Approaching the summit -- the importance of attitude

AS the United States and the Soviet Union move toward a summit meeting, the outcome may well depend on whether each side approaches the event in an attitude of war or peace. War is a state of mind. Armed conflict is not essential to create the objective elements of belligerency.

A competitor or an adversary becomes ``the enemy.'' Aggressive, inimical intent is taken for granted. The study of ``the enemy'' becomes less a search for truth than for evidence of perfidy.

The purpose of actions and policies becomes not agreement, but ``victory,'' defined either as ``rolling back'' the influence of the other side or forcing a less favorable formula on a significant issue such as arms control.

This state of mind creates deep suspicions of the other side and its surrogates; the corollary of suspicion is fear. Both are engendered by recollections of past conflict, persecution, or threatening doctrines. Little allowance is made for the passage of time and the evolution of policies and doctrines.

As for the United States and the Soviet Union, the causes of hostility lie deep. It is fruitless to argue their origins.

Russian suspicions of the US and its intentions toward the communist state go back to the Bolshevik Revolution. Soviet attitudes toward the US are shaped not only by propaganda and doctrine, but by assumptions of US hostility.

The US has a list of grievances toward the Soviet Union that create corresponding attitudes of hostility in this country. Mirror images of conflict face each other. Each side tends to dehumanize the other; stereotypes prevail.

The attitude of war stimulates a vision, not only of two powers in conflict, but also of a world divided and in confrontation. Two strong powers with global ambitions seem rarely to live easily together. Real or imagined thrusts against the interests of one lead inevitably to countermoves, to an increase in the attributes of conflict.

Regional issues become part of a larger canvas, part of a two-power chess game. The details and nuances of local problems are lost. Contradictions are more easily rationalized. The current US administration can oppose sanctions against South Africa and apply them to Nicaragua. The former does not fit into the context of global conflict; the latter does.

In such an atmosphere, rhetoric becomes for both sides a tempting and dangerous instrument. Existing emotions are stimulated to create even greater fears and greater determination ``to win.'' The realistic limits of power on each side become obscured.

The unfolding of events is seen, not as part of a current canvas, but against the background of past wars; Munich becomes a symbol to discourage dialogue.

When negotiations are undertaken in an atmosphere of war, the purpose of the parties is less to explore and resolve differences than it is to weaken the other side. Diplomatic encounters are undertaken only to deflect pressures for broader understandings.

In a less belligerent atmosphere, the parties to a diplomatic negotiation may still, quite naturally, seek to secure the greatest advantage for their side. The Soviets have long seen diplomacy as a way to advance their cause without war.

There is an important, if subtle, difference, however, between entering a negotiation that has as its objective the humiliation of the other side and one in which each side can claim a measure of success.

On the extreme edges of opinion in both countries, there are undoubtedly those who believe that we would already have been at war with each other except for the nuclear deterrent. They see diplomacy only as an alternative way of prevailing. Such attitudes do not help resolve tensions.

When the leaders of the two nations meet in November, each will have faced competing arguments within his policy circle over the approach to the meeting. The very task of preparation should force each to drop stereotypes and to look at the other in less abstract terms. Those who think only in terms of continuing conflict or who resist compromises may be disappointed.

The fact that in both countries the pressures have led to a summit suggests that the broader sentiment is against continuing the tensions and rhetoric of an atmosphere of ``war'' but prefers, in a realistic way, without obscuring differences or offending national honor, to move in an atmosphere of ``peace'' toward a less dangerous and more positive relationship.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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