Requiem for detente

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, whatever its motives may have been, has evoked an international response of a scope and intensity which the Kremlin almost certainly failed to foresee, and which is without precedent since the North Korean aggression in 1950.

Indeed this violation of the United Nations Charter is in some respects more flagrant than that in Korea. For the first time since World War II Soviet troops in large numbers have crossed an international boundary outside the acknowledged Soviet sphere of influence. The victim is a Muslim country and, though for two years under communist leadership, it was still a member in good standing of the nonaligned.

The fact that the Soviets resorted to the state formula of being "invited" to intervene by a character out of their stable of puppets was unconvincing to anyone and reflected a contempt for the intelligence of other nonaligned nations.

It is not therefore surprising, except perhaps to some in the Kremlin sealed off by slogans and paranoia from the real world, that the UN Security Council has, despite a Soviet veto, condemned the invasion; that the UN Assembly by an affirmative vote of more than two-thirds of its members has followed suit; that a substantial majority of Muslim states meeting in Pakistan has also, despite other differences, united in condemning the invasion; that the United States has taken measures which will seriously damage the Soviet economy and impair Soviet prestige; and that many other Western nations are taking similar, though less drastic, actions.

It is deplorable, indeed tragic, that this miscalculated challenge has brought to an abrupt halt the course of accommodation, of so-called detente, which East and West have been hopefully and constructively pursuing throughout the past decade. Of course profound reversals in international affairs do not occur without cause or warning. In this case there were many of both. Both sides share the responsibility for contributing to the one and ignoring the other.

The major Soviet mistake was to expect that negotiation and agreement between East and West could proceed in isolation on some issues on which they had strong common interests, such as arms control and trade, while concurrently unrestrained political warfare was conducted on other issues where interests conflict, such as in Angola, Ethiopia, and South Yemen. It was naive to claim that there should be no "linkage," when in fact the "basic principles" of cooperation between the superpowers agreed at the 1972 summit were being violated, and the domestic support on which an American president must rely for the conduct of detente was being systematically undermined.

A parallel weakening of the mutual confidence essential to the process was caused by what seemed to most Westerners an extravagant buildup of Soviet strategic and European theater weaponry unjustified by any real threat to Soviet security. It may be that the Soviets believed that the US post-Vietnam mood of withdrawal was irreversible. In any case they themselves reversed it and in so doing jeopardized all the past and potential achievements of detente.

The American contribution to the process was less calculated but almost equally damaging. The basic concept of detent had been to provide the Soviets with sufficient stake in its continuance to deter them from interrupting it. That concept was more and more vitiated as, first, expansion of trade was seriously impaired by attaching to it conditions about an unrelated matter -- emigration -- and, second, conclusion and ratification of strategic and other arms agreements weredragged out over many years because of American electoral interruptions and of recurrent roadblocks introduced by American politicians whose nightmares about Soviet intentions coincided with their own political advantage. By December, 1979, the Kremlin may have calculated, mistakenly, that it had little to lose by offending the United States.

A vigorous, effective and protracted response to the aggression in Afghanistan is absolutely necessary, lest the Soviets come to feel they have a license to repeat it elsewhere. However, programs of relations between the two most powerful nations in the world cannot be safely constructed out of sticks alone. Carrots are equally indispensable.

The common interests which prompted detente in the first place remain as vital today as they ever were. Our national security can never be assured by a unilateral buildup of weapons systems, no matter how comprehensive and astronomical. We shall find after some experience with the current escalation that both sides have raced each other to new levels of useless power and debilitating waste, without either one having significantly increased its invulnerability or its security.

Hence it will be necessary, presumably after our current electoral preoccupations are behind us, to resume the painful and frustrating pursuit of a more stable world which only some measure of accomodation between the two superpowers can permit. Detente will remain for some time under intensive care, but it is in our vital interest that it not be allowed to expire.

Moreover, next time agreements, if they are to win and hold essential public support, must be much broader in scope and more rapidly concluded. They must appeal to hawks and doves alike by bringing undeniable national benefits and by strengthening the international structure of peace.

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