Mikhail the Reformer

July 18, 1991

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had quite a day in London. He reached closure with President Bush on a treaty slashing strategic nuclear arsenals that was almost a decade in the making. And he gained what amounts to associate membership in the exclusive Group of Seven club. It is difficult to fathom the world's largest industrial democracies denying him a return post-summit invitation when they meet in Munich next year.

Yet the key question for the Soviet leader is how his latest performance in world diplomacy played at home. He went to London as a supplicant; there was no disguising it. As CEO of a spectacularly flawed and failing economic system, he had to ask for any assistance he could get -- if not cash, which was not forthcoming, then for guidance in the painful journey from

communism to capitalism, from a centralized command economy to one attuned to market forces.

The situation was inherently demeaning to a great power that for half a century had shared super status with the United States. But just as Peter the Great was willing to apprentice himself to Dutch shipbuilders for the purpose of learning foreign ways, so Mikhail the Reformer seems willing to be supplicant and student if that is necessary to westernize his xenophobic countrymen.

It is not a popular position for any leader, let alone one losing power to centrifugal nationalist sentiments. This explains the interest of some westerners, especially the Germans, in a multi-billion-dollar bailout. But Mr. Gorbachev knew before he got to London that the Americans and the British and the Japanese, among others, were not about to throw money at his problems. Not only do they have domestic imperatives, but there is a persuasive case to be made that such largess -- at this stage -- would merely serve to buttress the very system that needs replacing.

So, with as little condescension as they could muster, the Group of Seven summiteers gave the Soviet Union access to the knowledge if not the financial resources of the International Monetary Fund and, more important, pledged Mr. Gorbachev their political support. The message for his domestic audience, both his friends and foes, was that more help would come only if the Soviet Union adhered to a reformist philosophy -- and carried through in a substantive manner.

For the Kremlin's European and Asian neighbors, the payoff for this policy would be relative stability in the Soviet Union and an economic revival that would help Eastern Europe. For Americans, a larger enticement would be to lock the Soviet Union into a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that is manifestly in U.S. security interests.

What the Group of Seven has to fear is that Mr. Gorbachev's leadership will continue to fail to bring the Soviet people a better life. The free world can try to help this extraordinary political personality, but in the end his fate, and his country's fate, will be determined at home.

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