197. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Summit Strategy

The memorandum that follows provides a framework for your approach to the summit by reviewing what we have learned from previous summits; by outlining the central objectives of the two sides; by identifying the key messages and accomplishments; and by describing the scenario and strategy for these negotiations.

Moreover, we attach at Tab A a more detailed statement of our tangible and intangible maximum objectives for the entire summit; Tab B2 contains the Soviet text of the proposed joint communique; and Tab C3 contains a memorandum previously prepared by Bill Hyland on the experience of past summits.

History and Setting

Some months ago, you read Hyland’s memorandum, and I would urge you to reread it (Tab C). In brief, it points out that some summits created unreal expectations and, hence, generated disillusionment (e.g., the first Nixon-Brezhnev Summit of 1972). Some were outright failures, notably Paris in 1960 (Khrushchev walked out over the U–2 incident), and Vienna in 1961 (Kennedy was browbeaten and assessed to be a weak leader). Despite its relatively low key, Glassboro was a rather unusual success in that it helped bring the USSR to recognize the need for a comprehensive strategic arms control process, despite the then-blazing Vietnam conflict.

You will be meeting Leonid Brezhnev in a setting of unusual uncertainty and difficulty. Never has the mixed character of the relationship of cooperation and competion been more in evidence. Despite the successful completion of SALT II, U.S.-Soviet relations are clearly strained by a number of conflicting interests. The United States is increasingly skeptical of Soviet intentions because of the momentum of its military programs and its intervention in the Third World. In the [Page 568] past, we could discount Soviet intentions because Soviet capabilities were limited; today, even benign Soviet intentions are becoming increasingly suspect because of the implications of Soviet capabilities.

A further and critical element of uncertainty is due to the fact that the Soviet Union is already undergoing the trauma of a succession crisis. We do not know when Brezhnev will be replaced nor by whom. However, at Vienna you will be communicating through Brezhnev with the whole collective leadership, and—hopefully—through it perhaps also with the next generation of Soviet leaders as well. In some ways this may diminish the importance of whatever personal rapport you can develop with Brezhnev, but it enhances the importance of the signals and messages that you will want to transmit.

The U.S. side is also an uncertain quantity to the Soviet side. The firm centerpiece of the relationship now is SALT but the fate of SALT II in the Senate is unsure. The sensitivity of the United States to assertive Soviet behavior in the developing world, combined with our reluctance to get involved, makes it difficult for the Soviets to predict our reactions and can create the possibility of dangerous miscalculations.

Soviet Objectives

The Soviets have ample reason to invest in the relationship. They do not want our economic and technological might mobilized against them. They do not want us to move closer to China.4 They want to reduce the chances that security issues in conflict between us boil up to confrontation, yet they are unlikely to yield their positions in Africa, the Middle East or anywhere else.

While you would like to accomplish as much as possible—including strengthening SALT II reductions, agreeing on a number of other arms control measures and reconciling differences in the Third World—the Soviets have made it clear to us that they would be satisfied with signing SALT and having a positive atmosphere. We have their draft communique (Tab B). It is down to earth and businesslike. It has the usual Soviet boiler plate but is surprisingly moderate and breaks little new ground. They want to minimize consideration of contentious security and regional issues. They are prepared to reach further agreement on ASAT and MBFR but we don’t know whether they are willing to make the needed concessions. They say little about economic relations, obviously seeking to avoid being a supplicant.

In effect, the Soviet objective is to create the impression of a U.S.-Soviet partnership in the management of world affairs; to downplay [Page 569] the importance of the U.S.-Chinese relationship;5 to improve the atmospherics and some tangibles of the U.S.-Soviet bilateral relationship; but not to limit in any way Soviet freedom of action in regards either to Europe or some of the Third World areas of turbulence.

In addition, the schedule proposed by the Soviet side minimizes public exposure and thus diminishes their usual penchant for public camaraderie. Above all, we are getting one message—no surprises.6 Their approach is one of extreme caution. What they appear to fear most is the picture of a young U.S. President making dramatic initiatives (a la March 1977) without careful preparation in advance to ensure their acceptability to the Soviet leadership.

Tone and Style

Given the character of Soviet objectives, atmosphere will be a particularly important7 aspect of this summit. Every indication is that both sides seek a positive atmosphere. We should understand, however, that the Soviets have more to gain and less to lose than you do from pumping up the atmospherics. A glowing summit gives the Soviet leadership a boost at home and abroad, because they face no public comparison between pretense and actual results.

