86. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

    • Our Soviet Policy

Over the years I have found myself in substantial agreement with your conceptions about order and structure in international politics. We have never had particular occasion to talk about these things, either when you were at Harvard or since; perhaps there was no need for extensive conversation because the view of history and the values involved were matters on which we were so close that discussion was unnecessary.

I am much less certain, however, whether we agree about the applicability of the fundamental concepts to our relations with, and to the evolution of the USSR. I cannot write a book but let me state my views (or prejudices) very briefly on the fundamental problem.

I do not believe that for the foreseeable future the Soviet Union can be brought into a rational system of world order. It is incapable of sharing the consensus of values and the concepts of legitimacy that must underpin any such structure. Part of the reason is that for all the [Page 265] stultification of ideology, the Soviet state remains a revolutionary one committed to the destruction, or at any rate the prevention of any type of order that you and I would consider even remotely harmonious and viable.

Perhaps an even more fundamental reason is that the Soviet system (to use that word loosely and for purposes of shorthand) is fundamentally unstable. It will remain so for a long time because of the fundamental abnormality of the system both domestically and internationally (the Communist movement). Without now going into lengthy substantiation of this judgment (it involves an analysis of the role of the party, the horrendous and unsolved nationality problem, and more immediately, the inability of the regime to provide for orderly succession, etc., etc.), I would simply make the point that you cannot have an unstable participant in a stable order, and it is a disservice to suggest otherwise.

There is, furthermore, another “objective” factor at work which in my view excludes the prospect of early Soviet participation in building order. For complex historical and psychological reasons, the Russians are only just entering the imperialist phase of their development; they are doing so at least a generation, but in some respects more than a century later than other industrialized societies. This is a phenomenon all the more disturbing precisely because the domestic structure on which it is based is unstable. (By domestic I also mean that part of the Soviet system that includes the highly abnormal and fundamentally unstable complex of the Soviet relationship with Eastern Europe.)

In sum, I question that this or the next generation of Russian rulers either wants to participate, or is capable of participating, in an ordered structure of international relations.

It is, incidentally, for this reason that I have not been able to accept the formula, in respect to the USSR, that we will judge another country only by its international behavior, not its internal system. I obviously do not mean that we should polemicize about Soviet internal affairs (although the Leningrad trials2 show how difficult it is to abide by that principle); I do mean that the international role of the USSR is inextricably intertwined with its domestic order and that we seriously mislead ourselves if we think or say that we must disentangle them. (I have much less trouble with the distinction when it comes to small or medium-sized powers, though even there Chile, some day Italy, and, if we do not watch out Spain, and many others as well may well prove the distinction to be illusory.)

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From these considerations also stem my doubts about the much maligned, much distorted and much misunderstood concept of “linkage.” I had no trouble at all with it as a “fact of life”; i.e., when we were clear that what we meant was that negotiations on various issues must be in some relationship with each other. But when linkage in some of the rhetoric last summer became a dream of far-reaching accommodation with the USSR on a broad front, I could not help but find myself in grave doubt. (Incidentally, as I pointed out at the time, I had strong reservations about the notion seemingly underlying NSDM 153 on East-West trade back in 1969, that some day soon a major corner would be turned in US-Soviet relations and in the Soviets’ role in world affairs that would justify our being “extremely generous” in our trade policy. I don’t believe, obviously, in such corners any time soon; and, as I have frequently argued, I believe that large-scale economic technological assistance in the present phase of Soviet development reinforces the rigidity (i.e., essential instability) of the Soviet system because it becomes a substitute for reform.)

Against this background, I found myself having the deepest reservations about the apparent mood of hope developing here in June and July. I cannot now attempt to reconstruct the impulses and factual basis that led to this mood; there seemed inter alia to be expectations about what would happen after our withdrawal from Cambodia. I do not wish to attribute motives on our side, but it is fairly plain that on the Soviet side the American mood and its accompanying (albeit-low-key rhetoric) was perceived as connected with the developing mid-term election campaign. I have previously commented to you about the peculiarity of US-Soviet relations in pre-electoral situations (the best, though not complete analogy to 1970 was 1962). We face in election periods a twin danger in our relations with the USSR (apart from the fact that the Soviets instinctively rebel against the notion of being exploited, either on the soft side or the hard side on these occasions).

The first danger is that, sensing our desire to demonstrate progress in negotiations we become vulnerable to minor Soviet concessions or tempting offers. In 1970 this was reflected in Soviet tactics in June on the Middle East and Berlin and on SALT (provocative attack, ABM-only) in July. Almost invariably this situation leads to midunder-standings because in the end, having given the Soviets reason to believe that we are eager to play, we find it necessary to turn them down because the Soviet “concessions” turned out to be too minor to be of value—and the counter-concessions required from us so great as to be [Page 267] undoable—and the temptations turn out to be fundamentally contrary to our other interests. (I say with pleasure that we avoided the sins of the last administration which was lured into a treaty, the NPT, which, at least in the manner in which it was negotiated did grave damage to our NATO interests, and which, in its dying days, was almost lured into the treacherous waters of summitry and the reckless opening of SALT.)

