How the Gold War Might End

Thinking through a question that has suddenly become something more than an escapist fantasy


Fata Morgana

IN HIS SPLENDID BOOK ARCTIC DREAMS: IMAGINATION and Desire in a Northern Landscape, Barry Lopez describes the most striking of arctic mirages—the fata morgana, in which sharply delineated mountain ranges appear suddenly from a featureless sea, creating the illusion of land where none exists and tempting unwary explorers to set off in search of constantly receding and, in the end, unattainable objectives. Bleak horizons combined with cold climates, he suggests, can alter consciousness and redirect ambitions in wholly unpredictable ways.

What President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev saw on the sub-arctic horizon that lay outside Hofdi House, when they met in Reykjavik, Iceland, last October, has not been recorded. But the austere surroundings do appear to have tempted them—briefly, at least—into contemplation of what many would regard as a political fata morgana: the question of how one might rid the world of nuclear weapons and the missiles that carry them. Only at the last minute did astonished advisers manage to pull their bosses back from the abyss that yawned before them: it was, James Schlesinger has written, quoting the Duke of Wellington, “the nearest-run thing you ever saw.”

But the view from Reykjavik may yet turn out to have been more than a mirage. The geopolitical ice is shifting beneath our feet these days in unexpected ways. For the first time since the Second World War ended, the superpowers are about to eliminate from their arsenals, by mutual consent, an entire category of nuclear weapons — those carried by intermediate-range missiles. Former opponents of arms control like Richard Perle support this accord, while former supporters like Henry Kissinger oppose it. In a striking reversal of past practice, Moscow appears more willing than Washington to allow intrusive on-site inspection to verify compliance. And all of this is happening under an American Administration that only five years ago was characterizing the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world.”Familiar verities, it seems, no longer apply; it is difficult to know where one stands.

It would be unwise, therefore, to dismiss the ReaganGorbachev discussions at Reykjavik as the aberrant consequence of leaving heads of government alone in the same room, with only their interpreters present. Certainly this attempt to cut through current differences by defining a vision of future harmony will merit more than the puzzled footnote that history books normally accord the summit’s only modern analogue: the treaty settling Russo-German differences which Kaiser Wilhelm II and Czar Nicholas II personally negotiated and signed in a single memorable meeting on a German warship in the Baltic in 1905, only to have their horrified governments—and allies—immediately repudiate it.

But the Reykjavik vision of a nuclear-free world implied something larger still: the possibility that the Cold War itself—the occasion for deploying such vast quantities of nuclear armaments in the first place—might one day end, and that some of us might actually live to see the emergence of a new international system capable of moving beyond the condition of perpetual confrontation that has overshadowed our lives for the past four decades. Mirage or not, the view on the horizon was impressive, however fleeting.

But just what would constitute an end to the Cold War, and how might the elimination of nuclear weapons relate to that objective? The question did not come up at Reykjavik, nor has it received very much attention anywhere else: we have so preoccupied ourselves with the bomb and its associated technical, intellectual, and bureaucratic appurtenances that we neglect the larger geopolitical context in which these exist. Would nuclear abolition in fact end the Cold War or simply make it more dangerous? Could the Cold War end with nuclear weapons still in place? And, for that matter, would we even recognize an end to the Cold War, should that event someday come to pass?

Precisely because they sound naive, questions like these tend to escape the attention of geopolitical sophisticates. But there are precedents for thinking about how one would like conflicts to end even as one engages in them: in both world wars elaborate postwar-planning exercises were under way in Washington just weeks after the fighting had begun. War, for those who lived through the upheavals of 1917-1918 and 1941-1945, was an exceptional event, to be ended as quickly as possible, but not without careful thought about what victory was supposed to accomplish.

Our generation has had the undeniable advantage of not having to fight a “hot” war on the tremendous scale and at the tragic price that our parents and grandparents had to. But a consequence may be that for us the Cold War has become a way of life: it has been around for so long that it is a thoroughly familiar, if unwelcome, presence. Few of us can remember with much precision how it started; fewer still take the time to consider what the world might look like without the Cold War. We have become so accustomed to this phenomenon—by now the dominant event in the lives of more than one generation of statesmen— that it simply does not occur to us to think about how it might end or, more to the point, how we would like it to end.

The resulting intellectual vacuum violates not only logic and good sense but also a basic Clausewitzian principle, which is that strategy has no rational basis unless it is informed by some awareness of the objective it is intended to achieve: this is what the great Prussian strategist really meant when he described war as the continuation of polities by other means. In our own time, thank goodness, the equation has been reversed: politics has become a way of conducting war by other means, and that is a considerable improvement. But the fact of the reversal hardly lessens the importance of linking the efforts we make to the objectives we seek. It is all very well to think about how one is going to make a trip—in what style, at what speed, and at what cost—but unless one has some idea of what the ultimate destination is to be, then the journey is apt to be long, circuitous, and ultimately unrewarding.

