrence, and the French were relieved by its distrust of arms control. But then surprises multiplied. American faith in deterrence appeared to crumble. Some of the American strategic planners, particularly those on the left, warned that the new, more accurate weapon systems of both the Soviets and the Americans—weapons capable of destroying the other side’s nuclear missiles—could incite each of the rivals to attack preemptively during a crisis. They argued that both sides were thus inexorably moving from stable deterrence to a much more provocative and perilous relationship comparable to that of the European forces in 1914.

On the right, there came the double shock of what Henry Kissinger has called the delegitimation of nuclear weapons,5 first when the President launched his SDI as a miracle method for making nuclear weapons obsolete, and three years later when the two rival leaders, in Reykjavík, daydreamed about the abolition of nuclear weapons within ten years. And arms control, once denounced by the Reaganites as a dangerous delusion, revived in earnest.

Even those Americans who still believe in the solidity of nuclear deterrence seem to be moving away from the belief that its effectiveness requires a complete panoply of weapons entirely symmetrical to that of the Soviets. Between the French critics and the American supporters of the INF treaty there is a remarkable dialogue in which the French throw at their American interlocutors the very arguments they previously learned from them—arguments which, much to their indignation, the French now find dismissed by the Americans who had been their tutors not so many years ago. American supporters of the treaty point to the fact that the Soviets will destroy four times as many warheads as the US, and that Western Europe continues to be protected, not only by thousands of short-range, ground-based nuclear systems, but by American planes armed with nuclear weapons, by sea-launched ballistic missiles on submarines assigned to NATO, and by sea-launched cruise missiles. The French reply that Americans told them some years ago that Soviet defenses could, or might, stop the planes, and that missiles launched from the seas are less effective deterrents—because less precisely accurate—against Soviet land-based missiles than the ground-launched ones that will be destroyed.

The French position, a kind of Cartesianism gone wild, is full of paradoxes. When NATO, in the 1960s, switched from a strategy of “massive retaliation” to “flexible response” (delaying the resort to strategic nuclear weapons in case of a conventional attack), the French denounced the shift as weakening deterrence. Now they are the most steadfast champions of flexible response for NATO forces,6 and argue that the weapons that will be destroyed were precisely those required by such a strategy. They explain that these were the ideal weapons for “coupling” the security of Western Europe to that of the US, because any Soviet attack was most likely to trigger the use of these weapons (which might otherwise be overrun), whereas a resort to planes or submarines by the president of the US is more dubious. But if the mere removal of the Pershings and the ground-launched cruise missiles “decouples” Western Europe from the US, then Western Europe was decoupled for twenty years: between the withdrawal by the Kennedy administration of American obsolete missiles from Turkey and other countries, in 1963, and the deployments that occurred between 1983 and 1987. And yet the Soviets remained deterred throughout.

The French also contend that the Soviets’ decision to destroy their SS20s and other shorter-range systems is no sacrifice at all, given the obsolescence of the SS20s and the Soviet ability to hit the same targets with their intercontinental missiles including the SS25. But Europeans had called for the Pershings precisely because of the danger represented by the accuracy of the SS20s (i.e., by the modernized characteristics and mobility of that weapon). The French critics have so far ignored the fact that the Soviet targets covered by the Pershings and ground-launched cruise missiles can be attacked by US planes and will soon be reachable by the Trident II submarines, as well as by American intercontinental land-based missiles. The French themselves are developing new short-range ground-launched missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. In private some of the European opponents of the INF treaty will acknowledge that there remain more than enough missiles to cover Soviet targets and deter an attack; but they deplore the psychological and political effects of demolishing ground-based missiles that can reach the USSR. By not taking sufficient account of the remaining weapons in public debate, they help create the sense of weakness they fear.

The French argue that an American president would hesitate to be the first to resort to intercontinental missiles, since such a decision would lead to all-out war, whereas resorting to the missiles stationed in Europe could stop short of such a war. But if this is so, it means that a limited nuclear war in Europe is possible and that Europe is a “decoupled” and separate theater, the very things many West Europeans have always wanted to prevent. After the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, French officials, eager to protect improved relations between the Soviet Union and Western Europe from the new Soviet-American cold war, lectured their American counterparts about the need to treat détente as divisible. Today they complain that the US is undermining Western European security by treating Western defense as divisible, now that Washington has signed an arms control agreement for Europe alone.

