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The nature of the beast

According to President Reagan the Soviet Union of today is an ''evil empire'' engaged in ''power projection'' aimed at ''eventual domination of all peoples of the earth.''

This is strong stuff. Obviously, it is the kind of language Mr. Reagan and/or his advisers think is best calculated both to whip Congress into line behind the President's current and all-time high arms program and also to give his own Republican Party a political advantage over the Democrats come next election day.

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The political angle is easy to work out. The Democrats are bound to cut back to some extent on that arms program, partly because they want the money for social programs and partly because they honestly believe that some of it is there not because the world situation justifies it but because Mr. Reagan wants to do a favor to the corporate makers of armaments.

Inevitably the Democrats will cut back on some of the arms program and inevitably most Republicans will vote for it. Then, come next election time, the President will apply to the Democrats a modern version of that old charge of being ''soft on communism'' which worked so well for the Republicans back during the times immediately after World War II.

The political advantage to the Republicans from maneuvering the Democrats into having to vote against some part of the arms program is so obvious that one can't help wondering whether the program was deliberately inflated just for that purpose.

Be that as it may, the important question for the ordinary citizen watching all this from the sidelines of the political arena is how frightened he ought to be by the President's alarming rhetoric. Are the Soviets really about to gobble up the world?

First let us take up the question of what the Soviets actually seek. Do they really aim at eventual domination of all the peoples of the earth?

Without doubt there are people in the Kremlin who daydream of some happy moment when the whole world would be communist and subservient to the will of Moscow. But that kind of dreaming is a characteristic of eager people around the throne of any great imperial power.

The Spaniards certainly dreamed of world dominion when their great Armada set sail for England. King Louis XIV of France had far-ranging ambitions. Napoleon had even farther-ranging dreams. He was perhaps the first to think in terms of possibly getting effective control over the entire world. Had he conquered Russia he would have had exactly that.

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But wanting something like that and getting it are two different matters. There have been people in Washington in modern times who also dreamed of effective control over the world. Had the Soviet Union collapsed just after World War II the United States would have been in effective control of everything. One reason that there is so much friction between Moscow and Washington is that either one would be the effective world ruler were it not for the existence of the other.

Both in Washington and Moscow people yearn for total security. In both cases total security could come about were the other to disappear.

But, then, neither the US nor the USSR is going to disappear; certainly not in the visible future. The two are likely to exist for quite a while, and continue to irritate, frustrate, worry, and frighten each other. And both will engage in ''power projection,'' as both have been doing since they became the only two superpowers in the world.

The serious question is not what the men in the Kremlin dream of doing, but what they are actually capable of doing. On that, there are severe limitations.

For one thing, China went Marxist, and was briefly under Moscow discipline, but has long since become Moscow's biggest concern next only to its concern over the US.

For another thing, in the news only this week we learn that the revolutionary government in Iran is barely on speaking terms with Moscow these days in spite of its strong dislike of the US. One would think that the Soviets could capitalize on Iran's break with Washington to get on good terms with the Ayatollah Khomeini. In three years they have failed.

The Soviets engage in a lot of attempted ''power projection,'' particularly where it irritates Washington the most - in Central America. But overall they are worse off today than when they had both China and Egypt on their side. They are actually on the downhill side of power projection.

So, much as they may dream of ruling the world, they are farther away from it today than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

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