Thinking about destinations requires linking one’s direction of travel to the intended point of arrival, a task made trickier in geopolitics than in geography by the fact that such points are often indistinct to begin with, and— like the arctic ice pack—given to shifting their location in unanticipated ways. Still, the future of the Cold War is not wholly concealed: there are a few broad predictions one can make about it that may help us begin to think about how we would like it to come out.

ONE, QUITE SIMPLY, IS THAT THE COLD WAR WILL IN fact end someday, and in some form. Nothing lasts forever in history: even the Hundred Years War had a conclusion, although it took a while to get there. The Cold War may end with a bang or a whimper or— more likely—with something in between, but it will end, as all historical episodes sooner or later do. Whether we, as contemporaries, would recognize that event if it should occur in our lifetimes is, of course, another matter: contemporaries are rarely the best judges of the history through which they live. The great Spanish monarch Philip II, were he able to return four centuries after his reign to read what historians are writing about his era, would be surprised—and not a little annoyed—to see them concentrating on things like sheepherding, the prevalence of malaria, and the Portuguese pepper trade. Historians four hundred years hence, if there are any left by then, will surely view our era from angles of vision quite different from our own; from their perspective, indeed, the Cold War could already have ended, without our even noticing.

It also seems safe to say that when the Cold War does end, it will not do so with the total victory of one side and the unconditional surrender of the other: it will not be a replay of the Second World War. The principal reason for this is obvious: today’s Great Powers possess nuclear weapons that preclude, in a manner quite unprecedented in modern history, the absolute imposition of one’s will upon the other. But even if nuclear weapons had never been invented, there would still be reason to question the prospects for total domination, because the world these days is less hospitable to hegemonial aspirations than ever before. The day when a single imperial power could, with minimal expenditure of effort and manpower, control vast territories—the Mongols in Russia, or the Spanish in Central and South America, or the British in India—has now most assuredly passed. If Americans and Russians have such difficulties managing inconvenient next-door neighbors— Cubans and Nicaraguans, for example, or Afghans and Poles—then what could ever lead either of us to believe that we could successfully dominate the other? Empires are just not what they used to be.

A third prediction that can be made with confidence is that the end of the Cold War will not bring an end to all international rivalries, or even to all aspects of the rivalry that now exists between the United States and the Soviet Union. Barring an improbable and necessarily simultaneous change in the mass consciousness of more than 150 nations, conflict in one form or another will remain a prominent feature of the international landscape, much as it was for millennia before the Cold War began.

The Martian Scenario

FROM HERE ON, THOUGH, THINGS GET MURKIER. Consider the question of what might end the Cold War. One obvious possibility, of course, is a nuclear war, but there is not a great deal one can say about that, because we have so little basis for anticipating what the results of such a conflict might be. What one can say, though, is that the widespread sense of inevitability about a nuclear holocaust that existed during the 1950s and 1960s appears, at least among “experts" on the subject, to be waning. Although public concern about the possibility of a nuclear war remains high, specialists point to the obvious irrationality of starting such a conflict on purpose, to the remarkably low frequency of “accidental" wars in history, to the increasingly effective safeguards against unauthorized use of nuclear weapons which exist on both sides, and to the marked decline in the incidence of both overt and implied nuclear threats which has occurred in recent years, quite independently of shifts in the Soviet-American political relationship from détente to confrontation and back again. There can be, of course, no guarantees. Irrationality in high places will always be a risk, and because Murphy’s Law operates in capitalist and socialist societies alike—as the Challenger and Chernobyl disasters have recently reminded us—accidents can hardly be ruled out. Still, the record of four decades having passed without any nuclear weapon having been used for any military purpose whatever is an impressive one. One need only consider how improbable such an outcome would have seemed in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to get a sense of what a remarkable development this has been.

So let us assume—because otherwise there is not much point in discussing the matter—that we will not require the services of the Apocalypse to end the Cold War. History provides more examples than one might think of Great Power rivalries that evoked unspectacularly into something else, without vast conflagrations or annihilations. It is worth looking at some of these to see what they might suggest about our own prospects for undramatic survival.

Great Power rivalries have most often ended peacefully because of the rise of some third power, equally dangerous to both sides. This possibility is known in certain circles as the Martian scenario: Reagan is said to have suggested to Gorbachev at the 1985 Geneva summit that if Martians were suddenly to land, Russians and Americans would settle their differences very quickly.

