94. Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting1


  • U.S.-Soviet Relations: Policy Implications of Interaction of Political Trends in Key Regions with Soviet Conventional and Strategic Buildup


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • State:
  • Secretary Cyrus Vance
  • Defense:
  • Secretary Harold Brown
  • ACDA:
  • Mr. Paul Warnke
  • JCS:
  • General David Jones
  • CIA:
  • Admiral Stansfield Turner
  • White House:
  • Dr. Zbigniew
  • Mr. Hamilton Jordan
  • NSC:
  • Mr. Reginald Bartholomew (notetaker)

The meeting started with Brzezinski making the point that the purpose of the meeting is to examine the implications for U.S. policy of the interaction of political trends in key regions with the Soviet strategic and conventional buildup. He then suggested that the President call upon Stan Turner to initiate a discussion in regard to the three regions mentioned in the agenda given in the recent NIE.2

Turner: The Soviets are more assertive because of their power; because they feel that the U.S. is not as competitive. They are aware of the limitations of their power but they see detente as permitting effective competition. Moreover, their increasing war fighting capability gives them greater confidence. They are buoyed by their experience in Africa. Moreover, abroad the perception is one of change in the balance of power.

[Page 449]

The President: Are the Soviets better off today than they were a few years ago? Are they better off now in Africa than they were three or four years ago?

Turner: The record in Africa is mixed, but one should note Ethiopia and Angola.

The President: Let’s consider where the Soviets are now stronger than they were, where their political influence is greater.

Turner: I think they are clearly in a stronger position in Africa, in India and Pakistan, and in Southeast Asia.

The President: Even considering what happened to them in Egypt?

Turner: Yes.

Vance: I don’t agree. Look at what happened to them in Egypt, Somalia, Guinea and the Sudan. They tried to block the Namibia settlement but it went ahead. In India, Desai has replaced Gandhi and Desai is more to the center. It is not clear at all that their position around the world is better today than it has been.

Brown: Their position in Ethiopia is better. And certainly their role in Rhodesia compared to five or seven years ago is greater and more troublesome. On Namibia, the outcome remains to be seen. In North Africa, Qhadafi is a wild card and they have some influence with him. The Soviets are shipping substantial arms to Libya. The picture is mixed politically in the Pacific.

Brzezinski: We have to compare the present Soviet position and action with what it has been in the past. Under Stalin the Soviets concentrated on areas in immediate proximity to them (above all Europe) and we contained them. Then Khrushchev tried to use Sputnik and general Soviet momentum to launch a political, ideological appeal of global dimensions. This effort failed and in this Cy Vance is right. But today we face an ominous development in which the Soviets are compensating for the decline in their economic and ideological appeal with military pressure—massive arms, insertion of troops. It is a clear sign of their confidence in the military dimension of the balance that they moved to insert Cuban troops in Africa. This has major political implications.

The President: I sense that three or four years ago the Soviets saw Sub-Saharan Africa as an open field. Now, if the Soviets intrude, they face opposition from us, Black leaders elsewhere in Africa, and from the world. So they cannot see Africa as an open, unimpeded avenue. Also, in Europe they face the problem of Euro-Communism. And in Eastern Asia I think their influence has weakened.

Turner: But they are in a much stronger position in Vietnam and this is the dominating consideration in Southeast Asia. I think there is a standoff in Japan. But I think they are in a better position in India and Pakistan.

[Page 450]

Vance: North Korea leans more towards China than in the past. The Japan-China PFT was a blow to them in the world generally.

The President: If I look at things from Brezhnev’s perspective, I would feel that what causes us problems also causes him problems. He doesn’t want to see Angola or Cuba or Vietnam or China turn to the West; or have Mozambique turn to us for trade; or to see trade between us and Eastern Europe build up. If I were Brezhnev, I would hate to see these things happen. We have to take advantage of our opportunities and it is for this group to see that we do.

Brown: The Soviets are not a likable partner. When they get in, they seek to dominate. But if you compare their situation with five years ago, they are better off even if they do have the problems the President cited. Their influence with India, Pakistan and so forth, depends on their military power. They don’t have much in the way of economic power. Though the Soviets do have real worries, they do have levers—above all the military. In all of the places we have talked about, they feel the Soviets are relatively more powerful, vis-a-vis the U.S., than they were five years ago. There is a certain ambivalence in response: for example, it has moved the Europeans to spend more. The Soviets are respected and feared, not loved, but they have options. So the Soviets may have certain apprehensions but do think they are much better off today than they were.

