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Reshaping an East-West policy

The review of United States policy toward the Soviet Union, which Secretary of State George Shultz began last Saturday, is an urgent task for several reasons.

First, East-West policy has been the central focus of the Reagan foreign policy (some would feel at the expense of other important aspects). Yet this preoccupation has not produced a coherent strategy with clear premises and objectives or with means related to ends.

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Second, major aspects of East-West policy are not now concerted with the allies but are a serious source of discord, despite the recent summits at Versailles and NATO.

Third, this Western disarray could be dangerous and costly. Given Moscow's military buildup, its Afghan invasion, and its pressure on Poland, this is hardly the way to induce Soviet caution or restraint.

And it is not the way to meet the coming Soviet succession. When Brezhnev departs, the change in leadership will be as significant as when Stalin died. There will not merely be a shift at the top but a transfer of authority to a whole new generation, about whose priorities and outlook we know very little. They will inherit not only the vast Soviet military power but also grave problems with the economy. By 1985, the annual growth in GNP will probably be down to 1 or 2 percent and per capita income even less, as a result of low growth of labor, investment, and productivity. The new leaders will face hard choices in allocating resources. And most experts agree that reviving the economy and improving growth and efficiency will require drastic reforms of the system of planning, management, and incentives.

No one can foresee how this prospect will affect the choice of leaders or their course at home and abroad. Nor can anyone know how far, if at all, they will be influenced from outside. When Stalin died, Eisenhower's appeal to the successors to join in improving relations and in reducing wasteful military spending had no apparent effect.

This time their decisions may be affected by the alternatives available in relations with the West. On that chance the US and its allies should make clear their determination and capacity to resist expansion but their readiness for more cooperative relations with a less hostile Soviet Union. Clearly a divided West will convey no such message. Instead it will encourage present leaders and their successors to seek to widen Western divisions and will dampen any impulse toward accommodation or moderation.

Reshaping an allied East-West policy will not be easy, but it can be done. There are genuine differences in outlook and priorities. Both the US and the allies would have to adjust and compromise, recognizing that a common policy is more vital than specific details, and that some diversities will have to be lived with.

1. On defense and deterrence, the differences are more matters of tone and emphasis than substance. All are concerned by the Soviet military buildup and the need to maintain a balance in strategic and theater forces as well as in conventional capabilities. Allied pressure has put negotiations for arms control on track.

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2. The widest split is over economic relations, as the pipeline has shown. Economic warfare will not cause Soviet economic collapse. Could trade, technology, and credits be used as carrot and stick to induce constraint in foreign policy? Perhaps, if tightly orchestrated. But in practice that is not feasible: Reagan is not willing to resist farm pressure, nor the allies the pressure of industry. At least the West should tighten controls on military technology and on credits and subsidies for East-West trade.

3. The Soviet threat in the third world also provokes differences in approach. The allies think the US focuses too much on the East-West dimension and too little on indigenous conditions creating vulnerability, which call for economic assistance and resolving local conflicts. For the Gulf, there is substantial agreement on the need for mobile military capability, and some like Britain and France will contribute forces while others help in other ways.

What should be apparent is that an effective East-West policy must also be an alliance policy. To achieve it, the US and the allies, beside bridging their substantive differences, will also have to adjust their roles. The tendency of the Reagan administration toward unilateralism will not produce joint policy but division and resentment. Respect for US leadership can be regained only by genuine consultation and convincing competence. US frustration with its allies is also justified: they still tend to criticize US proposals without putting forward their own.

The process of thrashing out differences and developing joint positions calls for more intensive collaboration than existing forums provide. The allies should explore how to create better mechanisms for concerting allied policy.

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