US and USSR: two perspectives on the world

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PRESIDENT Ronald Reagan says that two of his objectives at his meeting next month with Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev will be to explain that ``we are not an aggressor'' and at the same time why ``we believe they [the Soviet Union] represent a threat to us and to the Western world.'' To the President, both of these propositions are so obvious that Gorbachev would have to be obtuse not to see them. But how may we suppose that Gorbachev looks at the matter? The Soviet Union sees in the United States a country which, among other things, invaded Grenada, one of the world's tiniest, poorest, weakest countries; which tried to invade Cuba by proxy; which is doing everything it can think of to overturn the government of Nicaragua, again by proxy; and which has walked out of the World Court. This is respect for law? This is not aggression?

On the other hand, when Gorbachev looks at the Soviet Union, he sees a country which suffered 20 million casualties at the hands of the Germans in World War II; which is caught between NATO in the west and China in the east; and which is determined to protect the security of its borders.

Both the Reagan and Gorbachev views of the United States and the Soviet Union are seriously flawed, though no doubt sincerely held. But they illustrate one reason among many why a succession of American presidents and Soviet leaders have had such difficulty in getting along. Of all our postwar presidents, Reagan is the most naive in this respect; Nixon was probably the most sophisticated.

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While professing America's own peaceful intentions, Reagan refuses to accept similar statements from the Soviet Union. To Gorbachev's statement that the Soviet Union ``will never start a war,'' Reagan replied that ``we need more than that.'' The Soviet Union, he pointed out, ``is dedicated to world revolution,'' and therefore it is a mistake to look at the two superpowers as mirror images.

The man from Mars might understandably find this confusing. Certainly, the Soviet Union supports its friends in such countries as Ethiopia, Angola, Cuba, and Nicaragua. It imposes pro-Soviet regimes in neighboring countries such as Afghanistan and those in eastern Europe. It would no doubt like to do this in China, but the task is too formidable.

On the other hand, the United States supports its friends in Angola, Afghanistan, Kampuchea, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. We also place much importance on having pro-American governments in the neighborhood. How else account for the national Angst over Castro?

The man from Mars might well wonder, is not the American president who complains of Soviet dedication to world revolution the same president who once said the United States was dedicated to the support of democracy everywhere in the world? And did not one of his predecessors once lead the United States into a great war with the battle cry of making the world safe for democracy?

Mr. Reagan complains that ``since the 1970s the Soviet Union has been engaged in a military buildup which far exceeds any rational definition of its defense needs.'' That is no doubt what Mr. Gorbachev thinks about the US military buildup during the Reagan administration.

From the Reagan point of view, the Soviet buildup is proof of aggressive intent; the American buildup is simply a defensive response. From the Gorbachev point of view, it is the Soviet buildup which is defensive, the American which is threatening. This is not a mirror image?

In the same radio interview in which Mr. Reagan spoke of the Soviet buildup, he also appealed to Mr. Gorbachev to shift resources ``from armaments to people.'' The United States, Mr. Gorbachev might well reply, would greatly benefit from a similar shift.

Meanwhile, the Reagan administration presses forward with its own version of science fiction, or the Strategic Defense Initiative as the President prefers to call it. In a piece of hyperbole remarkable even for the Reagan Pentagon, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has called this ``the most hopeful concept that mankind has seen.'' The Soviets, on the contrary, see it as an intolerable threat -- as something which, by protecting the United States from retaliation, would give the United States a first- strike capability.

If the SDI is indeed purely defensive, if it would in fact be the great boon to mankind envisaged by Secretary Weinberger, why not invite the Soviets to join us in the research? Our NATO allies have already been invited. If the SDI is not aimed at anybody, if it is not a threat to anybody, why should not the Soviets participate and share the cost of a collaborative effort? Such an arrangement would truly make for a memorable and historic summit.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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