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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At last year's Washington summit, Akhromeyev used an old Russian (and American) saying with National Security Adviser Colin Powell: "Watch what we do, not what we say." Western skeptics use the same phrase in warning of the dangers of being seduced by Gorbachev. The criticism that he should be judged by his deeds rather than his words is in fact a backhanded testament to the far-reaching nature of what he has been saying. Putting these ideas on the record at the U.N. serves to lay down a marker that he can use to pressure the bureaucracy at home. As a State Department official explained last week, "You can't get up in a forum such as this, promise things and then not deliver. That's just inconceivable."

By springing his ideas when the U.S. is unable to respond, Gorbachev guaranteed that he will retain the moral initiative that has made him the most popular world leader in much of Western Europe. Bush will thus start off in a position that has faced no other President: until Gorbachev's time, it was the U.S. that did most of the initiating and the Soviets that snorted and stalled and finally gave grudging responses. Now the choreography is reversed.

Bush's most immediate challenge is to preserve NATO unity in the face of dwindling adversity. Likewise, Gorbachev's immediate challenge will be to see how far he can go in Eastern Europe toward a system based on "freedom of choice," rather than the "threat of force," without the Warsaw Pact disintegrating.

But there is an even more complex challenge that Gorbachev presents to Bush with his U.N. speech: the long-term Battle for Europe that is destined to dominate the 1990s. By the end of 1992, Western Europe's integration into a unified market should be formal even if not complete; the result will be not only a powerful economic system but also a more potent political player. Similarly, some East European nations are likely to be spreading their economic wings and learning to fly from Moscow's nest, perhaps even as limited partners in the European Community.

Gorbachev, who has made clear his understanding that the competition for influence in Europe will depend less on military than economic clout, has staked his claim under the banner of a "common home from the Urals to the Atlantic" shared by the Soviets and West Europeans. By establishing trade, opening markets and seeking financial credits (as well as unilaterally cutting troops), Gorbachev hopes to entice Western Europe into sharing his vision of home.

Bush has never been one for "the vision thing," and incoming Secretary of State James Baker has not yet shown that he can be a conceptualizer of strategic goals. But Gorbachev's initiatives create a grand opportunity for the new team: to redefine America's role in the world with a boldness that could quickly bring Bush out of the shadows of both Gorbachev and Reagan.

To counter Gorbachev's talk of a "common home," Bush could emphasize the "common ideals" -- free markets, free trade and free people -- that have been the positive basis for the American partnership with Western Europe that was born with the Marshall Plan. An alliance once based on necessity would become one based on shared values.

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