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Dangerous Relations: The Soviet Union in World Politics, by Adam B. Ulam

The Era of Détente

Dangerous Relations: The Soviet Union in World Politics, 1970-1982.
by Adam B. Ulam.
Oxford. 325 pp. $25.00.

Adam B. Ulam is one of the few living scholars of Soviet affairs who may fairly be credited with a masterful command of world politics. By wedding the local, the daily, and the tactical to the international, the historic, and the strategic, he has steadily extended the realm of the understandable in world affairs. And to the pleasure of his readers, Ulam has proved a master not only of substance but also of style: his writing is always graceful, and very often amusing.

In Soviet studies, Ulam has served as a pioneer. This is a field where distressingly little written material stands up over time, yet many of Ulam’s books promise to be enduring points of reference. His first, Titoism and the Cominform, was a prophetic examination of the forces fracturing the heretofore monolithic Communist bloc. The Unfinished Revolution, first published more than twenty years ago, laid out many of the internal contradictions that we have come to recognize in Soviet foreign and domestic policy in its period of “mature socialism.” The Rivals gave a brilliant account of Soviet-American conflict from the end of World War II through the middle of the war in Vietnam. Expansion and Coexistence was the definitive analysis of the first half-century of Soviet foreign policy—and as such, remains an indispensable guidepost for all students of international affairs.

Ulam’s latest book, Dangerous Relations, picks up where Expansion and Coexistence left off, bringing us from America’s debacle in Vietnam through the first year of the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan. An incisive reading of this period, which is rather loosely referred to by many contemporary writers as the “era of détente,” would seem especially helpful today, and no one is better qualified than Ulam to deliver such an account. Unfortunately, despite its many merits, Dangerous Relations is something of a disappointment.

For the disinterested observer of foreign affairs, the “era of détente” was a time of both tragedy and farce. During this period both the United States and the Soviet Union made astonishing mistakes on the world stage, the repercussions of which were to cost each more dearly than the plans devised by its adversary. Dangerous Relations gives us the outlines of this bizarre tale.

For the United States, a humiliating retreat from Vietnam was followed first by a bout of geopolitical catatonia, and then by four years of exculpatory and self-tormenting foreign policy under President Carter. The denouement of Carterpolitik, the Iran crisis, was, if not entirely a problem of the President’s own making, then at least a situation that was handled about as badly as was possible at every single turn. Yet for all its importance, the Iran crisis was only the icing on a cake of American initiatives whose practical consequences were to reduce American influence in many regions of the Third World, to estrange nervous allies in Western Europe, and thereby in effect to increase the likelihood of armed conflict in an increasingly insecure world.

The USSR, for its part, managed against all odds in this same period to lose its Egyptian foothold in the Middle East, and found itself reduced to a fruitless marriage of convenience with the terrorists and irredentists among Israel’s enemies. Its ill-concealed obsession with China made it all the easier for statesmen in Peking to extract benefits and concessions from their American “friends” (or as the Chinese themselves put it, “to fight the near barbarian with the far barbarian”). And in invading Afghanistan, the men in Moscow not only shocked the American public out of its inattention to Soviet expansion but also helped set the ground-work for the election of Ronald Reagan, the American President with the most uncompromising attitude toward the USSR since Harry Truman.

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Despite the wealth of blunders on both sides, however, Soviet and American setbacks were neither symmetrical nor equivalent. As Ulam explains it, the 1970’s saw the emergence of a Soviet apparatus with global abilities that more nearly matched its global point of view; Soviet leaders talked and acted as if their state had achieved the full status of a superpower, and as if the “correlation of forces” were shifting in their favor. There was reason for confidence. The governments of Western Europe, whose combined strength could certainly be made to match the Warsaw Pact’s on any avenue, were beset by an enfeebling attitude to Soviet overtures, beguiled by a vision called the “relaxation of tensions.” The Third World was the scene for a number of unresolvable and debilitating dramas of Western disintegration. The United States, once the preeminent military power in the world, had volunteered nuclear “parity” in its arms-control agreements, and was not assured of holding on even to this in protracted negotiations with sophisticated, and less harried, Soviet envoys. At the same time, domestic pressures were reducing America’s conventional military forces; the shift from a “two-and-a-half war” to a “one-and-a-half-war” army was interpreted as a sign not only of diminished capacity but also of diminished resolve.

Ulam implies, however, that the USSR’s policies of détente have been in some measure a self-liquidating proposition. From the Soviet perspective, the point of détente was not simply to take the charge out of the atmosphere between East and West; it was to reduce the risks attendant on international expansion. But reduced risks seemed to embolden the Soviet leadership to the point of recklessness—and reckless behavior is inimical to even the most forbearing Western conceptions of “peaceful competition.”

