When Mikhail S. Gorbachev said at the recent international peace gathering in Moscow that Soviet "foreign policy is more than ever determined by domestic policy, by our interest . . . to improve our country," some Western observers interpreted it as a signal that the Soviet leader will put greater emphasis on reforming the Soviet Union than on his foreign-policy pursuits. Logic would have it that Moscow's international challenge to Washington would be gradually diminished.
But the picture is much more complicated than that. Gorbachev needs to achieve his first major foreign-policy accomplishment more now than ever before. He invested too much time and energy in this field (including a number of concrete actions aimed at pleasing U.S. public opinion) to be able to step back empty-handed without an unacceptable loss of prestige at home and abroad. He might prefer to concentrate attention on domestic problems, but for this to occur he would have to first achieve a meaningful arms-control agreement with Washington that could be interpreted both as his personal success and as a move toward stable superpower relations. This is the main reason behind Gorbachev's latest proposal to conclude a separate agreement on medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. While more modest than his previous goals, such an accord would be a major foreign-policy success. Short of that he would have to redouble his efforts in other areas of his foreign policy no matter how busy he might be at home.
In his notable Vladivostok speech last July, Gorbachev made it quite clear where he would look for new opportunities: in Asia and the Pacific area, which he promised to include in "the general process of creating an all-embracing system of international security." Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze's recent tour of six countries in that region illustrates that Moscow is serious about it.
Just a few months ago such plans might have looked more ambitious than practical. It is somewhat different now. After the student demonstrations in China, the dismissal of the "liberal" Hu Yaobang as general secretary and expulsion of other prominent intellectuals from the Communist Party, Beijing is talking again about the fight against Western political ideas and "bourgeois liberalism."
While none of Moscow's recent actions in the region seem very impressive by themselves, they all address three Chinese conditions for improved relations between the two countries:
- The Kremlin recently announced that it plans to withdraw 10,000 soldiers from Mongolia this year. Considering that 40,000 Soviet troops will remain, and more still on the Soviet-Chinese border, this is hardly a major move. But it is a gesture, and more may follow. Last month both countries also resumed the boundary talks that had broken off in 1979.
- Afghan leader Najib recently announced, on Moscow's prodding, a program of "national reconciliation." It includes the cease-fire and the pitch for a broad-based coalition government, which are supposed to pave the way for a political settlement of the Afghan war and eventual withdrawal of the 115,000 Soviet troops. This Soviet-fostered plan is obviously inadequate, and the umbrella alliance of the Afghan resistance groups immediately rejected it. And yet the expectations of many Afghan refugees seem to be rising, as are the problems with their presence in Pakistan. All this gives Moscow additional room for propaganda and political maneuvering, especially after reported "significant" progress in the latest round of Afghan-Pakistani talks conducted in Geneva by a United Nations mediator.
- Moscow has even more problems with China's request that Vietnam withdraw its 140,000 troops from Cambodia. But here, too, Gorbachev has some new cards to play. At the party congress in Hanoi last December the three top Vietnamese Communist leaders were replaced by more flexible ones. Sweeping changes in the Vietnamese government followed a few weeks later. As the crippling economic crisis in Vietnam grows to critical proportions, these new leaders are already displaying greater interest in Moscow's advice. During Shevardnadze's visit in Hanoi they announced a proposal on holding talks involving Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China and the Assn. of Southeast Asia Nations to settle the war in Cambodia.
Washington rightly reacted to these Soviet moves by establishing relations with Mongolia. At the same time, however, it rejected the request made by a group of South Pacific nations to accept a nuclear-free zone in that area. This decision, which contrasts with Moscow's support for such a plan, has generated considerable criticism.
The timely visit of Secretary of State George P. Shultz to China was of utmost importance in this situation. It helps both to tame Moscow's ambitions in that area and to create better pre-conditions for countering Soviet moves that might collide with U.S. interests. A multidimensional, active foreign policy is not an option for the Reagan Administration. It is an absolute necessity.