The President: We should enumerate the areas where we think we have a problem—political, trade, or military influence. We should approach each country or area as a separate question to be addressed. Congress is more aware of the need for peaceful competition with the Soviets than ever before. We should plan our political strategy on this basis and consult with Congress and get them aboard. For example, Mozambique and Angola are good cases for moving. What are others? We need to do this on a country-by-country basis: where we should move, what the problems are, the key Congressional elements to get on board, how to win public approval for our efforts. Our strength should help us. Brezhnev is vulnerable to competition. We have gotten the Allies to go with us. We should explore how we can do this with others.

I want to discuss our military presence abroad. I want to consider places where we can make it felt without direct military confrontation. I have no feel from Harold Brown or the JCS of the consequences of a military base in the Sinai. If at Camp David there is no agreement,3 there will be fear for the future and a U.S. base could be stabilizing. I don’t know if we should do it, or how rapid the Soviet reaction would be. This is one place for a military presence and there may be others in [Page 451] the world. We should publicize our military presence elsewhere in the world.

Twelve months of our propaganda against the Cubans in Africa has led to worldwide pressure on them to get out. They are moving out of Ethiopia and it will be hard for them to stay in Angola.

Our reputation for weakness, vis-a-vis the Soviets, is not deserved. Many of us are guilty of this. For example, at defense budget time, we tend to play up Soviet military capabilities and downplay our own. When we decided to have a public demonstration of our defense capabilities, the cruise missile test failed. We need a careful public relations effort to show that we are strong militarily as well as economically and politically. We recognize the Soviet buildup, but we are not vulnerable or weak. We have to put all of this into proper perspective and correct the weaknesses we have acknowledged. We have to do this in the defense budget for 1980 and decide what is best for us.

Jones: The JCS have had a lot of discussion of this. They see a dilemma. Things now are better than they are perceived but the trends for the future are worse than they are perceived. And the perception of imbalance today takes the focus away from the really serious problem of imbalance in the future. There is a deeper underlying concern about the military trends in the JCS than I have ever seen, and it is real and genuine. What we do today won’t impact on the military balance until the future, but it will affect the perceptions of the future and the present.

Brown: There is too pessimistic a view of the military balance now and not a pessimistic enough view of the balance in 1982–83.

Brzezinski: We have to separate the global competition with the Soviets from the competitions in peripheral areas. We will do well enough in the peripheral areas. The Soviets will not sweep over Africa.

I am more concerned about Soviet power and perceptions in two areas—Western Europe and the Persian Gulf—which could affect the overall U.S./Soviet balance. In Europe we and the Europeans are doing more than ever before to assure a conventional balance. But internal politics and instabilities in Europe may mean that Europe’s stronger NATO shield will be held with a trembling hand. There are also internal difficulties in Saudi Arabia and the situation is unstable in Iran and Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are concerned about the power balance between us and the Soviets. They see troublesome ambiguities in our conduct.

Vance: Some military trends are very disturbing. But we are better off politically than we give ourselves credit for. I agree with the President’s presentation, but there could be serious political effects down the road from the military trends.

[Page 452]

Warnke: The description on pages 10 and 11 of Soviet motives in arms control applies precisely to us as well.

Brown: Some events in Europe already can be attributed to the military trends and Soviet power. The 3 percent defense budget increase is one. But Norway backed off FRG participation in an exercise and, though there are domestic reasons, I think perceptions of Soviet power were involved. The Germans themselves may be starting to negotiate with the Soviets on different security premises—I am thinking of Bahr and Wehner. It is hard to see how much all this has to do with military power, but it has something to do with it.

Turner: On the President’s remarks, the Soviets would not be bothered if Angola turns somewhat to the West. They would still have 20,000 Cuban troops there. The UNITA still gives them reason to remain. As for more trade between the West and Eastern Europe, it is not a major factor in their economy and they are now turning back to the Soviets in any event. On Cuba, we can open relations, but Cuba will still be so dependent on the Soviets that the Soviets cannot be replaced. The Soviets would see all of these steps as retrograde but they would not tremble.

Vance: I think we should work with the Germans on Poland. The Germans just turned down a loan. Zbig and I have been discussing this.

The Vice President: I think we have made impressive progress in Eastern Europe. In Yugoslavia, we have good relations where before we were barely able to talk to them. The return of the Crown to Hungary had a strong psychological effect.4 We have good relations with Romania.

The President: I think our relation with Nigeria is a notable achievement in our African policy.

