The Linkages of Strategy

July 1, 1987

When theater arms-control negotiations slipped momentarily out of overdrive in May, Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev complained that the West could ruin everything by persistence in forging “an endless chain of more and more linkages.” He warned against bogging down the main issue — agreement on eliminating medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe — with such side concerns as the balance of conventional forces.

As Mr. Gorbachev knew perfectly well, the question was not really one of establishing the linkages. They existed already. The point was whether they ought to be recognized in the bargaining, and in the minds of many, that was more than a quibble. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies grossly outnumber NATO in conventional forces. NATO’s nominal strategy of Flexible Response has always relied heavily on the threat of escalation to nuclear conflict for much of its credibility. The Western concern in May was that the “Double Zero” arms-control option — removal of two categories of nuclear missiles, encompassing all with ranges of between 300 miles and 3,000 miles — might dangerously amplify the Pact’s conventional advantage and leave Western Europe vulnerable to intimidation.

Surely Mr. Gorbachev could not have been that exasperated by the concept of linkages. The centerpiece of Soviet military thought is the “Correlation of Forces,” the idea that the course and outcome of conflict depend not only on military and economic factors but also on politics, ideology, morality, science, psychology, and other linkages than you can shake a dialectic at. The Soviets reject the Western notion of “flexible response” as being artificial. Their combined-arms tactics do not make a sharp distinction between nuclear and conventional warfare. They see nuclear and conventional forces as mutually reinforcing.

This doctrine is established by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and has been reaffirmed by the Party’s Defense Council. And until he ascended to his present position, Mr. Gorbachev was chairman of the Defense Council. We can assume that he is skilled in the art of linkage, and we might reflect on what linkages went into his urgent desire to reach a deal on nuclear weapons in Europe.

The comprehensive style of grand strategy has never had much appeal for Americans, who tend to ignore linkages when they are not oblivious to them altogether. There was a break in this pattern — on paper, at least — when the White House, with congressional prompting, produces its first “National Security Strategy of the United States.” This document inventories the national interest at some length and explains how it is intertwined with military posture, diplomacy, economic and trade policies, budgets, and the scientific and industrial base.

These high-minded linkages got a nice round of applause when they were announced in January, but they were among the first casualties to fall when the federal budget season began. Administration and congressional combatants are battering each other about deficits and tax policies and percentage increases or decreases from last year’s budget. They will most likely settle in due time on a budget that perpetuates the mismatch between defense requirements and defense resources. In this regard, attention to linkages has not improved much since 1980, when he Carter Doctrine committed the US to defend the Persian Gulf region “by any means necessary” without providing additional military forces for this sweeping new obligation.

It would be bad enough if the blindness to linkages ended with budgetary matters, but that is not the case. A recent Gallup poll found that seventy-eight percent of the American public believes that the US has a vital interest in Japan, but that only fifty-three percent would favor sending troops if the Soviet Union invaded Japan. If the inconstant twenty-five percent have an accurate understanding of what a “vital interest” is, there may not be much of a natural constituency for linkages, even when logic makes them unavoidable.

The national interest begins, according to the White House strategy, with ensuring the security of the United States from attack or conquest. That, essentially, is a straightforward military proposition, and the linkages are relatively unambiguous. It is the subsequent elements of the national interest that present greater complexity and more subtle linkages.

Among these are the security of US allies, a strong US economy, access to foreign markets and energy resources, curbing of terrorism and the international narcotics traffic, stable currencies, the promotion of democratic values and human rights, and preventing Soviet domination of the Eurasian landmass. The full list identified in the national strategy document is much longer and embodies a wealth of linkages, not all of which are specified.

For example, the inefficiency of Soviet agriculture is legendary. Left to do their own farming, the Soviets would have to allocate more of their resources to food production. Yet the US and other free world nations compete with each other to sell the USSR grain at bargain prices, skipping lightly by the fact that this enables the Kremlin to apply its resources instead to less bucolic purposes.

Significant linkages are often forgotten when advocates of some particular cause concentrate on their objective to the exclusion of all else. It is important to watch out for this in the arms-control process, where hopes and fears can lead to emotional motivations. Total solutions appear impossible, so there is a temptation to take the problem apart and try to work on the pieces independently. This, however, is the approach of a mechanic, and foreign policy and strategy should not be left in the hands of mechanics.

Mr. Gorbachev is not a mechanic, and he will remember the linkages for his side. The US and its NATO allies should take their time to consider the linkages, too, and not allow themselves to be rushed by Mr. Gorbachev’s speechmaking. However much it may complicate matters, strategy, international relations, and sound diplomacy are, to barrow a phrase, “an endless chain of more and more linkages.”