Never before in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations has the Soviet Union been so desperately eager to please. Soviet negotiators made the major concessions that allowed the two governments to resolve the remaining differences standing in the way of a treaty that will produce major reductions in conventional arms in Europe. From all indications, Mikhail Gorbachev and his negotiators are being uncommonly cooperative on a range of other crucial issues, from strategic arms to peace in the Middle East. There is real reason to hope that a summer summit might lay the foundation for new political and economic agreements that could guide U.S.-Soviet relations for the next generation. So far, President Bush has responded to the Soviets' overtures by adopting a prudent middle course, encouraging a continued dialogue while avoiding any premature or excessive commitments. The one-year renewal of a waiver granting the
Soviets significant farm credits and trade benefits buys Mr. Bush time to consider the wisdom of providing much broader long-term aid to the Soviets. Soon, though, the time will come for Mr. Bush to act decisively or else risk sacrificing a historic opportunity.
Of course, the Soviets' conciliatory gestures are being driven by Moscow's need for massive economic assistance from the West. The need has existed for years. Until recently, though, Gorbachev was too proud to make such a straightforward plea for help.
By some accounts, the Soviets are now asking the United States and other Western countries to provide as much as $300-billion to spur the transition to a market economy over the next five or six years. That dollar amount is as good a measure as any of the extent to which the communist system has failed to live up to its promises.
Communism may be dead, but Western capitalism isn't feeling so well itself. The United States, in the middle of a recession and strapped by huge debts and massive yearly budget deficits, couldn't begin to come up with the kind of money Gorbachev is requesting, even if the Bush administration and Congress wanted to.
What we can do is join with the other major industrial powers in developing a coordinated plan to help make the Soviet Union's political and economic reforms permanent. However, before committing to aid approaching the scale sought by Gorbachev, President Bush and other Western leaders should satisfy themselves on two counts:
First, the Soviets must unalterably commit themselves to true free-market reforms. So far, Gorbachev and his chief economic advisers have not agreed on the immediate need to scrap the remaining apparatuses of central planning and control _ and some of Gorbachev's right-wing opponents would like to reinstitute many of those elements of central control that have already been relaxed. A recent delegation of Soviet economic advisers helped to persuade Washington that Gorbachev remains committed to radical restructuring.
Second, Gorbachev can do more to persuade Western leaders that additional economic aid will bring significant political benefits. Soviet concessions in negotiations to limit conventional and nuclear arms have made for a good start.
The Soviets also can make a virtue out of necessity by providing hard assurances that outside economic aid will not be used to subsidize military spending at home or abroad. Gorbachev already has drastically cut military aid to former Soviet client states in Africa and the Western Hemisphere. If President Bush is half as serious as he claims to be about limiting the proliferation of weapons in the Middle East, he will work to persuade Gorbachev to become a partner in that effort as well. Only combined U.S.-Soviet pressure has any chance of persuading the world's other major arms merchants to ignore that region's insatiable desire for newer and more lethal weaponry.
Those kinds of agreements begin to build the trust that is a prerequisite to any long-term, large-scale economic relationship. The president's tone suggests the administration realizes that the time is ripe for new U.S.-Soviet undertakings on terms favorable to the United States and its traditional allies. Almost miraculously, the world may now have a chance to ease the nuclear specter that has loomed over us since World War II. For that reason alone, the Bush administration should be aggressive and innovative in responding to the new Soviet overtures. An opportunity like this may never come again.