This raises a third problem in the transatlantic debate. Many Europeans (especially the French) are far more suspicious of Gorbachev than many Americans, and accuse the latter of falling into a Soviet trap; they themselves sometimes sound like those American conservatives who now feel betrayed by Reagan. In their eyes, Gorbachev pursues, skillfully, the traditional objectives of Soviet foreign policy in Europe: he aims at “denuclearizing” Europe, so that it will remain exposed, both to the Soviet nuclear threat and to Soviet conventional superiority. Europe will thus be a “particularized” strategic theater prevented from establishing an effective common defense (which would require a common nuclear force, a prospect in which no one confidently believes).7 Gorbachev in this view also aims at weakening the ties between the Federal Republic and its allies,8 both by offering a “third zero-zero” (the removal of short-range nuclear weapons, mainly from West and East Germany) and by hinting at a lowering of barriers between the two Germanies. French fears of German “national-neutralism” are never far from the surface, and the French leaders worry about Gorbachev’s ability to exploit the nuclear allergy of many West Germans.

All this points to a deep insecurity bred by geography—there is an ocean between the US and Europe, but only a border between the Soviets and Western Europe—and compounded by dependency. It also reveals a vast potential for discord between the US and its allies. Not all of the Europeans are as fearfully attached to the status quo as the French, but they all worry about American disengagement from the Continent—about being left alone facing the Soviets—and they feel impotent when it comes to taking charge of their own defense. They remain unwilling to increase their conventional forces, partly because of the costs (at a time of sluggish economic growth, and vast social expenditures to cope with unemployment), partly because of their doubts about conventional deterrence.

While the British and the French move toward greater cooperation on nuclear matters, Franco-German collaboration on nuclear weapons remains handicapped by French unwillingness to extend the protection of their strategic nuclear deterrent to their neighbor (after all, they have always argued that deterrence is fully credible only for the protection of one’s own nation) and by German unease about French tactical nuclear weapons, whose range extends only to West or East Germany. Franco-German cooperation on conventional defenses remains hampered by French reluctance, in peacetime, to send the French forces in Germany to forward positions (this would be seen as a return to NATO), and by the fact that the West German army is under NATO command but the French army is not.

Thus the West Europeans are queasy about the future. The stability of NATO rested on two foundations: US steadfastness and Soviet stolidity. West Europeans are upset by new Soviet diplomatic skills, and by the American tendency to lurch in different directions. American officials, aware of European fears and divisions over further nuclear disarmament in Europe, now emphasize the need for active negotiations with the Soviets about the balance of conventional forces in Europe, an issue made more important by the INF agreement reducing the nuclear arsenals there, by Soviet declarations of willingness to eliminate “asymmetries” in the forces of the two alliance systems, and by Soviet hints of a possible shift to a defensive doctrine and strategy for the Warsaw Pact alliance.

But the issues which, sooner or later, would have to be discussed in a forum where the members of both alliance systems would be represented are formidable. Can NATO simultaneously modernize and increase its conventional forces, and seriously negotiate mutual reductions? (The talks about such reductions that have been going on in Vienna since 1973 have been anything but serious.) Can the US, indeed, negotiate reductions that (however asymmetrical at the Warsaw Pact’s expense) do not leave NATO worse off? Tank-free zones (a notion favored by Zbigniew Brzezinski)9 would still leave a great deal of room for tanks in the Soviet Union, but—as long as France remains outside NATO—almost no room for tanks in NATO. Indeed, the French believe that the Soviets could always reintroduce arms and troops into Europe much faster than the Americans, and they fear that the Soviets will link conventional cuts on their side to reduction in the remaining nuclear weapons of NATO, i.e., its short-range missiles and planes.

The French seem determined to veto any attempt by the superpowers to settle the issue of conventional forces above the heads of the Europeans. They would prefer the next game in the arms control contest to be START—the 50 percent reductions in offensive nuclear weapons—in order to avoid a display of discord on conventional issues, and because they know that START’s own fate is dependent on SDI. (They also want to forestall the “third zero-zero”—the removal of short-range defensive unclear weapons from West Germany.)

For the time being, the US is thoroughly unprepared for conventional negotiations, and the Soviets have not yet made serious offers. But should they make some, a collective response by the members of the Atlantic alliance will not be easy to achieve.


The third issue raised by the summit is nothing less than the future of Soviet-American relations. The American debate about Gorbachev has centered on two questions. Will he survive—will his efforts at transforming the Soviet economic and political system succeed, or is he doomed to failure by the system’s rigidity and by the coalition against him of all those whose habits and positions his policy threatens? In foreign affairs has he changed the traditional Soviet objectives, or merely the tactics and the tone of Soviet diplomacy? The first question is almost unanswerable: there is no lack of learned analysis of obstacles to change, but Western Soviet experts seem a bit like priests examining the entrails of chickens in order to discern the future. It might be more interesting to ask, not what will happen if Gorbachev fails or falls, but what will happen to US-Soviet relations if he lasts and succeeds at least in part.

