One of Zbigniew Brzezinski's key technical advisers, privately addressing fellow arms specialists over two months ago, propounded this principle: Better that this country not enjoy a clear arms superiority over the Soviet Union for fear we would sometimes misuse it.
Victor A. Utgoff, director of policy analysis on Brzezinski's National Security Council staff, thereby set off spirited debate within the small, contentious community of strategic experts. Although he complains off-the-record comments are being taken out of context, the Utgoff principle explains much about national security policy in the Carter administration.
His remarks reflect self-distrust among middle-level officials. Fearful that the United States will make no more principled use of military power than the Soviet Union, they are concerned not only about deterrence in Moscow but also self-deterrence in Washington. That mind-set among technical advisers may explain why even nontechnician Brzezinki, traditionally a hard-liner, has not escaped charges of softness toward the kremlin.
Utgoff addressed 840 weapons experts in Monterey, Calif., Feb. 1 at a conference sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He refused to talk to us or give us the text of his speech. However, NSC staffers have corrected and amplified accounts given us by those present.
In no sense did Utfgoff advocate unilateral disarmament. Describing the Carter administration's commitment to strategic arms control as an "article of faith," he called for "strategic equality...through adequately verifiable arms-control agreements." If that is "impossible," he advocated "whatever programs are necessary for our national security," adding, "We'll pay whatever price it takes."
What followed, however, began to raise eyebrows: "We cannot afford to allow ourselves to drift into significant strategic inferiority," Utgoff said. But what is "significant" inferiority? He soon argued that superiority is no blessing.
Losing superiority would "not be the end of the world," he said. "Some of our advantages are fading, and in some cases, it might be to our advantage to allow U. S. superiority to fade away," Utgoff said. Why? NSC staffers told us Utgoff feels losing U. S. superiority in submarine-based missiles might induce the Soviets toward fewer land-based missiles - a highly debatable proposition.
Utgoff's speech reaches the heart of what bothers him about U. S. weapons superiority: "I suspect we would occasionally use it as a way of throwing our weight around in some very risky ways." That is the essence of self-deterrence. If we do not have mobile missiles, neutron warheads and a superior Navy, we cannot be tempted to use them.
Those attending Utgoff's speech were instructed it was strictly off the record. Nevertheless, a set of surreptitious notes soon circulated in Washington, and was read at a conference at the Army-Navy Club here March 21. While those nonverbatim notes are incomplete, they do not differ in substance from the NSC official version given us.
Utgoff, 39, holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and was known as an advocate of "minimum deterrence" as a systems analyst at the Center of Naval Analysis before joining this administration. His newness to high-level policy making explains what colleapnes call his outrage that his speech (delivered to 840 people) leaked out. NSC officials told us Utgoff was "brainstorming," an unusual description for a prepared speech.
Nevertheless, he was back propounding the Utgoff principle March 27 in private conversation with a naval officer. While determined the United States should never be inferior, Utgoff added he equally feared being superior because it might encourage irresponsible U. S. conduct. An NSC go-between explained to us Utgoff meant that if either Washington or Moscow thought it had a strategic advantage, high-risk confrontation might result.
Utgoff's speech was not cleared by superiors and is not government policy, the NSC spokesman told us. Surely, it does not reflect the world view of Brzezinski. But as a nonexpert in the mysterious world of arms control, Brzezinski depends on technicians who share the considerably different world-view of Vic Utgoff.
For Utgoff is not unique. Middle-level officials, seared by the flame of Vietnam, cannot trust their country to handle power responsibly. They incline to Pogo's Vietnam slogan, posters of which have adorned the walls of the U. S. Arms Control Agency: "I have met the enemy and he is us" (posters of which have adorned walls of the U. S. Arms Control Agency. The Utgoff principle raises doubt whether officials carrying that national self-image can effectively negotiate with an adversary not similarly burdened.