I sense in Harold Brown’s memo5 and in the NIE a feeling of despair and of abject inferiority. I don’t feel this. If I look at the globe from Brezhnev’s standpoint, I see tremendous problems everywhere, starting with uncertain allies. I don’t feel the sense of Soviet superiority that is in these memos. We should start to be more hard-nosed about our defense expenditures. There are things we can do that would cause the Soviets concern. We should not tell Brezhnev that we are building a big nuclear carrier and a fleet of escorts, and not GLCMs or medium-range [Page 453] ballistic missiles in Europe. We should focus our defense spending on the most important weapons that show our strength. Our substance is sapped by non-weapons spending in the defense budget. We should also consider the proportion of the Soviet budget that goes to meet China, to control Eastern Europe, and to build a continental air defense that we don’t have to depend on. We have done too much equivocating with Congress on defense.

Brown: Efficient management is important. But we cannot simply pick three or four important weapons. The total amount of money we spend determines our military capabilities. Soviet expenditures are efficient. We don’t think much of Soviet air defenses, but they have a different doctrine and this expenditure contributes to their sense of security.

Brzezinski: Two points: 1) we have to make measured responses to the Soviets on the defense level; 2) politically, we are in one of those periods of friction with the Soviets which in the past have tended to produce new rules governing the relationship. The Soviets may learn from the costs they are now incurring, e.g., developments in the non-aligned movement and the Chinese move into Africa and now Europe. So we need to exercise considerable caution in how we handle the Soviets in this period of friction. We should insulate SALT and other arms control matters as much as we can. But we should be wary of initiatives that invite the Soviets to forget what has happened (the difficulties they have created) and make sure we make them reflect on the political costs of their actions. If we do this it may result, as it has in the past, in greater restraint in their future behavior. We must let them know that Third World turbulence will be with us for a long time and that their relations with us will be affected by how the Soviets behave. I think we are on the right course and we should keep on it.

The President: Other than increasing the defense budget, what else should we do to improve relations with the Soviets?

Vance: The key still is SALT. I think nothing will improve the relationship unless we have a SALT agreement.

Brzezinski: SALT may no longer be so decisive in the overall political and military relationship.

Brown: The relationship may get somewhat worse without SALT. But will it get better with SALT? I doubt it.

The Vice President: We have pursued human rights for more than a year. Is it a net plus or what? By pouring it on the Soviets on human rights, do we strengthen the people we don’t want to come to power? U.S. opinion thinks we have overdone it with the Soviets on human rights.

Brzezinski: What actually have we done? We have been restrained in terms of government acts and have not talked much about human [Page 454] rights in the Soviet Union, after the gestures at the beginning of the Administration.

The Vice President: But are we strengthening the Soviet elements we don’t like. Suslov must be arguing that Helsinki got them in a lot of trouble and encouraged centrifugal tendencies in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. Now the U.S. is exploiting these tendencies to weaken the Soviet Union. The Soviet reaction may be that we have to get tough, we need leaders who will stand up to the United States.

The President: Our human rights stance aggravated the Soviets. Some Allies think we did too much.

Page 25 of the NIE lists five goals of Soviet policy. I assume they are still applicable today.

Brzezinski: The goal of movement into the Third World has higher priority for the Soviet Union today.

The Vice President: The Soviets wish they had never signed Helsinki but they are stuck with it. It is now a major factor in relations between the Soviets and Eastern Europe as well as the West. We have to stand on our position on the Helsinki accords. But some of the things we have to say do strengthen the hard liners. It is a tricky road to walk. We have to stand behind our position.

Warnke: This is partly the price the Soviets had to pay to get the recognition of the European status quo at Helsinki.

Brzezinski: It is a mistake to punish the Soviets for their actions on human rights and not for their actions in the Third World. Unfortunately, this is the impression that was conveyed by the efforts surrounding Shcharanskiy, etc.6 The prevailing impression is that we are penalizing the Soviets for how they conducted their internal affairs rather than for their international behavior where we are on much stronger ground.

The President: I don’t disagree. But both are part of the successful arousing of world public opinion against the Soviets, both speaking out on human rights and my statements on Africa. I feel that as a result the Soviets have lost esteem in the non-aligned movement and in the Western world. I remember when we used to be on the defensive on human rights. We were the target and the Soviets were the great protector of human rights. We were seen as aggressors because of Vietnam. Now the Soviets have the onus of being intruders, especially in Africa with the Cubans. We have done part of the job and have had a net gain on this.

