The warm words and genuine admiration George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev offered each other at the Washington summit conceal a coolly calculated deal that underpins their hopes for a long-term partnership in perestroika. It is to be based on Soviet security concessions in Europe and Western trade and economic help for the Soviets.
This transaction now makes sense for the West. But at their triumphant press conference Gorbachev and Bush left two loose ends dangling that could thwart their grand design. Gorbachev's effort to bully Israel on the emigration of Soviet Jews and Bush's decision to pass the buck to Congress on Lithuania could come back to haunt them.
Bush and Jim Baker are now close to realizing the foreign-policy accomplishment that eluded Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger nearly two decades ago. De'tente, the 1970s code word for using economic incentives to tame Soviet global ambitions, foundered after Congress refused to go along, in large part because of Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration.
History has been kinder to Bush/Baker than it was to Nixon/Kissinger. This time, the Soviets dangle specific concessions on German unification and offer to shrink their military forces to non-threatening levels in return for Western help for perestroika. They also seek some face-saving formula on European security to mask their strategic retreat from Eastern Europe.
Bush rightly resisted providing the Soviets with irretrievable economic assets in exchange for easily reversible military changes. If the West had gone along with some NATO foreign ministers and others who urged such a course shortly after Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe and the other tyranny-shattering events of the past six months might well not have happened.
But those events, and the extraordinary meeting of the minds by Gorbachev and Bush here, create a new world beyond the Cold War and containment. Bush can craft a new strategy in Europe built around German unification instead. He does not bargain primarily for the intangible good feelings of de'tente. Bush bargains for a highly tangible and powerful Germany allied to the West.
Germany is the priority issue for Bush, even more than shoring up Gorbachev and improving Soviet-U.S. relations at this point. The creation of a unified, democratic Germany has imparted a new urgency and a new gravity to Bush's dealings with Gorbachev. This Germany will be the foreign policy jewel in Bush's first-term crown.
Despite unyielding public statements, U.S. and Soviet positions on European security moved closer during the summit talks. A deal was not struck, but the terms of the deal were defined.
Baker showed the Soviets that he has dropped U.S. resistance to their idea of giving the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe a broad mandate and fixed institutions as long as this does not challenge NATO's existence. The United States will also seek major changes in NATO structure and strategy in the alliance's July summit in London. The headlines this will generate should help Gorbachev as he faces a crucial Communist Party Congress at the same moment.
Gorbachev also held out security reassurances, emphasizing at several points that the Soviet Union wanted some U.S. troops to remain in Europe and specifically in Germany after unification. Gorbachev alluded to but did not specifically describe these private assurances in his press conference when he ruled out any solution that isolated the United States or the Soviet Union from Europe.
Baker also alluded to progress in a post-summit television interview. The Soviets, the secretary of state noted, began active discussion with the Americans on what changes in NATO could make Germany's full membership in the alliance acceptable to them. The changes the United States has already proposed "give us a reasonable degree of assurance," Baker quoted the Soviets as having said, "but not enough."
Gorbachev gave signs of having decided that the time is approaching when he should lock in some economic and strategic rewards for a withdrawal that he will eventually have to make anyway. But he complicated his and Bush's task by his apparently offhanded threat to restrict Jewish emigration to Israel as a way of halting new settlements on the West Bank.
To deliver such a threat in Washington as Bush asks Congress to remove the Jackson-Vanik amendment's restrictions on trade with the Soviet Union in return for progress on Soviet emigration laws is to tempt fate in a foolhardy way.
Gorbachev and Bush stirred the boiling pot of Middle East tensions with their press conference remarks, forgetting the damage that seemingly remote forces can do to the grandest of East-West designs. It was the only misstep in an otherwise virtuoso political performance by two leaders moving toward peace in Europe. But it is one they should rectify if they do not want to risk resurrecting the forces that helped doom de'tente.