UPON assuming power last year, Mikhail Gorbachev was faced with a foreign policy whose ability to advance Soviet interests was on the decline. An objective evaluation of this policy between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s made for a striking contrast: The activism of the 1970s - both vis-`a-vis the United States (d'etente) and toward the third world - had, by the time of Konstantin Chernenko's death in early 1985, been replaced by an increasingly stagnant and reactive foreign policy. More important, the Soviets, in their own evaluations, had come to evince growing pessimism over their policy. Mr. Gorbachev's response to these difficulties is clear to any observer: The past year has seen a revitalization of Soviet policy. New arms control proposals alone would cover several pages. But dismissing this as a ``charm offensive'' or as ``megaphone diplomacy'' obscures the essence of what is occurring: a basic reevaluation of Soviet foreign policy and its adaptation to a changing world.
The past year has seen Gorbachev and other leaders (Foreign Minister Edouard Shevardnadze and Anatoly Dobrynin, secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee) embrace foreign-policy concepts and strategies that Gorbachev has labeled ``new political thinking.'' The articulation of these ``new'' ideas, representing far more than the intellectual fodder for another peace campaign, indicates a leadership seeking a more effective, perceptive foreign policy with which to enter the 1990s.
The essence of the ``new political thinking'' is best understood by examining Soviet foreign policy in practice. The foundation of this policy, under Gorbachev, remains the doctrine of peaceful coexistence, which maintains that the competition between the US and the Soviets - between capitalism and socialism - both is unceasing and can proceed via means short of war. In other words, the Soviet state may be willing to live in peace with the US, but it will not desist from challenging US interests.
Gorbachev's call for ``new'' thinking is not a move away from this doctrine, but in fact is best interpreted as a recognition that the Soviets need new concepts and strategies to compete better with the US. There are three important signs of this:
First, Gorbachev has introduced important modifications to several of the ideological formulations used to describe the outside world. Unlike previous general secretaries, for instance, he admits the existence of so-called ``global problems,'' like environmental conservation.
He has thus signaled two things: (1)that the Soviets recognize an ever more complex, interconnected world, and (2)that Soviet strategy will be more aware of and responsive to these linkages, perhaps seeking to exploit them.
Second, Gorbachev and Central Committee Secretary Dobrynin have called explicitly for more flexible strategies, particularly in arms control. New arms control sectors were set up in the Foreign Ministry and within the Central Committee's international department. This suggests that the party wants to equip itself with the information needed for a more dynamic and flexible arms policy.
Most important, the ``new political thinking'' suggests that the Soviet Union now recognizes that its foreign-policy strategy of the past 20 years placed excessive emphasis on one component of the ``correlation of forces'': the military one. The indicators of this realization are numerous and include the following:
Gorbachev's call for a ``multifaceted'' approach (with political, economic, humanitarian, and military elements) to international security problems.
A recognition by the new general secretary that ensuring security is becoming ``all the more a political task.''
A revamped approach to the arms control process, emphasizing initiative and flexibility. This new approach clearly has a propaganda element to it, but it is also marked by a seriousness of purpose missing from recent Soviet arms policy. For instance, the Soviets are discussing (and in at least one instance agreeing to) forms of verification they previously scorned (on-site inspections) and have shown a new willingness to include verification matters early in negotiations.
A change in the party's traditional formulation on the level of resources committed to the military. The new wording strongly suggests that stricter limits will be placed on defense expenditures.
It is not yet possible, however, to gauge the extent of this change in the role of the military factor in Soviet foreign policy; it may be motivated simply by pragmatic consideration of the need to free up resources for the domestic economy.
Where does all this leave us? Does the ``new political thinking'' represent a fundamental break with the doctrine of peaceful coexistence?
Hardly. The call for ``new political thinking'' signals, if nothing else, that Soviet foreign policy has entered a period of change and adaptation. It is not just ``more of the same.'' New strategies have been adopted, suggesting that the Soviets are updating their view of the world and reconsidering the military emphasis in their foreign policy. The West, especially the US, should be sensitive to these currents.
Yet at the same time, we should not fool ourselves: Gorbachev's agenda for foreign-policy reform is designed to make the Soviet Union a more perceptive and formidable player on the world scene.
Jeff Checkel is a research assistant in the Defense and Arms Control Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.