I sense in this meeting a special concern with the rate of the Soviet military buildup and our response. But we stand well everywhere else.

[Page 455]

We need an objective analysis of the proportion of the Soviet military budget which is not comparable to our own needs. After all, we don’t have to maintain a million men on the Canadian border.

Brown: Twenty-five percent of the Soviet budget goes for defense against China. But the forces they maintain in Eastern Europe are the forces they would use for attack on Western Europe.

The President: You have about got me convinced that we need to do more on defense. We also have to compete in other areas for minds and hearts in different countries—through trade, economic relations and the like. We should delineate the things we can do above and beyond the military, that would let us compete peacefully.

Brzezinski: We are developing with State a package of measures to undercut the Soviets and Cubans in Africa.

The President: What can we do to assure the Saudis and Iran? We need an NIE on the kinds of peaceful actions that can permit us to compete around the world. It ought to assess the various nations and regions, assess the use of our technology, and develop a propaganda effort designed to show that our strength is greater than now perceived. We should all make an effort to do this and to sell our position.

Brzezinski: This must entail a strategic concept: 1) continued strengthening of our relations with the European Allies; 2) stronger relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran; 3) stronger relations with Japan, China, and Korea.

The President: This should be in the spirit of peaceful competition with the Soviets. We do have to make sure that there is no need for apology on the military side. Maybe we are deficient on this, or have been in the past. We should remedy the deficencies.

Brown: Military power won’t win for us. We have to rely on other things to build our influence. For example, things are looking better with Iraq—they are turning to us because we have things to offer.

The Vice President: We should involve the private sector more. American businessmen see more people around the world than government officials do. Our world economic position is shrinking. We ought to particularly enlarge and expand our position in Asia and help the private sector to do this.

Vance: We are already doing a great deal. Chuck Robinson will be leading an OPIC group to the Far East. John Moore will be going to Japan.

The President: We ought to use the 50 state governors, for example, ask them to organize trade missions to various countries. They would be delighted.

We should put together a program on what we could do in the peaceful competition, vis-a-vis various countries. We need to identify the specific countries.

[Page 456]

Brzezinski: The countries should be identified strategically in relationship to our stance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and China.

The Vice President: We should do more to compete economically. The recent tax law means that U.S. multinational firms are hiring non-U.S. citizens because it is easier and cheaper. This is the kind of mistake we should work on.

The President: When Eanes came to the NATO Summit meeting,7 he was very concerned about Spain and, in answer to my question, said we could help by getting the key conservative Spanish military leaders to visit the U.S., and we did that. I think we should reach out our hands to military leaders and others and do more to bring people to the U.S.

Brown: Bringing military leaders here also reassures them about our capabilities because of what they see here.

Brzezinski: We will do a paper summarizing the conclusions of this meeting and the things that should be done.

The President: I want to ask Paul Warnke what he thinks the impact would be on the Soviets’ desire for cooperation with us and detente if we were to commit GLCMs to Western Europe and establish a military presence in the Middle East.

Warnke: The Soviets would feel that they would have to match us with conventional GLCMs in Europe, but putting GLCMs in Europe would not torpedo SALT. It would just accelerate Soviet development of cruise missile capabilities. But would Western Europe feel better if both sides had cruise missiles, rather than neither having them? I think that there would be greater fear in Western Europe of surprise attack.

Brzezinski: Cruise missiles are not a surprise attack weapon.

Jones: Our inability to talk about command and control of cruise missiles with the Allies—targeting, range, and the like—is slowing our GLCM programs and this is what caused the slip from 1982. We need to open a dialogue with the Allies on these subjects. The dialogue itself would help to reassure the Allies.

The President: With reference to the trip I have asked Harold Brown to make to Europe, I have to do a personal letter to Callaghan, Schmidt and Giscard to find out what their thinking is and what they will do on: 1) ERW; 2) GLCMs in Europe; 3) medium-range ballistic missiles in Europe.8 I don’t have answers from them on these items.

I have no doubt that if the Soviets had a chance to get a military base in the Middle East they would do it. But is it good for us to do it?

[Page 457]

Warnke: To return to your first question, I think the main Soviet reaction to putting GLCMs in Europe would be a very heavy ERW-style campaign on the Germans. They would react in this manner rather than in SALT.

They would see an American military base in the Sinai as separate from SALT. They don’t believe in linkage. They would not like it but they would accept it. It would not interfere with arms control.

