The Washington Summit: The Worst Strategic Miscalculation Since Yalta

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Even though many of the details of the superpower meeting just concluded in Washington have yet to be disclosed, one fact is already clear: This summit represents the worst strategic miscalculation on the part of a president of the United States since the Yalta conference of 1945.

Not since that fateful summit near the end of World War II, at which Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill acceded to Joseph Stalin’s demand that Eastern Europe be regarded as a Soviet "sphere of influence," has an American president accepted greater risks on the basis of a personal relationship with the leader of the USSR. At the Washington Summit, President George Bush decided — evidently out of his respect for and confidence in President Mikhail Gorbachev — to increase still further the already enormous U.S. over-investment in the present Soviet regime.

Unfortunately, it is growing increasingly obvious that such an investment is at least as ill-advised as was Roosevelt’s earlier decision to trust Stalin to honor his commitment to allow free elections in the East European states occupied by Soviet armies near the end of the war. In political, economic and military arenas, the Bush Administration has exhibited seriously flawed judgment with respect to Gorbachev’s policies and prospects which could prove highly detrimental to U.S. interests.

Soviet Politics: Backing the Wrong Horse

In recent months, Gorbachev has shown himself to be more of an impediment to radical democratic reform than a catalyst for it. His military intervention in Azerbaijan was, according to eyewitness accounts, timed so as to ensure that ethnic conflict was inflamed and then used, first and foremost, as a pretext for eliminating the democratic independence movement.

In the Baltic states, Gorbachev has adopted a less overtly violent, but no less effective form of crackdown: economic warfare. As a result, the economy of Lithuania is being crippled and that country’s democratically elected government subverted; Latvia and Estonia are now being threatened with similar fates.

Most recently, events in Russia itself have put on display Gorbachev’s true attitude toward fundamental reform. When those committed to radical democratic and free market change in the Soviet Union were elected to run the Moscow City Council, he directed that certain of the Council’s powers (for example, the responsibility for issuing permits for demonstrations within Moscow city limits) be vested with the national authorities, rather than the local ones. Moreover, in response to one such demonstration in Red Square on May Day which featured public protests of his policies, Gorbachev had the Supreme Soviet enact a law making criticizing the Soviet president a crime punishable by up to six years in prison.

Most recently, of course, Gorbachev’s opposition to urgent reform has been on display in his vigorous efforts to prevent the election of Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian republic. While the full scope of Yeltsin’s program is not yet entirely clear, he has campaigned on an agenda promising rapid movement toward a genuine democratic political system (featuring direct popular elections of the Soviet president) and market-oriented economic changes. Now that Yeltsin has received his own mandate, it can no longer be contended that the only alternative to Gorbachev is the shadowy "hard-liners" and military factions who are said to beseeking an opportunity to reverse such reforms as have been instituted by the present Soviet regime. waiting in the wings,

The Washington Summit made it evident that President Bush, nonetheless, continues to regard Gorbachev as the only hope for reform in the Soviet Union. His Administration has deprecated the democratic opposition (notably, dismissing Yeltsin as a "buffoon"). More reprehensible still, it has seriously undercut them by turning what amounts to a blind eye to Gorbachev’s efforts to subvert the real reformers. A stunning example of this is to be found in President Bush’s decision at the summit to abandon any conditioning of completion of the U.S.-Soviet Trade Agreement on an end to Moscow’s economic warfare against Lithuania.

By failing to establish close ties with those urgently seeking genuine, democratic reform in the USSR and by gratuitously dispensing with the sort of leverage on Gorbachev’s anti-reform behavior afforded by the trade agreement, President Bush is once again aligning himself with the wrong side. As he has done repeatedly with the Chinese government in the aftermath of the crackdown on its democratic movement, the President has effectively said to the Soviet leadership what it wants most to hear: The United States values the appearance of "stability" over freedom. Therefore, the U.S. may be relied upon to take whatever steps are required to help preserve the present Soviet regime — even if in so doing we must oppose those whose commitment to democracy and economic opportunity far surpasses that of the Kremlin’s rulers.

An Economic Life-Support System

Nothing has been more important to the implementation of this strategy than the Bush Administration’s willingness to provide economic, financial and technology support to Moscow. In the midst of Moscow’s economic warfare against Lithuania, Gorbachev has sought, and obtained, U.S. acquiescence in a number of strategically significant areas. Among other things, the Bush Administration:

  • Granted the USSR full membership and borrowing privileges in the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development — despite previous well-founded and formal American objections to such an arrangement on the grounds that it would divert critically needed resources from Eastern Europe to the USSR.

