The new Soviet challenge

There has been too much loose talk about war of late. Some voices even suggest parallels between the situation on the eve of World War I and today. Such a comparison is not only simplistic and contrived; it tends to feed public apprehension. What is needed is not fanciful speculation on how the world's two superpowers might slip into an armed conflict -- a conflict neither of them wants or seeks -- but a sober look at why US-Soviet relations have fallen into their present state of tension and what can be done about it. Such an assessment already is being called for by US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie as he prepares for an early meeting with the Russians.

Behind the general American discomfort on this issue (and the West Europeans have expressed less concern) lies a simple fact: The Soviet Union, for the first time in its history, has caught up with the United States in military might; in some areas it has even overtaken the US, although when NATO and the Warsaw Pact are compared NATO retains the qualitative edge in air, sea, and ground forces. This roughly equivalent military balance enables the Russians to project power in a way they have not had the luxury of doing before -- just as the US was able to exert influence in the first two decades after World War II. The result is to dismay Americans, who are not accustomed to being less than number one in the world. Their weakened influence abroad, combined with severe economic and political problems at home, seems to produce a sense of insecurity. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, comes to loom awesomely large in the public mind.

A more balanced view of Soviet capabilities and achievements would help restore the needed perspective.

There is no denying Moscow's more aggressive effort to extend its influence in the world. Whether this policy is dictated by a historically imposed sense of insecurity and determination to protect its borders (and communist empire) or by a malevolent desire to dominate the world is a matter of debate. Analysts of the USSR tend to think security is the primary driving force -- the way to security being control of the country's periphery, which then keeps getting bigger and bigger. Such factors as the Russians' national ambition, pride, and desire to prove themselves probably also are a part of the mix. In any case, while the Americans worry about their declining influence in the world, the Soviets must worry about their own failures of policy.

And there are many. For all the gains the Soviet Union wins in the short run , it often loses them in the long term. If control of a world communist movement is the name of the game, the Russians have lost the biggest prize of all -- China. They have also lost dominance of Yugoslavia, Romania, and the communist parties of Western Europe.

Then there are the third-world countries from which the Soviets have been unceremoniously tossed out -- Indonesia, Egypt, Guinea, Ghana, Somalia. They are distrusted even among such allies as the Vietnamese. Their current "conquests" in Africa are not the total successes they are sometimes made out to be. Marxist Ethiopia and Angola give evidence of an independent turn of mind. Iraq has pulled back toward a more middle course. South Yemen has installed a new leader favoring better relations with Saudi Arabia. It is even a question now whether Soviet leaders regard their invasion of Afghanistan as having been worth the political price of the world's condemnation, not to mention the military price of an unrelenting internal civil war already costing more than 2, 000 Soviet lives.

To the Russians' foreign policy problems must be added the burden of their stagnant economy and their inability to demonstrate that Soviet-style Marxism offers anything but inefficiency, shortages, and bureaucracy. Nor has Moscow managed to make genuine friends of its East European allies, most of whom would gladly depart the Soviet fold if they had the change.

This is not to close our eyes to the Soviet danger -- to the potential for further mischief-making the Russians gain by their move into Afghanistan, by the turmoil in Iran, or by their growing military power if its implications are not faced up to by the West. It is simply to counter the alarmism creeping into some public discussion. To underestimate Soviet strengths is manifestly dangerous; to overestimate them can similarly lead to poor decisions in policymaking.

We come, then, to what the West's policy toward the Soviet Union should be. And here we confront again the pattern of wild swings that have marked relations in the postwar period. Either we are in a state of cold war or in a state of "detente," i.e. relaxation. Yet neither is acceptable, for one creates tension and the danger of conflict, while the other seems to lead to a letting down of the guard and the mistaken expectation that "friendship" is possible. Somehow the East-West relationship has to be redefined so that the American people, especially, understand that it is possible to have an equal and normal relationship with the Russians without regarding them as "enemies" orm "friends." The Europeans, it might be said, seem to know this.

In redefining the basic ground rules, it would be helpful if each side had a better appreciation of the point of view of the other. Thus, the Soviets smart from not always being treated like the big power they are. They are piqued that , alone among the major powers, they are not accorded US most-favored- nation trade status, especially when this and other benefits were promised under the terms of detente. The fact that Congress made trade concessions contingent on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union is perceived, not without validity, as a misuse of detente for domestic political purposes.

Failure to ratify the SALT treaty, after seven long years of negotiation under three US presidents, and with compromises on both sides, is viewed as a breach of good faith. It makes the US look unreliable. In Soviet eyes, too, the US calls Soviet leaders on things where there should be no basis for complaint -- their relations with Cuba, for instance. It also backs down on agreements to consult -- on the Middle East dispute, say, where Moscow feels it has a legitimate interest as joint chairman of the Geneva Conference.

The United States and its allies, for their part, are duly concerned about Soviet activities in the third world with the help of Cuban proxies. About the huge transfers of Soviet arms around the world. About Moscow's relentless buildup of conventional weaponry and deployment of the SS-20 missile targeted on Western Europe. And, not least of all, about the massive military intervention for the first time in a country outside the Soviet bloc.

There are therefore legitimate concerns on both sides needing to be understood and discussed. Before relations can be be put on a stable footing, however, the issue of Afghanistan must be resolved. The West might show comprehension of the Soviet Union's concern about security at a time of turmoil in its border regions. But some formula must be found -- a political guarantee of nonalignment, say -- to induce a Soviet withdrawal. The Russians cannot be happy with the Afghan antipathy that grows with every day of their presence there. In any event, Moscow has to be made to realize that a resumption of normal ties with the West is impossible as long as Soviet troops are killing Afghanis.

Once this problem is dealt with, it should be possible to establish an East-West relationship based on greater realism than has been conveyed in recent years. The Soviet Union is not to be complacently trusted. As long as it is dominated by the communist ideology and an authoritarian political system, its fundamental interests will be inimical to those of the West. Its leaders will be opportunists, looking for ways to gain geopolitical advantage. The West will therefore have to maintain its vigilant guard, calling the Russians on each and every step of aggrandizement and holding them responsible for the scrupulous observance of agreements.

But neither can the United States expect to bring the Soviets into a more responsible stance on problems of world peace if it itself fails to follow through on agreements, refuses to compromise, or treats the Soviet leadership with less than the equality and respect due it. Among the questions Mr. Muskie and his former colleagues in the Congress must ask is to what extent US foreign policy goals should be linked to the issue of human rights in the Soviet Union. If world peace an d stability are paramount aims, there would seem to be limits to what the West should do to try to force internal reform. Indeed it can be argued that a stable, more cooperative East-West relationship will over the long run help set in motion the internal forces for such change.

Be that as it may, the fact is that the issue of global war or peace rests largely with the two most powerful nations in the world. Their rivalry -- military, economic, political -- will continue. But it is in their mutual interest to contain that rivalry and to set rules for civilized and, where possible, cooperative relations. Whether this process is henceforth called detente is less important than an acceptance by the American people that the essential policy is the right one.

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