Gorbachev’s Critics Grow Ornery : U.S. Rebuffs Harden Opposition to His ‘New Age’ Policy

<i> Stephen F. Cohen</i> ,<i> a professor of politics at Princeton University</i> ,<i> writes a column on Soviet Affairs for the Nation. </i>

A critical dispute over Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s campaign to restore detente and end the arms race has developed in the Soviet political Establishment. An embattled Gorbachev argues that his conciliatory policies are “necessitated by new thinking about the nuclear age,” while his opponents charge that they are based on “dangerous illusions” about the United States.

The conflict cannot be fully understood apart from its history. In the early 1980s the Reagan Administration’s anti-Soviet crusade and strategic weapons buildup badly discredited Soviet proponents of detente-like negotiations as an important component of national security. Soviet hard-liners, who insist that the United States is bent on strategic supremacy and only abundant military power can guarantee Soviet security, gained new influence.

But when Gorbachev became leader he quickly set himself against that militaristic trend by calling for a “revival of detente.” Committed to a costly and long-term program of economic reform, he needs arms control to reduce defense spending and improved relations with Washington to counter conservative protests that domestic change is too risky. Hoping to appeal to a “realistic” wing of the Reagan Administration, Gorbachev pressed hard for the Geneva summit. Since then, he has defended his “new approaches” to Soviet-U.S. relations against “stone-age ways of thinking” that seem to be as entrenched in Moscow as in Washington.


The crux of Gorbachev’s argument is twofold. First, in the nuclear age no country can “hope to safeguard itself solely with technical means. . . . Ensuring security is a political problem, and it can only be resolved by political means.” Second, “security can only be mutual.” Or, as he has said more pointedly, “There can be no security for the U.S.S.R. without security for the United States.”

Gorbachev’s reasoning is a tacit repudiation of previous Soviet decisions. By emphasizing “political means” of national security, he is making detente the highest priority of Soviet foreign policy and implying that the military buildup under Leonid I. Brezhnev in the 1970s was excessive. His recommendation that the Soviet Union “act in such a way as to give nobody grounds for fears,” suggests that the massive Soviet deployment of Euromissiles was a mistake because it provoked the current U.S. buildup. Therefore, to achieve serious political negotiations on arms control and even nuclear disarmament, the Soviet Union should make concessions that will lessen American fears.

And indeed, under Gorbachev’s leadership, there has been a series of remarkable Soviet concessions, including a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and deployment of Euromissiles; a promise to remove all Soviet missiles from Europe if the United States withdraws its own, as well as to dismantle rather than relocate those weapons; and an acceptance of U.S. demands for rigorous on-site verification of any arms control treaties.

Presumably, Gorbachev believed that such concessions would bring a positive American response, thereby vindicating his “new thinking.”

Instead, each of them has been abruptly rejected by the Reagan Administration. Still worse for Gorbachev, the Administration has ordered a humiliating reduction in the Soviets’ U.N. mission in New York, sent U.S. warships into Soviet waters, suggested that U.S. military measures against Nicaragua and Libya were related to Soviet support for those countries, proceeded with an ambitious program of new strategic weapons, including a series of nuclear tests, and threatened to jettison existing arms-control treaties.

Those “provocations” have redoubled high-level Soviet opposition to Gorbachev’s conciliatory policies. Hard-liners protest that the United States is using the summit process “to conceal an intensified quest for military superiority,” and they are demanding that the Soviet Union respond with a renewed military buildup of its own. Gorbachev is unnamed but unmistakeably indicted in these accusations. The military newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda, recently assaulted the “illusions of people who, despite facts to the contrary, still believed . . . that the U.S. Administration was capable of heeding the voice of reason.”

Gorbachev and his supporters are clearly on the defensive. Since March, he has even had to reply publicly to “numerous letters to the Central Committee,” a euphemism for criticism in leadership circles. Denying that he has “the slightest illusions,” Gorbachev has pleaded for restraint and promised not to participate in any future summit meeting that is “empty talk” or a “smoke screen,” as his opponents have characterized the one in Geneva.

Much is at stake in this dispute, including Gorbachev’s career as a reform leader at home and a historic opportunity to stop the nuclear weapons race. No American can be proud of the fact that there is an imperiled arms-control leadership in Moscow and an unrepentant arms-race government in Washington. Consider the different reactions to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl: While the Reagan Administration could find only more reasons to oppose arms negotiations, Gorbachev, however lamentable his initial response to the calamity, saw it as “another grim warning that the nuclear era demands new political thinking and a new policy.”