There are, in fact, a good many historical instances of the Martian scenario. One conspicuous example is the long cold war between Great Britain and czarist Russia that went on for most of the nineteenth century, erupting into actual combat only briefly, during the Crimean War, in 1853—1856. The rise of Germany finally compelled London and St. Petersburg to settle their differences in the decade before the First World War broke out. The same thing was happening at about the same time, and for much the same reason, to an even more ancient antagonism that had produced multiple wars in the past: that between Britain and France. Third-power threats also produced brief but decisive military cooperation between the Soviet Union and its Western allies against Nazi Germany during the Second World War; they have led as well, but this time with the Soviet Union as the perceived danger, to more recent and more durable reconciliations between such bitter former enemies as France and Germany, Japan and China, and Germany, Japan, and the United States.

Is there a third power on the horizon that could compel a resolution of Soviet-American differences? What seems most likely is not that some new rival will emerge, capable of challenging the superpowers militarily, but rather that the standards by which we measure power will begin to evolve, with forms other than military—economic, technological, cultural, even religious—becoming more important. To some extent this is already happening: one superpower, the Soviet Union, will soon be eclipsed by a third power, Japan, in gross national product; another third power, China, has already demonstrated what the Soviet Union has not, which is how a socialist economy can become agriculturally self-sufficient. Nor should Americans be so complacent as to consider themselves exempt from such trends, particularly if we persist in transforming our economy from its traditional industrial and agricultural base into one geared chiefly toward the provision and consumption of “services,” the role of which, in the broad calculus of world power, is nor at all clear.

The important question, therefore, may be whether the United States and the Soviet Union will continue to divert vast resources into military spending at a time when military strength is beginning to count for less than it has in the past as a determinant of world power. The answer is by no means apparent, but to the extent that both nations face at least a figurative Martian threat (by which I mean a situation in which old rules may not apply, one that might force us into new forms of cooperation), this quiet shift in the criteria by which we determine who can do what to whom would appear to be the most likely possibility.

A second way in which Great Power rivalries have traditionally ended has been through the exhaustion of one of the major competitors, while the other remains vigorous. History is not normally so obliging as to arrange for the simultaneous and symmetrical enfeeblement of Great Powers. Consider Spain’s long decline in the face of first French and then English hegemony, or the slow erosion of China’s strength in the nineteenth century while that of Japan was increasing, or what was by historical standards the remarkably rapid withdrawal of the European colonial powers from Asia and Africa after the Second World War.

But rivalries that end through unilateral decline do not always do so peacefully: Britain’s graceful withdrawal from empire after 1945 was the rare exception. More often the fact of decline—or even the appearance of it—has induced desperate actions to reverse the trend. Historians today would hardly describe imperial Germany prior to the First World War as a declining power, but its leaders’ perception of waning strength, together with the bumptious way in which their diplomacy and strategy sought to compensate for it, made German fear of decline a major contributor to the outbreak of that great conflict. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor now appears to have been an act of desperation set off by anxiety over a naval balance of power in the Pacific that seemed to be shifting in favor of the United States. And it is worth recalling that a recurring justification for our disastrous military involvement in Southeast Asia was the concern that if we did not demonstrate the capacity to act we would become, in President Richard Nixon’s evocative phrase, a “pitiful, helpless giant.”

What this suggests is that some of the most dangerous moments in world politics come when a Great Power perceives itself as beginning to decline—as standing at the top of a slippery slope—and is tempted into irresponsible action against its rival to redress the balance while it still has strength left to do so.

IT IS TOO EARLY TO SAY WHETHER THE UNITED STATES or the Soviet Union will be the first to confront that prospect, although there is reason to suspect that Gorbachev, for one, has not been wholly oblivious of the possibility. But decline on one side or the other will eventually take place: despite the fact that the two superpowers’ rivalry—and the geopolitical status that results from it—has lasted for a remarkably long time, nothing in history ensures that it is permanent. Exhaustion, inflexibility, and lack of imagination will eventually take their toll in one or the other of these countries, much as they do among individuals: the problem each country will then confront (and it will be a delicate one, because both are likely still to be sitting atop huge piles of armaments) will be that of managing asymmetrical decline without provoking the violence that desperation—or, in the case of the unaffected superpower, temptation—so often brings.

But there is a third and more hopeful way in which the Cold War might end: a change in the outlook of its participants. Shifts in attitude do occur from time to time: after all, Russia and the United States abolished their ancient institutions of serfdom and slavery within a decade of each other, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Is it beyond possibility that comparable changes might occur that could bring an end to the Cold War?

