Time to Revolutionize Cold War Thinking

By , Robert H. Johnson, professor emeritus of Colgate University, was a member of the National Security Council staff and of the State Department's Planning Council.

MUCH of the current discussion of whether the cold war is ending focuses on changes in Soviet policy under Mikhail Gorbachev. But the cold war is a two-sided conflict, rooted in certain basic ideas. Without a conceptual revolution on both sides, each will exaggerate the threat from the other and United States-Soviet relations will remain crisis-prone.

The Soviets are well into just such a revolution. The Bush administration has undertaken a review of US strategy; but there is no evidence that it recognizes the need for a fundamental reconsideration of the concepts that underlie strategy.

The Soviet ``new thinking'' about international affairs encompasses the most fundamental Soviet beliefs. For example, it rejects the Leninist idea that international conflict is a form of class warfare - an inescapable and unending confrontation between capitalist and socialist systems. Conflicts in the third world are no longer clearly seen as part of a grand liberation struggle.

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The Soviets are redefining national security to emphasize its mutual, interdependent character and to place less emphasis upon military power and territorial control, more upon long-term political adjustment.

These new perspectives are reflected in encouragement of change in Eastern Europe and in action to resolve third-world conflicts; in a new stress upon multilateralism and international institutions; in an effort to redefine the Soviet military posture under the conceptual rubrics of ``reasonable sufficiency'' and ``defensive [non-offensive] defense''; and in a very serious Soviet approach to arms control.

The US has sometimes responded to these conceptual changes with demands for ``more substance,'' as Secretary of State James Baker did recently in Vienna. Clearly, the Soviets are still working out the implications of the new thinking, but we have already seen enough Soviet policy changes to demonstrate their seriousness. It is time US policymakers began to reconsider their own ways of thinking.

Among the US perspectives that need rethinking is our globalist approach, our tendency to see all international issues through an East-West prism and to overlook particular local realities. The result is exaggeration of the Soviet threat and the undermining of public support for a moderate US-Soviet relationship.

We need to rethink the security significance of control of overseas territory and resources in a world in which protracted global conventional war (and the related interruption of supply lines) is extremely unlikely. Too often US thinking about places like the Persian Gulf and southern Africa is influenced by outmoded geopolitical conceptions.

We should reconsider the false idea that other nations will inevitably submit to more powerful, threatening neighbors in the absence of strong US counteraction. Such beliefs underlie the domino theory and our periodic fears about the ``Finlandization'' of Western Europe. We need to reappraise our preoccupation with order and our fears that political change in the third world will produce a slide toward chaos.

We must moderate our obsession with US vulnerability. Vulnerability is inescapable in the nuclear-missile age, and it should not lead us to pursue outlandish schemes for missile defense.

We should abandon our fixation on US credibility. This fixation makes even minor Soviet actions seem major challenges to American resolve. Soviet agreement to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers became a principal reason for US naval patrols in the Persian Gulf; other considerations were, in fact, much more important.

If we do not engage in such rethinking, we will continue to see Soviet threats everywhere and will tend to perceive every major political change as a threat to international order and every threat to order as a potential communist challenge. We will overestimate the fragility of the nuclear balance and see every advance in Soviet weapons technology as creating a new window of vulnerability. We will exaggerate geopolitical challenges and neglect opportunities for cooperation.

If we do not engage in such rethinking, there will be no way out of the cold war.

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