Cuban troops began to pull out of Angola. An Israeli sports team competed in Moscow for the first time in 22 years. And after more than two years of negotiations, 35 Eastern, Western and neutral nations tentatively agreed on a wide-ranging program to ensure respect for human rights. In major and minor ways, last week’s developments reflected a world growing daily more inclined to talk than to fight, to find common ground than to perpetuate old quarrels. To be sure, all was not smooth sailing. The Soviets, clearly frustrated by the failure of their overtures to the Afghan guerrillas, threatened to postpone their final withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the UN, Western nations clashed with Communist and nonaligned countries over the U.S. navy’s downing of two Libyan MiGs in the Mediterranean. And the destruction of Pan American Flight 103 was a reminder that international terrorism is a constant threat. But overall, the world that George Bush will face on Jan. 20 is far less menacing than the one that President Ronald Reagan confronted when he took office eight years ago.
Pragmatism: Reagan’s inheritance was one of sharp superpower confrontation, containing the frightening possibility of nuclear war and a string of seemingly insoluble regional conflicts. Now, with at least some of those conflicts apparently heading toward solution—and U.S.-Soviet relations so improved that some commentators claim the Cold War is over—global pollution has become a more urgent threat than nuclear holocaust. For the improved overall situation, international leaders have widely credited Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, of whom few in the West had even heard in January, 1981. The once-stridently anti-Communist Reagan has earned his share of plaudits, too, if only for being pragmatic enough to respond positively to Gorbachev’s initiatives. As a result, Bush will begin his presidency in a world in which pragmatism, rather than ideology, seems to prevail.
In fact, Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, are essentially pragmatic men. One of their earliest challenges will be to negotiate a strategic arms reduction treaty that would cut each superpower’s long-range nuclear arsenal by 50 per cent. Such an agreement will likely prove much harder to reach than last year’s pact eliminating an entire class of intermediate-range nuclear weapons. That is because of the much larger number of long-range warheads involved and the daunting difficulties of verification. In conventional weapons, too, many difficult negotiations lie ahead as the Bush administration and its European allies seek ways to respond to Gorbachev’s unilateral undertaking last December to reduce Soviet forces in Europe by 500,000 men and 10,000 tanks.
Initiatives: At the same time, the Soviets enter the Bush era clearly confident that, for the time being at least, they hold the diplomatic initiative. That was again in evidence at last week’s international conference on chemical warfare in Paris, when Moscow announced that it would unilaterally destroy part of its huge arsenal of chemical weapons. Initiatives of that kind not only have made Gorbachev popular internationally but have diverted attention at home from the failure of his perestroika (reconstruction) policies to improve the material lot of the Soviet people.
The Soviets, meanwhile, express mixed but generally positive feelings about the incoming Bush administration. In a recent Maclean’s interview, Sergei Plekhanov of Moscow’s Institute of USA and Canada Studies called its composition “reassuring in one sense but worrisome in another.” He added, “Bush and his people are largely pragmatists but they are not men of new ideas, and new ideas are precisely what is needed.”
Solution: Still, there are ample signs that the superpower relationship will continue to improve. At the same time, key regional issues continue to move, however falteringly, toward a solution. In the most intractable, the Middle East conflict, many observers contend that the U.S. decision last month to open formal contacts with the PLO, following chairman Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel and renunciation of terrorism, at least opens up new possibilities for peace. The intifadeh (uprising) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza is continuing unabated, while the Israeli government insists that it will never talk to the PLO and never permit an independent Palestinian state. But there are signs of a slow shift in Israeli public opinion. A pre-Christmas poll in the Tel Aviv daily Yediot Ahronoth found 54 per cent of Israeli Jewish respondents in favor of talking to the PLO—up from 37 per cent in a similar poll taken before the intifadeh began a year ago.
However, under last month’s coalition agreement between the right-wing Likud bloc and centre-left Labour Party, foreign affairs are in the hands of the hard-line Likud team of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister Moshe Arens and his deputy, Binyamin Netanyahu. Labour’s relatively dovish former foreign minister, Shimon Peres, has been sidelined to the finance ministry. Consequently, it is the Likud trio with which the " Bush administration will have to deal if it tries to persuade Israel to talk to the PLO, either directly or at an international peace conference.
