Understanding Soviet Perspectives and Behavior

Understanding the United States-Soviet Relationship

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, 1984

Helmut Sonnenfeldt is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. He has been a senior staff member of the National Security Council and head of the Office of Research and Analysis for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Department of State. Today, he shares his insights into Soviet behavior and the quest for peace.

Whiteley: As a participant in the process of making American diplomatic history at a really critical junction in our history, you've indicated that the problem of achieving peace is really a 'complex game of chicken.' What were you trying to share with us by that observation?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, a part of the problem, at least, is what might be called a 'complex game of chicken' because there are all sorts of rivalries. The one that bothers us the most is the one with the Soviet Union - the conflict, tension, great divergence in values, and in many interests. But there are lots of other rivalries between Israelis and Arabs and in other parts of the world. And in each case those tend to be fought out with a lot of pressure and maneuver to obtain advantages.

Whiteley: Who can push whom the hardest without the risk of cataclysmic war.

Sonnenfeldt: Well, in the sense that we push whom the hardest without running grave risks of a terrible war, who can get advantage. Now that isn't all there is to it, but it's a part of it, and a dangerous part.

Whiteley: The key problem as you have written is the relationship with the Soviet Union. You've indicated there's no magic answer to dealing with that problematic relationship. How would you want people to begin to think about it?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think one important way to think about it is that there is no magic answer. That is, there's no grand solution, no big treaty that will somehow resolve all the issues. I think it is a long drawn out, very complex relationship that, for the most part, in the foreseeable future, is going to have more friction in it than harmony. And I think that's the first thing that I think people need to understand, and I think it would be nice and helpful if political leaders could somehow restrain themselves, not just in election years, but in general, in advancing formulas which they claim will somehow solve the problem, either through some agreement or because we will push the other guy into a corner from which he can't emerge, or some other conclusive answer to conflict. And because I don't think such an answer is within our reach in the foreseeable future.

Whiteley: In stating both that the relationship with the Soviet Union will be the major preoccupation of U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead, and in predicting that it's going to be a relationship of conflict and hostility, what are the issues going to be?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, first of all, it is, I believe, the single most serious and difficult problem that we face. It isn't the only one. I don't mean to imply, by saying that this is the single most prominent and preoccupying issue, that every difficulty we have in the world is somehow brought about by the Soviet Union. A lot of difficulties that we encounter are brought about by the Soviets, and many of them get drawn into the conflict with the Soviets. But the issues have to do with maneuvering for position with, what I think, is still a strong Soviet impulse to expand, and above all to seek to dominate the Eurasian land mass. I think there is the unresolved problem of the Soviet empire, which is particularly the case in Eastern Europe, which is troubling for us and the West Europeans, a source of instability. There is the problem of general values and approaches to international relationships which differ between the United States and the Soviet Union, and indeed between the Soviet Union and much of the rest of the world.

There's the essentially still closed nature of Soviet society, as against the very open society with which we live here, and many other countries in the world. And then there are many places around the globe where we encounter the Soviets, or they encounter us. I think above all there is this problem of insecurity which is something that we face here as well. But I think in the Soviet case, the answer has always been to strive for a degree of security on their part, which means the insecurity for their neighbors and others. And that has proved not to be acceptable, whether that's China or Western Europe or Japan or the United States. And that, I think, is partly a psychological problem. It's an historical problem, but it's also a very acute and current problem.

Whiteley: What do you see to be the context that shapes the Soviet's perception of us?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, there's history that shapes all nations' and societies' views of themselves and the outside world, and this is undoubtedly true with the Russians or the Soviets as well. They see themselves, rightly or wrongly, as having been victimized for centuries by external invasions. Although many others would say the Soviets or the Russians, and both have done a lot of victimizing themselves. But anyway, the Russian self-image is one of having been subjected to frequent invasions and great suffering, and they still look at the outside world with that sense of concern, fear, and hostility. The communists, I think, have added the additional element with their class analysis, and with this notion that somehow there was a revolution in Russia in 1917, which spells the wave of the future. Well, that's not accepted by us and by lots of other people. But for the Russians, even if they don't believe in all the details of Marx and Engels and Lenin for the Soviet elite, this is a source of legitimacy, this notion that they represent the future, and everyone else represents the past, which is somehow destined to disappear.

Whiteley: So there's both a history of their belief that they've been invaded regularly, which clearly was the major invasion in World War II. There's an ideological component stemming from Marx and a variety of writers and leaders since. What about the context of China and nuclear weapons.? How do those fit into their thinking?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think that China then is a threat. I think they somehow thought, after the communists took over in China, that the relationship would be harmonious, but on terms that they were going to set in which the Chinese were going to be subservient. The Chinese, of course, didn't accept that, and their relationship with Chinese in consequence for a quarter of a century, have been very bad sometimes to the verge of military incidents and military conflict. I think it nags at the Soviet Union that there is this large, teeming country to the south of them. And I think there is also some memory in the Soviet Union that in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Russia didn't exactly treat China with kid gloves, and that someday the Chinese may want to settle accounts. So I think this is a very disturbing element for the Soviets, as reflected in the rather bad relationship that they have with the Chinese. We tend to think only in terms of our relations with the Soviets; we tend to criticize our leaders for not doing enough to improve relations with the Soviets. But the Soviets have got problems with lots of other people, including the Chinese.