Liberals have long wanted to believe that the more democratic states are at home, the less prone they are to initiate the use of force in the world at large: autocracy and aggression, by this logic, go hand in hand. The proposition is questionable on the face of it if one considers how easily a number of scrupulously democratic states—our own included—were able to justify to themselves the virtues of imperialism in the nineteenth century or the necessity for interventionism in the twentieth. But, as the political scientist Michael Doyle has recently pointed out, there is a historical basis for arguing that liberal democracies tend not to go to war with one another. This raises the question: could the extension of democracy—especially within the superpower that has not, until now, had much of it—bring an end to the Cold War?

Stranger things have happened. Both Germany and Japan were, within living memory, autocratic militaristic societies, much given to glorifying the uses of force. The experience of defeat and occupation after the Second World War changed them profoundly, in ways that at times exasperate even former adversaries, who would like them now to become a bit more militant than they are. But war in a nuclear age seems an improbable instrument of social and political reform, nor is there likely to be much call in the future for the services of draconian “reformers” like Generals Lucius Clay and Douglas MacArthur. What if the existence of nuclear weapons should serve, though, as the moral equivalent of a Clay or a MacArthur in reshaping Soviet and American attitudes toward military force? Might such a development help to compensate for the absence in the Soviet-American relationship of compatible domestic institutions and ideologies?

There may be something in this. History prior to 1945 provides little support for the proposition that as military strength increases, the willingness to use it correspondingly decreases. But the United States and the Soviet Union since 1945 have amassed the largest and most powerful military arsenals the world has ever known, without ever having used their weapons directly against each other and, with one or two exceptions, without even having come close to doing so. Where each has sought to challenge the other’s position militarily, it has done so through proxies: North Koreans, North Vietnamese, and Cubans in the case of the Russians; Nicaraguan contras, Angolan guerrillas, and Afghan rebels in the case of the Americans. Where each superpower has actually used its military force—as the Americans did in Korea and Indochina and as the Russians have done in Afghanistan—it has consistently been against a third party.

Precisely because they possess nuclear weapons in such quantity and out of fear that any military confrontation between them might escalate, the United States and the Soviet Union have evolved a new kind of Great Power rivalry: a rivalry in which disputes are resolved not through direct combat but, as in certain animal species, through impressive but (so far) non-lethal displays of posturing, threat, and bluff. Such displays may be unnerving. They are hardly a behavior one would like to think characteristic of enlightened nations. But they do reflect a growing pessimism on both sides about what military force can accomplish, and that in itself is a considerable improvement over the old days, when periodic wars between Great Powers were routine events.

The Virtues of Bipolarity

ENDING THE COLD WAR, THEN, COULD BRING BOTH rewards and risks. If the event occurred because of an emerging third-power threat or as a consequence of changing attitudes toward the uses of military force, then the result might be a relationship between Washington and Moscow not too different from the one that exists today between former adversaries like France and Germany, or the United States and Japan. But if the Cold War should seem to be ending as the result of asymmetrical decline, then the danger of a hot war might actually increase. The key to ensuring that the Cold War ends peacefully, therefore, appears to lie in what one might at first glance regard as highly improbable: the emergence of a vested interest among Russians and Americans in the survival and even the prosperity of each other’s admittedly very different institutions.

How, though, could such a thing happen in the anarchic, ideologically polarized, and highly competitive international system the two of us have been stuck with since the end of the Second World War? Theorists have long described this system as a zero-sum game, in which gains for one side automatically mean losses for the other. It has never been easy to see how concern for an adversary’s interests could arise in such a setting: each state, one assumes, seeks to increase its own power at the expense of the other, thus producing the geopolitical equivalent of a seesaw. Even when one introduces into such a game the possibility that a failure to cooperate might destroy both players, simulations have shown little tendency on either side to sacrifice immediate advantages in the interest of long-term common survival, if only because one can never be sure that one’s adversary will do the same.

But curious things have been happening to game theorists lately: their characteristic gloom has quietly been giving way to a measured degree of optimism. Professor Robert Axelrod, of the University of Michigan, has demonstrated that if the same players are allowed to repeat a game several times, they begin to perceive the advantages to themselves of ensuring the other’s survival, even in a competitive environment. Perpetuating the game itself becomes a shared interest. The behavior of large corporations tends to confirm Axelrod’s findings: they often limit competition where it might endanger the overall market within which they operate. Much the same pattern appears to hold for international banks and even tor nations engaged in international trade rivalries. As a result, the possibility of “cooperation under anarchy,” together with what such a pattern might imply for Soviet-American relations, is now attracting considerable attention.

