President Carter has rapidly undertaken, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a series of measures which no doubt surprised the Soviet leaders by their vigor and scope. Soviet officials have privately expressed astonishment that the US should react to strongly against an action in an area where "there are no vital American interests." In so doing they reflect a misperception which he bedeviled Soviet policy for 40 years.
On Sept. 20, 1944, Averell Harriman, then Ambassador to Moscow, reported to the Secretary of State: "What frightens me is that when a country begins to extend its influence beyond its borders under the guise of security it is difficult to see how a line can be drawn. If the policy is accepted that the Soviet Union has a right to penetrate her immediate neighbors for security, penetration of the next immediate neighbors becomes at a certain time equally logical."
Even if one accepts the thesis that Stalin's primary motive for asserting domination over Eastern Europe after World War II was defensive, it was the open-ended character of his assertion of the "right to penetrate immediate neighbors for security" that aroused equally open-ended anxieties in the West and was chiefly responsible for launching the Cold War. Assertion of a similar right in Afghanistan arouses similar anxieties about Soviet intentions toward Pakistan, Iran, and the Persian Gulf. The overwhelming votes at the UN condemning the Soviet invasion demonstrate that these anxieties are now widely shared in the third world.
Another Soviet misperception, which has paved the way for the collapse of detente, is the curious delusion that it is feasible, while pursuing accommodation in areas of mutual interest, such as arms control and trade, to continue to act provocatively in other areas, such as the introduction of Cuban troops into Angola, Ethiopia, and South Yemen. It was these "ideological" adventures, plus the steady buildup of Soviet arms in so many categories, which progressively eroded public support for detente and for SALT in the West.
Nevertheless, it is more probable, in my view, that the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan was undertaken primarily for defensive reasons -- to forestall breakdown of the communist experiment there, to seal off its own Muslim population from the infection of Muslim militancy -- rather than as an opening move in a drive to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Still, the invasion was a clear violation of the UN Charter and the sovereignty of small nations. It does also make it easier for the Soviets subsequently to succumb to the temptation to move father if Iran or Pakistan should begin to disintegrate.
The immediate question is whether the countermeasures adopted by the Carter administration will be emulated by our allies and consistently pursued long enough to have a substantial impact, or whether, as in the cases of hungary and Czechoslovakia, indignation will be allowed to fade away in a few weeks or months. Early reactions by several nations, even by most American presidential candidates, to the grain embargo and to boycott of the Moscow Olympics suggest more concern with parochial interests and advantages than with deterring the Soviets. Yet the incapacitation of Tito redoubles the need for such deterrence.
However, there are two longer-term considerations which jubilantly renascent Cold Warriors too easily forget.
First, military competition between East and West, which the shelving of SALT II and suspension of other arms control negotiations will inevitably accelerate, is in the interest of neitherm of the superpowers and may prove highly detrimental to the security of both. For example, if the Soviets substantially increase the number of warheads in their heavy missiles -- which SALT II would have forbidden -- not only our present ICBMs but also the proposed MX will become vulnerable, perhaps obsolete, before long. On the other side, all Soviet targets are likely to become vulnerable to armadas of cruise missiles located in Europe and elsewhere.
The second longer-term consideration is that our most significant vulnerability is not to Soviet missiles -- which are unlikely to be launched -- but to contraction of supplies and elevation of costs of energy. Jacques de Larosiere, director of the International Monetary Fund, recently declared: "No anti-inflation effort, no sustained policy of growth, and no plan to organize the world's monetary system could survive if the present energy situation were to continue."
This situation cannot be remedied or even improved by military means of any kind, whether by deterring the Soviet Union from moving south or by deploying US forces adjacent to the Persian Gulf. These are necessary forms of insurance, but they are not solutions, as both our impotence in Theran and the steadily rising price of oil make unmistakably clear.
This problem can be addressed with the requisite urgency only bu much more drastic measures of conservation, particularly of gasoline, and by a comprehensive program of accommodation between developed and developing countries, in which each would take more account of their interdependence and of the vital interests of the other.
Otherwise the unusual solidarity manifested at the UN recently will soon evaporate, and the Soviets be encouraged by Western disarray to push, as opportunity offers, beyond their present peripheries. The Soviet economy is more vulnerable than the Western to secular deterioration, but the West is much more vulnerable to sudden spasms of disequilibrium.