Vance: In my session with the SFRC, they went into the question of a military base in the Middle East at length. I said that the suggestion had been put to the U.S. but that we had made no decision. Glenn thought it would be very serious, that it would change the whole relationship with Israel and the Arabs and that it would increase the possibility of our being involved in a conflict. The question is very controversial.

Brown: Details on any base in the Middle East will matter in reactions to it. One is whether Israel and Egypt each asked for it. Another is the kind of base—for example, the JCS are examining a trilateral—U.S.-Israel-Egyptian—base for training purposes. In any event, the chances of our being embroiled in a conflict in the area would go up if we have a base there.

Vance: I think that if a base is critical to a security guarantee and the linchpin that will get us a peace agreement, then we should do it. But it should not just be thrown in at any point.

Jones: We are looking at a trilateral training base that would be open to all.

The President: Both Begin and Sadat raised the base with me. Sadat said that we should conclude a mutual security treaty with Israel. I need an answer on the base question for the Camp David meeting. The Israelis have always said they don’t want U.S. troops. But I might face a request on the base nonetheless. I don’t know whether we want the base option or not. Looking at our problem in reassuring Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, do we want a land presence in the Middle East or are our ships in the Eastern Mediterranean enough?

Brown: We have done a paper which we have given to Zbig and to Cy’s people.9 There are marginal military advantages to an American military base in the Sinai. But it does mean that we are more likely to be involved in any conflict. If it is needed as a guarantee to secure a peace agreement, then it is sensible and there are military advantages in relation to the region. And a peace agreement in the Middle East cancels out the added risk that a base entails of getting involved in a conflict.

[Page 458]

Brzezinski: A base helps secure a Middle East agreement. It also gives Saudi Arabia and Iran reassurance.

The President: Does the U.S. want a base in the Middle East if we can get a peace settlement without it? Do we want a base to reassure the Saudis and Iran?

Brown: We have to be asked to establish a base by Egypt and Israel. If we have choices in the matter, we should not establish a base if it is not necessary to get a peace settlement.

Jones: We would prefer a base in Saudi Arabia from the military standpoint and the critical importance of Saudi Arabia.

Brzezinski: A base in the Sinai does more for us throughout the region. A base in Saudi Arabia will be more susceptible to internal instability.

The Vice President: If we can get a peace settlement, we should be ready to pay for it with a base. The Sinai accords and the electronic systems set up are very important. Sadat would like an excuse not to invade Israel and to help resist his hotheads. There is nothing now in the way. An American base in the Sinai would be just a psychological, stabilizing presence.

Vance: A base would certainly help us with the problem of what to do with the air base in the Sinai and with the Israeli settlements problem as well.

The President: The base would be on Egyptian soil. If I thought there were any opposition from Egypt or Israel to a base, then I wouldn’t do it. But I do think a base would contribute to stability in the area.

Turner: Saudi support for a base will be critical. The Soviets will try hard to split the Arabs on the issue and Saudi support will be needed to help hold firm against this.

The President: This meeting has been helpful to me. I would like to ask each of you to send Zbig further thoughts and comments on the issues we discussed and on the items we talked about doing.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Meetings File, Box 1, NSC Meeting: #11 Held 8/15/78, 8–11/78. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Bartholomew. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room at the White House. The President initialed the top right-hand corner of the minutes. Brzezinski sent the minutes and a separate memorandum on action items deriving from the meeting to the President under an August 16 memorandum requesting the President’s approval. Brzezinski indicated that he did not plan to circulate the minutes but asked Carter if there was “anyone in particular that you would want to have read” the minutes. Carter responded: “Those who were there.” He also instructed Brzezinski to follow up on the action items. (Ibid.)
  2. NIE 11–4–78, “Soviet Goals and Expectations in the Global Power Arena,” May 9; see footnote 6, Document 85.
  3. Reference is to the upcoming Camp David talks, scheduled to take place that September.
  4. Documentation on the January 1978 return of the Crown of St. Stephen to Hungary is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XX, Eastern Europe.
  5. Not further identified; however, Brown did send a memorandum to the President focusing on the Soviet Union and U.S. defense capabilities on August 13. On the cover memorandum, Brzezinski noted that he had underlined portions of Brown’s memorandum that “bear on the forthcoming NSC meeting.” Brown’s memorandum is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IV, National Security Policy.
  6. See footnote 5, Document 91.
  7. See Document 83.
  8. Brown was scheduled to travel to Europe in October.
  9. Not found and not further identified.