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How Can Gorbachev Ever Fathom U.S. Arms ‘Logic’?

<i> David Williamson Jr. is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University. </i>

Be glad that you’re not Mikhail Gorbachev. Especially that you’re not Mikhail Gorbachev trying to understand Ronald Reagan’s arms policies--arms acquisition, arms deployment, even arms control. Representing a society that vaunts its logical realism, Gorbachev must be seeking the key to some great American military design that has strategic coherence--if only to be able to describe the threat to which the Soviet Union must respond. It is unlikely that he is finding this either easy or rewarding.

Just the other day, the Washington Post printed a most significant one-sentence paragraph about current Administration arms policy: "(Larry) Speakes declined to disclose the substance of the President’s ideas.” This is on a par with David A. Stockman’s admission that the Administration’s budget policy--on which the U.S. military buildup depends--"defies arithmetic.” This cannot encourage Gorbachev in his hunt for thematic or ideologic pegs on which to hang his assessment of American intentions.

So he turns to the physical evidence, perhaps hoping to deduce from our present actions what we mean to do about our interwoven futures. He sees President Reagan deciding to dismantle two nuclear ballistic-missile submarines--perhaps to save the high cost of refurbishment, ostensibly to remain near the unratified and unenforceable limit on submarine missiles enunciated in SALT II.

This might suggest that a President is willing to give up some of his least vulnerable and most powerful military assets in the search for a political accommodation that reduces the risk and scope of nuclear war. But then Gorbachev hears the White House increasing the domestic drumbeat trying to herd a reluctant Congress into buying more MX missiles to put into vulnerable silos; he hears of plans to increase the number of warheads on the Minutemen already tucked down in their targeted and non-survivable launch sites; he notes a sense of urgency in getting on with the development of the ever-changing mobile Midgetman missile concept, and he knows that the SALT limitations offer no real bar to U.S. military modernization.

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He is sharply aware that U.S. nuclear testing continues, that his moratorium offer was rejected, that test bans are unlikely to be negotiated. He sees, in these land-based deployments and developments, the threat of some kind of massive U.S. first strike against his homeland. He looks at “Star Wars” with both fear and hope: If it works it will make the United States invulnerable to ballistic reprisal and thus even more likely to resort to iron-hand diplomacy (he remembers Libya and the contras and Angola); however, if it doesn’t work, it may bankrupt the U.S. military budget by trying the impossible. And he watches the United States press for a “supercruise” missile--invulnerable to “Star Wars” and thus representing a technical option that he, Gorbachev, could well rely upon to create an overwhelming retaliatory deterrent that would forbid U.S. adventurism.

The physical evidence is of little real help in divining U.S. intentions; perhaps Gorbachev must look into his own motives and seek a superpower mirror-image of the realpolitik that energizes world affairs. Yet he can be clearer: His own agenda is to control arms competition in a manner to avoid inferiority in fact or appearance, and to avoid overt war while preserving erratic pressures from all points on the fragile fabric of the West’s community of interests, and to gain some freedom to reshape Soviet society into a more cohesive and powerful force for change in the directions established by his dialectic. He, too, understands the power of ideology to overcome the niggling problems of practicality.

Must he then treat the United States as a counterpart to the Soviet state--crafty, ponderous and implacable, prepared to make any sacrifice in the defense of the homeland, but cautious and paranoically over-aware of its every weakness? That model does not fit well enough to be useful.

A puzzled Gorbachev is a dangerous Gorbachev. Today’s nuclear peace--or rather, the current absence of nuclear hostilities--ultimately depends on the conviction of each side that the intent and reactions of the other are understood. Apparent American arms policy and armament decisions do not, on analysis, reveal an integrated set of objectives and organizing principles in harmony with the realities of the Nuclear Age. In the absence of an observable rationale, the anxious mind will anxiously provide its own.

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It does not seem to be in the interest of the United States and the rest of the world to allow Gorbachev the luxury of creating, in frustration and without assistance, his very own model of Western nuclear political and military behavior. As the ancient maps of uncharted areas used to say, “That way there be dragons.” It does seem in the interest of everyone to make as certain as possible that the American equation of capability, intent and will is elegantly and accurately derived and described for the safety of the world. Whether or not that equation includes any particular weaponry or agreement is not the root of the matter; what is important is a realistic statement of American strategic directions, supported by programs tailored to only those directions. Both Gorbachev and the American public would welcome the clarification.


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