The figure to come to terms on a new strategic arms (SALT) agreement at the recent Moscow talks would not seem so serious were it not complicated by President Carter's emphasis on human rights that has so riled the Russians. One suspects that the impasse over various weapons systems and levels is susceptible to resolution by further negotiations, as has been the case in the past history of SALT. But the human rights issue has added a dimension now worth further examination.
As far back as 1903, czarist Russia told the United States that Theodore Roosevelt's public references to the treatment of that nation's Jews was "an attempt at interference in her internal affairs." Such complaints come from repressive regimes whatever their politics, both in the past and nowdays. What is different about the Soviet Union, as successor to the czars, is that Americans from the days of the Bolshevik Revolution have considered Russian interference in our internal affairs to be based on ideological hostility, as it clearly has been to some uncertain degree.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt finally granted diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, Moscow promised, among many things, "to refrain . . . from any act overt or covert liable in any way whatsoever to injure the tranquility, prosperity, order or security of any part of the United States . . ." In the subsequent 44 years, save a muted period during the World War II alliance. Moscow has engaged in both espionage and endless verbal assaults on the U.S. government and its policies both domestic and foreign. The United States, in its way, has done the same thing. The fact was, and remains, that the two superpowers have autithetical aims in this world.
One expression of this antithesis is the difference over human rights. These differences have existed between the American democracy and repressive regiments from the founding of the republic, but the coming to power of communism in the Soviet Union added a new element. Thus President Carter was correct in saying at his March 24 press conference: "There is an ideological struggle that has been in progress for decades between the Communist nations on the one hand and the democratic nations on the other."
Mr. Carter that day attempt to make a distinction between two kinds of "interference" by saying that "it has been a well-recognized political principle that interference in a government is not a verbal thing." In other words, Moscow and Washington can say all they want about each other, whether about human rights there or race relations here or whatever, as long as no force is used. By this doctrine Mr. Carter can receive Vladimir Bukovsky in the White House. But when there was talk of President Ford's receiving Alexander Solzhenitsyn the Russians asked Americans how they would feel if Leonid Brezhnev were to received Angela Davis, an avowed American Communist. That the comparison seems ridiculous to Americans does not detract from the Soviet anger. The difference between Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter on this issue has been obvious.
Mr. Carter's human rights posture, or most specifically the lengths to which he has carried it, has appalled many who have dealt with the Russians, and their predictions of its effect now seem to have been borne out with the SALT collapse. But many others feel a breath of fesh air, a sense of revival of all the best America has stood for abroad. It is one thing to say, as Mr. Carter did in his inaugural, that "Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere." It is another thing to receive at the White House someone the Russians consider hardly less than a traitor. Mr. Carter contends there is no linkage between the human rights issue and such matters as SALT, but the Russian conduct at the SALT meeting indicates that the Kremlin insists there is a link.
In the verbal sense of "interference" of which the President spoke, the Russians continually "interfere" in American internal affairs. We have done so in their affairs. From time to time for seemingly major reasons - to defeat Hitler during World War II or to break the cold war afterward - each side has muted the criticism that the other considers "interference." Now Mr. Carter has stepped up the criticism and the Russians say constructive relations are "impossible" if he keeps it up. Moscow, however, is not promising to stop any of its "interference," although the verbal level recently has been tolerable. Whether the Soviet hand in Angola, for example, via what many consider Cuban proxies, transgresses Mr. Carter's definition of "intereference" is something else. The Russians will cite cases to their advantage, too.
Thus it now seems as though the President has led the nationl into an impasse over SALT because of his stress on human rights. Probably the question is whether Mr. Carter is going to prove to be more idealistic or more pragmatic. Americans generally have proved to be both, often to the confusion or frustration of other nations as in the current instance.
Last year during the presidential campaign a number of fellow Georgians described Mr. Carter as having some of the rigid qualities of Woodrow Wilson. As President, Mr. Wilson engaged in fanatical pursuit of his ideal, the League of Nations, to the point that he can be blamed for America's nonmembership. Carter apparently seeks a more general, less specific goal in pursuit of human rights. He certainly is not talking about using force to alter the Soviet stance on human rights, whereas Mr. Wilson sent American troops into Siberia in 1918 during the Russian civil war, as Nikita Khruschev so often reminded Americans during his visit here.
President Kennedy once described the Soviet negotiating policy as one of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable." The constant Soviet ideological attacks on the American system of economics and government sometimes seems to fit that aphorism. Mr. Carter's comments indicate that he feels it's about time for the United States to speak up, especially on human rights. On the other side, as Mr. Khruschev said, the Soviet Union is not going to abandon its ideological differences until shrimps whistle.
There are many other aspects to this controversy - the Kremlin's worries about Eastern Europe, for one. But basically it appears to be yet one more round in the verbal sparring, and testing, of one side, one system against the other. The President somehow will have to match pragmatism with idealism if he is to avoid the fate of Wilsonian fanaticism. On the issue Mr. Carter at the moment is, more than the Russians, a riddle wrapped in an enigma.