Good Sense, Bad Delivery
The Great Universal Embrace: Arms Summitry—A Skeptic's Account, by Kenneth L. Adelman, New York: Simon and Schuster, 349 pages, $19.95
Kenneth Adelman was director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from January 1983 to December 1987, and The Great Universal Embrace is his reflection on the experience. Taken as a whole, the book reminds one of Ronald Reagan. Reagan had little patience for details and possessed no gift for administration, to put it mildly. But he did have half a dozen core beliefs that, for all their simplicity, turned out to be basically right. He showed what powerful ideas can mean in politics.
But in books as in politics, the right ideas don't speak for themselves. Without care to expression and organization, readers are burdened with understanding the author's best thought despite his worst delivery. That's the problem here.
The book's main theses are essentially correct, making it a refuge of common sense amid volumes of weepy or hysterical illusion about arms control. Adelman contends that arms control is far less important than most people think and thus consumes far more high executive time than it should. Arms control is not a substitute for defense policy, but an adjunct to it, not a means of stopping superpower competition, but a method of waging it. Arms control has not appreciably eased U.S. security dilemmas or made peace more secure; neither has it much worsened our situation or brought us closer to war.
This is because the arms competition derives from political conflict, not the other way around. Arms control, therefore, turns out to be easier to deal with than regional conflicts, for example, because it's about peripheral matters. At certain stages, arms control can be turned into a technical exercise, a playing around with numbers that doesn't settle—or even raise—any really important issues.
Arms control, therefore, has been a palliative, manipulated by government spin merchants who have led many people to think that SALT I or SALT II, for example, represented real progress. That's just not so, Adelman asserts, and he's right. Pieces of paper, no matter how solemnly inscribed or media-hyped they are, cannot by themselves change geopolitical realities. Despite the episodic hysteria about the nuclear peril, real as it may be, the true danger flows from politics broadly construed and not from the weapons themselves. As Charles Manning, a British political philosopher, one said: You do not affect the position of a shadow by acting on the shadow. Neither do you get at the core of U.S.–Soviet animosity by playing at arms control.
Moreover, Adelman argues, we may get most of what arms control has sought to deliver all these years through other avenues. Take Europe. The Soviet position in Europe has crumbled because of political changes. Soviet domination of Eastern Europe has been the central problem of the Cold War all along, as conservatives have always argued. The weapons weren't the problem, just a symptom. Since conventional arms control in Europe has tried to deal only with the symptoms, it should never have been expected to achieve anything very significant. Now that important political changes have occurred, we can have an arms-control agreement precisely at the moment when we no longer need one.
Because Adelman has the basics right, his assessments of current arms-control negotiations are generally on target. For example, the START treaty before us is as likely to do harm as good. That's true because, so far, the treaty would not reduce the Soviet advantage in prompt hard-target counterforce systems and might actually make the ratio worse for the United States.
Arms control tends to reflect facts rather than create new ones. The Soviets have energetically pursued strategic modernization in the past six years despite economic trouble, wild-eyed Lithuanians, and other problems. We have not; hence the problem with START. If we want to solve the vulnerability of U.S. strategic retaliatory forces, we'll probably have to do it ourselves. If we do, the next strategic arms-control deal we make with the Russians will be "better" as a result.
As for SDI, Adelman believes it should be neither rushed nor junked. He's right again. SDI is too complex and too expensive to do in a hurry. Science and technology cannot be ordered up faster like so many hamburgers and milkshakes. On the other hand, SDI is much too important in the long run, and far too useful a bargaining lever with the Soviets, to simply abandon.
Developments since Adelman's book was published have confirmed his basic skepticism about conventional arms control in Europe. These negotiations have always been hopelessly complicated and unverifiable. Now, thanks to demands made on the Soviets by the newly autonomous Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, and Polish governments, they're irrelevant, too. Adelman could have gone further by explaining that arms control in Europe, involving 35 countries and dozens of weapons systems, can't work for the same reason socialism can't work: It's impossible to plan military environments or economies in adequate detail given the inherent unpredictability of human beings.
Although Adelman's basic ideas are correct, his presentation is flawed. Adelman is right that arms control takes up an enormous amount of time in return for scant rewards, but it's within the interagency process that most of this time gets wasted, not at U.S.–Soviet summits. Yet Adelman mainly discusses summitry.
Disorganization also impairs Adelman's arguments. For example, his first case study reviews the famous October 1986 Reykjavik summit. The second retreats to a Geneva meeting between Andrei Gromyko and George Shultz in January 1985. Adelman claims the meeting laid the foundation for all that followed, which is true. So why discuss Reykjavik first?
The third chapter examines the November 1985 Geneva summit, and then we come to a fine general chapter on "Myths of Arms Control." But what's it doing between November 1985 and the Washington summit of December 1987? Then, after December 1987, comes "The Annual SALT Debates," which harkens back to 1979 and whose subsequent divagations engaged the Reagan administration more in its first than in its second term. Thanks to this non-chronological treatment, the main story line of arms-control negotiations is difficult to follow unless the reader is already familiar with it.
The book is confusing in other ways, too. At no one place are the essential issues of SDI, START, or a comprehensive test ban gathered together. The treatment of each is dispersed amid personal anecdotes, comments on personalities, and reflections on bureaucratic culture. The narrative jumps around like a flea with hiccoughs, so when Adelman presents his conclusions at the end of the book, the nonspecialist is unlikely to understand them fully.
The "here it is, here it isn't" approach to substantive issues results in clipped, misleading arguments. For example, in discussing a test ban, Adelman asserts that fewer tests mean having to keep more missiles because a government would be inclined to compensate for a decrease in reliability with an increase in numbers. Maybe, but Adelman neglects to mention that testing is also a key element in strategic modernization, which is more to the point.
Then there are the errors that can be blamed either on the author's inattention to detail or on the editing process. To pick but two: Adelman quotes "Jan Dubcek" on page 23 speaking of "communism with a human face." He means Alexander Dubcek. On page 66, Adelman refers to the Red Army "hurling across the Volga gap." He means the Fulda gap; why on earth would the Red Army in Europe attack to the east?
Such mistakes are unfortunate, because Adelman was accused unfairly in his ACDA nomination hearings of being an arms-control lightweight. True, Adelman's training was more in African affairs and English literature, but arms control is not so complicated that it requires decades of intense preparation. Still, mistakes like these don't help Adelman's reputation.
Finally, the audience problem. In the introduction, Adelman relates how he once encountered a friendly, a hostile, and a simply disinterested reception at three successive meetings in one day. These audiences had in common, however, a deep ignorance of security issues, and Adelman claims to be writing for them. But despite the witty narrative and avoidance of technical detail, the story line is too diffuse and the issues too cursorily explicated to really help such people.
Neither does the book work as memoir or participant chronicle. Scholars reconstructing the details of the Reagan administration's arms-control policies will find the stories too inspecific. Adelman often attributes a remark or an idea to another official without naming him, and he doesn't report in full on meetings, which he uses merely as illustrations.
The Reagan administration was successful at national security and foreign policy despite itself. The sad part is that had it been better organized, it could have done even more. Rather the same conclusion applies to The Great Universal Embrace.
Adam Garfinkle is coordinator of the political studies program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Good Sense, Bad Delivery".