There are two main objections that have been raised in the United States against actively supporting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. One is that Gorbachev may not last. If we go too far in dismantling our defenses, we may find ourselves confronting a different regime that has only one card left to play: military aggression.
The other is more profound. Is it in our interest that Gorbachev should succeed in his efforts at perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union? Right now, the Soviet Union is in crisis; if Gorbachev’s reforms succeed, the Soviet Union may become strong again. Why should one superpower aid the recovery of the other superpower?
To deal with these objections, we must consider not only the changes in the Soviet Union, but also our own role as a superpower. Indeed, we must decide what kind of world we want to live in.
The situation in the Soviet Union is highly unstable on account of the wide disparity between goals and performance. Even in the worst case, the Soviet Union could not return to its former position of strength. It would still have a large army, but its ability to maintain and renew its armaments would have been impaired. That may be all the more reason to embark on military adventures while its strength lasts, but this argument ignores the turmoil within the Soviet empire that is likely to keep a lot of troops tied down. An outbreak of armed conflict cannot be ruled out—declining empires are notorious for causing wars—but hostilities are more likely to arise out of defending the empire than from outside adventures.
During this period, the West must remain on guard and maintain its unity, but it will not face the same level of danger from the Soviet Union, especially in far-flung areas of the globe, as in the past. The danger will of course be much less if the reduction in armaments is accomplished by treaties with watertight verification provisions.
It is when we consider our own strategic goals that the difficulties arise. Gorbachev’s new thinking stems from an intense crisis. But the United States is also going through a crisis, whose origins are inextricably connected with our role as superpower. Basically, we spend more than we earn, both as a country and as a government. The excess in spending almost exactly matches the increase in our military expenditures since President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. As a result, our economic competitiveness has eroded and our financial condition has deteriorated to a point where the dollar is no longer qualified to serve as the reserve currency of the world. But the crisis is not acute.
Moreover, we are only dimly aware of it because we have a willing partner, Japan, that is happy to produce more than it consumes and to lend us the excess. The partnership allows us to maintain our military power, and it allows Japan to increase its economic and financial dominance. Everybody gets what he wants, but the long-term outlook for the United States is dim. There have been many examples in history where military power was sustained by exacting tributes, but there is no precedent for maintaining hegemony on borrowed money.
Our difficulties pale into insignificance when compared with the problems confronting the Soviet Union. But at least Gorbachev has done some radical new thinking, commensurate with the magnitude of the problems confronting him. We have done practically no new thinking at all. Nor did the presidential elections—where debate was reduced to one-liners and complex sentences were banned altogether—advance our understanding. As a result, we were ill prepared to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Gorbachev’s initiative. President George Bush’s recent speech dealing with the need for going beyond containment suggested some movement in the right direction, however.
Could the United States live without superpower rivalry? Could we adjust to a world that is not dominated by superpowers? Could we have an alliance on which we do not seek to impose our will? Could we accept decisions made by international organizations that are not under our control? These are profound questions that go to the heart of our self-image.
Being a superpower has become an integral part of our national identity. We think of ourselves as defenders of the Free World. Many Americans like to think of NATO as a U.S.- dominated military command structure, just as the Warsaw Pact is dominated by the Soviet Union. We cling to our voting power in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund even if it means imposing immobility on them, and we de-emphasize the United Nations, which we do not control.
The trouble is that the gap between our image of ourselves and reality has widened to the point of becoming unsustainable. Our voting power in the IMF is out of line with our financial strength. Our military commitments far exceed our needs and our resources. They could be justified as long as we had an opponent interested in playing the same game. But now that Gorbachev is willing to disengage all through the world, from Angola to Cam Ranh Bay, how can we justify our continued presence in South Korea and the Philippines? Sooner or later, the United States would have had to re-examine its position in the world, but Gorbachev is forcing the issue.
Consider the case of South Korea. We defended it against Communist invasion at a considerable loss of American lives. But that was nearly four decades ago! We have continued to maintain a large military presence ever since, and we are shocked to discover that the country is seething with anti-American sentiment. American troops are beyond the reach of Korean criminal law and their behavior irritates the population. Korea has some 500,000 troops under arms. North Korea has more troops but only half the population and a fraction of the industrial capacity, and it can no longer count on the active support of either China or the Soviet Union. Against what threats are we defending South Korea?
When our self-image becomes so far removed from reality, it is time to revise our self- image. That is a painful process because it means recognizing reality: We are not as strong nor as righteous as we think. Many of our problems would dissolve if we rethought our role as superpower. Specifically, our budget deficit could be not only reduced but eliminated, and we would recover our economic and financial strength. And if Gorbachev’s vision could be converted into reality, the character of the world we live in would change: The Soviet Union and the countries within its orbit would rejoin the Free World. It seems inconceivable, but the Soviet Union could actually become our friend and ally, similar to our former enemies, Germany and Japan.
What would happen to the world if we stopped standing guard over it? Currently, virtually all local conflicts are exploited, but also contained, by superpower rivalry. If the superpowers withdrew, the conflicts could rage out of control, even at the height of their influence, there were many conflicts that the superpowers were unable to contain. If their power wanes, local wars may proliferate.
Superpower rivalry will have to be replaced by superpower cooperation. This has already succeeded in ending several wars within a remarkably short period of time. The United Nations, which was designed with such cooperation in mind but never had a chance to show how it would function in a favorable climate, may gain a new lease on life. Gorbachev is enthusiastic about the prospect, but the Bush administration would have to reshape its entire outlook on the world before it could endorse the idea of superpower cooperation.
The principle of unrestrained competition ought not to serve as the basis for public policy either in international or in domestic matters. Civilized existence requires both competition and control. The Soviet Union discovered that control without competition does not work; we need to recognize that competition without control is equally unsatisfactory. That is true in the economy—stock markets can crash; unrestrained mergers, acquisitions and leveraged buyouts can destabilize the corporate structure—but it is even more true in international relations. To put it succinctly, the survival of the fittest does not ensure the survival of the system.
In a curious way, Gorbachev’s vision of a Soviet Union restored to the community of nations takes us back to the time of the founding of the United Nations. That is no accident: The United Nations failed because of Stalin, and Gorbachev’s vision is a repudiation of Stalinism.
We must be careful not to get carried away by this vision. This is not the first time that ideas emanating from the Soviet Union have exerted a powerful influence on the world. Nor would it be the first time that worldwide support and interest played a crucial role in the history of the Soviet Union. On the previous occasion, the idealists’ were sadly duped and the creation of the Stalinist state led to a perversion of the values of western civilization.
The critical lesson to be learned is the gap between ideas and reality. In the case of the Soviet Union today, the gap is unsustainably wide. We may enthusiastically endorse Gorbachev’s vision and, exactly because he is so beleaguered, give him all the support he can use. But we must also remain aware of Soviet reality and recognize that Gorbachev’s actions may not match his vision. We must therefore make sure that our support is used to move reality toward that vision. Doing so, we may regain the position of leadership we have lost.