International-relations theorists are also rethinking old ideas about bipolarity. For years they assumed that a multipolar world order—a system with three or more Great Powers—had to be more stable than a bipolar one: three or more points of support appeared to provide a greater likelihood of remaining upright than did only two. But now theorists are beginning to ask: Why do the rules of geopolitics have to correspond to those of geometry? International systems are not, after all, pieces of furniture. And, indeed, sophisticated theorists such as Kenneth Waltz, at the University of California, Berkeley, and Robert Gilpin, at Princeton University, have begun to argue that under certain circumstances bipolar international systems can be more stable than their multipolar counterparts.

Bipolarity tends not to require the acrobatics of a Metternich or a Bismarck to sustain itself, which is fortunate, since although acrobats may be plentiful, consistently successful ones are not. By reducing the number of key actors involved, bipolarity also simplifies problems of communication in crises: this helps to explain why the European crisis of July, 1914, involving five roughly equal powers, led to war, whereas the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962, which involved only two, did not. Finally, bipolarity tolerates defections from coalitions with less damage to the overall balance of power than do more complex and hence more delicately balanced systems. Quarrels over who was to control Morocco could bring Europe to the brink of war in 1905 and 1911; but China could abandon both its American and Soviet allies in the years that followed 1945 without the superpowers’ approaching anything like a direct military confrontation as a result.

SO, IN THEORY, COOPERATION IN COMPETITIVE SITUAtions—even in the absence of a referee—is not so implausible as it might seem: given time, a mutual interest in sustaining the system within which they compete can cause even vociferous rivals to develop a stake in each other’s survival. But what about the real world of international relations since the end of the Second World War? Four decades of superpower competition has provided more than enough time for the advantages of cooperation to have dawned on both Washington and Moscow. And indeed, if one looks at the actual behavior of Soviets and Americans during this period—as distinct from their frequently deceptive rhetoric—such a pattern does begin to emerge, at times in unexpected ways.

Cooperation in avoiding nuclear war is the most obvious example. Despite attempts to impress each other by suggesting the opposite, the United States and the Soviet Union have in fact reserved the employment of nuclear weapons for the ultimate extremity of all-out war. They have accepted painful military reverses in limited conflicts—Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan—rather than resort to such use. They have even shared some nuclear technology: the United States in the early 1960s deliberately leaked to the Russians information on newly developed “permissive action links,” control devices intended to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized detonation of nuclear weapons. Since that time exchanges on how to monitor nuclear tests have become commonplace, even to the point at which the two sides can now seriously discuss proposals for each to explode one of its own warheads at the other’s test site.

Cooperation has extended to spheres of influence as well. Despite frequent condemnations of it, the United States has made no sustained effort to “roll back” Soviet control in Eastern Europe. Similarly, the Soviets, with two exceptions, have refrained from directly challenging the much larger, though less restrictive, American sphere of influence in Western Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near East, Latin America, and East Asia. The exceptions were the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950 (which Stalin presumably authorized) and Khrushchev’s decision to place missiles in Cuba in 1962. But both of those adventures followed inadvertent signals from Washington—the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea in 1949, and the failure to overthrow Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs landings in 1961—suggesting that it lacked the resolve to defend its interests in those parts of the world. Both probes were conducted cautiously, and the Russians abandoned them soon after the Americans had clarified their determination to resist.

Moscow and Washington have also cooperated, at times through their very competition, to impose order on third parties whose ambitions or rivalries might otherwise have produced war. The superpowers’ success in avoiding escalation during a long series of Middle East conflicts provides the most visible example of how such crisis management has been made to work, but there are even more significant—if unacknowledged—instances of SovietAmerican cooperation to maintain international order. Would Europe have enjoyed an unprecedented four decades without war had the superpowers—through their mutual suspicions, to be sure—not reversed the 1871 settlement that had imposed upon that continent, with such disastrous results, a unified German state? Would Eastern Europe today be an orderly place if the Soviets should suddenlv leave? Or would the Korean peninsula, if the Americans should abruptly withdraw? Even to raise such questions is to induce high states of anxiety on both sides of the superpower relationship, which is why they are so rarely discussed in public. But the very existence of these anxieties suggests how important a stabilizing mechanism the Soviet-American rivalry has turned out to be in those parts of the world.

