WORLD

In the future tense

Michael Posner December 31 1984
WORLD

In the future tense

Michael Posner December 31 1984

In the future tense

WORLD

By Michael Posner

FOREIGN EDITOR

The political new year will begin on Monday, Jan. 7, in Geneva. Across a conference table in a suitably austere government building, the doughty Soviet foreign minister,

Andrei Gromyko, and his tough American counterpart, Secretary of State George Shultz, will face off in diplomacy’s answer to the battle of the superstars. Ostensibly, the long-awaited summit commits neither Moscow nor Washington to anything beyond polite words, a few cups of coffee and some

Swiss chocolate. In fact, there is every expectation in both capitals and among their respective allies that not long after the protagonists conclude their discussions, the United States and the Soviet Union will formally convene talks aimed at slowing, however modestly, the nuclear arms race.

Both sides have pressings reasons for resuming the arms control dialogue. The Western democracies face a swelling chorus of civic concern about the risks of nuclear war. The arms control agenda is depressingly complex, not least because technology has outstripped the ability to verify compliance, but the West has little choice but to try to appease public anxiety by demonstrating its devotion to the task. Moreover, with his historic electoral mandate and the ability to develop new generations of antisatellite weaponry, Ronald Reagan now possesses more negotiating leverage than any U.S. president has enjoyed for two decades. As the aphoristic Shultz has put it, the trick with leverage is to “use it or lose it.”

The Kremlin has its own rationale for returning to the bargaining table and it is no less compelling. The sabre of Soviet foreign policy has long been pointed at the ties that bind Western Europe to the United States. Moscow’s current strategy is to block American development of space-based systems by nurturing Europe’s aversion to the militarization of space. If Washington proceeds with its so-called “star wars” program, it will inevitably sour relations with London, Paris, and Bonn—as well as the alliance’s junior partners in Ottawa, Brussels, Rome and The Hague. Alternatively, if Reagan accepts a weapons testing moratorium now, it will be politically difficult for him or his successors to reverse that decision later. Either way, the Soviets would benefit.

But diplomatic gambles do not pay off in isolation. If only to the Europeans, Moscow itself had to demonstrate a commitment to curbing the arms race. As a result, its prior position—a blanket refusal to even contemplate disarmament talks until Washington dismantled new theatre nuclear weapons in Europe —has been unceremoniously shelved. As Shultz—or a less dour Andrei Gromyko—might say: you can’t win it if you’re not in it.

Neither side harbors illusions about the prospects for early agreement on any category of missiles—strategic or tactical, ground or sea-launched. But agreement is not the object of the exercise. Whatever else may happen in 1985, both sides know that arms control will be the dominant motif of superpower relations. And both are drafting their scores with all the haste that decorum allows.

Elsewhere, the international horizon

seems equally uncertain. In the Middle East, some analysts profess to see the glimmer of a potential breakthrough. Egypt, an Arab pariah after its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, has been welcomed back to the fold. Iraq, until recently an implacable enemy of the West, has restored diplomatic links with Washington. Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has defied his Syrian nemesis, President Hafez al-Assad, and forged closer ties with moderate Arab states —including Jordan. Some analysts contend that the Jordanian monarch, King Hussein, is planning a bid for peace, an action reminiscent of the late Anwar Sadat’s 1977 mission to Jerusalem that led, in turn, to Camp David.

But the realistic odds must be weighted heavily against the optimists. The so-called Arab rejection front states —Syria, Libya, South Yemen—will violently oppose any hint of compromise with Israel. And Jerusalem itself, governed by a fractious and unstable coalition, is barely able to agree on measures to cool its hyperinflated economy. The notion of the current Israeli government agreeing to return the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to any sort of Arab control, let alone consent to a PLO state, seems to be unrealistic. More likely, the peace process in 1985 will sputter on aimlessly, characterized by the now-familiar program of careful feints and ambiguous nods.

Nor is peace visibly at hand in Central America. In El Salvador, the U.S.backed government of José Napoleón Duarte approaches the new year facing a de facto currency devaluation that will widen the gap between rich and poor, as well as a mounting casualty toll in its five-year war against left-wing insurgents.

Damoclean swords hang perilously over other nations as well. In South Africa, for one, the anti-apartheid movement is certain to gather momentum in the months ahead. At the same time, a growing Communist insurgency in the Philippines and the lack of clear lines for ailing President Ferdinand Marcos’s succession may lead to an upheaval there. Other crisis areas include the savage drought now racing through much of Africa and the lingering problem of Latin America’s massive debt. The putative cure—sustained export growth—is now seriously threatened by the end of the U.S. economic recovery. By rescheduling debt in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere, New York bankers and the International Monetary Fund have lengthened the trip wire on the debt bomb. But the device itself has not yet been defused. And it, among all the explosions that could wreak havoc on the year to come, would surely be the loudest.