Above all, he [Gorbachev] is a leader who can make plans for the year 2000 with a reasonable expectation that he will still be in power to witness their frustration or fruition. Such a leader might conclude, or be persuaded, that the fulfillment of his visions can best be guaranteed by an avoidance of confrontation and a careful management of competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. If not, he could easily become a supremely dangerous adversary. (Time, September 9, 1985) Mr. Gorbachev did show some flexibility. . . . I feel that when the summit meets, there is a chance these two leaders can get together.
– Senator Strom Thurmond (Quoted in September 7, 1985, New York Times, after he and seven other U.S. Senators met with the General Secretary in Moscow)
Late on the afternoon of Thursday, July 21, 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower was concluding a major address to the four-power Geneva summit meeting. Eisenhower had just put forward the so-called “Open Skies Proposal”—a scheme in which the Soviet Union and the West would undertake certain confidence-building measures to reassure each other that a surprise attack was not being prepared. (This was to include the exchange of blueprints and charts that would locate and describe all military installations, and the right to conduct aerial reconnaissance of both sides’ territory.) Suddenly, in Eisenhower’s words, “[w]ithout warning, and simultaneous with my closing words, the loudest clap of thunder I have ever heard roared into the room, and the conference was plunged into Stygian darkness.”
Within a few minutes, the lights returned. Perhaps stunned by this Providential intervention, or maybe thinking the incident a pointed demonstration of American technological superiority, Soviet Chairman N. A. Bulganin responded by indicating the U.S.S.R.’s interest in the U.S. proposal.
After a decade in which there had been no direct meetings between Soviet and American heads of state—the last summit was at Potsdam in July 1945—the Cold War seemed on the verge of thawing out. The Spirit of Geneva was born.
Unfortunately, the political and strategic reality of the Geneva summit did not match the public expectations generated by the meeting. The real power in the Soviet delegation—a member of the Presidium, N. S. Khrushchev—quickly informed Eisenhower that “I don’t agree with the Chairman.” The same Khrushchev would soon become known for such charming behavior as pounding his shoe (sans foot) on United Nation’s tables, and for reassuring the loyalty of Soviet allies such as Hungary by somewhat less diplomatic means.
The United States, however, had not planned to depend on Soviet good will for its military security in any event: The U-2 high-altitude spy plane was to make its debut within a few weeks, and for the remainder of the 1950s, the U-2 would provide convincing intelligence that the United States remained well ahead of the Soviets in strategic nuclear weapons, allegations of a “bomber gap” and a “missile gap” notwithstanding. And when the Soviets’ downing of a U-2 in May 1960 provided Khrushchev with an excuse to cancel the upcoming Paris summit, the world still did not fall apart. The United States had in the works sophisticated reconnaissance satellites to replace the U-2, along with Polaris and Minute-man missiles much more advanced than those the Soviets were then struggling to deploy.
Thirty years after Eisenhower, Bulganin, British Prime Minister Eden, and French Premier Faure met in Geneva, another American President and another Soviet leader will sit down across the table in the beautiful Swiss city. The Western press, disappointed that the Democratic party could not come up with someone more interesting than Walter Mondale to oppose Mr. Reagan in . . . [illegible in original copy] . . . Secretary. One need merely look at the cover of the September 9 issue of Time: the somber face of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev peers out, under the quotation, “The situation in the world today is highly complex, very tense. I would even go so far as to say it is explosive.” This is not exactly what Gorbachev says in his interview—see pages 25-26—but evidently even the Kremlin leadership can be edited, if not censored, to earn the great distinction of appearing on the cover of Time.
Lest the reader fail to appreciate the proper sense of drama, Time entitles its “Special Report” on the Gorbachev interview, “Moscow’s Vigorous Leader: Confident and Tough, Gorbachev Gets Set for the Great Communicator.” And in the Red corner, let Time introduce the challenger:
Newly back from a vacation on the Crimean seashore, Mikhail Gorbachev looks well tanned, just a bit ruddy in the cheek. He conveys an image of robust health and naturally controlled energy. He is solid but not fat. He laughs easily.
He dominates a meeting with three extraordinary tools: eyes, hands, and voice. The eyes go into action first. They are an intense dark brown. During conversation they will lock onto a listener and not let him go until the listener gives some sign of acknowledgment, agreement—or flinches. The eyes are neither harsh nor kind. They are big and strong, and sometimes quick, too. . . .
