UCI Libraries - The Quest for Peace Interviews: Helmut Sonnenfeldt Interview Transcript
UCI Libraries: Quest for Peace


Critical Issues Before the Democracy


Helmut Sonnenfeldt, 1984

Helmut Sonnenfeldt is guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, former senior staff member of the National Security Council, and head of the Office of Research and Analysis for the USSR and Eastern Europe in the U.S. Department of State. Today, he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Mr. Sonnenfeldt, in thinking about the problem of achieving peace and defining the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union as the predominant one in the years ahead, what have you learned about what effects the Soviet willingness to negotiate with the United States on issues of achieving peace?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, that is open to some speculation. I think obviously, to some extent, their view of the American attitude affects it; I think to some extent their view of what opportunities they have for expanding their influence. I think, in general, if they see some opportunities for that the Soviets tend to try and do that, and not pay too much attention to the opportunities for negotiation, until they have managed to acquire some additional influence, which they then would like to nail down by negotiation. But I think perhaps more than any of these factors, what has affected the Soviet ability and willingness to negotiate seriously, has been their own domestic political situation. I think since the late 70s, with the decline of Brezhnev in terms of his health and his authority, and the obvious maneuvering in Moscow for the succession, the beginning rather insistent pressures from the somewhat younger generation to reach the levers of power, the Soviet readiness and ability, willingness to engage in serious negotiations, has declined in my opinion.

Whiteley: What is the role of American defense policies and weapons systems in influencing the Russian willingness to negotiate with us?

Sonnenfeldt: That's an ambiguous role. On the one hand, it gives them incentive to try and slow those down through the negotiating process, and also through generating all sorts of public pressures. So that should provide an incentive for them to negotiate. On the other hand, they have their own defense programs which have their own dynamic, in fact, in my opinion, are rather less influenced by what we do than is commonly thought. The Soviet defense programs work on their own rhythm; they're part of the economic planning cycles, and so they have a considerable degree of autonomy from outside influences. And so when the Soviets come to the negotiating table, Soviet representatives come to the arms control negotiating table, they are determined to protect Soviet programs, to not have agreements that make many inroads into their own existing programs and their own choices and options. And to some extent, the same sort of thing operates here, but I don't think to nearly the same extent. But the net effect of it is that arms control negotiations, up to this time, have not really had much impact on military programs on either side.

Whiteley: In commenting about negotiating with our friends, you've indicated that there's often a pervasive climate of shared values. Talking about negotiating, writing about negotiating with the Soviet Union, you've indicated there is an underlying climate of hostility. How does that affect the outcome of negotiations?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, when you negotiate with friends, there is a presumption that you want to come to some kind of a solution. Maybe not an ideal solution, but the whole purpose is to come to a solution or compromise, and to go on to the next problem. In the negotiations with the Soviets it is very often the process of negotiation itself that plays a role in political maneuver. But the bottom line is that because you're dealing in an antagonistic context, even if you grant that the fear of war is something that is a shared concern on both sides, you're still dealing in an antagonistic context. And therefore, in my opinion at least, agreements, especially on military and security questions, tend to be very marginal, and not really permit you to forgo your own unilateral security arrangements and defense programs. And I think the Soviets see it that way. They don't really see, except in their propaganda I think, as a matter of reality they don't see arms control and arms control negotiations as an alternative to military programs and to security ambitions. They see it as an adjunct, and the results tend to be very marginal.

Whiteley: We do have in common with the Soviets the control of vast machinery of destruction and, I would assume, a common value that a nuclear holocaust would be bad for the communist system and the American system. Given that overriding value, what effect does that have on negotiations?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think it's an overriding value. Of course we're many years well into the nuclear age. The Soviets were still taking the view that wars are brought about by capitalists, and the great wars of this century first brought about the revolution in Russia, and then after the Second World War, the revolution in Eastern Europe, as they defined them. I don't think they were revolutions, but the Russians saw them as such. And that a third world war would spell the end of capitalism and the system that, in their view, brings about war. Well, most of that no longer appears in their public statements. I think there are residues that still in fact exist of it. But let us assume that there is a shared desire, or at least a parallel desire to avoid holocaust and to do what one can to prevent it. I have been looking for evidences that this is translatable into workable agreements, arrangements, structural procedures for conflict management and crisis prevention, and crisis management. And that this shared abhorrence of this terrible destruction and fear of it, somehow would produce some serious change in attitudes and in the hostilities that pervade the relationship. But I frankly don't see it up to this point. On the contrary, I'm afraid that this fear of war has on occasion been manipulated for purposes of obtaining political gain.

