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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The Soviet leader also showed that with the magnetism of his personality and the crackle of his ideas, he remains the most commanding presence on the world stage. He is the one performer who can steal a scene from Ronald Reagan, and he did; as they viewed the Statue of Liberty, the visiting Communist played the self-confident superstar while Reagan ambled about like an amiable sidekick and Bush lapsed into the prenomination gawkiness that used to plague him whenever he stumbled across Reagan's shadow. Afterward, Mikhail and Raisa's foray into Manhattan provoked more excitement than any other visit since Pope John Paul II's in 1979. Even the devastating Armenian earthquake that forced Gorbachev to rush home early, and the sudden resignation of his Chief of the General Staff Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, added dramatic punctuations to his visit.

What is destined to be remembered about Gorbachev's Dec. 7, 1988, speech is not just his specific proposals -- many of them had been made before -- but also the way they fit together in a world forum to transcend the ideological dogmas that have driven Soviet foreign policy for 70 years. With his metal- rimmed glasses glinting in the lights of the General Assembly's green marble dais, Gorbachev praised the "tremendous impetus to mankind's progress" that came from the French and Russian revolutions. "But," he added -- and a listener should always lean forward when Gorbachev begins a sentence with that conjunction -- "today we face a different world, for which we must seek a different road to the future." Marat may have been bemused, but Lenin most likely froze in mid-scowl.

Again bordering on apostasy, Gorbachev addressed the cold war: "Let historians argue who is more and who is less to blame for it." In fact, understanding the reasons for the long twilight struggle is crucial to answering the most important question raised by Moscow's new thinking: Should the U.S. eagerly accept Gorbachev's tempting invitation to declare the cold war over? Significantly, he addressed, with words and proposed actions, each of the core causes of that contest:

-- The most concrete reason for the West's 40-year rivalry with the Soviet Union is the thrusting, threatening nature of that empire. Historic Russian expansionism, the Marxist-Leninist ideology of global class conflict, and a Kremlin mind-set that security can come only through the insecurity of adversaries have combined to create a nation whose defensive instincts can be frighteningly offensive. In his speech, Gorbachev proposed to preclude any "outward-oriented use of force," a phrase that nicely captures the essence of Soviet military policy since World War II. More important were his promised troop cuts, not just their numbers but their nature. The West has long insisted that any conventional-forces agreement requires the Soviets to reconfigure their troops into a defensive posture. Gorbachev pledged to move in that direction by withdrawing assault units, river-crossing equipment and tanks that threaten a blitzkrieg through central Europe. Deterring such an attack has been the core reason for NATO's existence.

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