PERSPECTIVE ON THE SUMMIT : Share a Vision and Break the Mold : Arms accord can wait. Bush needs to take Gorbachev aside and talk democracy and market economy.

<i> Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. </i>

The Kremlin’s announcement of a referendum on consumer price increases is a cry of desperation that ought to serve as a warning to President Bush. To allow strategic arms control to dominate his forthcoming summit meeting with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is to put the cart before the horse. The primary issue must be the future of the Soviet Union itself.

Gorbachev has just received a similar warning of his own, in the form of Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of the Russian Republic. In contrast to the seething nationalism of the smaller outer republics, the Russian heartland had been considered a bastion of the status quo. Its choice of the radical Yeltsin signals that Gorbachev may have lost pace with the forces of change that he himself unleashed.

If the Soviet Union completes the difficult process of transition to democracy then all manner of arms reductions will be possible. Indeed, arms control will constitute but a small page in a whole new chapter of friendly cooperation between the superpowers. If, on the other hand, the Soviet Union regresses politically, degenerates into anarchy or gives birth to some new form of post-Communist dictatorship--all plausible scenarios--then any strategic arms reduction treaty signed now may soon be a dead letter.

Since the October Revolution, the institutions of the Soviet government have been something of a myth. All real power has been exercised by the Communist Party. Today, the party is in disarray and no one can even say whether it will survive its congress scheduled for July. In roughly similar circumstances last October, the Hungarian Communist Party simply disintegrated.


The Soviet party’s crisis is largely the work of Gorbachev, who has broken its grip on power in his drive to erect a more normal government--a “rule of law” state. But as the Soviet economy continues to deteriorate, Gorbachev faces a crisis of his own.

The success of Gorbachev’s reforms depends on economic recovery. But recovery, everyone knows, will require radical restructuring. In the short term this will cause additional hardship for many, which may render it politically infeasible without the cushion of a popular mandate. Hence, the idea of a referendum.

This idea, however, will not work. President Gorbachev will lose this referendum by a landslide. Wily tactician though he is, Gorbachev is an innocent when it come to electoral processes. A seasoned campaigner, George (Read-my-lips) Bush, ought to explain to Gorbachev the predictable results of putting to the voters the proposition: “Resolved: the price of bread shall be trebled.”

This points to Gorbachev’s deeper dilemma. Many have said that it is impossible to go from a command economy to a market economy by half-measures. It may similarly be impossible to go from totalitarianism to democracy this way. The former kind of rule rests on intimidation while the latter rests on consent. Gorbachev has largely eliminated the intimidation but he has yet to secure consent. He has created the trappings of democratic government without its essence--popular sovereignty.

Having scheduled a summit at this revolutionary juncture in Soviet--and therefore world--history, Bush cannot escape the urgency of the “vision thing.” The vision that he should share with Gorbachev is one of a Soviet Union fully integrated into the community of democratic, market-economy states. He should break the mold of superpower summits, in which the leaders of adversarial states sign treaties and perform other symbolic acts to alleviate nuclear-age anxieties. He should treat this meeting more as he would one with the leader of a friendly power, discarding atmospherics in favor of a genuine and private exchange of opinions. He should offer some advice and help:

--He ought to advise Gorbachev to forget the referendum. Even Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater couldn’t pull this one out.

--He should tell the Soviet leader that Washington has refrained from recognizing Lithuania’s declared independence in deference to the argument that the Soviet Union is becoming a “rule of law” state and therefore such things should be done according to prescribed procedures. But the new Soviet law on secession won’t do. A meaningful secession law might reasonably require some protocol and delays, but must leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the secessionist republic. If the Baltic states are given no “legal” means to restore their independence, then Washington will have little choice but to recognize their unilateral declarations.

--Although the Communist Party’s monopoly on power has been eliminated from the constitution and the Soviet press has been freed to a great extent, there is yet no legal codification of the right to form an independent party or publication. Bush might share with Gorbachev, who has shown himself to be very thin-skinned, how handy it is to be able to respond to hecklers with the all-purpose line: “I’m just glad I live in a country where people have the right to disagree.”

--And above all, Bush should urge Gorbachev to hold elections. The Congress of People’s Deputies was only partially elected and is not scheduled for reelection until 1994. Gorbachev himself was chosen by this body and does not have to face the voters until 1995. The Soviet crisis will not wait that long.

Bush ought to couple this advice with all the inducements he can muster. Not only should he proffer Most Favored Nation status but also aid, credits and investment. He should hold forth the prospect of Soviet admission to all the relevant economic and political councils of the advanced democracies, as well as other symbolic tokens, which Soviet leaders have always cherished, of their country’s superpower dignity. But the “bottom line,” he should say, is that no amount of outside aid will suffice to rescue the Soviet economy, absent radical economic transformation.

Gorbachev has taken the Soviet Union an astonishing distance in his five years. But he risks falling between two stools unless he hastens to complete the journey to democracy. Bush’s challenge is to help him to see this and to find the ways to do it.