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Reflections on the Present Danger


The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not a trivial event, and it has serious implications, even if one does not agree with President Carter’s belief that they “could pose the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War.” From the viewpoint of power politics and of the superpower rivalry, the Soviet move is qualitatively different from previous Soviet actions. In the past thirty-five years the Soviet Union has used force outside its own borders only in order to maintain the empire carved out by the Red Army in Eastern Europe—an empire whose legitimacy was never endorsed by the United States, but which we have accepted de facto, and failed to challenge even when we had overwhelming nuclear superiority.

In the rest of the world, and particularly in the “gray areas” of the Third World where the Soviets and the West have been competing for influence, the Soviets have never before used their own troops in combat: force has been the tool of their proxies, such as North Korea in 1950, or the Cubans in recent years. It is true that Afghanistan, as we were recently reminded here, had long been the object of Tsarist Russia’s attention and attempts at control.1 But if the Soviets should feel entitled to occupy every region which old Russia had tried to dominate, Finland could easily be next, and surely this is not a precedent we ought to accept without reacting.

Moreover, the strategic position of Afghanistan, and the timing of the invasion, do raise serious problems for the US. From Afghanistan, the Soviets are in a much improved position against America’s only remaining ally in that part of the world, Pakistan—a state which is also China’s only friend there; and they are more able either to intimidate a shaky and unstable Iran, or to support an eventual pro-Soviet regime there. The Soviets do not need Mr. Carter’s warning to know that any attempt on their part to cut off navigation in the straits of Hormuz would be an act of war. But in a war, their new position makes cutting off the West’s and Japan’s oil supplies easier. No American government can behave as if these perils did not exist.

From the viewpoint of world order, the Soviet move is just as ominous. There can be no moderate or livable world without a firm principle against aggression. Such a principle is often hard to apply in cases where borders are uncertain or border violations by both sides have been occurring for a long time. This was not the case in Afghanistan. The rebels who were fighting the pro-Soviet regimes may have received outside help (which served as the pretext for Soviet intervention); but it was clear that their success was caused primarily by the Amin government’s repressiveness and by the earlier Taraki regime’s mistakes. It is hard for the society of states—many of which are weak indeed—to accept the idea that a superpower has the right to turn a neighbor into a client by a coup, to invade the country when it gets unhappy with the local leader, to murder him, and then to pretend that it had been invited by the country’s people or rulers. For the nonaligned nations in particular, and so soon after their conference in Havana, the Soviet move could only appear a brutal and cynical demonstration of contempt. The unprecedented condemnation of the USSR by thirty-four Moslem nations on January 29 suggests how strongly such contempt is resented.

Thus there were many reasons to react strongly. But how one reacts, and where one goes from here, cannot be entirely dictated either by emotions or by facts. Emotions can be dangerous (and unsteady); facts are ambiguous. Reactions and future policy must be guided by assumptions about Soviet motives and intentions. And here we enter a very murky realm. It is murky, in the first place, because of uncertainty. Did the Soviets move only because they felt they had no choice—because the only alternative to invasion would have been the collapse of the pro-Soviet regime and the triumph of the rebels? Were they trying to seal off their large Moslem population from the contagion of Islamic reaction? In other words, was it a limited and defensive move, or was it one more brilliant seizing of an opportunity, a swift and deadly way of threatening American and Chinese positions at low risk? Did the Soviets act because they thought that the Western stake in detente would lead us to minimize their violation of it, or because they believed that the US, in recent months, had emptied détente of any real substance?

Did they anticipate the likely retaliatory measures which Washington and its allies would take, or was there an element of miscalculation in their move? It is hard to believe that Mr. Dobrynin, as good a connoisseur of the Washington scene as any, had not informed the Kremlin of the growing influence of the more hawkish section of the American foreign policy establishment, both within the administration and in the public, and of the fashionable view that compares the Soviet Union, with its huge military effort of recent years, to Imperial Germany at the beginning of the century. If the Kremlin had been duly warned yet acted anyhow, what are the implications of such behavior? If the Kremlin did not expect the shift it provoked, what will be the conclusions its leaders will draw from their surprise?

Did the Soviet leaders act, as so many of Carter’s critics assert, because they deemed the US weak, its leadership impotent, because the absence of a strong American reaction to the Cuban adventures in Africa, the episode of the Soviet brigade in Cuba, and the spectacle of America’s inability to move against Iran in the hostage crisis led them to believe that Washington would not react any more strongly this time? (In this case—a very gloomy thought indeed—they would have learned nothing since the Korean War, which ought to have demonstrated once and for all that American leaders, whatever their confusions over drawing lines in the abstract may suggest, react vigorously to an outright invasion out of the blue.) Or did the Soviets act, on the contrary, out of a sense of weakness, a fear that retreat anywhere (even from a few islands wrested from Japan) would lead to the unraveling of the Soviet Empire?