Whiteley: In trying to help us understand Soviet negotiating behavior, you've indicated that Soviet diplomats are really a special case. That they have both the power component in their thinking, and an ideological component. What do you mean?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I don't necessarily mean this in the very personal sense because there are Soviet diplomats and negotiators who are professionals, and they're very able at their professions. But Soviet policy generally, especially when dealing with us, but with others as well, is heavily oriented toward power and diplomacy, and negotiations for them are pretty clearly just one component of playing the power game. I don't think that they've put nearly as much faith in what negotiations can accomplish as we and others very often tend to do. They really try to use a whole set of instruments in order to protect and advance their interest, of which the 'green table', the negotiating table, the bargained out document, if there is one, is simply one, and most of the time not the most important aspect of their behavior.

Whiteley: There's been a recurrent theme in thinking about peace that if one side will exercise restraint, take the lead in foregoing some options of individual advantage, that that will be reflected throughout the world in some reciprocity. What has been your understanding of the effects of restraint on the issue of peace?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think that obviously in the nuclear age restraint is indicated. Careful calculation of what you're doing, and what the risks and the dangers are, and some weight given to the security concerns of others, including of the Soviets, as far as the conduct of American policy is concerned. Now that kind of restraint and care, prudence is reciprocated to some extent. Not so much because we're careful and prudent, but because it is prudent to be prudent in the nuclear age. But I would not from that draw the lesson, at least I don't see the evidence, that sort of grand acts of self-abnegation of foregoing some decision regarding a weapon, or some other act of protecting your interests, will be reciprocated by similar generosity on the other side. I think very often that sort of thing gets put in the back and exploited.

Whiteley: You've indicated that there may be also limitations in what can be accomplished with agreements of mutual advantage, in the sense that they seem to work very well on grain sales or technology transfers, but may not be nearly as effective as we would like on major power issues in the world.

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think agreements involving mutual advantage or mutual expectations and calculations of advantage tend to work fairly well when a matter is very specific and concrete. They work less well when they deal with more general issues of security concern, and when the terms of the agreements, because they are compromised and haggled out, are open to varying interpretation. And again, because the relationship has remained a fundamentally antagonistic relationship, there is a tendency to interpret vague and ambiguous phrasings in an agreement in a divergent manner. The incentive to try and reach a common interpretation of what didn't prove feasible to write in a very clear-cut fashion in the first place, is not very great in an antagonistic relationship. So I think there are limits, especially in these agreements about codes of conduct, like the Statement of Principles that was worked out before the summit in 1972 and signed at that time, and subsequent general statements of principles about international conduct. Those turn out to be, in some respects, more a source of friction than of harmony because of the divergent interpretations. And therefore, I think they do have distinct limits, and one has to be very very careful not to oversell them.

Whiteley: In talking about both the limits of restraint and the problems with agreements of mutual advantage, you've written that a strong unilateral defense at this stage in the development of work toward world peace is the most effective guarantor of peace.

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think for better or for worse we continue to have to rely on deterrence to protect ourselves, and on deterrence, not only of war - obviously that's what we want to prevent - but deterrence of the Soviets. And those two aspects of deterrence sometimes get into conflict because sometimes, in order to deter the Soviets, you may have to run some risks of conflict.

Whiteley: In your thinking, what are the major components of an effective deterrence?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think we have to have a degree of military balance, not necessarily in terms of numbers and types of weapons, such that Soviets will have to calculate the risks very carefully in the various circumstances where they might seek to expand their influence. We have to calculate the risks as well. But military balance of some sort, however you describe it precisely, is I think indispensable. I think that since our interests since the end of the Second World War in particular, have become global interests and especially involve the rim lands of Eurasia, in Europe, in the Far East and the Middle East, it is essential for our security and for preventing conflict and for preventing substantial disadvantages in our geopolitical position, that we should have strong alliances. We have alliances in Europe and in Asia; there are many problems with those alliances, but they have lasted an extraordinary length of time, when one stops to think about the fate of alliances and stops to think also about the American aversion to alliances historically since the 18th Century. So I think alliances are important.

Thirdly, I think we need contact with the Soviets, we need to engage in dialogue with them, if only to have a way of communicating through oral contact what our concerns and what our interests are so at least they can absorb that. They may not believe it. They may on occasion see signs of weakness in what we say to them or in how we conduct ourselves, but I do think that we shouldn't let contact break off, and in fact it hasn't broken off, even though a lot of people say it has.

Whiteley: Well, let's focus on that for a minute. You've indicated in sharing your thinking about how to achieve peace and work toward it at this time in our history that a unilateral military deterrence is essential, and that a network of world alliances are essential. You've also indicated that it's important to try to continue dialogue with the Soviet Union aimed at maintaining peace and working for a better world, a less risky world. As you've thought about it, the SALT process is one of the number of ways of formally communicating, intended to do just that. But the process, in your view, has limitations and the product so far has not been as successful as you would like to see it. Particularly, that product is not - of arms control work - has not made much of an impact on the arms programs that are currently underway in deployment, or on the drawing boards. What needs to happen to make arms control, arms limitations a more effective vehicle in this world?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I frankly don't have any answer to that question. We have, of course, tried to make more of the arms control process for many years, and we had a rather intensive series of negotiations in the 70s, some negotiations now. And I don't really see much prospect, although it is a matter of opinion, obviously, that agreements that might be obtainable will do significantly better than past agreements in affecting the kinds of programs that we need to maintain, and the programs the Soviets will decidedly maintain unilaterally.

