210. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The Soviet Union and the U.S. Approach


  • United States

    • George P. Shultz, Secretary of State
    • Walter J. Stoessel, Jr., Deputy Secretary of State
    • Kenneth W. Dam, Deputy Secretary of State-Designate
    • Lawrence S. Eagleburger, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
    • Paul Wolfowitz, Director for Policy Planning, Department of State
    • Robert D. Blackwill, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs
    • Thomas W. Simons, Jr., Director, EUR/SOV, Department of State (notetaker)
  • Canada

    • Robert A.D. Ford, former Canadian Ambassador to Moscow, Consultant to the Canadian Ministry of External Affairs
    • H.E. Allan E. Gotlieb, Ambassador of Canada

The Secretary welcomed Ambassador Ford, thanking him for coming. He had glanced through Ambassador Ford’s paper with interest.2 His education on the Soviet Union was continuing. Following the recent seminar he had held on the topic,3 Hal Sonnenfeldt has suggested Ambassador Ford as the most knowledgeable man in the world on the Soviet Union, and he had been in touch through Ambassador Gotlieb. [Page 685] He would welcome Ambassador Ford’s comments, and then perhaps the discussion could roam over Soviet behavior and prospects, U.S. behavior and policies, and how they might relate.

Ford said he would not spend much time on Soviet internal matters. Everyone knows what Soviet internal difficulties are. It is hard to separate domestic and international aspects in the Soviet case. He was pessimistic that the Soviets can resolve their internal problems. He saw three basic option mixes for trying:

—1. Return to detente, an effort to improve the USSR’s international position and acquire capital from the West, some economic reform, and arms control. Ford said he thought economic reform impossible to implement, since it would threaten to unravel the whole system. It was clear to him that one of the main reasons the Soviets had intervened in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was apprehension over the political implications of economic reform. From their point of view he thought they were perfectly right. The small bosses around the country would support the status quo. Poland made this option even harder. It could also include serious arms control designed to reduce the proportion of GNP going to military expenditures. Ford thought all these elements would be resisted by the military, the hardliners and the little bosses in the system.

—2. Immobilism. This had been the Brezhnev solution over the past few years. The Soviets are cautious and would prefer to continue. This involves no basic concessions to the West, but also not-too-bad relations with the West, i.e., doing little.

—3. Stiffening. Here the Soviets would say to hell with it, claiming the West is determined to weaken them, and give even more support to the military as the only way to respond.

Even if there were support for the first option, Ford thought, there would still be the almost insuperable obstacles of Poland and Afghanistan. Even if the West says it is possible to improve relations, say in arms control, if Poland and Afghanistan are unresolved it will be hard.

The Secretary asked if Ford considered arms control a means of improving relations.

Ford said it was important both in terms of domestic costs to the Soviets and, of course, in East-West terms.

The Secretary said this suggested the idea, which he did not endorse, that the best strategy was to have no arms control as the best means of forcing the pace, since it would pressure them more than anything else.

Ford replied that he thought economic pressure, especially if it were coordinated Allied pressure, was probably the best, or even only, way to change the Soviet system. The trouble is that it takes a long time to work. In the short run the Soviets will resort to belt-tightening [Page 686] and more stress on the military, and they can do it. We are in for a tricky 5–6 years until the West achieves parity or superiority, and in the meantime they can be expected to tighten up. Ford did not believe they would resort to war, since this would risk their privileges, but they would be more willing to take risks. After 5–6 years, he was convinced, what the Soviets call the “correlation of forces” would be shifting very strongly in our favor. Until then, however, the situation will be dangerous.

Asked what our policy approach should be over the next 5–10 years, Ford said that in the short run we cannot alter the regime. It will change from within if at all, as in the past. International problems will be dangerous, and the Soviets will have a tendency to rely on their military strength to deal with them; Poland and Afghanistan will remain problems. Ford said he could imagine a strong leader wishing to indicate something to the West on Afghanistan, but not on Poland. Poland in his view would be the most serious obstacle to improvement in relations with the West.

The Secretary asked if this meant Ford saw no way for the Poles to get out of their box.

Ford said he did not. By this he meant he saw no solution that could please the Russians. The Poles could not reinstate a party that could both rule the country and be loyal to the USSR, and for the Russians there is no other solution. For them junta rule must be a terrible example for other parties. Economic reform is also something the Soviet Union finds it hard to permit; finally there is the concern for security and order. Minor cosmetic changes may be possible, but it is hard to see more than that without the Russians objecting. Ford thought it likely that they would eventually have to intervene militarily.

Stoessel said military intervention remains a real possibility, but for the moment the Soviets seem relatively satisfied with the Polish military in power. At the moment they do not appear to be overly worried. Over the long run, of course, what Ford said was true.

