The Washington Power Game

I: Nixon & Brezhnev

The world has been haunted since World War II by fear of a clash between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet the Nixon-Brezhnev summit has been greeted almost everywhere with suspicion. There are two reasons for this odd reaction. One lies in the nature of the two powers; the other, in the personality of the two leaders.

The record of the two nuclear superpowers is such that the world fears collusion almost as much as conflict between them. The smaller and weaker nations have for a quarter century played an entirely new variant of the balance of power game. They have played one big power off against another. Castro was able to survive in Cuba by playing Moscow against Washington. Turkey was able to resist Russian pressure after World War II by playing Washington against Moscow. Ernest Bevin’s swift and shrewd manipulation of the Red bogey got Western Europe its Marshall Plan. The powers in between fear that if the cold war really ends they will lose their leverage. They also fear that if cold war turns to collaboration their independence may be further weakened. The ideal situation for them is a state of Russo-American tension strong enough to keep the two nuclear monsters at odds but not so acute as to precipitate war between them.

In this perspective, détente between Washington and Moscow is also an attempt by the giants to recover greater freedom of action, to prevent tails from wagging dogs. The Middle East is the prime example and the détente will be worth while if it frees each side sufficiently from its intransigent clients to make possible a more or less imposed solution which would fit both a Palestinian Arab state and Israel into the mosaic of a stabilized Middle East.

The other reason for a widespread cynicism lies in the character of the two leaders. These are, to put it plainly, a couple of con men. If the Pentagon Papers and Watergate taught us anything, it is that what we are allowed to see in these affairs of state is a carefully prepared pantomime. What they’re really up to, what they really said to each other, what they discussed with their own advisers before trying to con each other, all this we do not know and probably never will. The accidental revelations show bigger liars at work than anyone imagined.

Nixon we now know. But Brezhnev, too, did not get to the top in the murderous game of Kremlin politics by being just the sweet old folksy grandpappy we saw on TV. Moscow is full of Watergates. When two experienced four-flushers like Nixon and Brezhnev play Frankie and Johnny, the rest of us would be idiots to see this as a sort of Abie’s Leninist Rose, demonstrating that co-existence is not only possible but fun.

How alike the old Red and the old Red-baiter proved to be in the clinches! How could Nixon fail to fall for this proletarian…

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