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Living with the Soviets

By Robert R. BowieRobert R. Bowie, who has served on the Harvard faculty, in various government posts, and as a consultant, is currently a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. / October 3, 1983

Qualified observers say that United States-Soviet relations are the worst in 20 years or more. The harshness of the exchanges over the Korean plane shows they are bad and will be slow in improving.

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The roots of the present situation go back to the detente of 1972-73, when relations seemed less hostile and even cooperative. Yet the mistakes of that period still burden relations. Both nations were basing their policy on illusions and misconceptions.

The Soviet Union, extrapolating from the Vietnam trauma, was convinced that the US was retracting its interests and reach; that it would not react to the steady Soviet military buildup; and that it would acquiesce in a ''coexistence'' that allowed the USSR to exploit third-world openings.

For its part, the US assumed that the USSR was interested in creating a stable structure of peace; that SALT I would conduce to a stable strategic balance; and that the US could constrain Soviet conduct by enmeshing it with commercial links.

The premises of both proved wrong. When the Soviets acted on their assumptions, the US eventually felt deceived and disillusioned. By the end of the 1970s a consensus was emerging at home and in the alliance on the need for a firmer policy toward the USSR and for measures to redress the military balance. The Soviets in turn were disappointed at the US failure to conform to their hopes and expectations, and angered by the measures of President Carter in his last year.

Thus for several years both sides have faced the necessity to redefine the basis for their relations.

Initially the Reagan administration, reflecting its more extreme views, espoused a new set of illusions: that the US could and should achieve military superiority; that arms control was to be spurned as a delusion or trap; that economic warfare would bring the Soviet economy to its knees; that all disorders anywhere were traceable to Soviet meddling.

Those notions went well beyond the emerging consensus at home and abroad. Gradually, pressures by the Congress, public opinion, other officials, and the Western allies have been exerting a moderating influence on the stated Reagan policy on defense, arms control, economic relations, and dialogue. In the Korean plane controversy, the President pursued a two-track approach: While denouncing the Soviet Union as hostile, brutal, and unreliable, he still insisted on the need to continue negotiations on arms control and other topics, and to maintain agreed trade.

Doubters ask how far the stated policies will actually guide action. Undoubtedly some high officials in the administration, especially in the Pentagon, do not concur and will continue to resist their application in practice. Soviet leaders are among the skeptics. They see the Reagan administration as the most hostile in 50 years. To their disappointment with the collapse of detente under Carter has been added resentment at the Reagan rhetoric and concern about the early objectives and proposals of the administration. The Soviets do not take at face value the subsequent shifts, which they view as tactics or public relations. In addition the Soviet decisions on foreign policy are complicated by their domestic economic and other problems and by the difficulties in the East European empire, notably in Poland. Their society and economy and their ideology have lost all appeal as a model or guide. Only their military might and expanded global reach underpin their claim to equality as a superpower; that may tempt them to intervene more in troubled third-world areas.

A critical question for Chairman Andropov and the Politburo will be whether to focus mainly on the serious problems at home and in Eastern Europe or pursue external expansion. If Soviet leaders should opt for tackling their internal difficulties, they could be more interested than in the past in curbing or stabilizing the arms race, in more extensive trade, and possibly in some means for managing some aspects of the enduring East-West conflict.

Our knowledge of Kremlin politics is too limited to judge how much Western policy may influence Soviet decisionmaking. Certainly we should not repeat the illusions of the 1970s. But that influence can only be lessened if the Soviet leaders think our aims are more sweeping or implacable than in fact they are or that they will shift with a change in administration. The impact of our policies can only be enhanced to the extent they reflect genuine bipartisan consensus based on shared appraisals of the situation we face and the measures it requires , and are seen by our adversary as likely to be pursued steadily over an extended term.

It is in our own interest to foster communication and dialogue across a broad front, to find useful agreements, if feasible, but at least to prevent misjudgments that could be disastrous, especially if the two sides should stumble into confrontation in the third world, or over an unsettled Eastern Europe. Thus the handling of the Gromyko visit to the UN was unwise and shortsighted. Firmness needs to be combined with vigorous efforts to find ways to mitigate the risks of living with the Soviet Union in the coming decade, which will be dangerous and difficult at best.