To Soviets, Reagan Made ‘Devil’s Leverage’ Real

<i> Robert C. McFarlane, a former national-security adviser to President Reagan, is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington</i> .

When historians begin to assess the effect of Ronald Reagan’s stewardship in the last eight years, they are apt to come to a surprising conclusion: The President’s most important legacy will be the evolution that he has spurred in the Soviet Union rather than the revolution that he is given credit for in the United States.

And if we hope to contain Soviet power in future generations, it is extremely important that we understand the strategy that he pursued to induce these historic changes and adopt them as a permanent fixture in American foreign policy. For whatever he has done has worked, at least in the sense that it has led Soviet leaders to enter a period of introspection. And for as long as they are preoccupied with internal problems, they are less able to stir up mischief abroad. So, whatever we did to engender these trends, we ought to keep doing it. It makes for a more peaceful world.

Yes, I believe that President Reagan’s strategy, motivated by military necessity but targeted at the Soviet economic system, contributed significantly to a re-examination by the Soviets of their nation’s basic economic structure--a re-examination leading to the unavoidable conclusion that, unless matters were changed dramatically, they would lose their position as a global power and perhaps even more. How and when was this strategy conceived, and what were its operational instruments?

Recall that by late 1982 the United States had spent almost seven years trying unsuccessfully to modernize the centerpiece of its strategic nuclear deterrent--land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. In December, 1982, the third Reagan proposal, founded on the concept of closely spaced basing of the new-generation MX missile, had suffered an overwhelming defeat in Congress. In trying to think through what to do next, two assumptions seemed clear. The first was politico-military. Simply put, after four basing modes for our MX program had been rejected by Congress in the course of two Administrations, it was apparent that the Soviets were better at putting ICBMs in the field than we were. This posed a real military problem for us, one that would worsen dramatically if the Soviets were able to deploy mobile multiple-warhead missiles (MIRVs) and we had no effective counter. In short, the strategic nuclear competition had devolved--because of anti-nuclear, environmental and political opposition in the United States to the MX--to a point where the Soviet Union had a significant comparative advantage in deploying ICBMs.


A second, apparently valid, assumption was that if we were to shift the competition to an area where we had the comparative advantage--that of high technology (primarily the Strategic Defense Initiative)--we might reap enormous gains. We would score military gains in the short term by finding a counter to the warhead advantage that the Soviets would get by going mobile. But we might also achieve potentially historic political gains over time.

It seemed clear that a signal from us that we intended to invest significant sums in an area in which the Kremlin knew that we were far superior would lead the Soviets to two conclusions: First, whether or not our military discoveries were completely effective, they would still require an immensely extravagant investment on the Soviet side to compensate, ata time when the Soviets would rather spend their scarce resources to relieve their internal stresses. Second, and more important, Soviet leaders were likely to feel that they really couldn’t compete at all.

The obvious implications went well beyond the military domain. The Soviets would expect a significant investment by our side in high technology to produce spinoff benefits across the board in telecommunications, space exploration, high-energy physics, medicine and more. And the proliferation of thousands of additional American engineers and scientists would have far-reaching and long-term effects in sustaining an ever-widening technological gap. Other socialist states, great and small, would see all this and draw their own conclusions as to which system was dynamic and able to meet the needs of its people and which one wasn’t. The message was that as incumbent leaders the Soviet rulers faced the prospect of presiding over the loss not only of their one claim to superpower status, military preeminence, but also their place in the ideological firmament and in history as well.

After thinking about it together, General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the military leadership, the economic planners and others decided that the writing was on the wall. The pace of technological change had reached the point of exposing that the Soviet system was woefully dysfunctional and had to be changed. Fundamental change involving incentives, competition, the play of at least quasi-market forces and, yes, a measure of freedom would be required.


The Soviets have tried certain tactical moves to slow the pace of the politico-economic threat posed by our strategy in general and by SDI in particular--raising fears among our allies and here at home about cost, risk, instability and so on, and prompting walkouts at arms-control talks in Geneva. But over time, as they watched the U.S. appropriations grow each year since 1983, they concluded, “They’re really doing it.” The logic in support of glasnost and perestroika became an imperative. And finally, recognizing that our original motive was to deal with the real military problem posed by their alarming advantage in highly accurate ICBM warheads, the Soviets re-engaged in arms-control talks in a much more constructive fashion. In November, 1985, in Geneva they committed to reduce their strategic nuclear forces by 50%.

Think about what has happened. The President’s strategy, which is basically an investment strategy, together with the renewed strength of our economy were important stimuli to the changes known as perestroika . While it is premature to estimate the ultimate scope of change, there can be no doubt that the Soviets are going in the right direction--at least from our perspective. And, apart from the systemic changes that may be adopted, our strategy has set us on the road to deep reductions in the level of nuclear weapons in the world.

Of course, Gorbachev deserves the lion’s share of the historical credit. He is the man who has had the courage, even if self-interested, to promote ideas whose time--Russians have said--would never come. A number of other internal factors were highly influential. But in Soviet politics it has always helped to have a foreign devil. And in this case the devil’s leverage was and is real.

The central point is that we have found something that works vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and that we ought to keep exploiting it. In the broadest sense, that “something” is freedom. In the more narrow context, it is to concentrate on doing things that we do better than they.