Gorbachev's deft touch in world affairs

Mikhail Gorbachev has had another good week. The Soviet leader scored a propaganda point over Ronald Reagan by extending his unilateral nuclear test ban until Jan. 1, and a diplomatic gain over the Israelis by closing down at the end of 90 minutes a meeting in Helsinki that was supposed to have gone on for two days.

He further improved the Soviet image in European eyes by what appeared to be a major concession at the East-West security conference at Stockholm. His spokesman there offered, or appeared to offer, on-site inspection of military movements. This was a reversal of a previous Soviet position in such matters and increased the chances that the conference could come up with an agreement by the time it adjourns next month.

When you think back over the history of the Soviet state since the 1917 revolution, only three leaders of any stature emerge. Vladimir Lenin was the founder. Joseph Stalin presided over victory in war. And Nikita Khrushchev tried to bring the Soviet Union into the modern world, but spoiled his record and tenure by overplaying his hand in Cuba. He was a gambler.

Mr. Gorbachev is like Lenin in one particularly important respect. Lenin was a man of the world, a European intellectual. He happened to have been born a Russian, but his viewpoint was that of a central European intellectual, and he had lived much of his life before the revolution in Switzerland.

How different were those leaders between Lenin and Gorbachev. Stalin, a Georgian, might have been a reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible. Khrushchev was Russian in nature and quality. He perhaps wanted to be a man of the world, but was always in essence a shrewd Russian peasant.

We have something new in Gorbachev. He has lived his life inside the Soviet Union and inside the Communist Party. Yet he is already able to see his country with the kind of objectivity that Lenin possessed.

The nuclear test ban was another in a series of moves that is gradually pushing Mr. Reagan toward a second summit conference. The process can even lead to a new arms control agreement, simply because Mr. Gorbachev is so shrewdly using the Western Europeans as a fulcrum for his pressure on Mr. Reagan.

The United States President does not want to do arms control business with the Soviets. A personal associate of the President who knows his mind in such matters says that he will go only as far down the road of agreements with the Soviets as he must go in order to save the NATO alliance. That is precisely the point that Mr. Gorbachev understands and is using. He is maneuvering Mr. Reagan toward doing business by using the Europeans as his fulcrum.

The extension of the Soviet nuclear test ban for another 4 months sounds like a good deed to any European ear. Mr. Reagan was bound to say no to the Soviet call for a reciprocal US move. He takes the position that the US lags behind the Soviets in nuclear technology (which few Europeans believe) and hence must continue testing.

It's a cream-puff propaganda win for Mr. Gorbachev. He loses little and gains increased pressure from the European allies on Washington to get on with talks with the Soviets.

The Helsinki meeting between Soviet and Israeli diplomats was an abrupt lesson in how tough Mr. Gorbachev can be.

The Israeli delegates went there thinking that they could gain a promise of more exit visas for Soviet Jews, in return for revival of diplomatic relations. The Soviets simply declined to discuss the subject of Soviet Jews, on the ground that ``there are no Israeli citizens permanently residing on Soviet territory.'' They broke off the meeting after 90 minutes and announced that ``there are no plans for a continuation of this meeting.''

In other words, the Israelis went to Helsinki thinking they had leverage, and found they didn't. The Soviets are not willing at this time to pay the price for any possible gains that would result from resuming diplomatic relations with Israel. Moscow sees itself as better off posing as the friend of the Arabs.

As for the Stockholm meeting, no one yet knows whether the new Gorbachev diplomacy could actually include verifiable on-site inspection in military matters. That remains to be tested at future meetings. But the chief Soviet delegate at the Stockholm conference asserted Tuesday that the Soviet Union would not refuse inspection of unannounced troop movements ``until the quota has been used up.''

This was a reversal of the old Andrei Gromyko position that the right to demand an on-site inspection could become ``an excuse to peek through the neighbor's fence.''

In other words, there is a new broom sweeping through the corridors of Soviet foreign policy. A lot of old positions have been tossed out and new ideas are being displayed. This seems to show the imaginativeness of Nikita Khrushchev's diplomacy, but without Khrushchevian recklessness.

The Economist magazine commented the other day that Mikhail Gorbachev is ``shaping up as the first thinking-man's Russian leader since Lenin.''

He is certainly shaping up both as a man who understands that the Soviet economy is stagnant, that more than ``reform'' is needed to bring the Soviet Union into the forefront of progress, and that Soviet foreign policy had become as stagnant and sterile as the domestic economy.

More important than understanding the need is the ability to move the stolid mass of the Soviet bureaucracy. It begins to look as though Mr. Gorbachev not only knows what needs doing, but also has the skill and shrewdness to begin tackling real reform.

His task is easier in foreign policy than in domestic economics. There is no vast body of Communist Party time-servers making their living out of foreign policy such as the one living off the centralized planning of the economy. He can move faster and get quicker results in foreign affairs. And he is.

This week we had a good taste of how a strong and skillful man can operate. He has ideas. What is more, he knows how to go about putting them to use.

If Ronald Reagan ever signs an arms control agreement with Mr. Gorbachev, it will be because Mr. Gorbachev gave Mr. Reagan no choice.

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