The superpowers: common aims amid rivalry. Parallel interests on arms and Mideast show new political maturity
This week both United States and Soviet naval vessels were in the Gulf doing the same thing: Both were there to protect commercial shipping, including tankers carrying Iraqi oil from Kuwait to the outside world. (One US frigate was damaged badly and lost 37 of its crew.) There are three Soviet tankers helping Kuwait. They have been chartered by the Kuwaitis, but fly the Soviet flag. The US has authorized the Kuwaitis to fly the American flag on some of their tankers. Soviet vessels are on hand to protect the Soviet flag tankers. US naval vessels will protect the tankers flying the US flag.
This week, Soviet diplomats were encouraging the possibility of a Middle East peace conference under UN auspices.
This week, US diplomats were encouraging the possibility of a Middle East peace conference under UN auspices.
So far as is known, there is no deliberate collaboration between Moscow and Washington on these two projects. Collaboration is probably accidental, not conscious. But it remains a fact that there are two projects in the world where the US and the Soviet Union are working toward parallel ends.
Both are trying to protect commercial shipping in the Gulf - and thus the flow of Iraqi oil to world markets through Kuwait. To do so helps Iraq in its war with Iran. Iraq depends heavily on its oil exports through Kuwait for funds to sustain its war effort. Iran has been attempting to close off the flow of oil from and flow of supplies to Iraq through Kuwait.
Iraq could export its oil by pipeline through Syria, but until now Syria has sided with Iran and has closed that pipeline. There were reports this week that Moscow may pressure Syria to reopen the pipeline, which would be a help to Iraq and a disservice to Iran.
Iraq buys most of its weapons from the Soviets, but also gets some from France and Britain. The US again has a weapons boycott against Iran now that the negotiations over trading guns for hostages have been broken off.
Thus, directly or indirectly, both the US and Soviet Union are siding with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Both have expressed a desire to see an end to that war. Both are doing what little they can to bring about an end to that war. Both are frustrated for the time being by the declared determination of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to continue the war until Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, is overthrown.
Were the Ayatollah's military forces able to win a decisive victory over Iraq, he would then be in a position to try to rebuild the great Persian empire, which in ancient times spread to the Mediterranean Sea and nearly conquered all Greece as well as Turkey.
There seems little doubt that the Ayatollah dreams of doing just that, an idea that is equally distressing to Moscow and Washington.
The Palestinian issue is a second subject where a community of interest between Moscow and Washington would appear to be emerging. Again, there is no public evidence of conscious collaboration. Yet the diplomats of the two superpowers were in fact maneuvering toward the convening of a conference - different though its role should be in the eyes of each superpower - aimed at a general peace between Israel and the Arabs.
The immediate goal of both is to provide an international umbrella under which Jordan and Israel would talk directly to each other. The immediate obstacle is Syria, which has not yet consented to join. Jordan dare not proceed without Syria's collaboration and consent. Moscow is believed to be trying to persuade Syria to join.
Whether anything would come of such a conference is another matter. Israel is in political turmoil that may well break up the existing coalition government and precipitate a general election. Some Israelis want to move toward peace. Others want to move toward annexation of all the occupied Arab territories.
It is difficult to see how any Arab-Israeli conference could get anywhere unless or until Israel is prepared to give up most of the occupied territories, or at least give up police and political control over them. That possibility is not yet in sight. But it would seem that Moscow and Washington share a desire to move in that direction.
Nuclear weaponry remains the one place where the two superpowers are, in fact, openly and publicly reaching for the common goal of nearly eliminating an entire category of nuclear weapons in their arsenals and also avoiding, perhaps, another round in the arms race. Moscow has already made enough concessions indicating it probably truly wants at least to avoid having to build new factories to make a new generation of weapons.
Presumably, the world scene is still dominated by rivalry between Moscow and Washington. Yet there are enough places now where the two seem to be reaching for mutual goals to suggest the possibility of a major change in the underlying urges that motivate the foreign policies of great nations.
US foreign policy is still geared to the assumption that Moscow is motivated by a desire to reshape the world in its Marxist image, just as the US in its early days was motivated by a desire to export the American idea of democracy. American emotions have settled down to accept that not all peoples yearn for the American system. Is the Soviet Union of the Gorbachev era also moving toward emotional acceptance of a diversified world?
Revolutions tend to move on from success into a proselytizing phase. The French did it after theirs. The Americans did it after theirs. The Soviets have certainly tried, starting with Stalin, to export their system. But now we are in the Gorbachev era. Things are different.
One can't help wondering this week whether it is possible that both Moscow and Washington have reached a point where they can talk to each other from a mutual willingness to conceive of being able to tolerate each other's differentness.