Whiteley: The Chinese are one part of the problem. What about the location of nuclear weapons. How does that impact their thinking, looking out...

Sonnenfeldt: Well, the Soviets lived for some years early in the post World War II period, with an American nuclear monopoly. They didn't like it and they worked very hard to break that monopoly, and eventually did so. But they felt - and feel - that American nuclear weapons, and for that matter British, French, and Chinese nuclear weapons, are a threat to their own security or their definition of their security, and they rely on rather massive nuclear weapons programs of their own to offset these nuclear weapons arsenals among what they regard as their enemies. It's obviously an issue that has complicated their own policy-making because it raises the question of risk. They themselves have acknowledged, in their more candid moments, war, conflict, revolutions by force in the nuclear age can be a very dangerous thing, quite different from the pre-nuclear age. And this complicates the way in which they act out their ambitions and their aspirations. So the nuclear weapon has proved to be rather unsettling to them even though it has also enabled them to maintain a degree of security from outside pressure and against outside threats.

Whiteley: With that as the context for examining their behavior, you've characterized the Soviet government as the most unloved government in the world. That even some of their previous friends in what's called the Soviet Bloc are no longer that close with them, and that they are the most friendless group in the world family of nations. What is it about their behavior that has led you to that assessment?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, I think first of all, just empirically, while there's a lot of admiration of Russians and Russian culture, and many of the aspects of Russian behavior, I think it is still true that the Soviet governing elite really doesn't have many friends around the world. People use them, and people, for reasons of expediency and other calculations, are willing enough to do business with the Soviets and get Soviet support, and so on and so forth, but there is not any great love lost or admiration. Why is that? Well, it's partly because the claims that the original Bolsheviks made for their system did catch a lot of people's imagination around the world. But I think much of that has dissipated. The Soviet system is not particularly successful; it isn't functioning as a model for either others that call themselves communists, or for developing countries and so on. So I think that part of it has worn off. Secondly, I think that the Soviets, in dealing with the outside world, are - still tend to be very distant and often display a certain hostility and uncertainty. And when they live abroad they live in enclosed quarters and don't really, by and large there are some exceptions, but they don't really mix very well. So they don't develop the kind of human contacts that tend to be standard for many other people, and certainly for Americans.

And then I think that the Soviets have really great difficulty living in a multilateral world, and institutions that they don't dominate. That makes them uncomfortable, and in my view at least, and my experience, never makes them particularly easy to deal with either bilaterally or in multilateral institutions. And so I think all of this in combination has not made their relationship to the outside world a very happy one. They're very suspicious, they keep their own people at a distance, they block out information that comes in from - or could come in from the outside world, and I think people around the world sense this about the Soviets.

Whiteley: You've indicated that their economic system had not been effective in the way that they'd hoped it had. And in some of your writings you've documented the declining economic growth that's characterized their development in the late '70s. What effect is their obvious economic problems having on their behavior in the world?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, it's very difficult to measure that precisely. If logic were to prevail it would seem to be rational for the Soviets to seek a period of some tranquillity so that they could concentrate on some of their economic problems. And that, indeed, in a manner of speaking, seems to be what Brezhnev was trying to do in the early 1970s. But so far, these economic problems, many of them are structural within the Soviet Union, many of them have to do with the fear of the communist party that their monopoly might be diluted, many of them have to do with the fetishes of centralized planning which are just rather of a monster in a complex economic situation. But anyway, the correlation between the economic problems and international behavior doesn't seem to be all that clear. The Soviets have not been markedly easier to deal with even though they're quite interested, very interested in trade with the outside world and getting credits from the outside world, and buying, selling, various kinds of economic relationships. And they understand, at least up to a point, that this requires a certain level of political harmony, or at least some degree of absence of political dissonance and political friction. But they don't really live up to that very much.

Whiteley: You've indicated that the Soviet political leadership is really geared structurally toward defense, that there is a deeply entrenched, what Eisenhower called in this country, a military-industrial complex, but that it's particularly dominant in Russia. How does that affect their external relations?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, first I think it is correct, at least up to this point, that the Soviet state, the Soviet system, is geared to a security concern. Domestic security with large police forces and external security with large military establishments, and massive commitments to defense production and putting your best resources into the military sector. I think that still remains the case. And I don't really see any great change in that even if we get a generational change before very long now, in the Soviet leadership.

Whiteley: Do you think it's possible, in the immediate future, for a new generation of leadership, both to get in office and to stay in office without a heavy reliance on and the support of their military-industrial complex?

