A Strange Hour in Stockholm

Feb. 1, 1993

For nearly an hour in Stockholm on December 14, time lurched backward. The cold war was suddenly on again. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, speaking to delegates from fifty nations at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, served notice that the interlude of international cooperation was over.

Mr. Kozyrev accused NATO of pursuing goals that are “essentially unchanged” and seeking military advantage in eastern Europe. He threatened “unilateral measures” unless the West removed sanctions against Serbia, which, he said, “can count on the support of Great Russia.” Furthermore, he declared, Russia would defend its interests by military and economic means. The former republics of the Soviet Union must join a new federation immediately. Russia, he warned, was “a state capable of looking after itself and its friends.”

As the delegates learned within the hour, however, Mr. Kozyrev did not mean what he said. He left the hall to confer with US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, then returned to announce that his first speech had been a “rhetorical device” to illustrate what could happen if hard-liners in Russia gained the upper hand.

Pravda dismissed Mr. Kozyrev’s action as a “prank.” The delegates went back to their conference. Russian President Boris Yeltsin went back to battling the hard-liners. The United States went back to cutting its defense budget. History will determine whether Mr. Kozyrev was an alarmist, a prophet, or a bit of both.

A more interesting point now is, what if his speech hadn’t been a prank? It won’t wash to claim that everybody knew all along what he was up to. All reports depict the delegates as shaken and stunned. Ukraine and Estonia rose to speak in protest. According to Izvestia, representatives of several former Soviet republics used the time between Mr. Kozyrev’s two appearances to start drafting an appeal to NATO for protection. The Washington Post found diplomats talking about a renewed arms buildup. Foreign ministers of leading nations apparently thought it credible that Mr. Kozyrev was expressing Russian policy. In less than an hour, until he revealed otherwise, the logic of military preparedness had already begun to shift.

In this respect, the Kozyrev incident was reminiscent of the morning of August 19, 1991, when the Western world awoke to the news that a hard-line coup in Moscow had ousted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the night. For the next three days, until the coup collapsed on August 21, the radical reduction of US armed forces did not look nearly as sensible as it had August 18.

“By the end of this decade, the [US] defense budget will be thirty percent to forty percent, possibly even fifty percent smaller than it was in 1990,” said a commission chaired last year by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N. M.). “At some point in this decade we will reach the minimum defense establishment necessary to promote American interests and peace in the world.”

US defense funding has declined for eight years in a row. Congress set the 1993 budget for national defense at $274.3 billion, about $17 billion less than in 1992. The universal assumption is that it will drop significantly lower. In its ten-year forecast, the Electronic Industries Association predicts that the defense budget will fall to $197 billion (in constant 1993 dollars) by 2002.

The armed forces might stabilize at forty percent below their peak strength of the 1980s, but deeper cuts could be demanded. In the two years since the Persian Gulf War, the services have been constantly disbanding troops, deactivating units, and shedding combat power. Eventually, the decline must reach its bottom. The question is what level represents the “minimum defense establishment.” How do we know when we reach it? How can we be sure we don’t drop below it

It is not so much that the United States cannot afford a better defense. Americans spend $222 billion a year on gambling. In the not-too-distant future, the nation’s betting bill will overtake and surpass its expenditures for defense. It’s a matter of priorities and perceptions. We are making long-range decisions at a moment when there are no awesome challenges in sight.

Consider, though, how quickly our perceptions were changed by the oil crisis, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Moscow coup, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the Persian Gulf War. Once events are in motion and the fat’s in the fire, it’s too late to wish we had made different decisions in more tranquil times.

Mr. Kozyrev did not get the results he wanted from his desperate maneuver, but some indirect good may come of it if it serves as a reminder that circumstances have a way of changing on short notice. As we define the “minimum defense establishment” for the United States, we should remember the way the world looked for three days in August 1991 and for about an hour in Stockholm last December.

Would we still be comfortable with our defense arrangements if we awoke tomorrow to another such bombshell and this one turned out to be the real thing instead of a false alarm? If not, we’d better adopt a different standard in our planning.