Ford said the policy objective should thus be to reduce the dangers of the next years. First, we should give greater recognition to the fact that the Soviets see themselves as beleaguered and think we see them the same way, and are trying to destroy their regime. This is not to say we should not correct the military situation; on the contrary, the West surely needs to correct its military posture and achieve parity or in some areas superiority. But isn’t there something we can do to give the Soviets the feeling we recognize their fears? They are touchy and obsessed by this issue, want to be considered as on the same level with us; they are terribly sensitive to slights to their great power status.

The Secretary asked for example of slights and of what Ford would consider proper recognition.

[Page 687]

As slights, Ford mentioned the failure to ratify SALT II, which they interpreted as a slight; “Jackson-Pollock” (sic); Carter’s letter to Sakharov, which was tremendously insulting to them; and, “with respect,” elements in President Reagan’s speeches which touched raw nerves. We are dealing with a paradox, since they say they are convinced their own system will win and ours will be destroyed, but do not believe their own ideology.

Ford said he thought it very important to reestablish an element of crisis control. There had been some work done under the Nixon Administration which could be built on. This would be of benefit to both sides; he saw it as purely preventive. It would also help the U.S. with its Allies, who continue to look to the U.S. lead.

The Secretary asked if this meant giving them a sense that there is a pattern of communication between us and the Soviets. Ford said yes, in the sense of dealing with crises, preventing them from getting out of hand.

Stoessel asked what Ford meant by work formerly done that could be built on. Ford said he thought we had made a good start in this area under Nixon.

Another element useful for “proper recognition,” Ford said, was arms control. In discussion these issues with his Prime Minister, they did not always agree, but he had to say that he did agree with the Prime Minister that there should not be any linkage on arms talks.

As a final element, Ford said, after the succession we should seize any opportunity that they are offering to back down on key issues. There are examples of their wanting a pause; the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is one. Many Russians feel they have been pushing their people as hard as possible, and that in renewed military competition with the West they will need to pay too much to keep the parity they have achieved. The West should respond if the opportunity of a Soviet backdown arises.

Stoessel asked how East-West trade fitted in this.

Ford said he personally did not see much of a future in East-West trade. It was of course important for some factories and for the employment it provides. Probably the U.S. and Canada got the most advantage from it among Western countries, since they sell grain. But it is not overall a very key element.

The Secretary asked what Ford had meant at the end of his paper when he spoke of the Soviets playing “their only really valid card.” Ford said he had meant deriving political benefits from the military force they have built up.

Blackwill asked how Ford saw the Soviets exploiting differences among the Western Allies. Ford replied that the Soviets of course always [Page 688] seek to divide the Allies. Right now they may see some hope of success in the internal situations in France, Germany and the Netherlands. It was his personal feeling that the pipeline decision was all wrong, although once it was signed it was necessary to go through with it. On the other hand, the Europeans should also do more, and would certainly look silly if the pipeline were finished and they then saw the Soviets invade Poland. European resistance to the pipeline is not unanimous; the French, for instance, feel very strongly about Poland, and this is particularly true of the trade unions. Europe should make more of an effort. What is needed are agreed guidelines on future economic cooperation with the Soviet Union.

The Secretary said we too would like nothing better, if only the Europeans would agree. Ambassador Gotlieb said he too hoped we can find diplomatic common ground on this topic; it is the only way to go.

Stoessel asked if Ford saw pressures from the Soviets in this matter. Ford replied that he suspected the Soviets would continue to try to separate the Allies but realized that all such quarrels, like the De Gaulle episode, are temporary and will be overcome in time.

Wolfowitz commented that neither side had up to now saved much money by arms control agreements, and it was hard to see arms control agreements coming up that would save money if concluded. If the pressures on Soviet military spending were as strong as Ford appeared to believe, one place where real savings might be possible was in Soviet relations with China. Here there was a huge buildup, very costly in addition to being psychologically important. They might try a latter-day 1939 in this area.

Ford said he doubted cost was the main factor in the Soviet approach to China. They will not in any case demobilize. Conventional force costs are smaller for them than for us. He thought a pact with China or even a big improvement in relations unlikely. Even if there were some kind of agreement the Soviets would still need a large standing army, and there was the added psychological importance for the Soviets of maintaining a visible Soviet presence in the Far East.

With regard to costs, Ford said, it is perfectly true that the Soviets have up to now done what they felt they needed to do. But we are now entering a new era in arms development which is likely to be extremely expensive. It will require inputs from a civilian economy that is already beggared, especially in trained personnel. The savings possible are perhaps not great, but it is the aim of some Russians to reduce a little bit. If they do not they are bound to weaken the civilian economy even further.

