There is a widespread and growing perception among Americans that, during the 1970s, the United States has suffered a drastic decline in power and prestige relative to that of the Soviet Union. This decline was attributed at first to the "Vietnam syndrome" and Watergate, but more recently to detente and to weak and vacillating leadership, a failure of President and Congress to respond adequately to provocative Soviet military buildups and to Soviet adventurism in the third world.
Some of these charges are well-founded and deserve the attention and responses they now are receiving. The Soviets have been and are engaged in a vast array of military programs which appear both excessive and provocative and which, whether or not they are militarily useful, create legitimate political fears. Their behavior in Angola, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Afghanistan has been irresponsible and incompatible with either detente or a stable world order. They should be shown that such military and political behavior inevitably produces consequences which make them, from the viewpoint of Soviet self-interest, counterproductive.
On the other hand, the American politicians, retired military officers, and academicians loudly proclaiming "the present danger" are guilty of neglecting the other side of the picture. They are indulging in self-depreciation and self-flagellation to such a degree that they dishearten our friends and give comfort to our adversaries.
The United States and its allies remain far stronger economically and at least as strong militarily as the Soviets, particularly considering that the latter have also to worry about China. We have a triad of strategic nuclear systems, of which one at least, the submarine, is completely invulnerable. Another is already being substantially strengthened by the addition of a new adjunct, cruise missiles. Under these conditions the chance of the Soviets launching a first strike on one leg of our triad, or credibly threatening to do so, is practically nil.
When I look as objectively as I can at the whole picture, I cannot help but feel that historians in the 1990s, looking back at the 1970s, are more likely to judge that that decade was more disastrous for the Soviet Union than for the United States and that its leadership rather than the American was guilty of gross errors.
By the end of the Nixon-Brezhnev summits in 1972-73 the Soviets had achieved, or were on the verge of achieving, the equality of status and military power they had so long been seeking. Moreover, the American giant, as a result of Vietnam and Watergate, was relatively tranquilized and amenable to a wide measure of detente.
One would have thought that a wise Soviet leadership, recognizing that the Western alliance had far greater economic capabilities than it had and that the US if seriously provoked was unlikely to remain tranquil for long, would have stricly observed the basic principles of cooperation agreed at the summit meetings and have exercised reasonable self-restraint about further military deployments and adventures in the third world.
Instead, suffering from what Stalin once called "giddiness from success," they did exactly the opposite. The result was predictable. The sleeping giant has been aroused and thrown back to the temper of the 1950s and '60s. US military programs are being vastly, in some respects excessively, expanded. A Carter doctrine has been proclaimed for the Persian Gulf region and US forces are being deployed there. US sanctions following the invasion of Afghanistan have canceled most of the benefits the Kremlin gained from detente.
The military and political competition between the two superpowers is now being resumed at a higher and more expensive level than ever before. This will occur, moreover, at a time when the Soviets will be encountering more severe domestic problems than usual -- shortage of manpower, shortage of oil, increasing consumer discontent, and a comprehensive turnover in leadership.
Largely because of Soviet provocations, the military balance will probably by the mid-1980s not only be fully reestablished but the accelerated competition will have brought forth a proliferation of new weapons, such as cruise missiles, which will greatly complicate the search for stability.Moreover, the competition in the third world, which seemed to be subsiding after Vietnam, is likely to be reviving in an even more dangerous form.
I would venture to say, therefore, that the problems which obsess us today -- loss of confidence in US leadership, fear of Soviet military superiority and of Finlandization in Europe -- will tend to subside in the next few years, and to be succeeded by revival of concern with more fundamental interests: how to establish more reliable machinery for preventing confrontations between the great powers from leading to nuclear war, how to foster both development and stability in the third world sufficient to control conflicts there which might otherwise provoke such a war.
I would conclude that we should deter Soviet expansion but at the same time offer the Soviets incentives for moderation, that arms control remains in the vital interest of both sides, that the greatest danger of war between East and West lies in competition in the third world, and that we shall have to return sooner or later to some more measured and balanced form of detente.