AMERICANS LIKE reform. So we take it almost for granted that the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev is good for America—that a more modern Soviet Union that looks and acts more like the United States will pose less of a danger to our security. This sense of reassurance is based partly on an unstated premise that as countries grow more like each other, politically and economically, they are less likely to threaten each other militarily. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that in the years before 1914 optimistic European statesmen undoubtedly reassured themselves with the notion that Britain and Germany were becoming more alike. How could two such modern nations go to war?
Let’s consider an alternative scenario: the possibility that as the United States and the Soviet Union grow more alike in the future, their rivalry may become more dangerous, rather than less so. In this analysis let’s assume that Gorbachev and his advisers truly want a “breathing spell” in foreign affairs, so that they can concentrate on modernizing the Soviet economy. And let’s leave aside the complex issues of how Soviet economic modernization and political liberalization will affect Moscow’s military capabilities.
Let’s focus instead on the nasty problem of what happens when things go unong—when the superpowers face a sudden foreign-policy crisis that neither desires, such as a new Mideast war. How will the new Soviet leadership behave in such a crisis? Will Gorbachev be less dangerous than his recent predecessors, or more? Here we may have reason for concern.
Let me begin by offering a model for how Soviet-American crises have been resolved in the nuclear age. I like to call it the “pushmi-pullyu” model, after Doctor Dolittle’s mythical two-headed beast, which tugged in opposing directions but managed to avoid a dangerous break. The Soviet-American relationship has involved a similar process of action and accommodating reaction. I would argue that this action-reaction pattern has been crucial to coexistence and stability in the nuclear era. When one side has pushed, the other has tended to give way.
What’s interesting is that in most major superpower crises since the 1960s the Soviet Union has eventually given way. Indeed, during the Brezhnev era Soviet actions seemed to follow a pattern of belligerent rhetoric and occasional adventurous forays when America didn’t seem to be looking, and generally cautious behavior during crises. The troubling question is whether this pattern will hold during the Gorbachev era.
Crises put a premium on quick and bold decisions. The side that can act quickly and boldly has an enormous comparative advantage in crisis management. Until recently the United States had just such an advantage, and that is one reason why we have managed to dominate the few nuclear crises that have arisen.
As evidence, let’s look at some superpower crises through the prism of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs. (His account is inevitably self-serving, but other officials involved in formulating policy at the time agree with its overall thrust.) Here are three examples:
• Jordan, 1970. The locus was the Washington Special Actions Group. Under Kissinger’s direction it sent carefully calibrated signals to the Soviets as Syrian tanks moved into Jordan. These included putting the 82nd Airborne on full alert, with the expectation that the news of this decision would leak, and sending a reconnaissance plane to Israel to pick up targeting information, again with the expectation that the Soviets and the Syrians would learn of the decision. The United States quickly and boldly made a show of force, and, in Kissinger’s words, “the Soviets . . . backed off.”
• Cienfuegos, 1970. The dustup over Soviet construction of submarine-tending facilities in Cuba was a small-scale replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. When in the fall of 1970 the United States received evidence that such facilities were under construction, President Nixon and Kissinger moved promptly and decisively—and in private — to force the Soviets to stop. This quiet diplomacy worked: the Soviets backed down. Kissinger writes, “By great firmness in the early stages of construction, we avoided a major crisis, yet we achieved our objective. Military construction was halted. ...”
• The 1973 Mideast war. This was probably the most dangerous superpower confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis. As in the Jordan crisis, the United States moved quickly and boldly to convey determination by means of military movements and alerts. At the height of the crisis, on the evening of October 24, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin delivered a message from Brezhnev threatening to send troops unilaterally to Egypt to rescue the Egyptian army. Shortly thereafter Nixon fired a warning shot by ordering all military commanders to move to a higher state of readiness, known as DefCon III When the desired response was not forthcoming, Nixon put the 82nd Airborne on alert. Brezhnev got the message. Within about twelve hours, Kissinger writes, “the Soviets had backed off.”
Notice a pattern? In each case, once the crisis was under way, the Soviets gave ground. Not only that, but, according to Kissinger and other American participants, the Soviet decision-making process was often sluggish. One National Security Council official recalls that at some points during the 1973 Mideast war, for example, the Soviets “seemed to be twenty-four hours behind events.”
THE SOVIETS WERE sluggish during the Brezhnev era in part because of the collective-leadership ethos of the Soviet system. This was a generation that had seen the madness of Stalin’s one-man rule and was determined that it shouldn’t be repeated. For the Brezhnev generation, the Politburo was supreme-even if collective decisionmaking by such a large body slowed the Kremlin’s ability to respond to crises.
Gorbachev is different. One NSC official who has seen the old Soviet style and the new explained recently, “You have the sense that a bunch of younger guys may he capable of quicker decisions—and gutsier decisions. Gorbachev probably has a self-confidence that his predecessors lacked. The older generation remembered how weak the Soviet Union had been. There was a sense that Brezhnev, for all his bluff, would back down. It used to be almost a foregone conclusion that we would win in a crisis. Now it’s indeterminate, and that’s a little scary.”
