Best of Buddies; Review of Anatoly Dobrynin's In Confidence

Best of Buddies; Review of Anatoly Dobrynin's In Confidence

Mini Teaser: Washington has lived by leaks and rumors for a very long time, but until the collapse of communism there was one person in town with whom it was always safe to let your hair down.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

Best of Buddies; Review of Anatoly Dobrynin's In Confidence (Random House, 1995)

Washington has lived by leaks and rumors for a very long time, but until the collapse of communism there was one person in town with whom it was always safe to let your hair down. During his quarter-century tenure as Soviet ambassador, you could tell Anatoly Dobrynin whatever you wanted about your superiors, about American foreign policy, or about America itself, without fear that the Washington Post would get wind of your indiscretions. "One good thing I know about you", Richard Nixon told him, "there has not been a single leak."

Other Americans were equally confident that the Soviet system would keep their secrets. What else but such trust would have led Brent Scowcroft, as President Ford's National Security Adviser, to apologize to Dobrynin when his boss publicly endorsed the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate? Or Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to welcome an abusive letter from Leonid Brezhnev, in hopes that it might encourage Jimmy Carter to reconsider his approach in the strategic arms talks? Or Senator Ted Kennedy to complain to Dobrynin that Moscow's disgracefully mild handling of Ronald Reagan was weakening the anti-nuclear movement, and with it the Democratic party?

After long years of such kissing, Anatoly Dobrynin is now ready to tell. He has become a real Washingtonian at last, and it shows on every page of his book. In Confidence has an ease and breeziness that one might think impossible in recording a lifetime of Soviet diplomatic conversations. It has almost none of the strangeness, false notes and mistranslations that one expects to encounter in American editions of foreign leaders' memoirs. The reason is simple. This is an American book. Its principal characters, its audience, its editors, even those who supported the author in writing it (from Columbia University's Harriman Institute to former Pepsi Chairman Donald Kendall) are all American. (Only when there is a Russian edition will reviewers perhaps have to wrestle with strangeness and mistranslations.)

Here, in short, is a man who really has our number, particularly when it comes to insinuating himself with the leading figures of our establishment, and he tells us how he did it. He didn't develop cozy relationships with American big shots by taking good notes and keeping his mouth shut. To the contrary, Dobrynin says, if you want people to be indiscreet with you, you have to pay them back "in the same coin." You have to offer them a tidbit or two in return, some scandalous Kremlin anecdote or rumor that they can pass along to their next lunch partner--all in the strictest confidence, of course.

Most of the tidbits that Dobrynin offers us--samples of his modus operandi--come from his years in Washington, between 1962 and 1986, during which he did business with the great and near-great of six administrations. He also describes his early years as a Soviet diplomat and the last phase of his career, when Gorbachev brought him back to Moscow as the senior Central Committee official in charge of foreign affairs. These periods, before and after his ambassadorial years, provide some of Dobrynin's best anecdotes. He tells a hilarious story about accompanying then Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov on a train trip across the United States in 1955; in the middle of the journey this arch-Stalinist became convinced that a local map he had been given, which showed military installations along the train route, had been planted by the fiendish Americans to make it seem that he was stealing state secrets. Old "Iron-Pants" Molotov is, of course, an easy target, but the book also provides snippy little details about Brezhnev's vulgarity, Gromyko's pig-headedness, and Gorbachev's vanity.

As he did when he made the social rounds of Washington, Dobrynin uses all this cocktail-party patter to keep us entertained. And, just as before, there is a serious message underneath the laughs, an argument about how the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and United States should have been managed. The answer is confidentially: through a process of close, even intimate consultation between the leaders of the two countries (and their agents, like himself) in which each side gets to know the other well, commits itself to respect the other's legitimate interests, seeks no unilateral advantages, resolves disagreements on the basis of equality, and prevents minor issues from derailing the search for "improved relations."

All this sounds a bit abstract, but what Dobrynin means by it is quite concrete: Detente was great. For him, the world has never quite regained the grandeur that it had in the early 1970s, when he and Henry Kissinger could snooze together on a sunny beach at San Clemente or sit in a little Mexican restaurant drinking margaritas ("made with thirteen ingredients") to celebrate a successful summit. For adversaries to treat each other in this way was, Dobrynin marvels, "unprecedented in my experience and perhaps in the annals of diplomacy."

Unprecedented or not (the annals of diplomacy are full of bonhomie), things did get a little thick. It was at this time that the Soviet ambassador was given a direct line to the American National Security Adviser's office, so that either one of them could pick up the phone and immediately begin conversing. Confidential access to each other became such a fetish that Kissinger, when he was away from Washington, on several occasions invited Dobrynin to go over to the White House so that the two could speak on a special encrypted phone line. (We are not told against whom this strange precaution was taken--presumably the ever-nosy KGB and CIA, who had no business trying to find out what their betters might be cooking up.)

