Dealing with the Soviets
Mortal Rivals: Superpower Relations from Nixon to Reagan.
by William G. Hyland.
Random House. 271 pp. $19.95.
When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger assumed responsibility for the foreign policy of the United States in 1969, they faced a horrendous situation. The country was mired in a no-win war and deeply torn internally; loss of credibility was undermining American leadership of the alliances which had been the center of policy since the days of George Marshall and Dean Acheson; and the rapid growth of Soviet military power threatened to place the United States in a position of strategic inferiority. The immediate and urgent task facing Nixon and Kissinger was to restore America’s position of power as quickly as possible.
But in the case of Kissinger, at least, ambition went far beyond that goal. At this moment of American weakness, he set out to attempt no less than the creation of a new international order, one that would allow U.S.-Soviet relations to be handled on a more stable and secure basis than had existed since the onset of the cold war.
Such an order would only work if its legitimacy were accepted by the major Communist powers, and particularly by the Soviet Union. Giving Moscow a sense of belonging was therefore crucial to the enterprise, and that meant granting it the equal status as a superpower that it desperately wanted. Détente, properly understood, both contributed toward the creation of such a structure and ultimately depended on its coming into being. The essence of détente was the use of all the resources of the United States—political, military, and economic—to create a basis for stabilizing and managing relations with the Soviet Union. But to be more than a passing phase, dependent on the skill and will of one exceptional man, it had to be institutionalized and firmly embedded in the structures that were to constitute the new order.
How was all this to be brought about, given the weakness of the American position? The main thing that Kissinger had going for him—indeed, in the initial period virtually the only thing that gave him leverage—was the Sino-Soviet conflict. In 1969, the year of fighting along the Ussuri river border between China and the USSR, that conflict was particularly acute. Following his own analysis of Bismarck’s strategy, Kissinger immediately began a policy of “manipulating the antagonisms” of the contending forces: first exploiting China’s fears of the Soviet Union to edge toward a new relationship between Washington and Peking, and then exploiting Soviet fears of a Chinese-American rapprochement to make Moscow more accommodating.
The new policy required other innovations as well: the substitution of a more power-political and issue-oriented approach for the ideological one that had prevailed over the previous twenty years; the adoption of a policy of “linkage,” whereby progress on issues of interest to the Soviets was tied to progress on matters of concern to the United States; the elevation of strategic arms control, the one issue on which it was assumed the two superpowers had a clear mutual interest, to the top of the negotiating agenda; and, of course, the creation of the famous “web” of relationships that was so to entangle Moscow as to commit it to an era of negotiations. All these were “instruments of larger policy” and were to be judged as such, rather than in isolation and on their own merits.
The above, in brief, is the description and rationale of Kissinger’s Soviet policy offered by William Hyland in Mortal Rivals. Hyland’s credentials for expounding on the subject are outstanding. Now the editor of Foreign Affairs, he was—along with Lawrence Eagleburger, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Alexander Haig, Peter Rodman, Winston Lord, and a few others—a member of the core group around Kissinger throughout his years in office. During that period Hyland rose steadily in the hierarchy, ending up as Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, a position he continued to hold during the first year of the Carter administration. Hyland’s main area of responsibility during the Kissinger period was U.S.-Soviet relations, and especially arms-control negotiations, and it is on these that his book concentrates.
Those whose resolution has faltered at the prospect of tackling the 2,700 pages (so far) of Kissinger’s own memoirs will be relieved to hear that Mortal Rivals is short: a mere two hundred pages on the years 1969 to 1976, followed by sixty more on the Carter and Reagan Presidencies. But a warning is in order. Short and extremely interesting as it is, Hyland’s book is not a particularly easy read. Its very brevity, combined with the inherent complexity of the issues with which it deals, make for a compressed and densely textured work.