Did they act from a belief that the Americans, their NATO allies who had just rejected Brezhnev’s offers of an arms cutback and decided on substantial nuclear rearmament, and the Chinese were getting ready to encircle and fence in the Soviet Union (whose gains in recent years, so often listed with dismay in this country, were often trivial, or costly, or inferior to Soviet reverses) so that it became even more important to strike at a weak section of the encircling chain? Was this part of a design aimed at catching the “Persian Gulf area” within Soviet pincers, or a reaction to the exclusion of Soviet diplomacy from the Middle East and to the constant weakening of Soviet positions there?

These are murky questions for a second reason as well: because, many would say, the answers do not matter. What matters is only the character, and the results or implications of, the Soviet move. As Thucydides has shown, it is impossible to disentangle what is defensive from what is offensive in a great power’s strategy: preventing the defection of a client may be a defensive motive (remember US actions in South Vietnam in 1963-1965!), but sending huge armies to prevent it appears aggressive. And anyhow, what is defensive to me can be offensive to you: the deployment of the Soviet SS-20 may have been a reply to America’s forward-based systems in Europe and to China’s landbased missiles, but it was felt to be offensive by the West Europeans. And the decision to deploy Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles, capable of hitting Soviet soil (in addition to the American missiles regulated by SALT II), was deemed defensive by NATO, but certainly not in Moscow.

Moreover, many would argue, it is pointless to wonder whether the Soviets act from strength or from weakness if the only thing that might make them feel less vulnerable is total control over their environment; and nothing is more futile than speculating on Soviet motives or Soviet internal divisions. A strong Western reaction is all to the good, because it will show Soviet hawks that they cannot get away with murder, and it will help whatever Soviet doves there may be, by providing them with new arguments for prudence and restraint.

This line of reasoning, however, is valid only against those who would argue that because of the purely defensive or limited nature of the Soviet move, one should not react at all, or barely. If one believes that a reaction is essential, some assessment of Soviet calculations becomes indispensable. While it is true that we may not be able to evaluate correctly the undoubtedly complex motives and purposes that explain the Soviet action, we must try to make our reaction compatible with the possibility that Moscow has not irrevocably turned to aggression and confrontation, and that we are capable of affecting intelligently the balance of calculations which the Soviet leaders will have to set for their next moves. As Miles Kahler reminds us in his brilliant discussion of the 1914 analogy, if we want to avoid repeating 1914 (out of fear of repeating 1938-1939) we must “reexamine [our] adversaries’ intentions and the sources of their behavior.”2

Not even Mr. Kissinger believes that the Soviets, like Hitler, have a master plan, a blueprint for step-by-step world conquest. The relentless opportunism of Soviet expansion can be affected by one’s own moves: “The possibility of changing the intentions of adversaries” exists. It requires not only strength but also skill and the avoidance of excess. For if weakness only feeds the adversary’s hawks and undercuts the doves, overreaction allows those hawks to gloat that the enemy has once more shown confrontation and combat to be the only possible course; and overreaction discredits the adversary’s doves.

Nothing would be more frightening than a collision between two rivals, one of whom, for whatever reason, and probably in part because of insecurity, blunders into challenging fundamental values or interests of the other, and the second of whom, acting upon a preconceived model of his enemy’s conduct, and out of his own insecurity, plays out self-fulfilling prophecies. Those who compare today’s Soviet Union with Imperial Germany may be right in stressing that Soviet behavior, like the Kaiser’s, may provoke the very encirclement Moscow fears. But many of these, for years, have anticipated a showdown in the Persian Gulf area. They explained that the Soviet Union—a superpower only in its military dimension, and troubled by internal tensions—might try to find external compensation through force. They stated that relative American military weakness in the early 1980s—before MX and the rapid deployment force and the new missiles in Europe—provided Moscow with a “window of opportunity.” These people ought at least to ask themselves whether the invasion of Afghanistan purely and simply vindicates their interpretation, or whether there might not be alternative ones.

  1. 1

    Firuz Kazemzadeh, in The New York Review of Books, February 21, 1980.

  2. 2

    Rumors of War: The 1914 Analogy,” Foreign Affairs, December 1979, pp. 374-396.

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