It is with tales like these that Dobrynin the Washington storyteller trips up Dobrynin the earnest advocate of detente. The storyteller wants to astonish us with outrageous revelations and breathless anecdotes from behind the headlines. The advocate, by contrast, wants to convince us that this bizarre way of doing the nation's business--correction: this closely collaborative approach to superpower relations--should have been the norm for all subsequent administrations as well. But the more Dobrynin shocks us, the less he persuades us, the less plausibly normal this kind of diplomacy seems. It is simply embarrassing to read his account of how Nixon called him in for a bitter review of what was going wrong with his presidency. How could it seem normal for the President of the United States to complain to the Soviet Ambassador that on so many of the big issues--the search for a Middle East settlement, dŽtente with the Soviet Union, battling the media and Congress over Watergate--he faced "the same Jewish circles"? (Nixon detected this problem among his closest advisers. Kissinger, he confided to Dobrynin, sometimes "strongly indulged Israel's nationalist sentiments, for which he had to be corrected.")

Dobrynin insists that this "confidential channel" was the key to the building of detente, but it wasn't. How the President communicated with Moscow was far less important than how he fashioned his policy toward it. Did he build a consensus for his approach by consulting his own cabinet secretaries and members of Congress, or did he keep them in the dark? Dobrynin's closed "channel" seemed so important primarily because the American policymaking that lay behind it was also closed. When he argues that only confidential communication made good Soviet-American relations possible, Dobrynin is really arguing something far more radical: that the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, the Congress, the media, and the public should not have been allowed to intrude on Soviet-American relations.

Yet after Nixon no American president shared this view, and the reason was not simply that detente became so controversial. Whether policy toward the Soviet Union was cooperative or conflictive, it had to have a strong political base. A president who could not carry his own administration is hardly likely to carry the country either. Thus, the turn toward regularized and inclusive policymaking began not with Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, both in different ways critics of detente, but with Gerald Ford, who was happy to carry forward Nixon and Kissinger's policies but not to pay the political price that their secretive style imposed. (Ford was, to boot, far too unsure of himself to make policy the way Nixon did. It seems a safe bet that no other American president ever told the Soviet Ambassador at their first meeting that he'd like to come over to the Soviet embassy now and then to watch documentaries about the USSR. He'd already seen one, about Siberian tigers, that had made a strong impression on him.)

More than twenty years after the fact, we are still, remarkably enough, arguing about detente. Twenty years from now, we will probably still be at it. How important a contribution, if any, does In Confidence make to this debate? In some ways, it is disappointing. Dobrynin's obsession with his "channel" ultimately seems a little silly--an attempt to vindicate a special Soviet-American relationship in which he was able to treat American leaders as his buddies.

Yet, to grasp the significance of this book, it is just as important to see what Dobrynin does not try to vindicate. He has much praise for detente, but almost none for Soviet foreign policy. Although he describes himself as a true communist and loyal representative of his country, Dobrynin records his disapproval of almost all the policies that he was called upon to defend. His indictment is so relentless that it is hard to dismiss as a tactical concession to his audience, or a personal, essentially dishonest, revisionism. He could surely have established his bona fides with most of his readers simply by expressing his unhappiness with a few egregious cases of Soviet overreaching--the invasion of Afghanistan, of course, and maybe a couple of arms control violations as well. But that, as Dobrynin's favorite American President used to say, would have been the easy way out.

Instead, he denounces one Soviet policy after another. The deployment of SS-20 missiles to threaten Western Europe and East Asia was, for him, "a gross miscalculation", and all too typical of a system in which the military maintained a monopoly on the information necessary to evaluate what they were doing. Similarly, the Soviet regime's mindless attachment to Third World radicals--and its foolish policies in Angola, Ethiopia, and elsewhere--reflected the destructive authority of Marxism-Leninism. Dobrynin's blunt term for it is "ideological bondage." As for human rights and free emigration, he says the West "rightfully considered them to be important international issues on which Moscow had to assume certain obligations." Brezhnev and Gromyko, unfortunately, were "irrational" on the subject.

Dobrynin does not claim to have expressed these views openly, and although he was able to re-read his old cables, he conspicuously fails to quote any scathing denunciations (or mild ones, for that matter). Nor is it clear that he bothered to think through these criticisms fully even for himself. And yet this doesn't make what he has to say less interesting. For Dobrynin emerges from his own book not as a closet dissident (far from it), but as a symbol of the fragility, the rot, really, of the Soviet order. How could someone who held these views, however inchoately, have been the evil empire's man in Washington for decade after decade?

Even Dobrynin's attempt to salvage something of value in Soviet foreign policy reveals the confusion in which the Soviet elite ultimately found itself. At the end of the book, he expresses his disapproval of the poor terms on which Mikhail Gorbachev finally ended the Cold War, terms that sacrificed his country's position of equality with the United States. Yet in the final analysis Gorbachev was only doing what In Confidence repeatedly tells us was absolutely necessary. Was the power of the military leadership too great? Gorbachev reduced it. Was communist ideology burdensome and absurd? Gorbachev scorned it. Were public debate and parliamentary oversight of foreign policy necessary? Gorbachev unleashed the press and held elections.
That perestroika had the effect it did--the collapse of the Soviet system--no longer seems mysterious to us. What remains mysterious is something that Dobrynin dramatizes inadvertently as few others have done: that those who guided, spoke for, and benefited most from the system believed in it as little as they did.

Essay Types: Book Review