1981: the powers that tie down the superpowers

In world affairs the year 1981 goes down in history as identifying a time when the two greatest military powers on earth found it increasingly difficult to use their own military might as an instrument of their purposes.

Restraints were heavier on Washington due to greater influence of public opinion on policy in the United States. But both were restrained.

Events in Poland at the end of the year dramatized the fact of the restraints.

Twenty-five years ago the Soviets did not hesitate for a moment to use tanks in a bloody repression of independence in Hungary. Thirteen years ago they did not hesitate to send their tanks into Prague.

But in 1981, when the Poles reached for the same independence that had earlier moved Hungarians, then Czechs, the Soviets chose to try to solve their ''Polish problem'' with Polish armed forces.

As for the US, its new leadership came into office in January breathing oratorical fire against Cuba and proposing to take stern and decisive action against insurgency in El Salvador. The world braced for aggressive use of American military power anywhere.

But by year's end the only actions in support of the bold words were the shooting down of two Libyan aircraft and the dispatch of 56 US soldiers to El Salvador to help train the armed forces of that country. The 56 soldiers were forbidden to take part in field operations. There was little follow-up against Libya. The allies disapproved of the original shooting and declined cooperation in further actions against Libya.

In fact, 1981 saw both the US and the Soviet Union largely occupied in trying to hang on to what each has in the way of world position and influence. Both were so busy defending or maintaining their positions that neither undertook any new offensive ventures.

Moscow had an unsettled military problem on its hands in Afghanistan and a continuing political as well as military problem with Poland. The two problems seemed to use up about all the energy the Soviets had.

Moscow's last foreign policy offensive had been the invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979. This in the Soviet mind was probably defensive rather than offensive. Their last attempt to project their military power well outside their immediate neighborhood was the dispatch of their own and Cuban troops to Ethiopia in 1977 and to Angola in 1975, back in the Kissinger era.

The condition of the two superpowers at the end of 1981 is not a stalemate, because the word stalemate implies two great forces pushing against each other. In this case there was little actual pushing at each other by the superpowers in 1981.

Moscow undoubtedly kept an interested and perhaps larcenous eye on events in Iran, but made no overt move into the Middle East since that would obviously provoke an extreme American reaction. Washington talked loudly about being ''tough'' with Moscow. But one of President Reagan's early deeds in foreign affairs was to cancel the embargo his predecessor had placed on the export of US grain to the Soviet Union.

The nearest thing to a foreign policy offensive from Moscow during the year was an attempt to woo Western Europe away from the NATO alliance by purporting to be more interested in peace and in the curbing of nuclear weapons than was Washington. Some propaganda success was gained, largely due to careless or foolish use of words in Washington.

President Reagan said he could conceive of a limited use of nuclear weapons in Europe. Leonid Brezhnev thundered back from Moscow that such limited war would be madness. Score one point for Moscow.

Washington managed to compensate for that propaganda loss by proposing mutual renunciation for Europe of middle-range nuclear weapons. The score was evened.

Moscow restraint and Moscow resort to a propaganda ''peace offensive'' was due not to any effective pressure from Washington, but rather to its own inherent weaknesses. Its economy was stagnating. Food shortages were chronic. Influence over world opinion through communist parties had dwindled to the negligible level. Soviet control over the ''satellite'' members of the Warsaw Pact was becoming increasingly difficult and complicated.

Moscow could not afford to let Poland go free because that would require in return the losing of East Germany. To any Russian with even second-hand memories of World Wars I and II the idea of letting go of East Germany is unthinkable. The Russian fear of Germans equals the Israeli fear of Arabs.

But if Poland had to be kept inside the Soviet military system, how could it be done while at the same time trying to run a ''peace offensive'' and woo Europe away from the US? To repeat in Warsaw in 1981 the fearsome bloodletting of 1956 in Budapest or even the bloodless takeover of Prague in 1968 would ruin Moscow's role as the peaceable and peace-loving superpower. The more President Reagan in Washington talked about guns, the more the Soviets felt it desirable to don the feathers of the dove.

So instead of using tanks and violence in Warsaw, the Soviets in 1981 fell back on using the Polish Army itself, which meant a Polish solution to the ''Polish problem.'' That served the immediate purpose of securing military control over the supply line from the arsenals and food supplies of the Soviet Union to Moscow's frontline forces in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

But it also meant that Poland was more Polish than back in the days when it was governed by hand-picked stooges trained in Moscow and dominated by a secret police taking orders from the KGB.

Nor was the US contained or restrained by Soviet pressures or advances. Washington was restrained by weaknesses and disagreements within the Western system itself. All major countries in the NATO alliance were having economic troubles in 1981. And the European members of the alliance were exceedingly reluctant to follow the Reagan lead into any overt actions against the Soviets.

The Reagan-Haig idea of moving against Cuba was checked when Mexico's President (whose goodwill is greatly desired in Washington) put a literal protecting arm around Fidel Castro. The urge to send US forces into action in El Salvador was checked in the Congress and by disapproval from Mexico, Canada, and the European allies. The original reluctance of the new administration in Washington to talk to the Soviets was overwhelmed by a virtual demand from the European allies for negotiations with them.

By the year's end an American delegation in Geneva was talking nuclear arms reductions with the Soviets. It was the price of holding the alliance together.

The year had opened with the new administration in Washington planning to build a ''strategic consensus'' in the Middle East which would bring Israel and the Arabs together in a mutual organization aimed to keep the Soviets out of the area. But the prospects for achieving that goal were less promising at the year's end than at its beginning. Israel's mid-December move to annex the Golan Heights upset the area and pushed into doubt even the limited progress achieved at Camp David toward an Arab-Israeli peace.

No one in 1981 could doubt the enormous power of the armed forces of the Soviet Union and of the United States. But in the events of the year these forces weighed little except that they more or less balanced each other out. Washington was restrained not by Soviet military power but by the reluctance of its own allies, and of its Congress at home, to use its own power.

And Moscow was restrained not by US military power but by the restlessness among its own allies, by the intractability of the Afghan patriots, and by the distrust of Moscow in much of the world.

In other words 1981 was a year of marking time. There was virtually no change in the power patterns of the world. But it had become obvious that the possession of enormous military power is not a readily usable instrument of policy in these immediate times.

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