The other danger is that the Soviets, believing us to want peace and quiet, take liberties with our interests. I do not have the documentation of your dealings with Dobrynin on Cuba; and I have previously expressed my concerns about that entire course of our conduct. I remain convinced however that the result of it all has been to further legitimize the Soviet military role in the Caribbean. Moreover, while fully recognizing the psychological history of the 1962 crisis, I believe we have made an issue of Soviet activities that on the whole are less damaging to our interests than those we have sanctified. (And it remains yet to be seen whether we have successfully solved the issue of the offensive weapons issue.)

I feel that we have let ourselves be dangerously misled in the SALT negotiations. We tended to mistake the atmosphere of the negotiations for a convergence of positions. We have always known that we must somehow cope with the Soviet counterforce threat. But through all the optimistic rhetoric about the prospects we have made no progress in this regard. Yet we have ourselves advanced positions that complicate our ability to deal with the threat. We have also to some extent permitted to let the Soviets con us into a sense of obligation to them because of our FBS and our MIRV decisions, although neither of these elements remotely approach the dangers to us in the Soviet heavy missile deployment. (I cannot, incidentally, take much comfort in a leveling off at 300 SS–9s until I know what warheads go on them and whether we will retain the hard-point defense option.)

You have speculated a great deal about what happened to US-Soviet relations, or to Soviet attitudes toward us in the late summer when the prospects seemed so good earlier on. My view is that the prospects never were that good and that the essential incompatibility of our interests and positions in the world asserted itself (fear of war and rudimentary cooperation on certain traffic rules of international conduct, which I applaud, are insufficient to overcome the basic problem); and that our own conduct, in displaying both a seeming tolerance to Soviet pressures on our interests and an excessive eagerness to come to terms in negotiations, produced the virtually inevitable frustration and disenchantment.

I would make these points with especial force now because we are almost into another election campaign in which, if Vietnam continues [Page 268] along its present path, the “peace issue” may well turn on our relations with the USSR. Those who are likely to advise the most probable contenders on the Democratic side will not be reticent in advancing grandiose schemes for accommodation with the USSR, or peaceful engagement, or conversion through trade and technical help, etc., etc. I do not mean to be parochial because I fully recognize that domestic issues may play a far larger role in the next two years.

Yet on the basis of the last year I must express to you my greatest concern that the lessons of the past have not been learned with regard to the USSR and that temptations to wrap oneself in the mantle of peace in our time will lead us precisely into the pitfalls that I have tried to outline here, albeit with excessive starkness.

I would like to conclude these comments with an observation about style and method. I make this observation even though I recognize that it may be colored by my undoubted personal disappointment that you have almost completely excluded me from participation in or even knowledge of the more sensitive aspects of our dealings with the USSR. But it stems from a long-held view which I have often over the years discussed with my colleagues and my students.

I refer to the danger of lone-wolf diplomacy with the USSR. Because of the special character of the US-Soviet relationship there is a special emotional component that affects one’s dealings with Soviet representatives. Americans who have sought to carry the burden of negotiation and contact alone or with only the most limited company over the past quarter century tend to forget that on the other side they are dealing with a complex and elusively functioning machine. What comes from the other side in response to our initiatives, or at their initiative, is the product of extraordinarily complex interactions about which we know all too little.

No single American or small group of Americans is really in a position to judge the signals from the other side without attempting to place them in some perspective and weighing them with other signals also being received. But this requires candor and accessibility with respect to others. I know of course that inevitably some of our diplomacy must be conducted in the most restrictive manner. But what concerns me is the gap that has so often existed between the lonely, senior American carrying the burden, feeling, consciously or otherwise a sense of destiny and historic responsibility in the face of so awesome a task, and those who are somewhat more detached and “professional” and who can often provide background or complementary information and judgments. I should add that over the years Soviet representatives, notably the current, much-admired one here, have developed the psychological knack to heighten the sense of expectancy as well as the sense of obligation of their American interlocutors.

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I make these observations in part for the obvious reason that I came over here in the hope of being able to assist you in this tough aspect of your job; equally obvious, it has been a source of deep frustration not to have been able to do so.

I can only urge you that in the next two treacherous years you bring to your side some one whose judgment and professional skill in the area of Communist affairs you can respect and with whom you find it possible to maintain a personal relationship such that you will obtain all the help you can get from that judgment and skill. You need it.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Kissinger-Scowcroft West Wing Office Files, Box 22, General Subject File, Sonnenfeldt, Helmut—Miscellaneous Communications. Secret; Sensitive; Personal.
  2. See Document 78.
  3. Dated May 28, 1969; see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume IV, Foreign Assistance, International Development, Trade Policies, 1969–1972, Document 299.