Dialogue in a time of trouble

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Last week a small group of Americans and Russians held an informal consultation at a European conference center. Some of them had been meeting periodically in the same informal fashion over the past 20 years. The Americans were drawn entirely from private life, the Russians primarily from research institutes but with a sprinkling of representatives of the bureaucracy and, in one case, the Communist Party Central Committee.

There was sober realization among all participants that they were meeting at an extremely critical movement, perhaps a turning point in US-Soviet relations. Nevertheless, it was felt that this fact enhanced the importance of an interchange in which each side would set forth with utmost frankness its explanation of the deterioration in relations, but in which both would also explore means of reversing so dangerous a threat to the security of both.

For obvious reaons Afghanistan was the centerpiece of discussion. The Americans led off by emphasizing that the invasion by Soviet military forces of a nonaligned third-world country, even one already under a communist government, had profoundly shocked American public opinion. It had, moreover, aroused apprehensions that, if this invasion were considered legitimate by the Soviets, other invasions could be justified on the same grounds, most ominously invasions southward toward the Persian Gulf.

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The Soviets responded that the invasion, which they insisted had been most reluctantly undertaken, had been prompted by the presence in Afghanistan of 100, 000 rebels armed and supported from Pakistan, China, and Iran and that, if these rebels had prevailed, Afghanistan would have been subjected to a bloodbath comparable to that carried out in Cambodia by Pol Pot.

They stated categorically, however, that they intended to withdraw Soviet forces as soon as foreign intervention had ceased, that they had no intention of using Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks on other countries, that they realized that military threats to the Persian Gulf region would risk provoking general war, and finally that the Karmal government is already attempting to make itself more representative by including representatives of other Afghan elements.

Despite these assurances and the obvious fact that the Soviets would like to end this embarrassing military involvement as soon as possible, the Americans had the strong impression that the Soviets are unlikely to accept a political solution which does not ensure the continuance of an Afghan government loyal to them and in substantial control of the country. Whether that can be achieved without the continued presence of some Soviet forces seems doubtful.

What appeared to baffle the Soviets most was what they clearly considered to be disproportionate American response to a situations far from the US and of only peripheral concern to it, and the subordination to that response of other aspects of the US-Soviet relationship on which the security of both countries depends. Because of their bafflement, they suspect that the American response to Afghanistan was only a pretext for a long- planned US assertion of paramount interest in the Persian Gulf, indeed the whole Middle Eastern region, to the exclusion, of course, of the Soviet Union.

The Americans rejected this interpretation and pointed out that, in addition to being itself in clear violation of all accepted norms of international behavior, the invasion followed a series of Soviet military involvements in third-world countries -- Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen -- which had progressively disillusioned American opinion with detente. The basic misjudgement the Soviet leaders had made, the Americans asserted, was in believing they could successfully pursue agreements with the US on matters such as arms control and trade, where substantial common interests exist, while at the very same time flouting and eventually outraging American opinion by repeated military intrusions into the third world. Far greater self- restraint in dealing with third-world conflicts would be required if recurrent and increasingly dangerous clashes between the two superpowers were to be avoided.

When it came to arms, both Americans and Soviets expressed deep concern at the probable consequences if the competition in weapons is allowed to escalate unchecked to ever more fantastic levels of technological complexity and destructiveness.The Soviets continued to manifest some hope that SALT II might be ratified and other arms control negotiations resumed, but the Americans offered them no encouragement that this would be possible while the Afghan invasion continues.

The Soviets reserved their strongest strictures for the projected deployment of new NATO intermediate-range missiles in Europe. They clearly did not regard them, as we did, as a balanced response to recent deployments of new Soviet weapons of similar range, but rather simply as weapons which could hit the Soviet homeland with less than ten minutes' notice. More disturbing was a Soviet warning that, just as US deployment of MIRV'd (multiple warhead) missiles had led to a Soviet deployment of similar weapons and thence to the vulnerability of American intercontinental missiles, so the projected deployment of US cruise missiles in Europe might lead to a Soviet deployment of similar missiles on submarines off our Atlantic and Pacific coasts with ranges sufficient to blanket all our cities.

Indeed the strongest impression left with me was that the Soviets, despite the aggressiveness they have shown in their excessive arms buildup and their intrusions into the third would, have still a sober consciousness of the unspeakable horror which thermonuclear war would inevitably inflict on both sides. Their consciousness of this horror is probably stronger than ours since they have already suffered appalling devastation in two world wars.

One can only pray that this perception will also penetrate the American conciousness more profoundly than it so far has, and that the futility and folly of military "solutions" in a nuclear age will lead both superpowers to much more rational conceptions of what "national security" really means.

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