What gives Mortal Rivals vitality and sustains interest, even more than the insider’s anecdotes and vignettes sprinkled through it, is the fact that it is a healthily opinionated and combative book. Hyland makes no pretense of being impartial or above the debate. He writes as a committed advocate, prepared to give ground on some secondary matters but resolute in joining issue on the central questions of Kissinger’s record, and laying about him vigorously in dealing with critics, particularly those on the Right. The words “nonsense” and “silly” come readily to his pen. In a culture in which a mealy-mouthed hedging and covering of bets is much too readily equated with tolerance and objectivity, this is refreshing. It invites and deserves the compliment of a response in kind.
A central, unresolved (indeed, apparently unrecognized) tension runs through Mortal Rivals—as it did through Kissinger’s performance itself. It is the tension between the requirements of the two primary goals pursued: the restoration of America’s power position and the creation of a new international order. One called for the pressing of advantage, the clear acceptance of competition and conflict of interest; the other for restraint and accommodation. In personal terms it is the tension between Kissinger the antagonist (the one Nixon most valued) and Kissinger the international impresario (the role he himself increasingly favored). This tension is evident throughout Hyland’s book.
Take, for example, his treatment of the Nixon-Kissinger China policy. In the first chapter it is forth-rightly described thus: “The core of the new policy was a classical reversal of alliances, in which China, in effect, joined the West against Russia.” That seems clear enough. But as the book and events proceed, it becomes less so. As Kissinger becomes more absorbed in finding an accommodation with Moscow, as Brezhnev harps on the danger China represents to both superpowers, and as, around 1972, it becomes clear that “for the Soviets a U.S. willingness to drop the China option and take up a semi-alliance with Moscow” is a critical test of détente, the idea of a Sino-U.S. alliance against Russia gives way to that of a “rapprochement with both China and the Soviet Union.”
The difference between the two positions is never acknowledged clearly by Hyland, though it represents a shift of major proportions. At one point he writes: “Looking back now, I realize that Soviet-American relations were altered in this period not by better ‘understanding’ or more contacts but by a change in the raw balance of power in favor of a new anti-Soviet coalition.” But he continues to write in defense of the pursuit of “understanding” and “more contacts,” and to criticize sharply those who persisted in a robust hostility to Moscow.
There is a similar ambiguity in his treatment of military power and arms control. In White House Years, Kissinger quotes approvingly from a paper written by Hyland in 1970:
The-Soviets respect power and strength. They understand military strength best of all. This does not mean, of course, that they are eager to fight, or that they believe in the indiscriminate use of force. But they do not understand restraint; it confuses them, and in the end leads them to conclude that there is room for their own forward movement.
There is little along these lines in Mortal Rivals. Instead we are told that at the very time that Hyland was writing these words, “both superpowers found that their ability to translate military power into political influence was limited, and these limits were becoming more and more evident.” The concern of the “incorrigible right wing” with achieving an equal level of strategic arms is dismissed as “a fatal error” and “meaningless,” and its impatience with the restraint that the younger Hyland himself thought mistaken is deplored.
Kissinger long ago recanted the position implied in his famous question, “What, in the name of God, is strategic superiority?” But Hyland considers it “still relevant” and maintains that “Neither side has developed a convincing answer in the intervening thirteen years.” Yet surely when he observes that strategic weapons had become, in effect, the surrogates for war, and that if one country surged ahead in number or quality of weapons it was entitled to geopolitical gains, he provides his own answer.
Hyland takes some shots at the State Department, the Pentagon, and the bureaucratic negotiating teams, as well as the political Right, for their attitudes toward arms control. Some of these are well-directed. But was the view that the substance of arms-control negotiating positions should properly be subordinated to the achieving of a rather nebulous new international structure, and to the maintaining of the momentum of détente (“all that we wanted at this point was to demonstrate movement, and to break one of the stalemates”), any more defensible?
