Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 94 | Mayo 1989


United States

An End to the Cold War?

Envío team

The Reagan Administration's attempt to depict the Soviet Union and its allies as "the evil empire" lost credibility as Mikhail Gorbachev pursued new domestic and international approaches. There is a growing perception among the US public and the United States' NATO allies that the cold war has finally come to an end. The Soviet leader has won international acclaim as an imaginative and decisive statesman for his peace initiatives, which have been unilateral where necessary. Reagan tried to ride on Gorbachev's coattails, capitalizing on the cordial relationship the Soviet leader made possible, in order to rebuild his popularity, tarnished by the Iran-Contragate scandal. The thaw in US-Soviet relations probably helped Bush in his run for the presidency as well.

But the fact remains that the United States has not come up with a new diplomatic strategy to replace Reagan's "peace through strength." Neither has it developed a new approach to tackle its urgent economic problems: an enormous fiscal deficit, a growing trade deficit, a decaying industrial plant, a burdensome military budget, the largest national debt in the world and an economy increasingly based on consumption rather than production. The US establishment is divided on the path to follow. Those who stress a foreign policy that emphasizes geo-economic over geopolitical issues come into conflict with those who see it necessary to continue the cold war.

From geo-political to geo-economic

Let's look at a few stark facts: Japan today holds US treasury bonds worth 30-40% of the US deficit; Europe holds bonds worth 10-20%. Japan invests $33 billion in the United States, while US direct investment in Japan is only $14 billion. Japanese exports to the US totaled $83 billion in 1987, while US exports to Japan reached only $31 billion. From 1960 to 1987 Japan's GDP grew 6% a year while in the United States GDP grew 2% a year.

Secretary of State James Baker captured the new challenges facing the United States when he stated to The Wall Street Journal that the debate over national security should cover the economic sphere, because US economic power is now in question. As a result, it is not only the Soviet Union and its allies who raise concerns for US national security; it is also US allies, who are turning into serious competitors. Japan's growing economic power and its guarded domestic market, the European Economic Community's desire to reduce armaments and increase trade with the socialist bloc, along with the EEC's new power as it unifies in 1992, are upcoming problems for the United States.

Another security issue for the United States is the specter of instability in Mexico, as its economic crisis continues and the PRI's hold on power is challenged. The appointment of John Negroponte—a diplomat with a long and shady track record in Vietnam and Honduras—as ambassador to Mexico confirms the Bush Administration's view of Mexico as a security problem. Instability in the Andean countries and the Southern Cone will be a growing concern for US policy, suggesting a Latin American policy less obsessively focused on Central America than in the last eight years—and perhaps more focused on the economic roots of political troubles in the region.

There are other issues in Latin America and the rest of the Third World which present more immediate security problems to the United States than traditional concerns over Soviet influence; first and foremost is the Third World debt. Suspended payments, temporarily or for good, will have an immediate impact on the US banking system. Finally, the problems of drug trafficking and immigration are now near the top of the agenda in US policy towards Latin America.

All of these factors suggest that the Bush Administration will stress geo-economic over geopolitical issues. Yet conservative Washington think tanks like the Center for Strategic Studies still cling to a cold war view of Latin America that portrays the problem as Soviet influence over governments seen as Marxist and pro-Soviet, without any shades of gray.

How the Bush Administration comes to view Gorbachev and his new ideas is crucial. There are influential advisers such as George Kennan, Soviet scholar, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and architect of the containment doctrine, who see Gorbachev's changes as lasting and structural. The Soviet Union, in this view, is neither capable of nor interested in supplying more revolutionary movements in this part of the world. Another perspective sees perestroika and glasnost as deceptive. Its adherents believe the Soviet Union will continue to attack US power in its most vulnerable spot, namely Central and South America.

Soviet initiatives taken between the US presidential campaign and Bush's inauguration make it awkward for those seeking excuses to continue the cold war. It will be hard to convince NATO to keep on updating its weapon systems when the Soviet Union signs a treaty to retire intermediate-range missiles and goes through with its promised unilateral withdrawal of half a million Soviet troops from European soil.

The US stalls for time

Pressured by the need for a new geo-economic focus on one side and the cold warriors on the other, Bush has moved cautiously, asking the National Security Council to do a three-month review of defense needs and sending Baker to consult with NATO countries over East-West relations. The budget Bush submitted to Congress marked no dramatic change in military spending. While the defense budget included no increases in real terms for the first year—thus differing from Reagan's budgets—it does permit real increases in following years.

At the very least, it can be said that Bush has not greeted Soviet initiatives with an enthusiastic corresponding move towards peace. Bush does not yet have a team behind him; his appointments have been blocked by wrangling over the Tower nomination and pressures from the far right to receive their due in the new administration. Baker, who has been carrying the weight of leading foreign policy, seems determined not to promote negotiations without clear advantages for the US.

Bush appears to be stalling for time. The lack of a defined foreign policy in his first months in power does not indicate, however, that there will be a fundamental change from Reagan's policies. We can expect that Bush will seek to extricate himself from Reagan's foreign policy failures, without abandoning his fundamental objectives. It is likely we will see tactical changes—such as not insisting on military aid for the contras or military escalation in El Salvador; but at the same time Bush will be laying the basis for truly covert operations, with better communications between the CIA and the Pentagon directed by those in charge of low-intensity warfare.

The democratic victory in Congress, increasing their majority in both houses, leaves US politics with two centers of power. Bush has no choice but to forge a bipartisan consensus on domestic as well as foreign policy issues. Given the need to confront geo-economic problems and reduce the fiscal deficit and national debt, Bush may find it necessary to postpone controversial foreign policy issues, such as El Salvador. Negotiations with the Soviet Union over reduction of strategic nuclear arms have been delayed until defense policy can be reviewed.

The new administration is caught between the Soviet Union's initiatives for East-West peace and a negotiated resolution to regional conflicts, reinforced by a newly active United Nations, and its own tenacious hold on the "peace through strength" doctrine. This reluctance to change reflects not only continued distrust of the Soviet Union but also protection of the interests of the weapons industry, the Pentagon and the many jobs that depend on them.

If peace initiatives continue to advance, with the Soviet Union planning a summit with China in May and withdrawing from Afghanistan (despite US provocation in encouraging Pakistan to keep arming the Afghan contras), Bush will find it increasingly difficult to justify this doctrine. He will need some new focus of conflict to justify it—perhaps Libya, the Middle East, the Philippines or El Salvador; perhaps Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala or Honduras.

In Central America, the FMLN's proposal to accept the legitimacy of the elections and the commitments made by Nicaragua to strengthen its democracy leave little room for excuses to justify military action. The lame-duck period at the end of Reagan's second term and the first few months in which Bush failed to define a Central American policy left the Central American presidents with a certain amount of autonomy, and gave the FMLN and the Nicaraguan government time to launch new peace initiatives. These initiatives offer the Bush Administration a graceful way out of Reagan's failed military policy, a more realistic alternative for the United States in Central America.

Yet the new bipartisan agreement between the US president and Congress pushes aside the accords signed in El Salvador and keeps the contras alive as a fighting force until Nicaragua carries out elections. In El Salvador, the United States failed to latch on to the FMLN's dramatic proposal to participate in elections, thus shutting the door on the best opportunity for peace that has been opened in many years. It seems from these two actions that the United States is not quite ready to take the graceful way out.

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