Gorbachev’s Zero-Missiles Pitch Covers Six Other Bases

<i> Alton Frye is the Washington director of the Council on Foreign Relations. </i>

Remarkable is too mild a word for Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s latest maneuvers. In substance, timing and focus they reveal a political brilliance with which the West has not begun to cope. The man is scoring so many points in so many different arenas that it’s hard to keep track of them. Like the little tailor in the fairy tale, his shirt should read “seven at one blow.”

Consider the several objectives served by Gorbachev’s July 22 interview with the Indonesian newspaper Merdeka:

Score 1: The obvious, but not necessarily the most significant, objective is the immediate revival of prospects for an agreement with the United States to eliminate intermediate nuclear forces. At a single stroke he removed the last major obstacle to such a bargain by agreeing to a “global zero solution,” offering to destroy the 100 INF warheads that Moscow had insisted it would retain in Asia. That accommodates even Secretary of Defense Caspar M. Weinberger’s chief complaint against the impending deal and greatly simplifies the problem of verifying compliance with the accord.


Score 2: Gorbachev plays the game on more than one level. Not only does he gain credit for another generous concession on arms control, he keeps the United States on the political defensive. Moscow’s evident reasonableness puts pressure on Washington to resolve the continuing argument over 72 Pershing 1-A missiles owned by West Germany (for which the United States controls the nuclear warheads). That is bound to breed tension between the two allies and their NATO associates.

Score 3: Within West Germany itself, the Gorbachev concession puts the coalition government in a bind. Its Christian Socialist members, backed by a number of Christian Democrats, have been at odds with the Free Democrats led by Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher, who favors global elimination of INF, even if it means that the German Pershings must go. In the wake of intra-governmental commotions over the previous Soviet offer of a zero option for Europe, Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s party seemed to pay a price in some provincial elections. Moscow’s newest overture is an invitation to factionalism in Bonn, freighted with concrete risks in the next elections for those seen as impeding progress in arms reductions.

Score 4: Asia becomes the primary focus. The medium is a “set-piece” interview--written answers to written questions, glossed by a brief chat--with an Indonesian journalist who is obviously charmed. The occasion is the anniversary of the Soviet leader’s speech in Vladivostok laying out his policy toward Asia and the Pacific. It has seemed likely for some time that, just as Gorbachev’s earlier moves on INF were aimed at accommodating Europe more than the United States, he would yield the last 100 INF warheads to soothe the sensibilities of Asian countries. The move is well contrived to earn bonus points in that market, even while reinforcing his previous gains in the superpower dialogue.

Score 5: He is unusually deft at slipping in the needle, lacing his commentary with not-too-subtle suggestions that the United States is the culprit in most of Asia’s problems, from the Tamil violence in Sri Lanka to the stagnation of efforts to reunify Korea. At moments he skirts close to sanctimony, recalling American nuclear tests in the Pacific after World War II and saying that they “took away the health and even lives of many inhabitants of the area.” He implies that Soviet attempts to better relations with some countries are hindered by American intimidation of “small states that are still learning to stand firmly on their feet.” Read through Asian eyes as the message of one who has just displayed his good will by offering to eliminate INF weapons, the barbs register; indeed, compared to old-style Soviet propaganda, their very mildness increases their plausibility.

Score 6: Gorbachev finds common ground with China by stressing that, by contrast with other nuclear powers, Moscow and Beijing have pledged never to be the first to use nuclear weapons. He lays out a host of ideas to ease the tensions in the region--not only limits on nuclear tests and deployments but also confidence-building measures: Ban sea-based nuclear forces from certain coastal areas; regulate anti-submarine-warfare operations; reduce the number of superpower naval exercises. In short, he plays off the developing anxieties over nuclear weapons and sets an agenda that will have wide appeal among Asian-Pacific countries but little prospect of an affirmative U.S. response.

Score 7: Gorbachev makes clear that he is also interested in harnessing Asia’s economic energies to participate in Soviet modernization. He applauds the successes of ASEAN (the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations) and invites prosperous neighbors to join in developing the wealth of Soviet resources beyond the Urals. Although he shows some regret about the course of Soviet-Japanese relations (still troubled by territorial disputes from 1945), he strikes a posture aimed at improving the Tokyo connection, and expresses an eagerness to visit Japan as a state of special weight in the world economy.


It is tempting for Americans to be rather smug in their suspicions about this kind of performance. Politics is more than public relations, but it would be foolhardy to ignore the consequences of the revolutionary change of style that Gorbachev has brought to the Kremlin. Whether speaking to Asian or European audiences, he strokes all the egos, touches all the sore points, sounds all the idealistic themes and submerges specific concerns in hopeful crescendos.

In doing so he creates situations in which, even if his proposals do not win acceptance, their very rejection produces indirect Soviet gains on other levels. If he does not get the INF deal that he wants, the onus is likely to fall on the United States and West Germany, generating new stresses in the alliance and their own domestic politics. If the Western nuclear powers resist additional restraints on nuclear testing or deployments in the Pacific, governments in that area will come under greater pressure to distance themselves from the West on those issues. If Japan does not come aboard Moscow’s train bound for Siberian development, others of the newly industrializing countries may well pick up the investment opportunities in joint ventures with the Soviets.

One need not speculate that Moscow’s foreign policy is driven by a need to calm the international waters while glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) transform the dilapidated Soviet economy. Judged strictly on their own terms, the artful moves by Gorbachev are giving Soviet diplomacy an impetus heretofore unknown. Machiavelli himself could not have fashioned a more potent form of no-lose politics.