Doing Business With Gorbachev : The Scope and Deftness of His Agenda Is Breathtaking

Alton Frye is the Washington director for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Can Ronald Reagan take yes for an answer? That is the question posed--nay, broadcast--by Mikhail S. Gorbachev's offer to accept the U.S. proposal to eliminate Soviet and American intermediate-range missiles from Europe.

At Reykjavik the Soviet leader chided the President by saying, in effect, "Surely you could not turn down your own zero solution." But he guaranteed rejection by backing away from previous Soviet willingness to strike a separate deal on these systems, insisting instead that it be part of a package including strategic-force reductions and strict limits on strategic defenses.

Now, perhaps because the Europeans to whom Gorbachev was making his pitch denounced the idea of holding intermediate-force limits hostage to a comprehensive agreement, the Soviet leader has decided that an initial accord on theater missiles could open the way to a later compromise on strategic forces. That has long been the President's contention.

What this development tells us about Gorbachev is even more interesting than what it says about the problem of intermediate-range missiles. It tends to confirm the view of him that has emerged after many hours of direct discussion with Western visitors, of which Reagan's encounters at Geneva and Reykjavik are but a small part. The man's style transcends national culture and shows him to be a politician of uncanny deftness. Americans and Europeans come away from meetings with him testifying not only to his intelligence and self-confidence, but also to the formidable challenge such a gifted leader presents to the West. Yet the consensus runs toward British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's first impression that Gorbachev is a man you can do business with.

Several factors reinforce that verdict. Foremost among them is the fact that Gorbachev's rapid movement toward accommodating Western demands on arms control fits logically with his sweeping domestic initiatives. He repeats emphatically that the new departures in Soviet foreign policy are embedded in the even larger innovations being attempted in the Soviet system itself.

The risks he has run in moving to assert his power and the tempo he has established in trying to overcome the lethargy of the Soviet system reveal both personal impatience and a keen appreciation of the need to build momentum on many fronts. He is explicitly seeking to contain problems on the international agenda in order to concentrate on pressing tasks at home. At the same time he has sought to dispel any notion that Moscow is desperate for relief from the pressures of the strategic competition.

The frequent adjustments in his negotiating positions have carried strategic diplomacy toward a startling convergence. Reagan's former chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, captured something of the pattern in his exasperated remark at Reykjavik: "We had put all of our things on the table . . . and at the end they gave in on everything and then they linked it to (the Strategic Defense Initiative)." The rate and scope of Soviet concessions on disputed points--weapons, bombers, British and French forces, sea-launched cruise missiles, and now intermediate nuclear forces in Europe and Asia--leave observers breathless.

Given Reagan's own history and instincts, he needs no instruction in wariness toward Soviet overtures. The President has been struggling for months to find a balanced policy toward Moscow, one that gives due weight to the possibility of fruitful negotiations and to the danger that Gorbachev will out-maneuver him on the world stage. The latter prospect has grown more vivid as the President's standing at home and abroad has spiraled downward.

For Gorbachev this has been a no-lose period, and many will be tempted to read his recent moves as mere propaganda. With the Soviets' 19-month unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests and their steady pressure for adherence to the 1972 ABM treaty, Gorbachev has managed to identity himself as, in American parlance, the law-and-order candidate. Even if U.S.-Soviet negotiations falter, that perception is likely to linger.

But behind appearances are more important realities. Gorbachev is proceeding with evident appreciation of a truth once voiced by Paul Nitze, the State Department's chief arms-control adviser: "The best way to appear to be negotiating seriously is to be negotiating seriously."

Equally significant, Gorbachev professes that successful negotiation with Ronald Reagan is not only feasible; it is vital, for two reasons: The strategic trends are rapidly complicating diplomacy, and Gorbachev recognizes that even a limited arrangement with the conservative Reagan could be crucial to legitimizing the arms-control process--and to protecting future agreements against assault by hostile American factions.

It would serve no good purpose to build American policy on the presumption that the whole exercise is a charade, that there is nothing in the Gorbachev gambits but clever propaganda. As West Germany's Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher constantly argues, this is a time to explore fresh opportunities with the East to determine whether Gorbachev is for real.

Thus, President Reagan's positive response to the Soviet Union's willingness to treat European missile deployments separately is sensible, indeed, essential. If the two sides cannot now close the gap on these systems, it is virtually certain that they cannot cope with the sterner burden of balancing their interests on strategic weapons. In that sense, the strategically trivial question of intermediate nuclear forces now looms as a decisive test of the superpowers' capacity to find common ground.

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