At this point, the second question appears important. But is it really? Few people, even on the far right of Sovietology, still believe that the USSR has a detailed plan of world domination, with a timetable. Few believe that the priority now given to domestic “restructuring” means that the Soviet Union will become isolationist, lose interest in the preservation of its empire in Eastern Europe, and completely drop its more distant allies or clients. Even if such objectives as a denuclearized Europe, a weaker NATO, a safe security sphere in Eastern Europe, and a major role for Moscow in the Middle East are maintained, this wouldn’t tell us much about actual Soviet conduct. Any student of foreign policy knows that the goals are less important than the means taken to achieve them, the intensity with which the objectives are sought, and above all the manner in which the policy is conducted. To give an example from a different region, it matters whether the Japanese objective of a “co-prosperity sphere” in East Asia takes the form of armed aggression, or that of economic preponderance.

The scope of changes in Soviet language and tactics is considerable. Those with a taste for irony will not have failed to notice that the Soviet leader uses code words popularized by academics and (some) statesmen in the US in the 1970s—the very concepts that the Reagan “revolution” reacted against: inter-dependence, common security, the predominance of global issues over the old Soviet-American contest, the need for cooperative solutions through international agreements backed by institutions, the call for arms control and political accommodation in US-Soviet relations. The Soviet “new thinking” attempts to contrast the obsolete approach to security, which is adversarial, with the need, in a nuclear world, to take into account the fears of the rival. In three matters, the reversals have been spectacular: the acceptance of deep (and sometimes asymmetrical) reductions in weaponry—rejected by Brezhnev in 1977; sweeping provisions for verification (producing some anguish in the Pentagon at the prospect of Soviet observers); the proclaimed willingness to accept a non-Communist regime in Afghanistan, as long as it is neutral, and to leave a greater margin of internal freedom to the East European satellites.

The conversion of tough Soviet advocates of Realpolitik—who seemed to put Marxism-Leninism at the service of Machiavelli and to treat world politics as a branch of military strategy—to “soft” concepts reminiscent of those developed in American academia or Swedish institutes invites skepticism, to be sure. But it certainly does not justify the masochism of those who proclaim that never has the West been in greater peril, and that Reagan is the new Chamberlain. It is true that Reagan is now doing exactly what he had once said he’d never do—even though his own objectives haven’t changed either. In 1981 the promotion of freedom around the world was to be ensured by a return to the cold war, a determination to confront the Soviets and their clients everywhere, a proudly unilateral foreign economic policy, an emphasis on arms buildup but not control. Today, under the label of regional conflicts, we are actually discussing a host of political issues with the Soviets (thus acknowledging their role as a superpower). We are pursuing arms control, we are promoting scientific and economic collaboration with Moscow, and trying to get as much cooperation as possible from our allies in order to manage jointly the world economy. Cynicism would be justified here too. In my view both sides should be encouraged to continue to discover the genuine realities of the late twentieth century—one of which is the relentless constraint that domestic problems, pressures, or needs put on the superpowers’ world ambitions.

The buzzwords of the new Soviet leadership are somewhat ahead of actual Soviet policies—a fact that is hardly surprising, given the resistance of military and diplomatic bureaucracies to change, and such involvements as the war in Afghanistan, or the European security balance, to sweeping cures. Moreover, Gorbachev’s main concern—domestic reform—and his personal style—pragmatism—explain why there is as yet nothing very coherent or detailed about the new Soviet strategy. But if we assume that it will persist, and that it will become more comprehensive and thorough, we will have a lot of “new thinking” to do ourselves.

For forty years America’s main way of coping with the Soviet threat has been containment. (Reagan never liked it. First he wanted to replace it with his version of “rollback”; now he seeks “world peace and world freedom” through cooperation.) Containment offered only two versions of how the superpowers’ contest might end. One was a military confrontation, to be won by the West if it knew how to maintain its superiority. The other was what could be called peaceful victory—the renunciation by the Soviet Union of its hopes and goals as a revolutionary power, the acceptance by its leaders of a “moderate” international system in which the US would, in effect, be the dominant power, in which Soviet expansionism would stop, and in which the Soviets, while able to maintain a security sphere on their European borders, would essentially concede the rest of the world to our preferred way of arranging economic systems and political regimes. (The only difference between early containment and Kissinger’s détente was that the latter offered the Soviets incentives to self-restraint, in addition to continuing to erect obstacles to expansion.

