09 April 1987 - 12 April 1987

American Views of The Soviet Union: How to Handle East West Relations

Chair: Ambassador Marty Hillenbrand

The Ditchley Foundation's joint conference with The Southern Center for International Studies, Atlanta, Georgia; held in Atlanta

The second in an exchange of conferences arranged jointly by the Ditchley Foundation and the Southern Center for International Studies at Atlanta, Georgia, the first conference having taken place at Ditchley Park in September 1986.

Ditchley's conference exchange with the Southern Center for International Studies at Atlanta, Georgia, the first of which was held in September 1986, was completed at Atlanta on 10-12 April. A party of 17 travelled from the UK and was reinforced by 2 from Washington (from the British Embassy and the Economist). A grant for the return fares London/Atlanta was generously given by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the members of the party were guests of the Southern Center throughout their stay at Atlanta.

The subject of the conference was "American views of the Soviet Union: how to handle East/West relations". Ambassador Marty Hillenbrand, formerly US Ambassador to the FRG, subsequently Director General of the Atlantic Institute for International Affairs at Paris and now Dean Rusk Professor of International Relations at the University of Georgia, took the chair. There was one Canadian taking part, from the Department of External Affairs at Ottawa. Charles Muller came from American Ditchley and one of Ambassador Rowny's assistants came from Washington. Otherwise the participation was from the American South.

The British team included four who had been in Moscow for Mrs Thatcher's visit a few days earlier. This lent a high degree of actuality to the proceedings. There were also more accredited experts on Soviet and eastern European affairs on the British side, and these helped the conference to appraise the Soviet scene with a high degree of factual precision. But the theme of the conference was not so much facts as attitudes and appreciations. How was the Gorbachov upheaval viewed in the US? How was it viewed in the UK and Europe?

The Southern Center paid a handsome tribute to Ditchley by organising the conference on Ditchley lines (2 opening sessions, 3 working groups, 4 concluding plenaries). The subject matter was handled under three headings, Soviet internal affairs, Soviet policies towards the West and Japan, and Soviet policies towards the communist states and the third world.

Although there were several participants, from both sides of the Atlantic, who struck notes of deep pessimism about the chances of any reform in the Soviet Union succeeding, about the prospects for any sort of arms control agreement being reached and ratified during the remainder of President Reagan's presidency, about the likelihood of Mr Gorbachov surviving beyond that, and about the possibilities of the Soviet Union managing to extract itself from the Afghan imbroglio, rein in Cuba and Vietnam, find a better modus vivendi with China and allow more diversity in eastern Europe, the general thrust of opinion at the conference was that the Gorbachov regime was showing at least as much readiness to contemplate and risk change and innovation as Lenin in the NEP in the 20's or Khrushchev in the 50's and that, on the whole, it was in the interests of the western powers that change should occur, although they could do little to influence its course other than by remaining firm, flexible and very cautiously sympathetic.

There was a good deal of discussion about the need for the West to combine its actions better, given the skill which Mr Gorbachov was showing in seizing the initiative and sowing disarray among western publics brought up on other Soviet stereotypes. There was a range of issues, liable to divide the west if taken separately, on which high-level policy coordination was urgently needed across the Atlantic. These included the removal of medium range nuclear weapons from Europe, the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons, the possible reduction of US conventional forces in Europe, improvements in the deployment, posture and coordination of European conventional forces (especially French, German and British), and the future of the French and British nuclear deterrents. Careful sensitivity needed to be shown to the special problems of divided Germany, and ways of promoting more active participation by France in European defence needed to be found.

There were pleas for much more careful and consistent management of relations with the eastern European states, especially by the US, and for patient pursuit of the CSCE process in spite of the relatively modest fruits of the Helsinki Final Act. In the wider world the modifications which might flow from the new look in the Soviet Union had still to make themselves felt (in Afghanistan, in Central America, in Sino-Soviet relations, in South-east Asia, perhaps at the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988), but the western powers should prepare themselves to deal with a Soviet Union whose image might soon seem much improved.

The underlying question during most of the discussions tended to be whether the West would be wise to try to help Mr Gorbachov or to hinder him. The answer seemed to be that it should not do either of these things. It should be flexible and pragmatic and ready itself to contemplate change, while holding firmly to its own principles and interests and updating as might seem necessary its own alliance arrangements. Two videos were shown to the conference participants, one of Mr Dean Rusk talking to a Southern Center interviewer about the Cuba missile crisis and the conduct of foreign affairs, and the other Charles Wheeler's interview for the BBC with Mrs Thatcher in Moscow. No-one demurred from the wise things said in both these interviews.

The Southern Center arranged a tour of Atlanta for the British visitors, taking in the Atlanta Historical Society, the Carter Presidential Center and Library and the Martin Luther King Jr Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Mr Peter White, the President of the Southern Center, gave admirable and highly illuminating commentaries during the tour, so that the visiting party was able to form in a matter of hours a vivid impression of the renaissance which has swept through the South following the century-long trauma inflicted by the Civil War. A small group of British participants went on from Atlanta to Alabama where they were guests of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and spent a morning admiring the sweeping and rapid transformation from declining steel town to rapidly growing high-tech university centre, ranking with world leaders in some aspects of modern medicine. From Birmingham the same group also visited the smaller town of Anniston in Alabama as guests of the proprietor and publisher of the Anniston Star, enjoying most generous hospitality, lively political talk and irresistible Southern charm.

Atlanta, after Chicago, now has the second busiest airport in the world. The highway construction programme in and around Atlanta is huge in scale. The city and region are developing at an extraordinary pace. The Southern Center regards itself as a comparative newcomer to the international affairs circuit. Partnership with it gives Ditchley an important point of entry to a revitalised and increasingly rich region of the United States.

Conference Chair: Ambassador Marty Hillenbrand
Dean Rusk Professor of International Relations at the University of Georgia