In his concluding counsel, Ulam warns that the next generation of Soviet leaders, instead of being “liberalized” by the experiences of the 1960’s and 1970’s, may instead favor more expansionist policies, since their own expectations have been shaped during a period of growing Soviet power and prestige. He also suggests that Soviet decisions in the coming years may be affected less by Western policies per se than by the Kremlin’s assessment of the condition of the West. “For, as we have seen during the past twelve years, it has been Moscow’s reading of the strengths and weaknesses, and especially the degree of cohesion, of the entire community of democratic nations that has been mainly instrumental in shaping the USSR’s foreign policy.” He cautions that “arms limitations and summitry cannot basically change the present and increasingly menacing picture of world politics.” What is needed in the West, he states, is a “recouping [of] strength and vitality, as measured by much more than military criteria.”

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Not all of Dangerous Relations matches its magisterial finale. For one thing, the text is marred by a number of factual errors quite out of keeping with Ulam’s breadth of reading and characteristic command of detail. Thus, Cambodia’s capital did not fall to the Communists after Saigon, but rather two weeks beforehand: the Khmer Rouge’s frenzied drive to reach Phnom Penh before General Giap’s forces completed their conquest of South Vietnam, and the Angka’s seeming disregard for the enormous losses their troops were suffering in the process, were a portent of things to come. The invasion of Zaire’s Shaba province, executed by armies operating out of Angola, took place in 1978, not 1977: it came as a sort of counterpoint to President Carter’s decision to “postpone” deployment of neutron bombs in Europe rather than as a follow-up to the USSR’s rejection of American SALT proposals in the previous year. Mistakes like these are by no means fatal, but they suggest that global perspective and current events are being decoupled.

By the same token, Dangerous Relations makes insufficient effort to trace the domestic considerations constraining the USSR’s use of power and influence abroad. In the past, Ulam has been impatient—and rightly so—with Sovietologists caught up in the “closet dove/ closet hawk” guessing game. But there are forces which restrict Soviet expansion from within and that are more solid than those phantoms of the Politburo.

In an age of nominal peace, a superpower’s actions must be informed by its assessment of its own economic strengths and weaknesses. In the case of the Soviet Union, expansion is partly limited by the internal weaknesses of its economic system. These weaknesses, in turn, account for much of the importance of economic contacts with the West. Other things being equal, Soviet leaders would presumably like to underwrite their empire—including the failed economies of their satellites—with capital, technology, and credit from “hostile” regimes. Yet in making use of capitalist economies, and thereby seemingly sparing their own economy additional burdens, the men in Moscow also limit their own freedom to maneuver, and in unexpected ways. The USSR’s contrivance to have Poland borrow massively from the West, for example, introduced a new set of concerns into Soviet calculations about invasion and the imposition of “martial law,” and may have had something to do with the lengthy delay and the intricate formalities observed before Solidarity was crushed.

The Soviet economy is no longer a hermetically sealed operation. From a material—though not a political—standpoint, it may now be as dependent on imports and exports as some Western economies. Understanding this may or may not give Western governments a lever with which to affect specific Soviet policies, but it would seem to suggest ways in which to affect Soviet power.

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If Dangerous Relations is vague about Soviet economics, it seems excessively specific about the USSR’s military forces. Ulam states that the USSR has been increasing its military outlays over the past decade by 4-5 percent a year. This may indeed be so, but it seems adventurous to take it as fact. As Ulam himself writes, American estimates of Soviet strength have suffered from failures of intelligence in the past. From the Berlin blockade to the Cuban missile crisis, American officials seemed consistently to overestimate Soviet military might. On the other hand, in the mid-1970’s, according to the famous “Team B” report, CIA planners were under-estimating the USSR’s military expenditure by as much as half. Ulam’s 4-5 percent figure apparently comes from a “revised” CIA estimate of the Soviet military build-up. It is a plausible but not conclusive figure. (One researcher who has reworked the statistics argues that the growth in Soviet procurements has been more like 9 percent a year; a new CIA assessment proposes that since the mid-1970’s, the build-up has only been about 2 percent a year.) Undue precision about the Soviet military effort does not help us assess the actions of a superpower that prefers to do its bargaining under the threat of force.

Without knowledge about the Soviet economy or the Red Army, we must principally rely, in any evaluation of Soviet overseas initiatives, on our understanding of the nature of the USSR as a power-seeking entity. Under these handicaps, Adam Ulam can be expected to perform better than his peers. Yet in Dangerous Relations his analytical abilities are needlessly confined. Admirers of his writings may hope that in future books he will have more to say about the recent course of the USSR.

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