Shamir is working on the details of a new peace proposal but he still appears adamantly opposed to an international conference involving the Soviets. Still, continuing improvement in relations between the Soviet Union and Israel could modify his position. A Soviet decision to resume full diplomatic relations with Israel—which Moscow severed in 1967— would be essential, and, clearly, things are moving in that direction. The Soviets now maintain a seven-man consular mission in Tel Aviv and have allowed the Israelis to post a reciprocal six-man team in Moscow.
As well, the Kremlin allowed 18,965 Soviet Jews to emigrate last year—up from 8,155 in 1987—and for the first time issued tourist visas to about 8,000 more. The Soviets also urged Arafat to recognize Israel’s right to exist and supported moderate elements in the PLO while urging restraint on Syria, their chief client in the region and Israel’s most resolute enemy. And last week, the Kremlin allowed the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team to play in Moscow, the first time since 1967 that any Israeli team has been admitted to the Soviet Union. The Israeli side won, 97-92.
The Israeli government, meanwhile, has earned the gratitude of the Kremlin by returning the hijackers of a Soviet plane last month and sending a relief team to the scene of the Armenian earthquake. The warming of relations arises from Gorbachev’s desire to defuse the Middle East time bomb so that he can concentrate on urgent domestic issues. Still, says Edith Frankel, director of Hebrew University’s Mayrock Centre for Soviet Relations, “the Soviets will make sure that nobody else can make peace without them.” She added, “If there could be a joint Soviet-American settlement, they would be very interested.”
Threat: But however deeply the superpowers become involved, even the most dovish Israelis are watching to see if the PLO’s deeds match its declared intentions. And an apparent threat by Arafat to the life of a moderate Palestinian politician has made it even more difficult to build confidence. Just before Christmas, Bethlehem’s Mayor Elias Freij suggested a 12-month suspension of the intifadeh in return for the release of political prisoners and an end to expulsions and detention without trial. On Jan. 2, the PLO issued a warning in Arafat’s name that “any Palestinian leader who proposes an end to the intifadeh exposes himself to the bullets of his own people.” The next day, Freij withdrew his proposal. Clearly, Arafat has a long way to go before any Israeli government will accept him as a negotiating partner.
There are more dramatic signs of progress in southern Africa, another major regional trouble spot. In Angola, the first of 50,000 Cuban troops—who have been supporting the Marxist government against South African-backed guerrillas of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola since 1975—flew home last week. The pullout was part of an agreement, signed just before Christmas by South Africa on one side and Cuba and Angola on the other. In return for the removal of Cuba’s forces the South Africans agreed to pull out of Namibia, which is scheduled to hold elections in November leading to independence.
Diplomacy: The accord climaxed eight years of patient diplomacy by the Reagan administration. It was also a product of South Africa’s battlefield setbacks in Angola and its need to thaw a Western freeze on investment and improve relations with its black neighbors.
In the last six months of 1988, South African President Pieter Botha met the presidents of Malawi, Zaire, Mozambique and the Ivory Coast. Representatives of more radical African regimes are reported to have met privately with South African officials. But Pretoria’s diplomacy, and its willingness to withdraw from Namibia, did not address the principal reason for its worldwide unpopularity—the denial of political rights to its overwhelming black majority and a repressive nationwide state of emergency. Said one Canadian diplomat in Pretoria: “Botha’s diplomatic initiatives could bring stability to the region, but what is needed is an internal rapprochement.”
In China, Sino-Soviet reconciliation remained largely on track. Still, Moscow has warned that it might not meet the Feb. 15 deadline for a complete troop withdrawal from Afghanistan because Mujahedeen guerrillas are refusing to join a government including members of the present Afghan regime. The Soviet pullout was one of Beijing’s three preconditions for a Sino-Soviet summit in the spring. The Soviets have already fulfilled the others: they have undertaken to reduce their forces along the border with China and they have pressured their Vietnamese allies to withdraw from Kampuchea this year.
Summit: But as they move closer to the Soviets, Chinese officials insist that Beijing’s good relations with Washington will not suffer. Sino-American trade totalled over $16 billion in 1988, compared with less than $4 billion in Sino-Soviet trade, and there are 35,000 Chinese students in America but only about 100 in the Soviet Union. “There would only be cause for concern,” said a Western diplomat in Beijing, “if China and the Soviet Union renewed their pre-1960 politico-military alliance, and there’s no sign of that.” Or, as one Chinese told an American friend: “What are you worried about? This will be our first summit with the Soviets in 30 years. You’ve had five recently.”
