It's a fair question whether Ronald Reagan can make his administration ready to negotiate seriously with Moscow. But it's no less necessary to ask whether Konstantin Chernenko can shape up the Kremlin. In other words, if Reagan makes the call, is there anyone at the other end to respond?
Until recently, the official American view was "no." Now, it's "perhaps yes." Some of the "no" arose from a simple desire to throw all the blame on Moscow for the poor state of Soviet-American relations in Reagan's first term. Given this record of politically inspired analysis, we need to ask whether the new "perhaps yes" is more than the thought fathered by Reagan's evident wish to improve things in his second term.
Behind the earlier view that there was no partner in Moscow was, first of all, the late Yuri Andropov's nastiness and negativism. This tough cop, whose promise of reformism and flexibility may never have been more than a glint in some Westerners' eyes, moved to douse an evident Kremlin debate on the issue in September 1983, warning "someone" against "illusions" that it was possible to work with Reagan. A few months later he was back reprimanding unnamed sinners for not realizing how "acute and dangerous" the world situation was and how "impermissible" it was to underestimate it.
Later, when Chernenko took over, it was said in Washington that he had done nothing but carry Leonid Brezhnev's briefcase for 12 years and was not powerful enough, and perhaps not smart enough, to take a call from Washington. Anyway, he wheezed. Andrei Gromyko and Dmitri Ustinov, at the foreign and defense ministries, became the heavies in an assortment of American scenarios showing that Moscow did not want to deal. The Kremlin was said to be immobilized by a succession struggle being waged by "reformer" Mikhail Gorbachov and "Stalinist" Grigori Romanov.
Now, however, another view is current, one holding that despite his wheeze Chernenko is coming into his own in the Kremlin and imposing an outlook that permits at least an exploration of the big strategic questions with Washington. This is not the view of everybody who follows these things, but it is the view that underlies the effort being led by Secretary of State George Shultz on the American side to find an opening to Moscow.
The evidence is, as usual, flimsy and mistakable. This is the part of it that most interests me:
1)Some of the best observers, looking at the way the Soviet leaders are examining their own internal problems of slow growth and social rot, think they see a seriousness, a readiness to bite the bullet, not present since the immediate post-Stalin period, when decompression became the urgent national goal. If this is so, a measure of international calm and relief from high military budgets might be in order.
This is a tricky thing for those of us on the outside. We have a long record of thinking that the Soviets cannot avoid choosing between catastrophe and reform, and of finding that they have muddled their way through to the next phase without choosing. It seems safe to say now, however, that the leaders are looking hard at the trends their experts have been warning them of for years.
2)A strong case continues to be made in Kremlin councils against the war scare generated by Andropov. This is basic: if war is a real danger, all budgetary and policy bets on improving relations are off. Andropov seemed to be heading down just that dusty road.
The most intriguing figure now standing athwart it is Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, who both before and after he left his post as chief of staff in September urged a calmer, if still foul-mouthed, view. The American "maniacs" can be restrained, he said; war is not inevitable; "approximate parity" in nuclear forces still exists; a disarming first strike is becoming progressively less possible; deterrence still holds. He went on to make the sort of arguments for future high-tech conventional weaponry that have won him a certain respect as "a Soviet General Rogers" -- after NATO commander Bernard Rogers.
3)From sending Gromyko to listen to American thoughts, Chernenko is moving on to speak his own. He is making repeated occasions to assert, under his own name, a hedged but still apparent readiness to talk with the United States. Nothing is ever final or definitive in these matters, but the Andropov to- hell-with-Reagan line is in eclipse. The rage in Soviet statements in recent years has become less evident. Soviet propaganda is back to garbage as usual.
This is not enough for those who think that the very idea of Soviet politics, of people testing different ideas, issues and approaches, is dangerous, something that distracts us from a necessary focus on the hostile essence of the Soviet system. The rest of us, however, are prepared to see what's there.