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With the Soviet empire crumbling, we are probably witnessing as profound a change in the international system as that which occurred at the end of World War I, when the Soviet state was born, or at the end of World War II.

Although the transition will be harder, since the Cold War has been one of the verities of our age, the obvious implication is that we should be approaching the questions of defense policy afresh.It is a time for zero-based defense budgeting, for rejecting premises that were the basis of policy for the past 40 years and developing instead an entirely new budget and plans based on emerging threats and opportunities.

Yet the Bush administration is considering adjustment sof a few percent from current levels, arguing that we must be cautious about major changes in policy and programs because of a possibel reversal of trends in the Soviet Union, and that we must maintain strength in order to negotiate effectively with the Soviets.

The first argument demands serious consideration.

One can envisage three trajectories for the Soviet world. A best case would have perestroika succeeding and the Soviet Union emerging as a major constructive force on the international scene.

A worst case would have the Soviet empire disintegrating into a congeries of feuding, unstable states and ethnic groups.

But the case of greatest concern to the Bush administration is one of retrogression, in which the empire is held together under an authoritarian, xenophobic leadership that is committed to repression at home and dependent on military strength for influence abroad.

We can discount the last vision.

While there will surely be backsliding in the Soviet Union, significant retrogression can only contribute to instability and an increased likelihood of the triumph of chaos.

Moreover, the immediate troublesome effects of a victory of Soviet conservative elements would likely be internal. In the world at large, the "correlation of forces" is now so overwhelmingly favorable to the West as to virtually preclude adventuristic expansionist or interventionist policy by any rational Soviet leadership.

What of the administration's other argument? One should always be suspicious of claims that new weapons programs are needed so that the United States can effectively negotiate arms control and disarmament pacts.

Here one should ask what is most likely to lead to significant restraint or reductions in Soviet military efforts: bargaining from strength, or unilateral actions on our part that the Soviet leadership might see as offering them a plausible rationale for cutting programs judged redundant, irrelevant or too costly?

In the current climate of uncertaintyu, zero-based budgeting ought not imply total disarmament.

Considering the implausibility of the threats that have dominated national security planning since the 1950s - a disarming attack against the United States and/or a large-scale attack against Western Europe - we need reductions of 50 percent to 75 percent in force levels and budgets and great restraint with respect to most new programs.

The case for "modernization" of our strategic nuclear forces can be dismissed.

The possibility of a deliberate attack against us, already seemingly infinitesimal, is hardly likely to be reduced much by our acquisition of new systems, nor can one imagine how such weapons could contribute to reducing the likelihood of, or the damage from, local conflict arising from instability in and around the Soviet empire.

In the same vein, we should not be asking waht is needed to cope with an attack on Europe or prolonged worldwide conflict with Warsaw Pact forces, but rather what role conventional military force can play in peacekeeping and in coping with localized conflict that might threaten world peace and our interests.

The impmlications are for substantial reductions at least in forces committed to NATO defense and to the maintenance of sea lines of communications.

Considering that the Soviet Union is now turning inward and that the determining factor in our sad experience in Southeast Asia was not inadequacy of military force, major reductions in force projection and interventionist capabilities are indicated as well.

With the possible exception of providing more economic support for the reformers in Hungary and Poland - and maybe soon elsewhere in the East - it is hard to imagine opportunities for initiatives that would be more meaningfully responsive to the realities of the '90s than a truly radical rethinking of U.S. defense needs.