As Beijing and Moscow moved closer to each other, Southeast Asia’s regional conflict—in which a guerrilla coalition has been fighting for 10 years to oust Vietnamese forces occupying Kampuchea—seemed near to resolution. “Peace will be at hand within the first six months of 1989,” predicted Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, after Hanoi unveiled a plan for a complete military withdrawal by September. But mutual suspicion among the three Kampuchean resistance groups remained. And there were widespread fears of a postwithdrawal takeover by the strongest of the three groups—Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, which massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians when it was in power from 1975 to 1979.
Communism: In Central America, Gorbachev’s apparent distaste for interventionism may well reduce regional tensions. A contributing factor could be his widening ideological rift with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the old-style Communist leader who has been a firm supporter of leftist movements in the region and who was once Moscow’s surrogate thorn in America’s side. Bush is generally considered unlikely to try to revive the failed Reagan policy of using the contra rebels to bring down Nicaragua’s Marxist Sandinista regime. And in El Salvador, Bush’s immediate problem is more the likelihood of an electoral victory for hard-right forces than a military victory for the far left. In the March 19 presidential election, the candidate of the extremist Nationalist Republican Alliance is expected to defeat that of the moderate, U.S.-backed Christian Democrats. Such a defeat would seriously set back U.S. plans to democratize El Salvador while helping its army win the eight-year guerrilla war.
Beyond regional conflicts, Bush will also face challenges of a different sort. In Western Europe, the 12 nations of the European Community (EC), moving toward full economic integration by 1992, seem far more affluent, purposeful and unified than when Reagan took office in 1981. The EC is increasingly inclined to flex its political muscle, sometimes in conflict with Washington. Many observers say that the Bush administration—troubled by a $ 185-billion deficit and already engaged in a potential trade war with Europe over U.S. beef exports—will find itself dealing with an economic giant rather than an easily divided group of medium-sized trade rivals.
Meanwhile, the European members of NATO seem to be divided over how to respond to Gorbachev’s peace offensive. As the threat of Soviet aggression recedes, those countries may increasingly oppose spending huge sums on defence. At the same time, the Bush administration is likely to come under congressional pressure to make the Europeans pay a bigger share for their own security. That could weaken NATO’s hand in upcoming arms-reduction talks with the Soviet Bloc and inhibit plans to upgrade NATO’s short-range nuclear arsenal.
Opposition: In Eastern Europe, the Soviet Bloc countries are all reacting differently to Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies. Many leaders are delaying any changes until they feel sure that Gorbachev can prevail over his domestic opposition. Only Hungary has moved closer to Western-style democracy with last week’s announcement that opposition political parties would be tolerated. The Czechoslovak and East German regimes have resisted change; recently, the East Germans banned the Soviet magazine Sputnik as “too progressive,” in the words of an official statement. The aging and repressive Bulgarian leadership has tried to console its public with increased supplies of consumer goods. Neighboring Romania has the worst human rights record of any Eastern Bloc country.
Collapse: On the other hand, the Polish government has been inching toward recognition of Solidarity, the banned trade union movement, in transparent hopes of winning U.S. aid for its crippled economy. Meanwhile, outside the Soviet Bloc, Communist Yugoslavia is sliding toward collapse. Its government—unable to cope with 250-per-cent inflation, corruption scandals and a $25-billion foreign debt—resigned last month, while its shaky confederation was convulsed by ethnic tensions.
In Vienna last Friday, the 35-nation Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe provisionally agreed on a wide-ranging package of human rights guarantees. They are designed to ensure freedom of religion, information and travel and, said Canadian chief delegate William Bauer, are “broader and more easily measurable” than the Helsinki human rights agreement of 1976. It was another sign that the world George Bush will face on Jan. 20 is less dangerous than that of eight years ago. But if less menacing, it is also more complex. With Gorbachev’s peace offensive blurring the lines of East-West confrontation, Bush and his foreign policy advisers will need the vision and flexibility to help define a new— and more permanently peaceful—world.