America Abroad: No, It's Not a New Cold War

No, It's Not a New Cold War

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Whatever else it accomplishes, Mikhail Gorbachev's diplomatic intervention in the gulf war has already revealed the shape of Soviet foreign policy in the months, perhaps even years, to come.

The Kremlin's new approach is a far cry from the "partnership" with the U.S. that Gorbachev proclaimed during the heady days of 1989, when he pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan and liberated Eastern Europe. Some conservatives have concluded, with as much glee as alarm, that Gorbachev is returning to the bad old days of the cold war. That characterization is not just simplistic -- it misses the irony of what is happening. The emerging U.S.-Soviet interplay is in some respects a throwback to the even older days of razzle-dazzle realpolitik, before the era of a global, Manichaean struggle between two ideologies.

In the 19th century, isms mattered little; national purposes varied from case to case, region to region, year to year. Lord Palmerston summed it up in 1848: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow." Great powers had some goals in common, others in conflict, and they adjusted the mix of cooperation and competition in their dealings accordingly.

That's pretty much been the pattern between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the gulf war. The ascendancy of the hard-liners in the U.S.S.R., however ominous, has not altered the country's basic desire to stay in the good graces of the capitalist world as much as possible, if only because it desperately wants outside help for its economy. Also the Soviets are so much in need of internal stability and calm that they are all the more eager to be seen fostering those virtues abroad. Hence the core of agreement -- and cooperation -- between Moscow and Washington on the requirement that Iraq get out of Kuwait.

But on other issues, their interests -- and thus their policies -- diverge. For one thing, Bush and Gorbachev are operating in entirely different domestic political environments. The man in the White House has strong backing from his citizens, while his counterpart in the Kremlin has received delegations of Muslims from Transcaucasia and Central Asia who are angry at the spectacle of infidels bombing an Islamic nation.

Bush's advisers at the Pentagon and at coalition headquarters in Riyadh are "good to go" for a ground war, in part because it gives them a chance to clobber the ghosts of Vietnam. Meanwhile, Gorbachev's generals are licking their wounds from Afghanistan, bringing home the pieces of the Warsaw Pact and supervising commando raids against civilians in restive republics. That makes them all the more dyspeptic about their principal rival's pummeling a longtime Soviet client whose northern border is only about 400 miles from the U.S.S.R. Moreover, Operation Desert Storm is decimating a military establishment made up largely of Soviet equipment -- MiGs, T-72 tanks and the suddenly famous Scuds.

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