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Carter (left) and Brezhnev (right)
talk during a 1979 summit.

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  • Deep Differences Mixed With Air of Tolerance

    By Don Oberdorfer
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, June 19, 1979; Page A16

    News Analysis

    VIENNA, JUNE 19 -- The first Soviet-American summit meeting in four years ended today with the signing of the SALT II treaty but with no other tangible accomplishment. If the talks set a pattern for future superpower relations, these will be a warp and woof of light and darkness.

    Some summits such as the 1961 Vienna meeting of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev brought on dangerous confrontations. Others, such as the 1972 SALT I summit of Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow tended to submerge differences and encourage euphoria.

    The Jimmy Carter-Leonid Brezhnev summit combined the politics of deep-seated and even intractible differences in many fields with an atmosphere of easy tolerance and even fellowship.

    This odd couple of Plains and Ukraine, of vigor and sickly age, was united only in the circumstance which brought them together: two men with their fingers on the nuclear button, commanding by far the most awesome arsenals of devastating physical power ever created by man.

    SALT II is a product of their consciousness of this shared power to destroy one another's society and be destroyed in return. For conflicts at lesser levels than the ultimate, both the incentives and prospects for agreement proved modest.

    The end-of-summit communique confirmed the absence of anything more than mere hopes and wishes for accord in any field other than strategic arms.

    The two leaders agree to disagree about regional disputes in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, all of which threaten to bring them into dangerous cross-purposes, confrontation and eventually collision.

    Both sides, according to participants in the talks, were extremely candid, even blunt about their viewpoints and concerns. Brezhnev strongly backed the traditional Soviet stance of solidarity and aid for "liberation struggles" and at one point he chided Carter with the question -- Where would the United States be, perhaps still a colony, if it had not received aid from abroad in its own 1770s liberation struggle?

    Brezhnev ridiculed the "arc of crisis" theory advanced by presidential adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to connect a series of Third World trouble spots into a design which has a Soviet thread. "This theory is a sheer invention," the Soviet leader is reported to have said.

    There is now every indication, American officials conceded, that the Soviets will veto the use of United Nations peacekeeping forces to police the Sinai in connection with the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

    The two sides made no progress toward agreement in arms control negotiations other than SALT. There were vague statements of continuing resolve on reduction of troop levels in Europe, on the comprehensive test ban and antisatellite negotiations and on drafting of a proposal against chemical weapons. The superpowers agreed to meet soon to continue discussions about talking again later on limiting the military buildup in the Indian Ocean.

    There was no agreement on the scheduling of future summit meetings, beyond a statement in principle that they will be held on a "regular basis" of unspecified duration, nor was there any agreement on a schedule for future meetings of defense ministers or other officials.

    In view of the open clashes in some areas and only vague hopes for agreement in other areas, the positive attitude toward this summit seems paradoxical. Yet it was clearly evident in the statements and demeanor of both Americans and Soviets during the past three days.

    One reason was the sense of achievement and celebration on the completion of the lengthy SALT II negotiations. This is a landmark which engages the interest of both nations and has engendered strong internal political commitments by both Brezhnev and Carter.

    Second, there was a clear sense on the American side that no shift or innovations in policy could be expected in this late stage of Brezhnev's stewardship. The Soviets stuck to predictable, well-developed, orthodox positions in the discussions with Carter. The American side was not disappointed because nothing else was expected.

    For a different set of reasons, the Soviets had little reason to expect any movement toward accomodation on Carter's part. The treaty is already embattled in the U.S. Senate, and the president's leadership is under attack across a broad front.

    For reasons of orthodoxy in both countries, it may have been more politically acceptable for Carter and Brezhnev to clash than to strive for agreement on many issues, so long as that clash did not seem to be truly threatening to world peace. In this sense, a relatively comfortable confrontation may have been preferable all around to a more ambitious and controversial striving for agreement.

    In the long run, expanding trouble in Third World disputes and the continuing buildup of armaments on both sides and the world at large threaten Soviet-American relations in fundamental fashion. But right now, both leaders are concerned with survival, and the long run seems a long way off.

    Despite his rheumy appearance at the signing ceremony, Brezhnev is reported to have taken part to a suprising degree in give and take with Carter in their summit talks and private dinners.

    Carter, in turn, seems to have developed a protectiveness, almost a fondness, for the older man, especially after he saved Brezhnev from falling on Sunday morning.

    Leaving the Soviet Embassy after dinner Sunday night, Carter held Brezhnev's left hand all the way down the front walk while Soviet foreign policy aide Aleksander Aleksandrov held onto his boss' right hand. Brezhnev seemed to welcome Carter's assistance, as though he had come to depend on it.

    It was a curious and touching scene, symbolic of a paradoxical event and a rough and gentle relationship which somehow did not fit the form sheets. The Carter-Brezhnev meeting in Vienna was different from any summit before, and probably unique. The odds are strong that these two men will never meet again.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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