The voice is extraordinary, deep but also quite soft. Sometimes Gorbachev talks for several minutes, in a near whisper, low and melodious. Then, without warning, his voice can cut across the room. It is not angry or bullying, just stronger than any other sound in the room. Occasionally the eyes, the hands and the voice reach peak power at the same time, and then it is clear why this man is General Secretary.
One might suspect that Time has not quite exhausted the reasons why this man is General Secretary—but in any case, the message is clear: Ronald Reagan at last may have met his match in the Battle for World Public Opinion. The Soviet leader might even bring a secret weapon; Henry A. Grunwald, editor-in-chief of Time, asked Gorbachev if his “attractive wife Raisa” would attend the Geneva Summit. When Gorbachev replied that she would, Grunwald told the Soviet General Secretary, “That’s good. You know, the Western press is in love with her.”
All of this must be giving the President’s image-makers fits, especially after the public relations debacle that the administration suffered over the Bitburg visit. The press will also be focusing on the President’s general performance for any hint of deteriorating health following his recent cancer surgeries. So many expectations will have been raised by November that the White House must surely fear repetition, on an international scale, of the first televised presidential debate in the 1984 campaign. In this case, the President does not have a big electoral lead, or a second debate on which to fall back.
What should be expected from the Geneva Summit of 1985, beyond the obvious attempts to put a favorable spin on the reports of NBC Nightly News? (Is anyone willing to bet that Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings won’t be in Geneva?) The Reagan administration . . . [illegible in original] . . . going so far as to refer to it as only an introductory, get-acquainted session. In part, the administration is concerned that a failure to meet inflated expectations about Geneva will stir the fury of the left; in part, the administration wants to reassure the right that it is not preparing to give away the store. According to the press reports, Mr. Reagan will merely seek to establish a “future agenda” of four items: arms control, human rights, regional issues, and bilateral relations.
The Soviets do not seem inclined to follow this script. They have one issue in mind for Geneva: Star Wars. Gorbachev appears perfectly willing to turn the tables on the Americans, who have a long history of trying to link progress in arms control with acceptable Soviet behavior on other issues. By offering a great compromise in arms control—the United States to give up its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in return for a Soviet agreement on “deep reductions” in offensive nuclear arms—Gorbachev can place the Reagan administration in an extremely difficult position. The European allies would be delighted with such a deal; most of U.S. Congress could hardly wait to deep-six programs such as the M-X (Peacekeeper) ICBM and SDI in the name of arms control. And should the Reagan administration be inclined to haggle about the terms of the Soviet proposal, Gorbachev can hardly be blamed for making sour noises and dragging his feet on other items of Washington’s agenda-further aggravating the allies and Congress.
Is such a deal in the interest of the United States? One cannot pronounce a definitive judgment without knowing the precise terms of an agreement along these lines, but the Reagan administration must carefully think through all of the probable implications. Two areas of immediate concern come to mind: U.S. defense policy and the NATO alliance. According to Secretary of State Shultz and other administration officials, the United States can now deal confidently with the Soviet Union because “[t]he much-needed modernization of Western defense capabilities is on track,” and because “[w]e have restored the relations of confidence and harmony with our key allies in Europe and Asia.” Perhaps, but how will these American strengths play in Geneva? Eisenhower was commander-in-chief of an American bomber force that was at the absolute peak of its power in relation to the Soviet Union. Combined with substantial U.S. continental air defenses, the Strategic Air Command was geared to, and probably could have carried out, a wartime strategy of massive retaliation—i.e., defeat Soviet nuclear forces (and thus limit damage to the American homeland), defeat Soviet conventional forces (and thus win a regional war in, say, Western Europe), and destroy the Soviet Union as a viable economic and political entity.