  • Permitted Soviet entry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (initially, with observer status) — despite explicit statements by President Bush (most recently in March 1990) to the effect that such entry must be deferred through the end of the current, Uruguay Round to allow time for Moscow to adopt genuine market-oriented reforms.

  • Liberalized Soviet access to Western high technologies, including many with strategic applications — despite repeated warnings by CIA Director William Webster and other officials that KGB technology theft and collection operations are being intensified.

  • Applauded Chevron’s new agreement for the exploration and probable development of the Tengiz oil field. This initiative dovetails with the efforts of a joint U.S.-Soviet energy working group charged with facilitating Moscow’s access to presently inaccessible oil and gas resources, efforts which are going forward despite the fact that expanding such resources is likely to increase Soviet energy leverage over consumers (like Lithuania, Eastern Europe and Western Europe).


Not content with such concessions, President Gorbachev missed no opportunity at the Washington Summit to impress upon his hosts the urgent need for signature of the U.S.-Soviet Trade Agreement. As his remarks about the "political" value of this pact in San Francisco yesterday underscored, Gorbachev clearly appreciates that such a document has enormous value — even before Congress acts on it.

The trade agreement represents, simply put, tangible evidence of this country’s commitment to invigorated economic relations between the two nations. In this respect, a trade agreement with the United States has multiplied benefits far in excess of its nominal value. As important as Export-Import Bank credits, government investment guarantees and other U.S. subsidies potentially provided for by this accord might be, by conveying to Tokyo, Bonn and other Western capitals a sort of U.S. "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval, Washington also encourages others who may have still "deeper pockets" to move aggressively to assist the Soviet economy with taxpayer funds.

In response to Gorbachev’s repeated inveigling at the summit and — when that appeared insufficient — his blatant threat to hold up signature of an agreement on grain sales, President Bush decided to abandon any pretense of linkage between the trade agreement and an end to Soviet economic warfare against Lithuania. In fact, as the Center had predicted prior to the summit, every agreement in the U.S.-Soviet economic agenda (including trade, maritime, and airline pacts) was signed.

Now, only waiver of Jackson-Vanik remains an issue. Up to the Malta Summit, the Bush Administration had stipulated that most-favored nation (MFN) status could only be granted once Moscow enacted and implemented a new Soviet law codifying free emigration privileges for Soviet citizens. Subsequently, the Administration clearly saw a linkage between granting this concession and satisfactory resolution of the Lithuanian situation.

At Sunday’s joint press conference with Gorbachev, however, President Bush took pains to note that just a single impediment currently remains to his waiver of Jackson-Vanik: enactment of the emigration legislation now awaiting action by the Soviet parliament. The President has thus telegraphed his Administration’s clear antipathy to congressional efforts to tie such a waiver to an end to the Soviet crackdown on Lithuania — setting the stage for a divisive fight with Congress.

Making a Mess of the Military Situation

President Bush’s performance at the summit is perhaps most clearly reminiscent of Roosevelt’s at Yalta with respect to his willingness to make significant concessions to Moscow in the military arena. This is reflected in two particularly important areas: arms control and Germany.

Arms Control

During the run-up to the summit, the United States accepted provisions in several arms control agreements that are seriously flawed in one or more of the following respects: They involve arrangements that will leave the United States, on net, militarily worse off than before the agreements, they are inherently unverifiable, and/or they will interfere in an asymmetrical way with our ability to pursue technologies essential to the future effectiveness of American deterrent forces. Ironically, the Bush Administration made these concessions at a moment when its negotiating leverage was great — and growing.

Such concessions are, evidently, the product of more than simply a presidential determination to "help" Gorbachev. They are also motivated by a peculiar notion that it is necessary to "lock in" these agreements. The obvious inference to be drawn from such a suggestion is that the Bush Administration lacks, despite its public statements, confidence in Gorbachev’s durability.

If so, the policy of making hasty concessions to secure agreements with him seems on the face of it to be bizarre. Under the best of circumstances, the combined effects of more radical reformers coming to power and the Soviet economy continuing to plummet should give rise to circumstances vastly more favorable than those now being "locked in." Alternatively, if Gorbachev should be displaced by a more dangerous leader, past Soviet non-compliance practices give little reason to think that arms control agreements will actually constrain Moscow’s arms programs.


