The not so new wisdom

Some people in the audience were a little surprised the other day to hear Secretary of State Alexander Haig talking about Soviet "weaknesses." Here is the essence of what he said in a commencement address to the graduating students of Syracuse University on May 9:

"We should not exaggerate the strength of our adversary.

"Moscow faces an unenviable present and an extremely gloomy future. A list of formidable problems confronts it, ranging from the hostility of China to the difficult Polish situation, from economic failures to ideological sterility."

He balanced this, prudently, by noting that these very weaknesses are themselves dangerous because they "run to the heart of its system" and because the Soviet Union possesses formidable military power and, out of frustration, might use that power to compensate for weakness.

The caveat about the danger was expectable. But the theme about Moscow's "gloomy future" was a novelty in the publicly expressed views of high Reagan administration officials.

It is even more interesting that three days later, in Brussels, Caspar Weinberger, Mr. Reagan's secretary of defense, was using some of the same material although with different emphasis. Here is the essential quote from a speech he made to the NATO defense ministers:

"The current and prospective leaders of the Soviet Union may be impelled by lack of success in other fields to turn instead to the one field where they have both confidence and capability, stark military power and military threats."

The rising Soviet menace was a main feature of both the Reagan campaign and the early public statements after the Reagan team took over. We heard much about Soviet expansion, Soviet threats, Soviet use of terrorism. The picture painted was of an all powerful adversary on the march to world domination. There was nothing about any feet of clay or any possible internal troubles.

When this other side of the story begins to emerge in two speeches within three days by Mr. Reagan's senior diplomat and senior adviser in military matters it is obvious that both are speaking from the same basic textual material. Clearly, there has been some homework done around the White House about the real nature of the other most powerful country in the world.

I do not know what particular expert on Soviet affairs was called in to do the briefing on the basic characteristics of the Soviet Union. But I do know that these statements by Messrs. Haig and Weinberger reflect what has long been the general view throughout the community of people who spend their lives and make their careers out of studying the Soviet Union.

One of the clearest early statements of what may now be called the Haig-Weinberger doctrine was in a paper presented at the annual conference of the International Institute of Strategic Studies held in Oxford, England, in September 1978. It was delivered by Philip Windsor, a reader in international studies at the University of London. It was and still is used by other scholars as a basic text. Here is the essential passage:

"The Soviet Union is weak. Indeed, it might well be argued that her military strength is a function of her weakness in other spheres. Her economic help to developing countries consists largely of showpiece projects -- a steel mill in India or Turkey, or the guaranted purchase of cash crops like Egyptian cotton, or direct currency subventions to places like Cuba. She is in no sense capable of sustaining a programme of widespread economic growth. She has little to offer in the way of agronomic expertise of advanced technology.

"Since she can hardly play a forceful part in a world system in which economic and political considerations interact constantly, her political influence is, in fact, restricted. . . . The principal vehicle of her power is military hardware, supplemented by a sometimes transitory military presence. The policies that result are notoriously unstable, and for all her temporary successes, the number of countries from which the Soviet Union has been expelled outside her immediate alliance system is almost equivalent to the number in which she has gained a foothold. The global presence of the Soviet Union is a demonstration of her strength, but also an indicator of her weakness."

In other words, the Soviet Union is dangerous right now, but not 20 feet tall , and is not advancing in any area except military reach. And military reach is difficult to translate into territorial control.

The Haig-Weinberger doctrine is new in the political circles of the reagan administration. But it is what the experts figured out some time ago.

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