The American people were to have had the opportunity to see and hear three prominent Soviet spokesmen debate three equally prominent Americans last week. But, by virtue of a State Department decision, it was not to be.
Bill Moyers, the journalist, had planned for public television to air a live debate before an invited audience from a hall at the United Nations. It was to have lasted two hours with the possibility of audience participation, with no subject barred. The full range of US-Soviet relations was to have been explored and debated.
The Soviet participants were to have been led by Georgi Arbatov, no stranger to American audiences. He is widely considered to be the most knowledgeable of Soviet experts on the United States and, as such, is quite articulate in espousing Soviet views and policies. He is a clever man, and he knows how to use the openness of the Western media to good advantage.
Dr. Arbatov and several of his colleagues have been doing just that. In recent weeks they have undertaken something of a "media blitz" in the United States and in Western Europe. Dr. Arbatov's numerous interviews and appearances in West Germany in February and March provoked the West German government to protest to Moscow. The Germans claimed the Soviets were trying to manipulate public opinion in West Germany to a degree constituting interference in their internal affairs.
The Soviets have been equally active on this side of the Atlantic. The State Department last week cited no fewer than 13 recent television appearances in the US by Soviet spokesmen, most of whom are from the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
The result of all this activity was the State Department decision to deny Dr. Arbatov a six-day visa extension making possible his participation in the public television debate.
It was a wrong decision. It was not wrong because we owe the Russians anything. We certainly do not. It was wrong for several reasons having to do with us as Americans.
First, it was a wrong decision because it was more emotional than it was rational. Dr. Arbatov had already been in the country for 16 days, appearing before audiences, meeting with reporters, appearing on regional TV shows. The debate arranged by Bill Moyers would have been the first opportunity for Dr. Arbatov's well-publicized views to be challenged by knowledgeable American experts in full view of millions of listeners. The result was that he came to the US and left without ever being put to a serious public test.
The State Department will, of course, argue that there is no intention to kill the debate, merely to deny Dr. Arbatov's participation in it. However, the timing of the denial was such that the State Department knew full well the Russians would not be able, in so short a time, both to "save face" and find a suitable substitute.
Second, the State Department decision underestimates the political common sense of the American people. Despite denials to the contrary, the decision amounts to an assumption that the American public should not hear or see something. Since when do we need to be protected in this way? What reason do we have to believe that Americans would be adversely affected by hearing a Marxist argue his views, and then be questioned and challenged by his American counterpart? The answer is simple and strong. It is not the State Department's job to make decisions which appear to censor what we can and cannot hear.
The Arbatov decision was also wrong because it results in Americans acting like Russians. To what degree are we prepared to behave as they do when our more open and democratic means fail to achieve the desired ends? Is it only when we become frustrated, as seems to have been the case with Arbatov?
The frustration, even indignation, stems, in part, from the assumption that Americans and Europeans are "taken in" by the skill with which the Russians manipulate the Western media to their presumed advantage. Where is the evidence for such a judgment?
Fourth, it was a wrong decision because it undermines much that we espouse in international meetings and agreements.
Our position as the champion of an international free market of ideas is compromised. The State Department decision about Dr. Arbatov flies in the face of the very principle the department is charged with defending internationally, namely the free movement of people and information across national boundaries.
For instance, last year at the UNESCO conference in Belgrade, there was yet another struggle over something called the New World Information Order. Moscow and many of the third-world delegations were the apostles of state control over all forms of journalism; the US led the opposition, against considerable odds. The Arbatov decision is not consistent with our position there.
Nor is the Arbatov decision consistent with positions the US has taken in Madrid. There, over the last several months the 35 signatory nations to the Helsinki Final Act have been reviewing how well each nation is complying with the provisions of that act. The act espouses a free market in ideas and encourages the freer movement of people back and forth. Here again, it has been Washington versus Moscow. And here again, the Arbatov decision undermines what we represent.
The official reason behind the denial of the visa extension is that the new guideline for dealing with the Russians is "reciprocity." Since our requests for television time for American spokesmen on Soviet television have not been granted, then we will inhibit their access to ours. Tit for tat.
The rationale has a simple appeal. Fair is fair. If they will behave, so will we. If they are generous, we will reciprocate. The problem, however, is that our policies and practices, under such a scheme, come to reflect Russian policies and practices. We become like them. Surely that is not our purpose, nor is this a suggestion that anyone at the State Department wants us to be like them. But that is the danger.
The reasons in favor of granting Dr. Arbatov a visa extension have almost nothing to do with him or the Russians. Dr. Arbatov does not need and the Soviet government does not deserve any sympathy or help in these matters. The visa should have been extended because of who we are as Americans and what we stand for. We are free people and we do not need our government telling us what we can and cannot hear, whatever the reason.
Let's hear what he has to say. Let every American who chooses to listen decide what he or she thinks about it. L et the world know that we practice what we preach.