According to Mortal Rivals, Kissinger in dealing with Moscow deliberately deemphasized the ideological element in the relationship and the question of Soviet intentions in order to focus on opportunities for specific accommodations. This approach is reflected in the book itself. Although Hyland is an expert on the Soviet Union, he offers little analysis of the forces shaping that country’s foreign policy or speculation about its motives. And ideology is virtually totally ignored, not even rating a mention in the forty-four-line entry under “Soviet Union” in the index.
What does receive full, fascinating, and overwhelmingly favorable treatment is the character of the Soviet leaders, particularly Brezhnev. Indeed, while Kissinger is, predictably, the hero of the book, Brezhnev is cast in the improbable role of its lovable rogue. He has the amusing habit of pilfering black binder clips from the American delegation and cigarettes from Podgorny. He tells “touching” anecdotes. He is charming and persuasive. He “plaintively” produces photos for inspection and writes “rather pathetic” pleas to Kissinger. Moreover, as the relationship develops, his psychological dependence on Kissinger apparently becomes marked:
It was rather poignant to see how this old man, hardened by the rough-and-tumble of Soviet politics, known as an anti-Semite, would reach out to the German-Jewish refugee who had become Secretary of State in circumstances that could never be replicated in the Soviet Union, and plead for help.
By the end one is left wondering how such an old softy ever made it to the top in the Kremlin.
An even more pertinent question arises: if Kissinger and Brezhnev got on so well and if both genuinely wanted détente to succeed, why did it not? Hyland gives various answers to this question in different places: (1) Watergate dealt the policy a crippling blow; (2) the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan killed it; (3) it became too exclusively a European policy and was not extended effectively to the Third World; (4) it failed because of “the weakness of its indigenous roots” in the American political culture, the country as a whole not understanding the “subtle weaving of intellectual and geopolitical strands” that the policy required; and (5) actually détente did not really fail—for all practical purposes the Reagan administration today is pursuing the same policy Henry Kissinger put into place a decade and a half ago.
Obviously, all these answers cannot be true. Perhaps none of them is. For there is at least one other possible answer that Hyland does not consider seriously, and that indeed the setting-aside of ideology does not permit him to consider. That is, that the weakness of détente’s “indigenous roots” in Soviet political culture, the fact that it conflicted with the basic legitimizing myths of the regime, meant that it never really had a chance. In Mortal Rivals, people who hold such a view tend to be dismissed as leftovers from “the era of virulent anti-Communism.”
In fact, such people are presented as the principal villains of the Kissinger period, the main source of destructive “nonsense” and “absurd” criticism of what was being attempted. There is, shall we say, a certain lack of generosity in the way opposition to détente from the Right is treated. Take, for example, the case of the late Senator Henry Jackson, who comes in for some notably rough treatment for his attempt to engage in a bit of “linkage” of his own, with the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the trade bill. This made most-favored-nation treatment for the Soviet Union conditional on free emigration for Jews. Given the subsequent record of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, there certainly is room for legitimate argument about the wisdom of the amendment. But Hyland goes far beyond that. Jackson’s effort is characterized as “typical of classical anti-Communists,” “cynical,” “simply another effort to break the momentum of détente” by a man who knew better, and motivated by his presidential ambitions. Once motives have been impugned in this way, the common ground left is very limited.
Again, there is the treatment of President Ford’s failure to receive Solzhenitsyn at the White House. In the three paragraphs Hyland devotes to the episode, the failure is attributed to a foul-up at lower levels. But most of his energy and space are devoted to attacking those who were critical of it. George Will was silly about the whole thing, while it was “typical of the American right wing” that it could be agitated about Soviet dissidents but (he alleges) could not rouse itself over the fate of Portgual and Angola, which was then in the balance. As for Solzhenitsyn himself, there is no acknowledgment of his towering moral stature or talent, merely the dismaying and gratuitous remark that “This, of course, was before Solzhenitsyn revealed some of his more unpalatable views about democracy and the United States.”
