215. Information Memorandum From the Director of Policy Planning (Wolfowitz) to Secretary of State Shultz 1


  • A Report from Moscow


A group of us (including Allen Wallis) met last Friday2 with Columbia professor Seweryn Bialer, who passed on the views of upper-middle-level Soviet officials and experts to which his recent three-week stay in Moscow exposed him. His presentation put forward Soviet [Page 713] views in all their variety and even contradictoriness. Two important points stood out:

1) The Soviets claim to take the Reagan Administration change of course in foreign policy very seriously, to the point of alarm.

2) But, while cautious and conscious of their own problems, the Soviets are not (yet?) considering how to adjust to the new US policy, both because of paralyzed decision-making and ideological rigidity.

Soviet Views

Like other visitors to the Soviet Union, Bialer heard that the early hopes for the Reagan Administration have yielded to a recognition that a new policy is here to stay. Its distinctive features are seen as a quest for military superiority, resort to “economic warfare”, escalation of anti-Soviet rhetoric, etc. But even more important is the redefinition of US aims—in place of traditional US demands for improved Soviet behavior, these officials see a new focus on weakening and destabilizing the Soviet system itself, with the aim of driving the Soviets off the world stage (“rollback of Soviet global influence”). In this view, the Reagan Administration’s ambitious aims are explained by the President’s personal determination, the representation of more radical viewpoints among close advisers, his effective manipulation of Congress and the public, and his ability to count on European loyalties in a pinch. (These Soviets, for example, reportedly take INF deployment for granted.)

Bialer found some Soviets believing a US course correction will occur in time, but not a return to 70’s-style detente. What most believe, he claims, is that detente itself was a kind of fluke and that (with the Vietnam defeat receding) an older, more powerful, and more ideological tradition of US policy has reasserted itself. All the more important Soviet officials he spoke to expressed this “hard line” outlook.

Bialer also notes that the new Soviet assessment has not been fully digested. Intellectually and diplomatically, the Soviets consider themselves in a “holding pattern”, for several reasons. Their caution reflects 1) their own policy overextension, as in Afghanistan and Poland; 2) the priority of their European “peace offensive”; 3) the immobility created by the succession and 4) a growing preoccupation with domestic affairs.

As described to Bialer, this holding pattern is likely to endure for some time. No major decisions, he was told, are being taken now. (The Soviets seem on the ultimate “continuing resolution”.) It is said that every major policy is a matter of inertia, with no hope at middle levels that new proposals can gain a hearing. Even apart from the succession, however, ideological rigidity strengthens this standpat posture: The Soviets do not, even in principle, consider US objections to their behav[Page 714]ior in the Third World to be legitimate (even in the limited form of specific demands, not all-out warfare). Promoting left-wing insurgencies is a matter of both right and duty, of “inevitable progress” from which the Soviets, for ideological reasons, cannot stand aside. (The absence of internal Soviet reform is explained by Bialer in the same way. While taking its economic weaknesses seriously, the Soviet leadership is at present incapable of devising any reform program; but even when it becomes capable, it will oppose all but superficial changes so as to protect its own power.)


There was this interesting contradiction in the Soviet attitudes Bialer picked up: a growing anxiety, especially about U.S. ultimate purposes and military programs, but also a rejection of accommodation in those areas where we have objected to Soviet behavior. (He heard admissions that although the Soviet arms control positions were, like ours, propagandistic, they would not and could not soon be changed.)

Either one of these conflicting views could, in principle, give way to the other. Fear of war could in time lead to serious negotiations; alternately, Soviet unwillingness to compromise may lead to still greater arms efforts and more belligerent diplomacy. Our policy, of course, should take both possibilities into account, but if Bialer is right neither adjustment is likely soon. Instead, we may witness a cautious Soviet hunkering-down but without any interest in resolving disagreements.

This was a very suggestive report. Unfortunately, it is not easy to interpret the findings of even so experienced an observer as Seweryn Bialer. As he himself acknowledges, the views communicated to him represent some mix of real convictions and what the Soviets want us to believe they think. An example is the issue of rhetoric, which bulked very large in what Bialer heard. He reported both 1) that the Soviets are frightened of the President’s rhetoric and 2) that they consider it one source of public support for his policies.

How true the former is we simply cannot know. At a minimum, the disparity between the Administration’s early talk and its cautious subsequent record (on Cuba, for example) must partly calm Soviet fears (although they may, as Bialer heard, believe the President would act much more firmly and decisively in something like the Iranian hostage crisis). But if what they really are convinced of is the latter, that the President’s talk strengthens his internal position, then it may be to their advantage to suggest that his strong rhetoric adds to international instability and makes accommodation less likely. Certainly in Europe this is the Soviet line—to focus their propaganda on a picture of US irresponsibility and unreliability, putting the burden on us to show that this is not true. Their complaints center on the President as [Page 715] they would have him be (quick on the trigger and ready for war) rather than on the sophisticated combination of uncompromising rhetoric, ambitious proposals, and prudence in action that has in fact made him a more formidable opponent.

Your Meeting with Gromyko

Bialer offered the personal prediction that Gromyko will come on rather strong in presenting Soviet grievances to you, in particular the demand for recognition of the Soviet Union’s rights as a great power. He might appear more cautious and reasonable on specific issues, but this will not make him any more yielding in answering our grievances (at least at the level of principle).

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Fortier Files, 1982–1986, “Soviet Union/East-West.” Confidential. Drafted by Sestanovich; cleared by Roche. Copied to Dam, Wallis, Burt, Palmer, Montgomery, and Azrael.
  2. September 17.