We are now faced with a third prospect, which is unexpected and paradoxical. The Soviet Union seems, at least for the moment, to be giving up military expansionism, advocating cooperative solutions to problems, suggesting possible reductions of its military assistance abroad. It wants to join various international economic organizations. In other words it is adopting the manners and methods of a “moderate” power. But the recent tendency to abandon the language of world revolution and to play down the military mode of international politics does not mean acquiescence to American primacy, or to a loss of Soviet influence. Indeed, domestic reform could change the Soviet Union into a modern power, more efficient and prosperous, and it is accompanied by a new diplomatic activism—by statements and travels aimed at showing Soviet interest in every part of the world. Soviet policy is increasingly marked by a more subtle approach to the continuing competition, by a quest for influence in ways Gromyko’s more brutal and rigid techniques could never hope to achieve in a world in which the prohibitive cost of imposing control makes the pursuit of influence both necessary as a substitute and decisive. Today it is the Soviet Union, not the US, that tries to exploit the desire of most states—especially the recent ones—for a greater say in world affairs. It is the Soviet Union that talks about diversity and pluralism abroad, about the inability of the superpowers to impose their will on the lesser ones—again, themes familiar to US academics but they are used by Gorbachev to try to portray the US as the big bully and to align Moscow with the aspirations of smaller nations.

Thus we are confronting the creative ventures of Gorbachev without any adequate strategy of our own. Containment, in its different varieties, always emphasized (George Kennan notwithstanding) military barriers and armed reactions to Soviet probes (a constant theme in Kissinger’s memoirs). The Soviets seem for the moment to be pulling the rug out from under our feet. A US global strategy of world order, capable of dealing both with common problems in the world economy and ecology and with regional conflicts (as well as the continuing US-Soviet competition) has yet to be devised. The Carter administration failed to combine the various pieces, and its failure discredited any new attempt. Yet we will have to try again—both because these problems haven’t disappeared and because we are being outflanked and outsmarted by Gorbachev. Alas, all that the various candidates to the US presidency seem to be able to do is either (if they are on the right) remind us that the Soviet bear is still at the door or (if they are Democrats) tell us what weapon systems they will or will not support. This is no substitute for thinking seriously about a world that the superpowers may not be able to control, however much they cooperate, but a world that the US will find increasingly unmanageable and unfriendly if it meets the challenge of Gorbachev with obsolete reactions and a nostalgia for the days when the contest with the Soviets was blunter, simpler, and all-encompassing.

December 21, 1987

  1. 1

    See my essays “Fog Over the Summit,” The New York Review (January 16, 1986), pp. 22–26, and “An Icelandic Saga,” The New York Review (November 20, 1986, pp. 15–17. 

  2. 2

    Jean-Marie Benoist, “Euro-missiles: à quoi bon cet accord,” Le Monde (December 1, 1987), p. 2; also, his article with Hans Huyn and Gerald Frost in The Wall Street Journal (December 9, 1987), p. 39. 

  3. 3

    See Alain Peyrefitte in Le Figaro (December 9, 1987): “Un parfum de Yalta.” 

  4. 4

    See François de Rose, “Dissuader de la guerre et dissuader de la crise,” Politique internationale, No. 37 (Fall 1987), p. 115. 

  5. 5

    Newsweek (October 12, 1987), pp. 57–60. 

  6. 6

    See Jean Villars (pseudonym of a French defense official), “Un parapluie en dentelle,” Politique internationale, No.37 (Fall 1987), pp. 123–136. For their own nuclear forces, the French have insisted that full nuclear retaliation would follow quickly after the first warning exchange. 

  7. 7

    See Marisol Touraine, “Le retrait de FNI soviétique,” Politique etrangère (March 1987), pp. 699–712, and N. Pidec, “Est-Ouest: qui change quoi,” Politique etrangère (March 1987), pp. 671–682. 

  8. 8

    See the speech by the French foreign minister, Jean Bernard Raimond, at the Council on Foreign Relations, September 22, 1987, made available by the French Foreign Ministry; also F.E. Dreyfus, “RFA: Le peril national-neutraliste,” Politique internationale, No. 37 (Fall 1987), pp. 185–200. 

  9. 9

    See his “Summit Score: Reagan 3, Gorbachev 1,” The Wall Street Journal (December 15, 1987), p. 32.