Regional Conflict and the Superpowers

THE dramatic events unfolding in Eastern Europe have overshadowed the continued fighting taking place in several Marxist third-world regimes. Gorbachev appears willing to tolerate the emergence of pluralism in Eastern Europe - so long as it remains part of the Warsaw Pact. In the more distant third world where pluralism would mean the loss of Soviet influence, Gorbachev appears far less willing to allow real political change. This is true despite Moscow's apparent retrenchment from the third world. Soviet expansionism in the third world was one of the primary causes of the downfall of d'etente at the end of the 1970s. Gorbachev's willingness to resolve regional conflicts now gives rise to hopes that the third world need not be a divisive issue between Moscow and Washington. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Vietnamese departure from Cambodia, and Cuba's commitment to leave Angola by 1991 - all appear to be signs that Gorbachev is not pursuing an expansionist agenda.

There are, however, highly important differences between the two superpowers regarding third-world conflict resolution. These differences could both halt further progress in resolving conflicts as well as negatively affect the recently revived Soviet-American d'etente.

What are these differences? The primary one is that Washington and Moscow have very different expectations concerning conflict resolution results. In the US, policymakers in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and in Congress, expected third-world Marxist regimes to collapse or undergo drastic alteration following the departure of Soviet, Cuban, or Vietnamese troops. This, after all, was what happened to the South Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao governments after the US withdrew from Indochina.

Moscow has different expectations. Instead of Marxist regimes collapsing, the Soviets and their allies expect opposition rebel groups to collapse following the departure of Soviet forces. This should occur, they feel, not only because of an anticipated cutoff of Western aid to the rebels, but because the rebels should begin to squabble among themselves.

Is this Soviet expectation unrealistic? Not necessarily. Moscow experienced a similar situation once before in North Yemen. For five years in the 1960s, Soviet combat pilots and advisers helped 60,000 Egyptian troops try to defend a ``republican'' regime against royalist rebels. The war proceeded miserably and Egypt finally decided to give up in 1967. The republican regime seemed on the verge of defeat and was barely kept alive by a list-ditch Soviet airlift when the royalist opposition literally fell apart. Soviet scholars often cite this example today.

In addition to these different expectations, Washington and Moscow have different views concerning the legitimacy of each other's actions toward the conflicts that are supposedly being resolved. As has been reported, the Soviets have continued or increased their hefty arms shipments to Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia. Despite Gorbachev's claims that the USSR has stopped sending arms to Nicaragua, Soviet weapons continue to flow there via Cuba.

Moscow, on the other hand, has indicated its displeasure with continued American aid to rebel groups, especially in Afghanistan and Angola. The Soviets seem to have expected that Washington would cease aid to rebel forces when communist troops are withdrawn. Moscow views American demands that the USSR stop aiding its beleaguered third-world allies as unreasonable.

These conflicting expectations and policies will sooner or later lead to one or both superpowers feeling tricked and betrayed by the other. American conservatives have already begun to suggest that all Gorbachev really wants from the conflict-resolution process is a cessation of American aid to rebel forces so that he may retain his Marxist third-world allies without the costly use of Soviet, Cuban, or Vietnamese troops.

The Soviets, on the other hand, may be concerned that America is taking advantage of the USSR's current weakness to aggressively expand its own influence in the third world.

Renewed skepticism in Washington and Moscow about each other's intentions will not enhance the prospects for conflict resolution. Indeed, if both sides continue to provide large-scale military assistance to their respective allies, the conflicts will continue and will again become a major source of contention.

As in the '70s, disagreements and disillusionment concerning the third world could once again halt progress on arms control, end d'etente, and lead to a renewed period of hostile East-West relations. Among other negative consequences, a revival of the cold war will not bode well for the budding democratization occurring in Eastern Europe.

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