The United States and the Soviet Union have even cooperated, within limits, to facilitate espionage. Spying, after all, is what reconnaissance satellites do, even if both governments prefer to cloak their functions behind the euphemism “national technical means of verification.”These devices have taken over the role assigned Francis Gary Powers when he flew his U-2 (not very successfully) over the Soviet Union in 1960; today both sides have learned—as the Russians manifestly had not in 1960—the benefits of transparency. These add up to a greatly reduced capability on the part of either for surprise attack, and it is universally acknowledged now that both superpowers feel safer for not having impeded this particular version of an “open skies” inspection plan. Indeed, the principle of remotely conducted espionage had become so thoroughly incorporated into Soviet-American relations by 1979 that the SALT II treaty could provide, with remarkably little public comment, for the configuration of certain weapons systems on each side to ensure that they would be visible to the prying—if electronic—eyes of the adversary.

Moscow and Washington have exploited defections from each other’s sphere of influence only when it was clear that the rival either could not or would not regain control. Hence the United States took advantage of Yugoslavia’s break with the Kremlin in 1948 and, after a long delay, that of the People’s Republic of China as well; it was not prepared to challenge reassertions of Soviet authority in Hungary in 1956, or in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or even in Poland in 1981, with the crackdown on Solidarity. The Soviet Union exploited Cuba’s break with the United States after 1959, but it made no attempt to contest successful CIA intervention in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, or our more overt moves to re-establish control in the Dominican Republic in 1965, or in Grenada in 1983. And although the Russians have provided military assistance to the Sandinistas, in Nicaragua, just as the Americans have done for the Afghan rebels, there is little reason to expect that either superpower would go out of its way to save those distant clients, should their defeat appear imminent.

Finally, Russians and Americans have refrained from obvious attempts to undermine leadership on either side. Both countries have suffered disarray at the top since 1945: in the case of the Soviet Union, the instability that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, the erosion of Khrushchev’s authority after the Cuban missile crisis, and the illness and death of three Kremlin leaders within as many years during the early 1980s; in the case of the United States, the Johnson Administration’s obsessive preoccupation with the Vietnam War, Nixon’s self-inflicted Watergate wounds, and, most recently. White House involvement in the Irancontra scandal. What is striking about these episodes is how rarely the temptation appears to have arisen in the unaffected capital to take advantage of them. There have even been expressions of regret and sympathy—how sincere these were is difficult to say—over the difficulties rival leaders were undergoing. Game theorists, to be sure, would find nothing surprising in such a tacit acknowledgment of legitimacy on both sides: otherwise the game might not continue. But students of history will recognize just how unusual such mutual forbearance among leaders of competing Great Powers really is.

An Agenda for Ending the Cold War

NOT ONE OF THESE EXAMPLES OF SOVIET-AMERICAN cooperation originated as the result of formal diplomatic negotiations. They arose instead from patterns of behavior both nations quietly found it in their interests to perpetuate. These patterns have survived shifts of leadership; they have proceeded more or less independent of oscillations between détente and confrontation; they appear now to be so firmly embedded in custom and tradition that it is difficult to conceive of circumstances that might lead either side to depart substantially from them. But there are limits to tacit cooperation. One is never quite sure precisely what has been agreed to, or how long agreements will last. Not all points at issue between the United States and the Soviet Union lend themselves to such informal solutions. It is worth taking a look, then, at just what objects of contention remain, and at what an explicitly negotiated settlement of them might actually require.

First, it would appear, we would have to get around once and for all to ending the Second World War. We would have to resolve certain leftover issues from that conflict, the lifetime of which has been prolonged far beyond what anyone in 1945 would have thought possible. This would hardly be a minor undertaking: it would include finding ways to end the artificial division of Germany and Korea, to withdraw Soviet and American forces from the advanced—and therefore also artificial—positions they still occupy in Central Europe, and quite possibly to dismantle NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and the other multilateral and bilateral alliance structures established during the first tense decade of postwar Soviet-American confrontation.

Second, we would need specific agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union to refrain from projecting their influence—cultural, ideological, and economic, as well as military—elsewhere in the world in order to gain unilateral advantage at the expense of each other. Such accords would have to distinguish between deliberate and inadvertent projections of influence; they would have to be capable as well of differentiating indigenous shifts in the status quo from those set in motion for their own immediate benefit by Washington, Moscow, or their respective clients.

Third, we would require a clear understanding of what each side considers necessary for its own security. This would of course include mutually verifiable agreements on the control of both nuclear and conventional armaments, but would have to extend as well to such delicate issues as levels of defense spending, the right to maintain military bases on foreign soil, access to critical raw materials, the export and import of sensitive technology, the conduct of ground-based espionage, the question of human rights, and, not least, the extent to which each side’s citizens would be free to have contacts with those of the other.

