Common Vulnerability May Keep Superpowers Talking

Dominique Moisi is associate director of the French Institute for Internatonal Relations and editor of Politique Etrangere

Commenting on the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Talleyrand, the diplomat par excellence, is quoted as having said that the foreign ministers who were negotiating "were either too frightened to fight or too stupid to agree." What is remarkable about the recent Geneva summit is not so much its inconclusive character and the lack of substantial agreement, but the self-restraint that the two parties were able to impose on each other, given the irreconcilable nature of their world views.

In today's complex world the lack of superpower agreement is not due to the shortcomings of diplomats or the shortsightedness of statesmen. Rather, it is the best illustration of an international system once described by French philosopher Raymond Aron under the dual concept: "peace impossible, war improbable." Peace cannot be achieved, because there is no way to reconcile the conflicting ideologies and interests of the superpowers. War is improbable, given the nature of the balance of terror existing in a nuclear world.

The name of the game is therefore "victory without war" through an indirect approach that combines the arms race, exploitation of local conflicts and manipulation of public opinion (where it exists to be exploited--that is, in democratic systems). Summitry is one element of this complex equation in a world where images are realities and where great powers exchange symbols as a form of currency.

To understand the spirit of Geneva, one has to first understand that the time factor was the key ingredient. President Reagan feels pressed by time, both institutionally and biologically. Geneva, therefore, was to open the way to a more normal relationship with the Soviet Union and thus enable him to leave an imprint on history as the man of peace who restored American power. Mikhail S. Gorbachev went to Geneva in need of time--time to consolidate his personal power and to lead the Soviet Union out of its economic morass, and to regain diplomatic initiative in a Western Europe that was deaf to Soviet blandishments over Euromissiles.

The compromise in Geneva between the man pressed for time and the one who needs time was assisted by complementary personal dynamics: The personal optimism of Reagan, his own pragmatism and dynamic vision of the world, could fit with the ideological optimism of a Soviet leader who has been taught to believe that history runs in Russia's favor. But their encounter could not produce any kind of concrete agreement, given their divergent positions on nearly all issues.

A primary lesson to be drawn from Geneva is that resumption of a dialogue between the superpowers can no longer be equated or limited to arms control. In the mid-1970s, in the wake of the SALT I treaty and the Vladivostok agreement, arms-control negotiations were--at least for the Americans--the key elements of detente. At that time, too, Soviet adventurism in the Third World was favored by opportunities created in the aftermath of the Portuguese revolution in Africa, taking a new form and reaching new peaks that were to endanger the very process of detente, as demonstrated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Today one could envisage at least a partial reversal of the priorities of the '70s by fully balancing regional negotiations and arms control. On the latter, the Reagan Administration is divided between disillusionment and obstinacy. Preoccupied with what it views as continuous cheating on the Soviets' part, the Administration also is keen on maintaining the rhythm and tempo of the Strategic Defense Initiative effort, and is therefore unwilling to negotiate it away. The policy-makers are convinced that, out of realism, the Soviets will return anyway to the table, as they did before in the Euromissile quarrel.

The Soviet Union, for its part, has not abandoned the idea of halting the SDI project, but seems to be taking a pragmatic view: that SDI will not be fulfilled, at least in its initial scope, because of budgetary considerations in Congress and the intrinsic scientific obstacles to "Star Wars." The Soviet Union will, of course, continue to exploit SDI as one way to divide Europeans and Americans and to put the United States on the diplomatic defensive. But the Soviets may have decided that SDI will not be an obstacle to U.S.-Soviet dialogue.

While the superpowers may be more skeptical about arms control, they also are more worried by the evolution of regional conflicts. The Soviet Union, finding that Afghanistan is more difficult to digest than was anticipated, is hesitant to take more risks in Central America. And, while it wants to be a party to any negotiations in the Middle East, it also feels the weight of a rising terrorism abroad and the danger that revolutionary Islam represents for a country whose population is 20% Muslim.

Common vulnerability does not necessarily breed complicity, and is not a sufficient ground for agreement. Moreover, whereas the two superpowers could at least pretend that they were in control of their arms programs, regional conflicts largely escape them; to a large extent, what unifies them in the Third World is a common impotence.

Such an incapacity to control events clearly constitutes the major limitation to the idea of putting discussion of regional conflicts at the heart of the East-West dialogue. It is illusionary and even absurd to conceive of a world in which dialogue on regional issues would compensate for an arms-control deadlock. Yet some tacit understanding, emanating from the true interests of the two parties, may constitute a sufficient basis for sustaining regional dialogues.

One cannot dream, in the relations between the two superpowers, of returning to the civilized Machiavellianism of the 19th Century. Given the nature of the Soviet system and its legitimizing revolutionary goals, dialogue with Moscow can only be firm and without illusions. Yet the superpowers are slowly discovering the limitations and frustrations of power. If the two parties recognize that regional conflicts are as much a source of vulnerability as they are of opportunity, there is room for dialogue.

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