BUSH administration policy toward the Soviet Union continues to be ambivalent, even contradictory. Secretary of State James Baker, following his meeting with Eduard Shevardnadze, USSR foreign secretary, has declared that the two most powerful nations in the world have moved from ``confrontation'' to ``dialogue and cooperation.'' But President George Bush has expressed skepticism and has not discouraged public speculation about the survivability of Mikhail Gorbachev. The stake of the United States in Mr. Gorbachev's success seems not to have registered fully on our government. The well-being of the American people is hardly less tied to Gorbachev's program than is that of the Soviet people. The issue for the Russians is whether they will be able to throw off totalitarianism and have a direct voice in their future. Gorbachev wants to replace the police state with the machinery of due process, including popular elections and a multiparty system. High-ranking Gorbachev's supporters are calling for a new, more democratic constitution.
The big question being asked is whether Gorbachev will be able to equate political reforms with economic reforms. Families still have to share kitchens and bathrooms in dingy apartments. Elevators are not working; housing is in disrepair. People still wait in long lines for groceries. Public transportation is shabby. Now that newspapers are free to publish critical letters from readers, the most serious complaints are about wretched living conditions.
Gorbachev realizes that his ability to meet these needs will determine his ability to retain leadership. But billions of rubles are necessary to do the job. The only way of finding those rubles is through massive cutbacks in military spending. But Gorbachev can find support for such cutbacks only by assuring his Central Committee and his generals that he is not exposing the Soviet Union to military risks. He has to show evidence that the US is cutting back as well.
For the American people, the need to bring US military spending within reasonable limits is hardly less important economically than it is for the Russians. Inflation in the US has reduced the value of American savings by almost two-thirds in the past 30 years. Any growth in the national deficit will further reduce the ability of the government to attack the drug problem, hunger, homelessness, or increasing health needs.
In past years, opponents of social programs would contend that the requirements of national security had top call on US dollars. Today, however, Gorbachev's outstretched hand makes it possible for the US not just to help meet the social needs of its own people but to avoid the colossal threat of trillion-dollar deficits.
It is sensible to ask whether the present developments in the Soviet Union are durable and furnish a sound basis for reducing US military spending. No one is suggesting we should buy a pig in a poke. We are in a position to move forward step by step, being certain that our reductions in weapons manufacture and stockpiles are being matched by the Soviet Union at every point along the way. President Bush is wise in proposing the elimination of chemical weapons, but he wants to stretch it out over 10 years. There seems to be little enthusiasm in the administration for agreements that can actually result in current massive reductions in military spending.
Yet evidence mounts that we are reluctant to relinquish the notion of an enemy ready to pounce on us. The hundreds of billions of dollars we have been putting into weapons manufacture have produced the most powerful lobby in American history. This lobby is undergirded by a nationwide industrial involvement; there's hardly a US congressional district that has not been swept up in the cascade of military dollars.
Apart from bilateral arms negotiations with the Russians, one thing that would mean much to the rest of the world would be for the two superpowers to lead the way in protecting the world's environment.
No one needs to be alerted to the perilous contamination of the world's airshed, or pollution of the seas and underground water tables, or holes in the ozone layer. What is necessary is to create a functioning mechanism inside the UN acting through statutes and enforceable world law. The US and USSR working together at the UN can help create effective environmental safeguards.
If we want to test Gorbachev, the most useful way of doing it would be by proposing a joint approach to world needs, beginning with the environment. The proper stance for the US today should be one of strong and indeed eager participation in what could be a socially constructive end to the 20th century and a promising beginning to the 21st.