Sonnenfeldt: No, I think the military, both the uniformed military and all the groupings and bureaucrats and managers and so on that are involved in the defense industry and the defense research establishment, constitute a major force in Soviet politics. I don't think that they aspire to the top leadership positions, as far as the uniformed military is concerned. One or two of them may have, and a couple of them have been in the Politburo, professional military people. But I think that they carry a substantial voice in who gets elected among the top leadership, and into the top leadership, and they carry a very heavy voice in setting the priorities. But I think it is a mistake to see this military-industrial complex pitted against the political leadership in the Soviet Union. The military and security mentality pervades the Soviet system. So while there may be some disagreements about this or that military program or this or that allocation of resources, I don't think you will get top Soviet leaders who don't have a security concern uppermost in their minds. I think it's bred into them for historical reasons, and because of their peculiar outlook on a hostile world; the world to them is hostile; life's a struggle.

Whiteley: In order to achieve world peace that mentality must be thought about very carefully. As you've thought about it and written about it you've talked about a delicate calculus of risk versus gain in trying to understand their behavior. What do you mean?

Sonnenfeldt: Well, the Soviet leaders are, generally speaking, people who calculate risks conservatively. Maybe not always by our standards, but I think they try to weigh the risks and to balance the dangers against the gains of the particular policy and the line of strategy, and so on. So for them that is the method of operating. I think that, given what damage and injury a war would do in the nuclear age, anybody, any country, any set of leaders, any politically responsible group that is in charge of the destinies of a country small or large, has to make such calculations. And mapping its conduct in the international arena, and indeed even in defining its interest. And I think American leaders have also tried to calculate risks in defending, asserting, defending certain American interests and values, and to assess the necessities of promoting and defending our interests over against the risks that we're likely to run.

For example, since the 1940s, Americans have been very uncomfortable with the fact that Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe was overrun by the Soviet Union, dominated by the Soviet Union, and had communist regimes installed there. That's been an issue in American politics since the 1940s. In the 1952 campaign there was talk of rollback and repudiating the war-time agreements, which at that time were taken to be the source of the division of Europe. But this is an interest, while it concerns Americans, is one that all American administrations from Truman to the present have been very cautious about, insofar as taking risks to bring about changes are concerned It's just one example of Americans, American leaders, American political leaders, despite strong pressures, calculating risks rather carefully.

Whiteley: You've personally participated in five summit meetings during the Nixon and Ford Administrations, and during that time there were at least three international crises that gave cause to question the stability of peace in the world. What were your central learnings from participation in trying to bring, at the highest level, of the leaders of the two governments together?

Sonnenfeldt: The first summit meetings with the Soviets that I participated in 1972 occurred while the Vietnam War was still going on, and of course the Soviets were involved, at least indirectly, and in some respects directly, in that. And then in 1973 we were on the verge of a major outbreak of war in the Middle East in which the United States and the Soviet Union were parties, at least indirectly, and at one point the United States brought some of its military forces to a heightened state of alert. I think that these particular summit meetings in the early '70s, as far as both sides were concerned, tried to cope to some degree with managing these kinds of dangerous crises, and keeping them limited in scope and geography, and also in the level of violence being used. That wasn't always necessarily spelled out specifically, but I think the summit meetings and other contacts, not just the summits, had that effect.

What unfortunately did not result from that very active and intensive high level diplomacy in those years, was a more institutional set of arrangements to prevent crises from breaking out in the first place. Of course, American-Soviet relations are in general in crises, but now we're talking about very acute confrontations. From preventing those kinds of things from breaking out in the first place, and then having pre-established procedures for dealing with them if they nevertheless break out. Things never got that far, and I think the reason is that the basic conflict prevents it.

Whiteley: So, inherently, there is a built-in structural limitation to what summit meetings can accomplish.

Sonnenfeldt: I would say, in terms of crisis prevention, crisis management, there is a limitation. It's hard to define precisely where and what it is, but I think the underlying limitation is the antagonistic, fundamentally antagonistic relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the Soviet Union and many other countries. Soviets don't have crisis management arrangements with the Chinese or with the West Europeans either, for that matter. In other respects, summit meetings can do and have done some things in regard to atmosphere. That tends to be rather transient, rather ephemeral. As we saw in 1973, a summit meeting in this country in San Clemente, Camp David when Brezhnev came over to the United States, and within three months we were in the depths or the height of a very severe crisis in the Middle East. So the atmosphere dissipates rather quickly.

I think summit meetings also, if they really involve the two top leaders, are not very well-suited for intensive negotiations. There's a lot of protocol, the time is short, you need time for translation, and the top leaders are not really diplomatic negotiators who have a total familiarity with all the details. So they tend to be more occasions when you can ratify something that has already been negotiated, or iron out some final issues that remain, and try and set some direction for the future line of effort. And in these respects, the summit meetings serve some purpose, but the weight of progress in somehow normalizing American-Soviet relations, simply was not great enough to overcome the inherent conflicts of interests and values which reasserted themselves later on in the '70s.

Whiteley: Mr. Sonnenfeldt, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into achieving peace to be found in the nature of the Soviet-American relationship.