Soviet crisis management may prove more robust under Gorbachev for several reasons. First, the new Soviet leader may be less deferential toward the Politburo as the seat of executive authority and more inclined to act “presidentially” in a crisis. Gone is the mentality that led Brezhnev to take the Politburo with him to negotiate with the Czech leadership in 1968. Gorbachev’s advisers, especially the former ambassador Dobrynin, have seen the American presidential system in action and have studied the crisismanagement techniques of Kissinger and others.
Second, Gorbachev seems to be encouraging changes in the intelligence organizations which may give the Soviets quicker and better information in crises. U.S. intelligence experts say that previous Soviet leaders have been hamstrung during crises partly because of a tradition of concentrating the analytical function at the very top. Whereas American intelligence agencies encourage analytical judgments at every stage of the process—so that it’s not unusual for a middle-level bureaucrat to speculate about what the Soviets will and won’t do in a crisis—the Soviets have tended to give their decision-makers facts only. Deciding what these facts mean has been left to the Politburo and its most senior advisers. “Stalin was his own intelligence analyst,” one Reagan Administration official remarked last year. “That’s why he was surprised in 1941 by the Germans.” In contrast, this official noted, “it’s clear that Gorbachev wants his people in national security to behave differently.”
Similar changes may be taking place in what Americans call the “interagency process”—the task of coordinating the activities of the various agencies involved in national security. Traditionally, experts say, the Soviet general staff and the KGB have worked separately, and their views and activities have been compared only at the highest levels of government, There have been few interagency groups and senior interagency groups (“IGS” and “SIGS,” in bureaucratese) in Moscow, in other words. That may sound like an enormous advantage for the Kremlin. But experts argue that the Soviet approach has often meant an overload at the top. U.S. officials believe that Gorbachev may be changing this, too.
Soviet diplomacy is already losing the sluggishness of the Brezhnev years. In 1987 Moscow was on the move diplomatically around the world, negotiating quietly with the Chinese to ease border tensions, adjusting its policy toward South Africa to reassure whites there, expanding ties to South America and Southeast Asia, re-establishing diplomatic contacts with Israel after a twentyyear break, patching together a peace accord among the feuding factions of the PLO, expanding ties with the Gulf Arabs, talking to both sides in the IranIraq war. Lebanese politicians reported that the Soviet ambassador in Beirut was the most active diplomat in town, making the rounds among the warlords and dispensing proconsular advice in the way that the American ambassador had in earlier years. It was a small-scale demonstration that in the Gorbachev era the Soviets can play America’s game and win it.
THIS ANALYSIS ISN’T meant to imply that Gorbachev is a warmonger or that the danger of war with the Soviets has increased markedly. The point is simply that the free ride of the early Reagan years is over. The next American President won’t have the luxury of negotiating with a weak and slow-moving Soviet Union. During a crisis that might escalate into nuclear warfare, a more efficient Kremlin leadership with an American-style approach to crisis management may be less willing to give ground than Brezhnev and Gromyko were. In the pushmi-pullyu model, that means that when the Americans push, the Soviets may push back, and quickly, straining the relationship. Someone has to give, and under Gorbachev it will not automatically be the Soviets.
What, then, should the next American President do? First, he should understand that however admirable glas-nost may be, Gorbachev’s accession hasn’t necessarily made the world a safer place. In a crisis Gorbachev may prove more willing to take risks, and far cleverer in his actions, than his recent predecessors. His arms-control bargaining, for example, shows that he gives ground on small issues to gain a broader initiative.
The tensions inherent in Gorbachev’s accession were defused during the Reagan years partly by the unlikely role reversal that took place in Soviet-American diplomacy. As the Soviets grew more rambunctious, the United States became more like the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union: cautious, methodical, secretive, inclined to let the other side take the lead in negotiations. Reagan and Shultz seemed increasingly to be the stodgy oldsters and the Gorbachev team the impulsive youngsters. This role reversal certainly eased tensions in the mid1980s, but it isn’t likely to last in a new Administration.
Second, as the next President contemplates the prospect of a future superpower crisis, he should make sure that our own national-security process has the flexibility and discipline needed to protect American interests. At the same time, he should probably seek to increase, where possible, the number of rungs on the ladder of escalation. Otherwise, facing a Soviet leadership better able to match him in climbing quickly and boldly, he may too soon find himself at the top of the ladder.
Finally, if the next President concludes that Gorbachev is likely to be a formidable adversary in a nuclear crisis, he should take steps to prevent such a crisis from occurring. That means using diplomacy creatively to solve problems before they reach the level of SovietAmerican confrontation. This is especially important with respect to the Middle East, where the next regional war could contain the seeds of the ‘Third World War.
As citizens of the world, we cannot help but applaud Gorbachev’s bold and courageous efforts to make the Soviet Union a more open and dynamic society. As citizens of the United States, with our own interests at stake, we should take a more prudent view. We had the good fortune, during the Brezhnev years, to deal with a country that talked tough but usually folded its hand in a crisis. Gorbachev’s Soviet Union is more likely to stay in the game.
— David Ignatius