The Secretary asked why the economic situation is bound to get worse.

[Page 689]

Ford said it is because the situation is so bad now and because against that background more capital will be needed to prevent the civilian sector slipping disastrously.

Dam said it was not clear to him why Soviet military expenditures kept going up whatever the political context. Perhaps they went up through immobilism rather than in response to international events.

Ford said this was true, and it will be hard to cut the military budget in the best of circumstances. As he saw it, the R&D for the SS–20 had been done in 1968 and 1969, during the worst of the Vietnam War, and the military had probably convinced the civilians that it was needed because the U.S. was growing more menacing. By the time detente came along in 1972–73, however, it was already in production. At that point the military had probably argued the Soviets had to use what they had in hand. This was just a hypothesis, but it was plausible to him.

Eagleburger asked Ford to relate this momentum factor to succession prospects, to possible shifts in the Soviet mindset and how we might affect them. He asked what we should be particularly careful about.

Ford said he thought we should give the Soviets the respect they feel they are entitled to, and respond to opportunities if they appear. We will lack the information to go further than that: in the Stalin succession Khrushchev at first looked like the most sycophantic Stalinist around. He felt there was no question that the leadership after Brezhnev would devolve onto a troika and even greater diffusion of power. The situation was likely to resemble the post-Khrushchev period, when Brezhnev had taken six years to make his imprint on the bureaucracy. He had survived since because he had nourished the feeling of identification with him on domestic and foreign policy grounds down through the Central Committee level. It was hard to believe that a new leader would have the character or strength to impose himself as a new ruler. He would have come up through the aparat, in the hard school of bureaucratic politics, and the aparat wants to hold on to what it has got, and sees no reason to change.

The Secretary commented that this seems to be a comfortable or good approach for members of the leadership, but a bad situation from the general standpoint. We asked whether this distinction will not affect prospects.

Ford replied that the primary objective of all Soviet leaders is to keep the Communist Party in power. They only changed if this objective is threatened by pressures from the economy or international pressures, if they otherwise face a blank wall.

Stoessel asked about the theory that the technocrats will gain more influence as economic problems come to the fore. As the party becomes [Page 690] more despised for ineptitude, the power of technicians might grow, with the younger generation shifting toward them.

Ford said the problem was that the technicians are also Party members, and their privileges come from what the Party has given them.

Ambassador Gotlieb asked if he were right to say Ford was recommending “attentism”—a kind of intellectual holding concept—for the short term, and an attempt to reduce the dangers of confrontation for the medium term.

Ford replied that he did not consider a return to detente to be a serious option. He thought it would be a mistake to make offers of improvement before we can say that our rearmament effort is working. But we should by all means be cautious.

Blackwill asked how we are to understand the Soviet Union’s geopolitical activism in the 1970’s if it is true that the Soviets lack historical confidence in their future.

Ford said one of the mistakes of detente was to exclude the Soviet commitment to support national-liberation movements from consideration. It has always been there, and was needed to prove the regime’s bona fides. It was one way to allow the Soviets to give foreign affairs support to almost any movement. It will continue. After a long period of hesitation, the Soviets did more in this area during the 1970’s because the opportunities were there. They saw no contradiction with detente, and they were also feeling their oats, experimenting with use of the military power they had acquired to achieve parity with the U.S. It was also the peak period of Brezhnev as a world leader.

Speaking for Canada, Ambassador Gotlieb said the GOC focusses on a stabilizing environment for the future. It agrees it is sensible to have two legs in one’s approach: rebuilding Western strength and “attentism.” The third possible leg is a long-term conception in U.S. policy that the wave of history is with us and the Soviet system won’t work. The resulting prescription is to mobilize all elements favoring this wave of history. To be successful, this would require a major consensus to use economic instruments. He thought that consensus was probably “not there.” Trying to achieve it would have high costs in West-West relations, which would benefit the Soviets greatly. It is sensible to seek it on small things—technology transfer, credits—but one cannot proceed too far down this road without losing the consensus necessary to make the approach work.

The Secretary commented that it is one thing to seek the Soviet Union’s demise and another to seek to limit Soviet options, confining them to their own resources.

The Secretary thanked Ambassador Ford for sharing his wisdom, invited him to get in touch when he was visiting Washington, and asked him not to be surprised if the Secretary called upon his counsel again.

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S–I Records: Deputy Secretary Dam’s Official Files, Lot 85D308. Confidential; Sensitive. Drafted by Simons on September 14; cleared by Burt and Wayne. The meeting took place in Shultz’s conference room at the Department of State.
  2. Not found.
  3. See Documents 205 and 206.