Given this hostility, it is not surprising that when Hyland comes to deal with Reagan’s policies, phrases like “cynically gambling,” “cavalier attitude,” “fundamental contradiction,” “effective public relations,” and “gimmick” proliferate. The contempt of the sophisticated disciple of Kissinger for the crudeness of it all is barely concealed. But there is a problem. For, say what you like about the rest of Reagan’s foreign policy (and it has certainly not been altogether a thing of beauty), the truth is that he has been remarkably successful in dealing with the Soviets.
He defeated them, and the European Left, over the Euromissile issue. He has effectively changed the rules as far as conflicts in the Third World are concerned. He has had Moscow coming to him, on the basis of his proposals, on arms control. It may even be the case that he has been an essential factor in the Soviet move toward internal reform; for, had they been faced with a more compliant and accommodating American President than Reagan, the Soviet leaders might well have chosen to defer hard choices.
So how to explain Reagan’s success? Hyland does so in terms of luck and change. First, the confusion and weakness in the Kremlin resulting from the drawn-out succession problem gave the Reagan administration “a free ride for almost four years.” Second, in office Reagan came increasingly to resemble his predecessors, moving in practice, if not in rhetoric, “from a position well to the right to a position almost in the center of the road.” Thus his successes were achieved despite, not because of, his ideological position.
The first of these explanations clearly has some substance. During his first term, the fact that Reagan dealt with three dying Soviet leaders in succession certainly eased his task. But in speaking of his “luck” it should also be remembered that since 1985 he has had to deal with the smartest Soviet leader since Stalin—the nearest equivalent to a Kissinger yet produced by the Kremlin. (Indeed, bearing in mind Kissinger’s own good fortune in having the “pathetic” Brezhnev to deal with, it is fascinating to speculate how he would have coped with a Gorbachev, a man whose capacity for risk-taking and bold maneuver seems to match his own. Could the world have survived two such high-wire performances simultaneously?)
As to the second of Hyland’s explanations of Reagan’s success, it seems to me to have much less substance. Of course, Reagan has changed somewhat in office, but much less so than most Presidents. His success in dealing with the Soviet Union has resulted from policies and positions that few recent mainstream practitioners of American foreign policy would have adopted: the Reagan doctrine of supporting resistance fighters against Communist regimes; a steady refusal to hasten toward compromises in order to avert confidently predicted catastrophe; the deployment of a rhetoric that matched the Soviets’ own in militancy; the espousal of the Strategic Defense Initiative in defiance of conventional arms-control wisdom; a willingness to live without the political advantages of summit meetings for years on end.
Yet to say all this is not to deny that there have been—and are—serious deficiencies in Reagan’s foreign-policy performance. His repeated failures to select the ablest people to fill key positions; the near-disaster of Reykjavik; the shambles of the Iran-contra affair—these and many other lesser items in his record make it clear that there is much to fault.
Currently, the proposed INF agreement illustrates (as did Reykjavik before it) one of Reagan’s fundamental weaknesses: his belief, shared by most liberals, that nuclear weapons are in themselves evil and that getting rid of them is in itself a good thing. To the extent that this belief holds sway in his mind—and it has been a constant theme in his rhetoric—not only the Western alliance but the peace of the world is endangered. As inanimate things nuclear weapons have no innate moral properties. They can be put to good or evil uses. In the last four decades, as the indispensable tools of deterrence, they have been a force for good; until the West finds other means of ensuring deterrence—and it will not do so for years to come—they will continue to be indispensable.
None of this, however, alters the fact that in his dealings with the Soviets Reagan has been remarkably successful in getting what he wants and in resisting what he does not want. In that respect, the lesson of Reaganism—unpalatable both to liberals and adroit practitioners of realism—may be that in dealing with the Soviet Union, if there is to be a choice, steadfastness and the understanding of a few simple but crucial truths are more important than a mastery of complexity and maneuver, however dazzling they may be. If we are in for a “Gorbachev Era,” the importance of this lesson is likely to increase rather than diminish.