In managing the atmosphere and the substance of the summit, a number of points deserve being kept in mind:

1. There is little to be gained by philosophical discourse or ideological debate with the Soviet leaders; they are not psychologically confident enough to engage at the philosophical level as the Chinese do; in particular, trying to debate rules of conduct becomes frustrating because of the gap in perceptions;8

2. Concrete issues, however, are more easily resolved but only if they have been well prepared9 and the Soviets do not have to contend with surprises that have not been aired by the collective leadership;

3. Soviet leaders are quite sensitive to their personal treatment;10 they are particularly concerned over any slights reflecting the inferiority of the USSR. This will be a particularly important issue at this summit with Brezhnev’s ill health. It is not in our interest to exploit his infirmities.

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4. Meeting the “people” is of little interest to the Soviets. Their preoccupation is with those who have the power of decision. As a concession to us, they have reluctantly agreed on a joint call by the two Presidents on Austrian President Kirchschlager.

5. There is no basis for “personal trust”;11 the Soviet system breeds power struggles; it is unlikely they would trust foreigners if they do not trust their own colleagues; expecting Western leaders to act against their class or national interest would subject a Soviet leader to ridicule, if not worse, in the Politburo;

6. Talks, that is conversation, mean little12 compared to the reassurance found in written documents and precise obligations; that is one reason why communiques and joint principles and treaties have more importance in the USSR than in other diplomatic exchanges; but the “spirit” of a document is virtually non-existent;

7. The main value to you may be simply to get some feel for the mind set of the Soviets and their mode of reasoning. The top Soviet leaders do in fact have extraordinary power and will make decisions. But they have no great incentive to make concessions and thereby expose themselves politically.13 Negotiations therefore take place within a pre-defined framework, and on any issue it is important for the Soviets to point to the precise concession they extracted in the bargaining.


We originally wanted at least four days of talks. The Soviets have reduced the time available for discussion by making the first and fourth days largely ceremonial and by insisting that your private meeting with Brezhnev be on the last day. At this point we have agreed to a minimum of seven hours of talks with the possibility of two more on the final day before signing the SALT Treaty.

This will put a premium on the conversations at the two dinners. Accordingly we have in mind making them as small as possible—you, Cy, Harold, me and Dave Jones on our side and Brezhnev, Gromyko, Alexandrov, Ustinov and Ogarkov on theirs. Soviet attendance however is not yet set.

Equally important is the sequence of substantive issues. The first working day (Saturday, June 16) will be devoted to SALT and other arms control issues. This will be an upbeat day and we will be the hosts for the talks and the dinner. The next day will be hosted by the Soviets and will involve more contentious arms control, security and regional issues.

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This will be the most important meeting from the standpoint of conveying firmness and determination to defend our interests. It will inevitably be more downbeat, with the atmosphere more filled with conflict and tension. The last day will see a private meeting and the SALT and other document signing and this should provide a positive conclusion to the summit.

In effect we have something of a drama—at first things are good, then they turn tense, then finally there is a positive resolution. The toasts and your remarks at the signing ceremony will be the key indicators of what is transpiring and they must be carefully crafted with that in mind. At the outset of the talks we must be careful to moderate expectations. The theme of SALT plus serious consultations,14 as we agreed previously, is the best note to strike before the summit begins.

U.S. Strategy and Objectives

This wary and uncertain setting makes it important that we concentrate on those objectives that have the greatest potential for longer term impact on the U.S.-Soviet relationship. I would define the central strategic objectives of the Vienna Summit in the following terms:

1. To consummate SALT II and to initiate SALT III;

2. To give additional impetus to further U.S.-Soviet arms control measures (such as ASAT, MBFR, CTB, CAT, etc.);

3. To make not only Brezhnev but also the Soviet leaders who stayed at home more aware that the U.S. sees the Soviet Union as insensitive to our vital interests or concerns in such regions as the Middle East, Southern Africa, Cuba, and Vietnam.15

In effect, your objective is to demonstrate that the United States can successfully manage the contradictory positive and negative tendencies in our relationship. To do that, you must articulate a conception of a reciprocal and realistic detente, based not only on the common interest in avoiding nuclear war, but also on genuine respect for each side’s security concerns.16 This requires that you be candid with the Soviet leaders about our deep dissatisfaction with Soviet performance on a whole range of security-related issues. They must be made to understand that to move in a constructive direction now, U.S.-Soviet relations must involve positive Soviet behavior on key security issues of paramount U.S. concern.