At present, the United States enjoys a position of, at best, nuclear parity with the Soviet Union and has been unable to find an adequate solution to the vulnerability of a major portion of its strategic forces (land-based ICBMs). The United States long ago abandoned massive retaliation and with it any hope to avoid the total destruction of American society in an all-out nuclear war. In place of massive retaliation, the United States has come to rely on one or another variant of flexible (i.e., limited) response. That is, in the event of Soviet aggression which cannot be contained by conventional forces, the United States could reserve some of its nuclear weapons, hoping that the mutual fear of assured destruction would keep a nuclear exchange from getting totally out of hand. Also, the United States no longer believes that the threat of killing millions of Soviet citizens and destroying a high percentage of Soviet industry is sufficient to deter Soviet aggression under all circumstances. The United States must be capable of “holding at risk” (destroying) those assets which the Soviet leadership “values most highly” (needs to survive a nuclear war)—i.e., the Soviet leadership itself, its ability to control the U.S.S.R. and occupied territory, and its nuclear and conventional military forces.
Unfortunately, the industrious Soviets have been working doggedly to prevent the United States from (a) having the ability to control and prevail in a limited nuclear exchange, and (b) being able to destroy those essential Soviet targets if war does occur. A 1983 assessment by General John Vessey, the retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put the problem this way:
There have been some quality improvements to our strategic forces over the last five years. . . . However, the Soviets have, during the same period, made great strides in improving their first strike capability against our hardened land based nuclear weapon systems. Additionally, they have vigorously pursued a program of providing protection for their leadership through deep, hard, urban shelters and an extensive network of hardened relocation sites outside the cities, with redundant communications systems. They have significantly hardened their ICBM silos. These factors, added to the elaborate Soviet plans for dispersion of military units and key civilian workers, have caused the Soviet target base to change dramatically. Consequently, our ability to hold that target base at risk has deteriorated.
In short, the United States is having a difficult time maintaining its current doctrine of nuclear deterrence, the so-called “countervailing” strategy. Soviet targets are becoming too numerous, too hard, and their location is becoming too uncertain, for the United States to meet its deterrence goal of defeating Soviet strategy (as opposed to indiscriminately killing people and destroying civilian targets). This does not mean that war is imminent; the United States can still cause enormous damage to the Soviet Union if push comes to shove. But to what end? If the Soviets, for whatever reason, put Western defenses to the test, the United States has fewer and fewer options to use its strategic nuclear forces with any rational hope of gaining military advantage without triggering a Soviet response that will destroy American society. Under these conditions, how far can the United States reduce its strategic weapons, even in response to Soviet reductions, since many high-value Soviet targets (e.g., conventional forces, leadership bunkers) will not be affected by an arms control agreement? Where could reductions best take place—bombers, ICBMs, submarines? Are reductions in launchers sufficient, or must warheads be dismantled as well—and if so, in what proportion?
This is not to argue that cuts in offensive forces are necessarily undesirable, but only that the United States must think through the implications of a “de-MIRVed” world—one in which each side has one warhead on each missile or delivery vehicle—just as it should have thought through the implications of a MIRVed world where the Soviets could amass 5,000 or more counterforce weapons on its ICBM force. In particular, would an offense-for-SDI trade make sense, given the fact that a reduced U.S. strategic force would continue to have difficulty in conducting flexible response options intended to limit and terminate a conflict with the Soviets? While it might be preferable in theory to defeat Soviet strategy over there through the use of offensive forces, in practice it may be necessary to defeat Soviet strategy over here through the use of strategic defenses that prevent the U.S.S.R. from using its nuclear weapons for military purposes against the continental United States.
Above all, the Reagan administration must be wary of agreeing to the worst of all worlds—a token cut in offensive forces that does nothing to alleviate U.S. military vulnerabilities, in return for closing off any future technical and political possibility for strategic defenses. The Soviets have hinted broadly that this is indeed their intention, although it remains to be seen whether they will put such an offer on the arms control table in Geneva before the November summit.
Of course, there may be other political or military alternatives that might in some way replace or complement the U.S. offensive deterrent, thus permitting negotiated reductions in strategetic weapons and a continuing ban on defensive systems. The most obvious possibility here is the conventional-force alternative; because the fear of uncontrolled nuclear escalation must weigh most heavily on the side with the weakest armies, navies, and tactical air forces. When coming into office, the Reagan administration made exactly this point: The United States would settle for a “tie” in strategic nuclear forces and would place its greatest emphasis on conventional-force improvements. To do so would clearly mean very high and sustained increases in the rate of defense spending, a requirement that has clearly not been met.
If the modernization of Western defense capabilities cannot carry the load in Geneva, what about Secretary Shultz’s confidence in the strengthened U.S. alliance structure?
