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Detente gets a second chance as superpowers meet early in 1985

By Joseph C. Harsch / December 28, 1984

The new year of 1985 in world affairs will open with an interesting experiment in whether Moscow and Washington can achieve a second ''detente.'' No one can possibly foresee what will come of the experiment that opens on Jan. 7 in Geneva, when the foreign ministers of the two superpowers are scheduled to meet to present preliminary proposals to each other.

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Everything else that happens in world affairs in 1985 will be shaped within the framework of what emerges from that meeting in Geneva. It can be the beginning of a second detente. It conceivably might even lay the groundwork for a long-term era of relatively stable coexistence between today's two superpowers.

But it could also amount to nothing more than a breathing spell in the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that has dominated the world scene since the end of World War II.

One reason one cannot forecast the course that US-Soviet relations may take from the meeting in Geneva is that history offers little guidance. Another reason is that the first detente had such a sad and early decline. A third reason is that there is a rivalry based on conflicts of national interest that could not be entirely dissolved or resolved even with the best will on both sides.

Consider the last of these three facts first. Every Russian, whether he be Communist or anti-Communist in his personal feelings, wants Moscow to control its Western approaches. All Russians believe that their national security depends on the Soviet Army sitting on top of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, East Germans, Romanians, and Bulgarians.

But Americans have several reasons for resenting the imposition of satellite status on those peoples of Central and Eastern Europe who would, except possibly for the Bulgarians, prefer to be truly free and independent. The US also sympathizes with the East and West Germans yearning for reunification.

There is no reconciliation of this conflict of interest. Moscow is going to hold on to its satellite fringe in East Europe as long as it has the power to do so. The US is not going to acquiesce in this imposition of Moscow control over Eastern Europe or cease to encourage hopes of ultimate freedom among Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, East Germans, etc.

The Middle East and Central Asia are a second area of conflict of interest. Moscow wants to control that neighborhood under its southern doorstep just as much as the US wants to control Central America - and for similar reasons. But the Middle East holds the world's largest pool of oil. Access to that oil is essential to the economic life of the Western industrial world.

Detente was wrecked on this conflict of interest in the Mideast-Central Asia region. Moscow chose to extend its direct control over Afghanistan, which lies next door to Iran. Iran is a major oil-producing country. The entire Western world shuddered at the implication that what Moscow did in Afghanistan might be a prelude to other moves deeper into the Middle East.