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At the same time, Soviet leaders must be convinced that our complaints do not derive from a desire for bad U.S.-Soviet relations, or from the desire to gain a one-sided advantage—but that we genuinely wish those relations to improve.17

To this end, it is essential that all key members of your delegation be explicitly instructed to deliberately and repeatedly emphasize certain key and simple themes to their Soviet counterparts. Only a delegation that speaks with a united voice, that keeps repeating the same key themes is likely to convey the message that needs to be heard back in the Kremlin.

Accordingly, I would recommend that you instruct everyone going to Vienna to make the following points to every Soviet that they encounter:

1. The United States wishes to join the Soviet Union in containing the nuclear arms race through further cuts in SALT II and more ambitious cuts in SALT III, as well as through other arms control measures;18

2. The United States wishes to see the Soviet Union as a partner in dealing with many emerging global problems, the solution of which need not be the object of ideological disputes (food, development, energy, etc.);19

3. The United States cannot be indifferent to Soviet insensitivity to our concerns in such areas as the Middle East, Southern Africa, Vietnam, or Cuba—and such insensitivity will produce strong American reactions, particularly on matters which are of concern to the Soviet Union (e.g., China);20

4. Soviet military buildup, both strategic and conventional, has gone beyond the point of legitimate defense needs, and is generating a genuine threat to the United States and its principal Allies—and unless the Soviet side shows restraint, the West, with the United States in the lead, will undertake major, comprehensive, and matching efforts.

If we succeed in communicating these messages effectively, we will have achieved our basic objectives. SALT II ratification will get a boost. Our Allies will maintain confidence in our leadership. You will have set a clear framework for a constructive U.S.-Soviet relationship regardless of who succeeds Brezhnev.

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Next Steps

The final impression of the meeting will be shaped by the communique issued jointly by the two parties. It must be prepared well in advance. We need your guidance, therefore, on how to proceed on the full range of issues that are candidates for discussion.

In response to your admonition that we not be timid in our goals for the Summit, Tab A contains a statement of our maximum objectives organized around the agenda as it now stands. However, realism dictates the conclusion that not all these objectives will be attained at the Summit itself. The Soviets have also stressed to us that they desire “no surprises.” It follows therefore that these objectives need to be prioritized and prepared in advance with the Soviets.

Accordingly, I would welcome your guidance as to which of the items at Tab A you want us to pursue with particular vigor. Once I know your priorities, and with your permission, I will ask Dobrynin to join me and Christopher for a preliminary review of those items which ought to be discussed with the Soviets in advance of the Vienna Summit. In this manner, we will enhance the prospects of attaining not only our broad strategic objectives, but also the more concrete goals listed in Tab A.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Geographic File, Box 19, U.S.S.R.—(Vienna Summit Briefing Book, 6/79) (1). Secret. Carter wrote the following names in the upper right-hand corner of the memorandum: Zbig [Brzezinski], David [Aaron], Warren [Christopher], and Marshall [Shulman].
  2. Tabs A and B are not attached.
  3. Tab C is attached but not printed.
  4. Carter underlined most of the previous two sentences.
  5. Carter underlined “a U.S.-Soviet partnership in the management of world affairs,” “downplay,” and “U.S.-Chinese relationship” in this clause.
  6. Carter underlined “no surprises” in this sentence.
  7. Carter underlined “atmosphere” and “particularly important” in this sentence.
  8. Carter underlined “little to be gained,” “ideological debate,” and “rules of conduct” in this paragraph.
  9. Carter underlined “concrete issues” and “well prepared” in this sentence.
  10. Carter underlined most of the previous clause.
  11. Carter underlined most of the previous clause.
  12. Carter underlined “Talks” and “mean little” in this sentence.
  13. Carter underlined “no great incentive to make concessions” in this sentence.
  14. Carter underlined “SALT plus serious consultations” in this clause.
  15. Carter underlined “our vital interests” in this sentence. He underlined “Middle East” and “Southern Africa” and wrote “OK” underneath each of them. He underlined “Cuba” and Vietnam” and wrote a question mark under each. In the margin Carter wrote, “W. Europe, S. Asia, N. Africa, Mediterranean.”
  16. Carter underlined the following phrases in this sentence: “common interest in avoiding nuclear war” and “respect for each side’s security.”
  17. Carter underlined “we genuinely wish those relations to improve.”
  18. Carter wrote “ok” in the margin next to this paragraph. Beneath the paragraph, he wrote, “We should mutually enhance verification techniques.”
  19. Carter wrote “ok” in the margin next to this paragraph. Beneath the paragraph, he wrote, “Closer regular consultations.”
  20. Carter wrote underneath this paragraph, “V[iet]Nam, Cuba ok but too narrow. South Asia, North Africa more important.”