At the 1955 Geneva summit, President Eisenhower was accompanied by the leaders of Britain and France. Paris, London, and Washington certainly had their differences—the Suez crisis was little more than a year ahead—but the United States, by virtue of its unsurpassed economic and military power, enjoyed tremendous leverage within NATO. Perhaps more importantly, Britain and France still had major interests outside Europe that they were prepared to defend with military force, and thus had something other than a narrow continental outlook on international events and Soviet policy. This often gave the United States a considerable headache—French policy in Indochina being the most recent example—but in retrospect, the alternative has turned out to be even worse.
In November, no other Western leader will join President Reagan in Geneva, but their presence will be felt nonetheless. For the West Europeans, NATO has become a mechanism not to oppose the Soviets but to live with them. Good behavior by both superpowers is seen as essential to the political stability of Europe, and since the NATO allies have more influence in Washington than in Moscow, the West Europeans have become Potomac lobbyists for moderate American policies. The European message is that détente is essential to the political well being of Europe, East-West dialogue is necessary for détente, arms control negotiations and agreements are a necessary part of that dialogue, and therefore anything that disturbs arms control (i.e., disturbs the Soviets) must be avoided if at all possible. Star Wars disturbs the Soviets and arms control; if forced to make a choice in Geneva, the West Europeans will cheerfully advise Mr. Reagan to ditch Star Wars.
This analysis is somewhat unfair to the Europeans, who have legitimate concerns about SDI as it relates to the NATO flexible response doctrine, and who understand that the United States must not become too weak or the game will be up simply. But the problem is that the Europeans are equally concerned that the United States not become too strong. German Defense Minister Manfred Woerner, for example, has argued against any U.S.-Soviet competition over strategic defenses:
It would be intolerable, for example, for one of the two superpowers to gain a one-sided lead in setting up such a system. The superpower with the advantage would then have absolute superiority and the other power would basically have to submit. The strategic balance would then be upset.
Woerner, it seems, is no more anxious for the United States to gain an “advantage” or “absolute superiority” through SDI than for the Soviets to do so through an equivalent program.
If this judgment were limited to SDI, all still might be well within NATO. But the West Europeans seem determined to prevent the United States from pursuing advantage over the Soviets at any point. Improve conventional forces? No, say the Europeans, this is too expensive, it weakens deterrence, and hurts East-West relations. Restrict the flow of Western technology and capital to the Soviet Union? No, it won’t work, and it will hurt East-West relations. Challenge Soviet interests and clients in the Third World? No, this misunderstands the underlying causes of unrest in developing nations and will hurt East-West relations.
The Europeans, to be sure, might be right about the relative costs and benefits in any or all of these particular cases. But one must acknowledge the possibility that there is a fundamental incompatibility between what the United States must do to maintain its position in the world and what the Europeans are prepared to support or even accept. There is no advantage to prejudging this critical matter—if for no other reason than West European real estate is too valuable strategically to abandon when the United States itself does not know precisely what must be done. But it is painfully obvious that the NATO Europeans are not trump cards to be played in Geneva, or anywhere else.
If the United States cannot expect to have leverage at the margin during the summit, is there any hope for a change at the center of the U.S.-Soviet relationship? Is there any possibility that the two great powers might strike a fair bargain which would preserve the honor and the security of the West? Dwight Eisenhower tried to do this in 1955, when the position of the United States was much stronger, but when astute Americans could see the otherwise long and immensely difficult task ahead if a deal were not struck. We should not dismiss this effort as merely American utopianism; Winston Churchill was a staunch advocate of great power summitry, and he believed that the West may have missed a major opportunity in 1953 after the death of Stalin when Eisenhower did not seek a summit meeting with the new post-Stalin leadership. Gorbachev obviously today represents a new generation of Soviet leaders—would Churchill thus advise going ahead with a major initiative in the present circumstances?
Whatever the answer for Churchill, the Reagan administration should not answer affirmatively unless it has a very clear idea of what the West would require for a permanent and fair settlement. The United States has thirty more years of experience than did Eisenhower and Churchill in the 1950s, and our one great attempt at a comprehensive U.S.-Soviet deal—détente—did not prove successful. Perhaps the best Mr. Reagan can achieve is to do nothing that would compromise his successor as he meets with the Soviet leadership in the Geneva summit of 2015.