Superpowers as Almost-Allies

August 01, 1991

Summit choreographers knew what they were doing when they decided to let the signing of the historic strategic arms reduction treaty (START) share top billing with a superpower call for an October peace conference on the Middle East. The intent was to let it be known that these mighty almost-allies hope to impose a post-Cold War peace on the rest of the world.

For half a century, as adversaries, they had imposed a kind of peace on Europe. Can they now, as tentative partners, put an end to regional disputes that rend the planet, threatening nuclear breakout by renegade nations or factions?

That the Soviet Union is a great power in decline was underscored by its supplications for U.S. aid and President Bush's interplay with Soviet republics seeking ever greater autonomy from Moscow's control. That the United States recognizes its own limitations despite a spectacular victory in the Persian Gulf war was clear in its eagerness for Soviet help in dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The Soviet Union may be much diminished, but the underside of the START agreement is that it still retains nuclear arsenals capable of blowing the United States and most of the rest of the world to smithereens. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is no longer indulging Reaganesque fantasies about the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Concurrently, he had nary a public word of complaint about Mr. Bush's current campaign to develop missile defenses much scaled down from President Reagan's original visions of an impenetrable space shield.

Both sides now perceive that their more immediate danger lies not in intercontinental weapons aimed at one another but in errant missiles or bombs coming in from who knows where.

That being the case, the lack of specific instructions and timetables for new arms control accords was a singular shortcoming of the Moscow summit. All the right formulations were mouthed. Mr. Gorbachev even came up with a memorable phrase: "the absurdity of over-armament." But vague comments about follow-up negotiations contrasted with the date-setting for a Middle East conference Israel has not yet agreed to attend.

If the United States and the Soviet Union are to be a trouble-shooting team putting out Third World brush fires, their choice of the Middle East as a prototype is daring, to say the least. The Arab-Israeli conflict embraces just about every source of irritation and enmity that can be imagined. Enormous economic interests are at stake. Yet the pivotal Soviet decision to support U.S. policies in the gulf war secured its co-sponsorship of a peace conference that would otherwise have been awkward for Arab states to accept.

The Moscow summit sends the new superpower relationship out into the world in circumstances that will test its effectiveness and its tenacity. It will work only to the extent that the United States and the Soviet Union can manage their own very considerable differences.

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