Ditchley Park, the site of one of England's statelier homes in the rolling Oxfordshire countryside, is a nice place to get away from it all -- unless you happen to get yourself caught up in an international conference on "the long-term strategy of the Soviet Union" and what the Western alliance should do about it.
In which case, it's a nice place to confront, at firsthand, the grim reality of what is alluded to from time to time as alliance "disarray."
It was Ditchley Foundation's idea of how to spend a long British weekend.
The foundation, which operates one of the world's most elegant study centers, is dedicated to the proposition that "people of different countries should learn to understand each other's problems and outlook." And that we did.
What I learned to understand was that the problems of the Western alliance are so profound precisely because the divergencies of outlook on the true nature of the Soviet threat among its members are so deep -- not just between nations, but within them as well. Not surprisingly, this produced almost a stupefying diversity of views about how to deal with them.
There were a good many hours of back-and-forth between some 35 professors, military officers, ambassadors (both active and retired), government officials, politicians and journalists from the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Australia and Iran. Though it is fair to say the company was richly representative of widely differing idiologies and political allegiances, the ground rules forbid attribution to individuals.
It becomes necessary, then, to talk in general terms. Even so, some generalizations, of a bleakly negative sort, seem worth recording.
There were, for example, almost as many different ways of describing Soviet "strategy" as there were participants. Some saw a global, military, master plan for world domination, focusing on strategic "choke points" -- Suez and Panama canals, the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz -- and spoke of the threat in largely military terms. Others saw the danger much more in terms of political subversion, with military and economic aid.
One American used the "amoeba" image to describe Soviet strategy a sort of endless bouncing around in search of openings and opportunities. Another student of the Soviets offered the image of a "grasshopper, with a sword sticking out of its head." Another, while insisting that the Russians had a long-term strategy, conceded that "if you broke into the Kremlin you probably wouldn't find it on paper."
There was fairly broad agreement that the Russians had deep troubles at home (a breakdown of the economic system; heavy dependence on Western technology and some dependence on trade in such things as grain; manpower shortages; a developing energy pinch) and in their Eastern European empire, with Poland as Exhibit A. The system, it was said, not only wasn't working within but wasn't selling well abroad.
But even this agreement produced only sharp divergence on its meaning. The hard-liners argued that this would make the Soviets all the more desperate, and dangerous. "The military," said one, "is the only thing in the Soviet Union that works." The soft-liners insisted the system's troubles weakened the Soviets and made them less of a threat.
The only analysis of Soviet strategy to which nobody took serious exception was that the Soviets "mean to, and probably can, do a great deal of harm to the West" -- in ways unspecified.
There were familiar complaints from the Americans, that the Europeans and Japan should bear a larger share of the alliance burden; from the Europeans, that the Americans are "dangerously paranoid" about the Soviets and were "hurrying us into nuclear war."
The argument was made that this fundamental difference -- the one, I suspect, that will confound alliance relations the most in the months ahead -- has largely to do with geography. Europeans, viewing the adversary up close, see the problem as much more complex: the Soviets in economic trouble and eager to do business; detente as not only possible but necessary. "Across the Atlantic, it is easier to see the Soviets as a global, expansionist power," said one European.
If there was one area of agreement, it was that the divergencies so evident in the discussions were deeper and of a different order than any in the past, if only because of the basic change in relative power not only between Europe and the United States, but between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was broad consensus, too, on the urgent need to resolve these differences by closer consultation. And perhaps by new mechanisms.
The unanswered question was: how, and on what terms? It is not a question, judging from what I heard at Ditchley Park, that lends itself to anything as simple as the promise from the Reagan administration-in-waiting of "leadership," "firmness" and a new "continuity" in American foreign policy. o