It's suggested in some savvy quarters that Mikhail Gorbachev is prepared to hold the Kremlin's foreign policy hard and steady while he zeroes in on domestic reform. It looks just the other way to me. For a new leader attempting to establish himself, the domestic scene may be less penetrable, more immune to quick transformation from the top. Foreign policy, meaning first an arms control agreement with the United States, may be the more tempting place to try to make a mark.
Take his much-touted Kennedy-like appeal of June 11 to get the Soviet Union moving again. It's not about real reform, a word not yet publicly rehabilitated since the failed Kosygin reform of the 1960s. It's about discipline, shaping up, not procrastinatig, efficiency, energy conservation, smarter planning -- the familiar stuff of Kremlin exhortation for 25 years.
Gorbachev is still talking about commands from the top down. He brushes quickly past the hard and necessary remedies of decentralization, economic incentives, a freer market.
His appeals are not to be dismissed. A country that, as he says, wastes a fifth of its harvest has much to gain from taking up slack -- and from drinking less booze, if Gorbachev can make that cure stick. From the punches he pulls, however, it's evident that he is still a long distance from the economically essential but politically hazardous step of taking incompetent, turf-conscious, overstretched Communist Party bureaucrats out of economic management.
"Times have changed," he says. But notwithstanding his personal flair and his unusual flaunting of it, the basic Soviet political style -- sticky consensus -- has not changed. Not yet, anyway. In domesticpolicy, it seems to me far too early to say that he is the magic man.
He is, however, young, apparently healthy and, surely, ambitious. Why should he not turn to foreign policy, especially when an arms control agreement would fortify his political standing and serve assorted Soviet interests -- not least economic interests -- too?
Soviet officials have been at pains to convey to Westerners that they have all but written off Ronald Reagan and are prepared to wait another three years and draw a new American card. Part of this, one assumes, is genuine fear and loathing. Part is playing hard to get; it carries a sense of making Reagan pay for his playing hard to get in his first term.
That Gorbachev is 54 and presumably intending to settle in for a long haul may incline him to test the possibilities of waiting Reagan out. Plucking on Western Europe's anxieties, now on the space defense issue, fits into this strategy. So does making an overeager Reagan sweat for a summit. So does the Kremlin's ungracous and rather stupid dismissal of his decision to stick with SALT.
In Pravda editorials, one always reads along looking for the "however" -- the real point of the piece. Here is my "however": Yes, Gorbachev is playing hard to get. But he is also moving Soviet policy within hailing range, though not yet within handshaking range, of American policy on arms control.
The marshal who got ousted as chief of staff last September resurfaced the other day as author of a new book warning of the "extremely malicious adventurous policy of the White House" -- a thesis that denies the possibility of dealing and compromise. His successor promptly announced that it is "perfectly possible to curb the aggressive forces," and delivered a vigorous defense of arms control, past and prospective. In short, the argument continues, but whereas the skeptic is in print, the believer is in power.
The new man, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, went on to state a position on "Star Wars" shorn of the usual disfiguring Soviet hysteria. He implicitly acknowledged Soviet research on strategic defense, acknowledged further that research can't be policed and suggested that if preparations for space arms are halted at the research stage, deep cuts in offensive arms could be made.
Is it silly to wonder whether Ronald Reagan would agree to keep in the research stage a project he maintains is strictly a research project, if he got the deep cuts that are his heart's desire? A research project that may not pan out and in any event will take years, if he got real offensive cuts now? A project that, even if it passes the formidable hurdles of research, faces formidable extra hurdles of development -- that space weapons be cheaper than the cost to the Soviets of overwhelming them and be first-strike proof as well?
The prudent expectation is that Soviet-American relations will stay edgy and sour. But that doesn't strike me as what Gorbachev is starting to make some political space for. "Why should he not turn to foreign policy, especially when an arms control agreement would fortify his political standing?"