THE advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union has, if anything, accelerated the virtually endless discussions that take place in centers of strategic thought on both sides of the Atlantic. But one question seems never to be addressed: How likely is a Soviet attack on Western Europe or the United States? The assumption of most strategic discussions is that the Soviets seek military superiority and, once that is achieved, they either will seek to blackmail the West to submit to Soviet domination or will attack.
This assumption, virtually unassailable in the US, appears to be based on early Leninist declarations of world revolution, the post-World War II suppression of Eastern Europe, Nikita Khrushchev's statement that he would ``bury'' the US, and evidence of a continued military buildup, despite glasnost and perestroika. In the US this view is reinforced by experiences that Americans - and, in particular, Ronald Reagan - had with domestic communists in the 1930s and '40s and by those who have suffered abroad at the hands of the communists, whether in Eastern Europe, China, or Latin America.
Assessments of respected scholars describing Soviet weaknesses and vulnerabilities are discounted in such discussions, as are theses that the Soviets may be reacting to what they see as threats from the West. Recent Soviet statements emphasizing their internal problems and hinting at a less active role in the outside world are dismissed as tactical.
Central Intelligence Agency reports suggesting the Soviet military forces are not superior are countered by reports from the Defense Department. Even in strategic discussions in Europe, the question is rarely raised of what events might bring on a Soviet attack.
Wars result from many causes: threats to economic interests, territorial disputes, fears of outside subversion, the defense of national honor, unprovoked aggression resulting from the militant ideology of a nation or a ruler, or miscalculation.
The US has never been at war with Russia. No conflicts exist over economic interests or territory. Communist subversion in the US - or in Western Europe - is well controlled and unlikely to be a cause for war. The US has not been humiliated by the USSR in a manner that would lead to war. The sole question, therefore, is whether the USSR has aggressive intent, or whether, as some scholars quietly suggest, Soviet apprehensions over Western intentions have led to its military buildup, to its control of Eastern Europe, and its effort to counter Western influence in the third world.
Before the latter view is totally rejected, one needs to recollect the Western efforts to support the White Army against the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the extensive rhetoric from the West over several decades calling for changes - if not the overthrow - of the Soviet system.
Perhaps prudence requires that as long as the USSR possesses the military means to destroy the West, NATO planning should be based on Moscow's capabilities rather than guesses at Soviet intentions.
Yet the world seems to be entering a period of changes and new initiatives from the USSR. Western reactions to these will depend in large measure on how the US and Europe see the intentions behind these moves. Does the USSR genuinely wish to reduce its external activities seen in the West as provocative? In such a case, Western responses should take Gorbachev at his word. If the responses, however, are based on an assumption that these moves are merely tactical steps to preserve the long-range goal of world domination, does the West risk the loss of an opportunity actually to change Russian behavior?
In the case of the USSR, caution is perhaps justified. Yet, many wars have been started because of a fear of the presumed intentions of another nation which may have been wrong. Barbara Tuchman's ``The Guns of August,'' for example, recounts in stark detail the folly of leaders unwilling to listen to any analysis of circumstances but their own. Europe was plunged into a tragedy from which it is only now recovering. A similar scenario in a nuclear age would have resulted in an even greater disaster.
Perhaps the assumptions of the strategists are correct, but the world would be safer if the endless discussions of the need for military strength included, from time to time, a more realistic effort to determine whether the costs and sacrifices of that strength are truly justified by the circumstances of today's world.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.