MANY Americans continue to ask, ``Can we trust Gorbachev?'' The prudent answer is, ``No.'' A better answer, though, is ``We cannot trust him in many areas, but we can believe he wants to cut military expenditures because he has no real choice.'' Mikhail Gorbachev simply does not have the latitude of Stalin to say one thing and do another. Were the world to perceive Mr. Gorbachev as being duplicitous, it would be much more costly for him. In the name of reform he is taking substantial risks of domestic turbulence with both glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or economic restructuring. He can take the chances involved only because the state of the Soviet economy and society make it necessary.
How Gorbachev's domestic reforms work out is of interest to us, of course. What is more germane to decisions we must make with regard to the Soviet Union, though, is that his domestic problems also have led him to make bold offers for reducing tensions and curtailing military expenditures. We have every reason to take advantage of these proposals to the extent we believe they will further our interests. We can, though, pass such judgments only if we have thought through the kind of Soviet-American relationship we would like to see evolve from the present, fluid conditions within the Soviet Union.
Some of us want a Soviet Union that is more democratic, one that respects human rights and permits free emigration. Others want a Soviet Union that can participate reliably and predictably in the world economy, one with a convertible ruble and an economy reasonably free of governmental controls. Still others want a Soviet Union that does not interfere around the world, one that stays out of places like Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Any, or all, of these are desirable goals for the US to establish for the Soviets. We will be disappointed, though, if we expect they will achieve any of them soon.
Gorbachev and his cohorts have so little understanding of democracy and human rights that we are unlikely to be satisfied with whatever progress they make. Gorbachev's problems in reshaping the Soviet economy without profaning socialist political principles are too deep to solve in less than a decade or two. And, as a major power, the Soviets will be reluctant to pass up opportunities in the third world that fall into their lap.
There is, though, one goal that is achievable for them and desirable for both of us: a substantial reduction of Soviet military capabilities. It is desirable for Gorbachev because he needs the resources to devote to his domestic problems; and for us, because it reduces the risk of war should glasnost and perestroika fail and the Soviets be tempted to turn to military adventuring in desperation.
That possibility must concern us, because the Soviets can compete with us only in military power. They are hopelessly behind in economic strength, political influence, and quality of life. Thus, if we can lower the military threat, the Soviet Union need no longer be the central focus of our foreign policy. Such a change cannot come too soon, considering the numerous other emerging problems we face: maintaining our competitiveness in an interdependent, international economy; avoiding a world economic recession; suppressing international terrorism; muting military and political conflicts in the third world; and protecting the global environment.
We should, then, be single minded in using Gorbachev's weaknesses as a lever for eliminating those areas of military imbalance, primarily in Soviet ground forces, which we have found so disturbing for the past 44 years. We need not worry about whether Gorbachev is sincere or whether he makes progress toward democracy, free enterprise, or peaceful coexistence, as long as he keeps busy disbanding tanks, aircraft, missiles, submarines, and military manpower. President Bush moved wisely last May in proposing that negotiations on arms control be accelerated. Now, we must sustain pressure on the Soviets and our allies to meet the president's earlier timetable.
We are wise to emphasize speed because we do not know how much time we will have. Recently, I asked a Soviet economist how long Gorbachev could survive without achieving substantial improvement in the Soviet economy. He responded, ``Two to three years.'' Immediately a compatriot sitting next to him interjected, ``More like one to two.'' Whatever the prediction for Gorbachev and whatever we think would happen next were he to be toppled, we should work from the assumption that the window of opportunity may not be open indefinitely.
What we should want is that Gorbachev or his successors have much less military power with which to threaten United States interests. We can achieve that best by negotiating sizable reductions in Soviet armaments now. Arms control, then, can be a means to accomplishing what has long been a key objective of our foreign policy, to neutralize the Soviet military threat. So, we should relegate our other desires for reshaping the US-Soviet relationship to a priority well below that of reducing Soviet military power, the only strength they have which need concern us.