Dealing with a Changed Gorbachev

January 17, 1991

In terms of Soviet-American relations, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's retreat from glasnost to thuggery could not come at a more awkward time. The Soviet Union, after all, is one of the members of the grand coalition intent on forcing Iraq to withdraw its occupation troops from Kuwait.

Mr. Gorbachev apparently sees no inconsistency between his call for respecting civilized norms in the Middle East and his despicable crackdown in the Baltic republics. After six years of acclaimed domestic and international reforms, a Nobel peace laureate has crashed down from his high moral pedestal, proving to be as weak as the crumbling nuclear power he rules. This is a tragedy for the people of the Baltics and the Soviet Union who have to live with the consequences. It is also a tragedy for the United States which put so much hope in Mr. Gorbachev and in a new era of Soviet-American cooperation.

Is that era now over? It may well be, if the new dynamics of Soviet internal politics lead to a dictatorship -- with or without Mr. Gorbachev.

In the meantime, the United States should do everything in its power to persuade Mr. Gorbachev and others in the Soviet leadership that the road on which he has embarked in the Baltics is morally wrong and doomed to ultimate failure. The Bush administration should, however, avoid the temptation to use the Baltic tragedy for counter-productive retaliation. Such gestures might only provide ammunition to the military-KGB faction that wants to end East-West cooperation and return the Soviet Union to confrontation and Cold War.

When the United States gave its support for Mr. Gorbachev's "new thinking" in international relations, it did not do so as a reward for good behavior or because the Kremlin chief was less of a Communist than his predecessors. Rather, the support was given because so many of Mr. Gorbachev's foreign policy goals conformed with U.S. interests. Many still do, particularly mutual arms reduction and relaxation of tensions in Europe.

Trustful cooperation can exist only in an atmosphere where norms of behavior are shared. This is the message Americans should send forcefully to the Kremlin -- to make sure that the surging hard-liners understand the seriousness with which the United States is viewing the Baltic events. The harsh alternative would be a denial of U.S. economic assistance even if this would put Soviet cooperation in the Gulf at risk. It would serve the interests of neither country.

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