"When will the United States move beyond its policy toward the Soviet Union of so-called 'containment' and replace it with one of cooperation?"
The question was put by a Soviet participant in a week-long September conference reviewing Soviet-American relations. It summed up a latent uneasiness in Moscow about relations with Washington despite the far-reaching improvements of the past three years.
The Soviets want more than arms-control agreements, expanded trade and multilevel exchanges; they look for a philosophical shift away from "containment," which for 40 years has shaped both superpower relations and U.S. foreign policy.
But the U.S. official to whom the original question was addressed replied with a tart series of his own questions, making clear that Washington is not considering such a fundamental reorientation:
"When will the Soviet Union give up trying to remake the world in its own image?" the American asked. "When will it recognize and incorporate into its own political system the human rights that should be common to all mankind?"
Sharp but not acrimonious, the lunchtime discussion was one among dozens of frank exchanges during the fourth Chautauqua Conference that exposed ragged edges in the rapid overall improvement of Soviet-American relations.
Named for the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, where the first meeting, in 1985, helped bring a breakthrough in the then-tense relationship between Moscow and Washington, the week-long conference drew 500 U.S. and Soviet participants to Tbilisi, capital of the southern Soviet republic of Georgia.
Many participants were connected with their governments and had played important roles in the improvement of relations; others came from organizations engaged in the proliferating citizen-exchanges between the two countries.
While participants gloried in the achievements of the past three years--notably the broad relaxation in international tensions and the progress in arms control--Soviet-American differences seemed as pointed as ever when they discussed the next steps forward.
Where should the compromises be made to reach an agreement reducing strategic arms? What more could be done to halt the proxy wars that the two superpowers have been fighting in the Third World for the past 20 years? When will Moscow permit free emigration and unimpeded family reunification? When will it allow the countries of Eastern Europe to decide their own futures? What is the Soviet Union planning to enhance observance of human rights? What are Americans doing to replace the image of Russians as enemies? What is each willing to do to increase their trade--so low on each side that it accounts for less than 1% of the other's total trade?
Beneath these questions, under the fears and misgivings they reflect, was a profound lack of trust. More than a matter of habit from four decades of the Cold War, it stems from still strong ideological beliefs on each side that the other poses a serious threat to its national interests and security--and to world peace.
Determined to be "realistic," the American participants were downbeat as well as tough.
"From a historical perspective, it is striking how little we have in common," said Thomas W. Simons Jr. at the opening of the conference. The U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees Soviet-American relations in Washington continued: "The list of differences is practically endless--in our histories, in our ideology, in our alliances. . . . And our relationship has been dominated by competition, by rivalry, by friction."
Soviet participants were determined to be positive and forward-looking, but they did not hide their disappointment that faster, broader progress is not being made in improving relations.
"We would like to see our new political thinking not only acknowledged, but reciprocated," one Soviet foreign-policy specialist said, referring not only to the broad political, economic and social reforms that Mikhail S. Gorbachev is undertaking within the country but also to changes in foreign policy. "Americans welcome our changes but see no reason to re-evaluate the core of their own policy."
The U.S. view is that Gorbachev, who was elected general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March, 1985, is responding to vigorous, more effective efforts by President Reagan to contain the expansion of communism--and that the U.S. policy must be one of "strength, realism and dialogue."
As long as the Soviet Union remains the kind of totalitarian society it has been for most of its 71 years, according to this common American view, the United States must prevent the expansion of Soviet influence and reverse it wherever possible. Containment, in other words, may be updated but should remain the foundation of U.S. policy.
Yet the prospects for reducing tensions between the superpowers, Simons contended, have "never been so promising as they are now."
At the heart of this paradox, now central to Soviet-American relations, is a commitment to isolate differences as points on which to negotiate, as questions on which compromises have not yet been reached, rather than to treat them as issues for full-scale ideological combat.
The agenda is very long and difficult, not only because the questions are numerous and complex but again because of the fundamental issue of trust.
Only limited progress, for example, is being made on a treaty to reduce the superpowers' strategic arsenals by half, a goal both Reagan and Gorbachev have embraced. Moscow says bluntly that Washington is to blame because of a refusal to include sea-launched cruise missiles in the deal; Washington says that verification would be virtually impossible if the sea-launched cruise missiles were included and that Moscow's approach is consequently unrealistic.
The problem appears rooted in U.S. reluctance to give up a weapons program where it enjoys a great advantage and one it is continuing to develop. The Soviet Union went through the same sort of agonized weighing of interests for the treaty eliminating land-based short- and intermediate-range missiles, but concluded that arms reduction and better relations outweighed the loss of advantage. Now, Moscow says Washington should make the same sort of appraisal and recognize that it would still have "sufficient defense."
A "confidence gap" is repeated on issue after issue. The Soviet Union is prepared, even anxious, to move faster and further than the United States considers prudent. That clash between eagerness and reluctance is likely to become an issue by itself, with Washington fearful that it is being rushed into things and Moscow reading U.S. response as a tactic to retain some advantage.
U.S. specialists inside and outside government insist that confidence must be carefully created, step by step, agreement by agreement, until decades of mistrust are replaced by a nearly equal experience of problem-solving cooperation.
Soviet specialists believe that the proper approach begins with a political resolve to improve relations, followed by the negotiations to implement that decision through concrete agreements.
Soviets, a U.S. official complained, always want to put the roof on the house before erecting the walls. Americans, a Soviet official countered, always want to put up the walls without laying the foundation.
And so the arguments go, not the angry, bitter, vituperative clashes of four or five years ago, but still arguments--often over a friendly meal and glass of wine.
For a time, the American approach seems likely to prevail. Resolving outstanding issues will step-by-step create a trust born of experience.
Yet, the Soviet question will remain: When will the United States move beyond "containment," toward a relationship that may not mean complete cooperation but one that will respond more fully to the challenges posed by Gorbachev and his "new political thinking?"