Another worrisome example of the extent to which President Bush has been prepared to go to accommodate Gorbachev can be seen in the summit conversations about German reunification. As a practical matter, Moscow has no choice but to accept the demise of its client state and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from East German territory. Yet, in the interest of seeking a face-saving outcome on Germany acceptable to Gorbachev, Mr. Bush is perilously close to reaffirming the sort of "spheres of influence" arrangement that has been in disrepute since the ink dried on the Yalta agreement.

This danger arises from the fact that Gorbachev is clearly seeking to establish a political and security structure for Europe which, in effect, will undermine the Western alliance and will leave the USSR by far the most powerful military force on the continent. One prominent facet of such a structure would be an agreement to continue the presence of Soviet forces in East Germany — with the West Germans obliged to pay for the privilege of such an occupation.

Not only would this arrangement make a mockery of the U.S. commitment to self-determination; it would also create an utterly untenable situation for Western security interests in Germany. The reality is that, unless the Soviet armed forces and their attendant KGB and GRU security apparatuses are entirely removed from German soil, there can be no effective integration of a united Germany into NATO. In fact, should this arrangement be implemented under present circumstances, NATO would likely be fatally weakened; none of its allies could have confidence in Germany’s reliability in peacetime — let alone in time of crisis or war.

Worse yet, the Bush Administration has clearly not thought through the implications of the sort of "payola" scheme being advanced by West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. According to this scheme, Bonn would provide Moscow with a variety of ard-currency payments and credits totaling as much as $15-20 billion annually over the next five years as part of the overall price for German reunification. Such Deutsche mark-based payments and credits would pay for continued Soviet oil and gas deliveries to East Germany, all trade and service obligations and the stationing of Soviet forces on German soil. Similarly, it envisions granting Moscow access to billions of dollars in non-transparent interbank deposits and credit lines, overt government-guaranteed loans, "property settlements," and other bilateral arrangements.

It should be clearly understood that such a massive infusion into Soviet coffers of as much as $100 billion (or more) in hard currency over the next five years or so will, in all likelihood, have the effect of further postponing — not advancing — systemic economic reform in the USSR. These funds will cushion Moscow against some of the hard choices it would otherwise have to make, permitting it, among other things, to:

  • maintain a global empire, often inimical to vital U.S. security interests, despite the bankruptcy of its client states from Havana to Hanoi;

  • continue its repressive activities against the Baltic states and other Soviet republics likely to be freedom-bound in the near future;

  • preserve and expand its military capabilities — at a price of billions of dollars in additional defense costs annually to U.S. taxpayers; and

  • redouble Soviet technology theft and industrial espionage operations which might otherwise be prohibitively expensive.


It is past time for the Bush Administration to come to grips with these portentous consequences of a German-Soviet sweetheart deal and candidly explain them to the Congress and the American people. At the very least, Secretary Baker should refrain from offering to "encourage" such an alignment if only the Soviets will agree to permit the reunification of Germany to proceed. Discipline and restraint, not encouragement, is what is now required.


Under present circumstances, an alternative to the Bush strategy of investing excessively in Mikhail Gorbachev warrants urgent consideration. Instead, the United States should concentrate on achieving the urgent, radical and democratic transformation of the Soviet political and economic system. Doing so will require that American political, economic, financial and technological assistance and diplomatic support be channeled in a targeted and disciplined way so as to aid those demanding democratic and market economic reforms — reforms of the sort increasingly being resisted by the Gorbachev regime.

Such an approach would, among other things, make the new U.S.-Soviet Trade Agreement obsolete, insofar as the beneficiaries of the United States’ support would not be the central authorities in Moscow but those in the republics and at local levels who want no part of the inefficient and corrupt Soviet command economic system.

To be sure, realizing this goal — one which millions now obliged to live under Moscow’s oppressive rule clearly share — will require political vision, courage and tenacity on the part of the leadership of the United States and other Western nations. In particular, it may require sacrificing the trappings of detente with the Kremlin, like arms control signing ceremonies, and accepting in the short-term somewhat greater uncertainty about the domestic situation within the USSR (read, "instability") than might otherwise be the case. In fact, the true costs of such sacrifices are likely to be de minimus; the real value of arms control agreements to American security is inevitably extravagantly overstated and the marginal additional instability in the USSR arising from such a U.S. policy — given the present, high level of turmoil there — may well be insignificant.

Moreover, these costs will be more than offset by the lasting benefits in terms of a genuine reduction in the Soviet threat — a real "peace dividend" — that will only be achieved when the Soviet totalitarian political structure and its economic handmaiden, the centralized command system, are supplanted by true democratic and free market arrangements.

Center for Security Policy

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