Superpowers Send a Message : Bush and Gorbachev Display Determination Not to Let Differences Divide Them

Three days of meetings in Washington failed to break the deadlock between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev over Germany’s future. No surprise there. It’s true that relations between two countries that have been at each other’s ideological throats since World War II, suspecting the worst in every move anywhere in the world, have mellowed in recent years. But even the possibility that a unified Germany that will clearly dominate Europe economically in years to come might also dominate it militarily is too grim a prospect for the Soviet Union, and even some United States allies in Europe, to contemplate calmly.

What was startling as the summit ended Sunday was just how completely the relationship has changed, how little the two presidents seemed to suspect the worst and how little troubled they seemed by the failure to settle the German question.

So pronounced was the change in atmosphere that analysts were groping for words to capture the nuances of a new era without making more of it than measurable achievement would justify.

A notable sign of major change came in a scene that had nothing at all to do with superpower relations. During the press conference, a Soviet correspondent asked Gorbachev a question about Boris N. Yeltsin, the newly elected chairman of parliament of the Russian Republic, and as close as anyone in the Soviet Union comes to posing a serious challenge to Gorbachev. With a wry smile, Gorbachev said this did not seem quite the place for the question, but then began carving Yeltsin up, questioning his motives, his intelligence and his patriotism. There was both surprise and shock in this display of Soviet politics, live, on American television, but the episode was part and parcel of the new environment. The correspondent saw nothing wrong with dragging domestic politics into the summit.


Even some of the 16 agreements, as opposed to intangible atmospherics, went beyond expectations. The two presidents declared that before the end of the year they will start destroying half of the nuclear warheads mounted on missiles, a process that will take seven years. Some tough negotiating remains. Moscow wants the right to keep modernizing what would remain of its fleet of SS-18 missiles, the heavy weapons that the Pentagon finds most threatening of all the Soviet arsenal, and Washington is digging in its heels. Overall, nearly 70% of all nuclear warheads would still exist a decade from now, but the treaty still would be the first to go beyond setting ceilings on new weapons that could be built and actually cuts into the numbers of those already in firing position.

Bush agreed to grant Moscow the same tariff terms it now sets for its allies--the status of Most Favored Nation--as soon as the Soviet Parliament completes work on a law to allow Soviet citizens to emigrate freely. An agreement under which American grain is exported to the Soviet Union was extended.

Still, Germany and the way it was handled symbolized several elements that clearly were crucial to the shaping of the new superpower relationship. Discussing their conversations on Germany, Bush identified one of these. Although they hold sharply different views on Germany, Bush said, he had no suspicions about Gorbachev’s position or where he was coming from and hoped that “he has none about mine.” No longer feeling compelled to suspect the worst makes it possible to hope for the best. As Gorbachev put it at one point, both presidents believe they will find a way that will make not only the Soviet Union, where 27 million died during the German invasion, but all of Europe feel secure about the future. Bush said he was not sure that their discussions on Germany had narrowed the gap between them--Washington insisting that Germany be tied to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Moscow insisting that there must be another way. But he said both leaders had a better understanding of their respective positions.

Both noted that in Germany’s case they could not make decisions for the rest of Europe. They seem to share a realization that the old way of judging the impact of events--if it were good for one superpower, it must be bad for the other--is no longer valid. It is possible for a turn of events to be good for both or bad for both.


But it was Bush who put his finger on what may well be the strongest force binding together the leaders of two countries, both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, both groping toward stability in the world.

“We have a unique responsibility,” he said, “to deal with world peace.”