Finally, we would need mechanisms of some sort to counteract the effects, on the perceptions we and the Russians have of each other, of the profound differences between our ideologies, institutions, and cultures. Contrasts between communism and capitalism have had seven decades now to develop. But even if the Bolshevik Revolution had never taken place, there would still be deep institutional and cultural gaps between our ways of life, arising out of centuries of dissimilar historical experience whose impact—even at the most inconvenient moments, as the Daniloff affair demonstrated last year—continues to make itself felt.

One need only run down this list to realize two things, one of them obvious, the other less so. The obvious point is that there is enough here to keep us at the negotiating table for at least the next century, so we should probably not bring out the champagne—or relax restrictions on the consumption of vodka before midafternoon—just yet. The less obvious point is that it is not at all clear, in the event we could ever get agreement on all these issues and thus relegate the Cold War to the history books, that the world would be a safer place as a result.

CONSIDER THE DIFFICULTIES OF RESOLVING ISSUES left over from the Second World War. Germans and Koreans on both sides of the lines that divide them pay lip service to reunification, but neither they nor anyone else has given much thought to the actual political basis upon which such a thing might happen. How, for example, does one “reunite” an entire generation that has never experienced unity? Nor is it apparent what the implications would be of withdrawing Soviet and American forces from Europe. Most Eastern Europeans would welcome such a move, to be sure, but how Soviet security interests could be reconciled with it is as much a question now as it was in 1945. Nor would an Eastern Europe free of Soviet domination necessarily be an orderly place: it certainly was not prior to the Second World War, and long suppressed irredentist grievances still persist in that part of the world. Would Western Europe welcome the dismantling of NATO? European members of the alliance chafe under its demands and resist meeting its obligations, but when opportunities arise for them to become even slightly more self-reliant—as with the prospect this year of a SovietAmerican agreement on withdrawing intermediate-range missiles—second thoughts (along with cold feet) abruptly proliferate. There is no way to know, of course, how long the present awkward arrangements in Europe and on the Korean peninsula can last. But awkward though they may be, they have proved to be remarkably durable. No one knows what these areas left to their own devices would be like and, to be perfectly honest about it, there has been no great eagerness in either Washington or Moscow to find out.

What about agreements pledging the United States and the Soviet Union not to seek unilateral advantage at the expense of the other? Here again we have some historical basis for speculation, this time in the form of the ill-fated statement on “Basic Principles” of U.S.-Soviet relations, signed at Moscow in 1972, which promised something very much like that. The accord broke down almost at once, because of disputes over how to apply its vague generalities to specific situations: Did the agreement require the Russians to warn Washington of Egypt’s impending attack on Israel in 1973? Was Henry Kissinger justified in freezing Moscow out of the Middle East peace negotiations that soon followed? Which side initiated covert intervention in Angola following the Portuguese withdrawal from the country? Did Moscow do all it could—or, indeed, anything at all—to prevent the final North Vietnamese offensive against Saigon in 1975? The “Basic Principles” promoted more bickering than harmony, and the reason, in retrospect, is not hard to see: when one asks Great Powers to give up the search for unilateral advantage in international relations, what one is really asking them to do is to refrain from pursuing their own perceived interests. That is hardly a realistic thing to expect, and to hold out the prospect of accomplishing it is to invite disillusionment.

Would a world in which each side undertook to respect the other’s security requirements be a more orderly place? Perhaps. Certainly it would appear more feasible to attempt to bring divergent superpower interests into approximate congruence with each other than to try to persuade each side of the merits of self-denial. And substantial areas of overlapping interest, as we have seen, already exist. But it is necessary to be realistic here, too, about what more could be achieved: mutually verifiable arms-control agreements might well fall within such a zone of congruence, but up to what point? Would they continue to do so if the effect of bilateral deep cuts in nuclear arsenals were to diminish the joint military pre-eminence of the United States and the Soviet Union, and to increase correspondingly the importance of other actors on the international scene? Are we sure that a shift toward multipolarity would enhance stability more than the bipolarity to which we have become accustomed? How would one handle the problem of asymmetrical threats—the fact that what one nation sees as threatening, the other may not? And, perhaps most daunting, how would one take into account the vastly dissimilar domestic systems we and the Soviets have, and the conflicting security requirements these might pose?