Whiteley: You've indicated that the decades remaining in this century will continue to have the dominant issue for U.S. foreign policy being managing the relationship with the Soviets. And you've indicated it's important to understand their motives and purposes as those affect the United States in managing its role in world affairs. One common attribution to the Soviets is that at this time in their history they're still interested in world domination. Do you believe that to be the case?

Sonnenfeldt: Oh, I think this matter of world domination is yes, I think in the sense of an aspiration, something that they see as somewhere in the mists of the future. I think it's not a terribly helpful definition of what the Soviets are about. I think they want to expand their influence, they want to expand their control where that's possible. I don't know that they have an operational plan to achieve world domination in the near foreseeable future. That isn't - I'm not saying anything terribly reassuring. I'm just trying to say something that isn't quite as extravagant as world domination, because I think we have a 'here and now' problem, which is that we do find the Soviets seeking to exploit various kinds of international conflicts, various internal situations of strife, as in Central America or in Africa. We have the Soviets in Afghanistan, we have the Soviets putting pressure in various places around their periphery. I think those are the problems that need to be dealt with.

Whiteley: And they'll also continue to exploit instabilities, in your view, in the Third World and in our network of alliances.

Sonnenfeldt: Yeah. And I think those are the problems that we need to deal with where we can with the Soviets, through deterrence, through whatever we do with allies and friends, whatever we can do to help reduce injustice and inequities in order to reduce the opportunities for exploitation. And I personally don't think that the image of the Soviets reaching for world domination is terribly helpful in how we think and act in regard to these much more specific and direct, and perhaps less millennial problems that we face, than the problem of Soviet world domination.

Whiteley: You've indicated, and a number of other commentators have, that one motivation for the Soviet Union may well be their perception that the United States has too much power on the one hand, and second, a deeply felt concern about an alliance between the United States and China. How viable are those two reasons in understanding their behavior?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think those are Soviet concerns, but I mean, for the Soviets a lot of people have too much power because they see the power of others as threatening their security. So they think we have too much power, they sometimes seem to think that NATO countries, or NATO as a whole has too much power. They seem to think that even the Chinese, who really don't have a lot of military power, have too much power anyway for one reason or another. I think that they are very uncomfortable about the possibility of an alliance between the United States and China or the United States and Western Europe and China and Japan. But of course, some of the incentives for these different regions of the world to work with each other, whether in the form of alliances or just pragmatically, some of the incentives are provided precisely by Soviet policy, so there is a quality in Soviet policy that tends to bring about the very thing that they then become very uneasy about.

Whiteley: You've indicated that a real challenge for U.S. foreign policy is to try to get the Soviets to accept some of the constraints and discipline that goes with involvement in the broader world scene. Are you hopeful that that will be successful?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, hopeful only in a very evolutionary and marginal sense. I think in some degree the Soviets have participated in some international institutions and organizations, and have played by the rules because it suited their interest and they wanted certain benefits, and they realized that in order to do that they have to play by the rules. I'm talking about technical international agencies and so on, but they have a long way to go. They really don't like the constraints of the international community, and as I've indicated, they really prefer situations where they dominate an institution rather than having to play by other people's rules.

Whiteley: You've indicated that unless accompanied by some compelling reason for restraint, the threat of war and deterrence has done very little to reduce the level of hostility and to institutionalize crisis prevention in the world. What are your thoughts about viable alternatives for the long term?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I don't think there is a viable alternative to deterrence as an approach for the United States. It's not very pleasant perhaps to contemplate a future in which deterrence remains a key component of our policy, but I don't really see much alternative or any alternative to that in the foreseeable future. And that means a considerable military establishment, among other aspects of it. I think, for the time being, I would guess for quite some years to come, the American problem with the Soviet Union, and indeed the problem that others have with the Soviet Union, is going to continue to be how to curb the Soviet impulse toward expansion. So that, I think, is why deterrence will continue to have to be a pillar of our policy. Now that may see us through several more decades of no war, not perhaps peace as one might define it in an idealistic, an ideal sense, but at least no war. And I happen to think actually, that a situation of no war, a situation of survival in the nuclear age is quite an accomplishment. There are some people who think that that's not nearly ambitious enough. But I would say that if we can add forty years and forty years and forty years, and our successors, our children who come along can add quantums of forty years, to not getting into a nuclear disaster, and also not having the Soviets advance their domain and their influence, we will be doing very well even though it won't be necessarily a very peaceful world in the sense that it will be tranquil and wellorganized.

Whiteley: Mr. Sonnenfeldt, thank you for sharing with us your insights into the context for achieving peace in the world.