The Gorbachev Challenge

He came, he spoke, he conquered. But his enticing call for a kinder, gentler world provides an opportunity for Bush: to recapture the initiative by offering an American vision for ending the cold war

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Much of the first half of the 20th century was dominated by the death spasms of an international system based on shifting European alliances. The subsequent 40 years have been shaped by a struggle between two rival superpowers for military and ideological supremacy in all corners of a decolonized globe. Now comes Mikhail Gorbachev with a sweeping vision of a "new world order" for the 21st century. In his dramatic speech to the United Nations last week, the Soviet President painted an alluring ghost of Christmas future in which the threat of military force would no longer be an instrument of foreign policy, and ideology would cease to play a dominant role in relations among nations.

His vision, both compelling and audacious, was suffused with the romantic dream of a swords-into-plowshares "transition from the economy of armaments to an economy of disarmament." Included were enticing initiatives on a variety of concerns, such as Afghanistan, emigration, human rights and arms | control. Topping it off was a unilateral decision to cut within two years total Soviet armed forces 10%, withdraw 50,000 troops from Eastern Europe and reduce by half the number of Soviet tanks in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. If George Bush can build on it, this surprise announcement could reinvigorate conventional arms-control talks, which in turn could help the U.S. out of its budget morass and alleviate strains within NATO over how to share the burden of maintaining a sturdy conventional and nuclear defense.

Yet Gorbachev's gambit is also fraught with potential dangers for the U.S. The announced cuts are substantive enough to lure the West toward complacency, yet they are too small to dent significantly the advantages in men, materiel and geography that the Soviet bloc has over NATO. In addition, by once more dazzling the world with cleverly packaged and repackaged proposals, the self- assured Soviet leader displayed the seductive charms that could woo Western Europe into a neutered neutralism.

But perhaps the greater danger was that the U.S. would again find itself unable to seize the initiative or provide an imaginative response. Gorbachev's U.N. speech was the most resonant enunciation yet of his "new thinking" in foreign policy, which has the potential to produce the most dramatic historic shift since George Marshall and Harry Truman helped build the Western Alliance as a bulwark of democracy. But as the Soviets play the politics of da -- saying yes to issue after issue raised by the Reagan Administration -- the U.S. seems in peril of letting its wary "not yet" begin to sound like nyet.

Gorbachev's timing was adroit. He has proved to be a virtuoso at playing on Reagan's romantic notions about peace and disarmament. Faced with an incoming President far more cautious than Reagan, Gorbachev finagled a meeting at which his own vision of the future would go unchallenged. Bush could not properly respond until he takes office next month, and Reagan seemed barely relevant as he bubbled his favorite Russian phrase, "Trust but verify," at a press conference following Gorbachev's departure.

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