That last point suggests, as well, the difficulty of overcoming ideological, institutional, and cultural differences. Well-intentioned efforts to do so date back to the earliest days of the Cold War; today they take a remarkable number of forms, and proceed at a multiplicity of levels. But there remains a lurking uneasiness about “people-to-people” exchanges, “sister-city” contacts, “citizen diplomacy,” and the like: Are we really certain, if Russians and Americans had vastly expanded opportunities for contact, that we would actually like each other all that much? Virtually every major war fought during the past century and a half has taken place between nations whose people knew each other from just such intensive contacts all too well, and who came to hate each other vigorously as a result. Even today virulent “people-to-people” animosities survive among Greeks and Turks, Arabs and Israelis, Sunni and Shiite Moslems, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Cambodians and Vietnamese. In contrast, Russians and Americans, who because we inhabit opposite sides of the earth have had so few contacts, almost alone among major nations of the world have never fought a war: the closest we have come are a few confused skirmishes during Allied intervention in Siberia and North Russia shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution.


ARGUMENTS LIKE THESE TEMPT ONE TO INVOKE what history will record as the Bert Lance Principle: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There is, in fact, something to be said for that point of view. Results are difficult to argue with, and it can hardly be denied that the four decades that we think of as the Cold War, years that have seen as high and as protracted a level of international tension without war as any in modern history, have also been four decades of Great Power peace, a period that compares favorably with the longest such periods of coexistence without war in modern history.

But is it not Orwellian to call such a situation “peace,” knowing that a nuclear holocaust could break out at any moment? By traditional definitions of the term, it clearly is. We normally think of peace as something that has emerged from a formal process of negotiation around a conference table, and that exists within some clearly worked out and commonly agreed upon international structure, equally binding upon all who have adhered to it: something, in other words, like the system established at Versailles in 1919. But that system lasted only half as long as the present one has, despite the fact that the latter evolved as the result of no peace conference at all and with only a minimum of formal structure to perpetuate it. What has sustained the peace since 1945, many would argue, is precisely the prospect of what might ensue if it should ever come apart—a prospect insufficiently arresting to have impressed itself upon the minds of statesmen in the days before nuclear weapons existed.

We also think of peace as consistent with justice. But history is full of wars that have been fought—with devastating effects—in the interests of justice. The term just saw itself captures the contradiction neatly. It was indeed largely a preoccupation with justice—and a corresponding neglect of the realities of power—that produced the phenomenon of appeasement in the 1930s, which in turn led so directly and so blindly to the last great war. We might do better not to equate peace and justice so precisely, given the difficulty of defining that latter quality, let alone achieving it. The more feasible approach might be to think of peace, in the way Reinhold Niebuhr suggested, as the condition of order that precedes justice, as the compromise with power that has to take place before one can begin to address—as one ultimately still has to—questions of right and wrong.

Finally, we tend to think of peace as something that grows out of harmony between nations, not out of the rivalries that exist among them. But why should that necessarily be so? After all, this nation has long extolled—to the point of having our principles quoted back at us more often than we would like these days—the virtues of competition as the path to economic prosperity and social justice. Is it not at least conceivable that a competitive superpower relationship, if carried on with the requisite degree of caution and restraint, might contribute to the maintenance of order—if not immediately justice—in international relations? The difficulty with traditional schemes for world order is their lack of realism regarding the problem of conflict in international life: they tend to take on the appearance of blurry utopias, more appropriate to some other world than to the one in which we are obliged to live. There has been nothing utopian about the order the superpowers have imposed since 1945; it has been firmly grounded in the world as it is. Perhaps that is why it has lasted as long as it has.

IT HAS BEEN CHARACTERISTIC OF REVOLUTIONARIES, from the Americans and the French down through the Russians, the Chinese, and even the Vietnamese, that they have sought to confirm the victory of new orders over old ones through the simple expedient of changing names. “Change a name,” the historian Crane Brinton observed many years ago, “and you change the thing.” It may be that both we and the Russians, heirs of revolution as we are, can learn something from this. What would happen it we were to begin to think of the Soviet-American relationship not as a “cold war” but rather as a “long peace”—as the most workable, if still imperfect, set of arrangements for maintaining international order that the world has devised in this century? Might we gain new perspectives that could make the relationship a safer one, without compromising our vital interests and without losing touch with our principles? Might this be a way to combine the conservative’s concern not to sacrifice what has worked in the past with the liberal’s insistence upon progress toward a more equitable future? It is difficult to say.

But those who see images on distant horizons are rarely called upon to describe their details with cartographic precision: what is important is whether they are really there or not. The miscalculation that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev made at Reykjavik was not that they looked too far ahead with too little attention to how they might get there: who else, if not the leaders of superpowers, ought to be focusing on long-term objectives? The difficulty was that they did not look far enough. They concentrated on how one might eliminate the Cold War’s most conspicuous instruments—nuclear weapons and the missiles that carry them—but not on how one might end the Cold War itself. Had they taken that wider view, they might have discovered yet another curious way in which light can deceive the eye in arctic landscapes: that what appear to be distant objects can, at times, be close at hand.