John Tirman (unilateral initiatives), 1994

Tirman is an American who looked to be in his thirties. He was running an outfit called the Winston Foundation, which funded peace projects. I interviewed him in Ankara, Turkey where we had come for a meeting of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly.

METTA: Now, you wrote a book.

TIRMAN: I wrote a book called “Sovereign Acts: American Unilateralism and Global Security” sometime and it was published by Harper-Row-Ballinger.

METTA: About when?

TIRMAN: 1989. And I didn’t study the Soviet part of it that much, although I am trying to remember what was in this book and what was some other things I may have written or published in “Nuclear Times”. But the basic approach I took in that book was to demonstrate the utility of unilateral measures and also to demonstrate the historical precedence for them both and as a matter of sort of case law and also as a matter of constitutional prerogatives, of Congress in particular.

METTA: The things that you are talking about is international affairs, it’s not…

TIRMAN: Yes. It was basically all arms control, arms reduction. So, for example, I had a chapter on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban and I discussed the contexts of Congress being able to __ certain actions and how Congress recaptured its constitutional prerogative to involve itself in foreign policy. And the steps that it has already taken on certain other kinds of bans like anti-satellite weapons testing. So, that was the premise of the book, and I had a chapter or two on nuclear policy and nuclear weapons doctrine.

METTA: Was the major point of it to show Congress how to reassert itself, or was it to demonstrate how to do GRIT or something?

TIRMAN: Well, it was meant to show that we did not have to feel as though everything had to be negotiated in order to make the strategic situation, particularly with the Soviet Union, a safer and more stable relationship. That is, not every single thing had to be negotiated because there were many, many constraints on negotiation as a route towards arms control, particularly this exclusive as to arms control, and there were numbers of measures one could take regardless of how one felt about the Soviet Union as an enemy or not an enemy that would stabilize a relationship and reduce the cost of the arsenal and so on. And then I made a more ideologically charged argument that the United States should be taking the leading initiative towards arms control and this is how it could be done and the Russians would probably follow suit as they had in past situations of this kind.

And then I run through a number of different areas, including, as I said nuclear doctrine and nuclear test ban. I talked some about conventional weapons. I had a large chapter on the arms trade, and even talked some about military culture, civil military relations. So that was all done to demonstrate that there were many routes to arms reduction, as many routes to a better and more stable world, and that we didn’t have to feel, both as speaking the progressive community and the arms control community we did not have to feel beholden to the negotiating process, the arms control process alone.

And also, I think I was trying to I think break a logjam in the sort of political culture at that time, which was… not a logjam is not the right image but more like a self-limiting set of expectations about negotiations that were very easy to subvert. For example, if you are completely dedicated to negotiation, then you constantly have to answer charges about Soviet misbehaviour, Soviet duplicity, and you have to deal with loopholes and treaty writing, legalistic quality of treaties, the tendency to compromise, the ability of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to bargain with the President over giving them some provisions for future promises for weapons development. You know, the long litany of criticisms of bilateral negotiations and it was important, I think for our community, and a leap of opinion in policy leaders, as well, to take seriously the possibility of unilateral measures, because they to a significant degree could circumvent many of the problems that the bilateral relationship, the more legalistic part of the relationship, had fallen into.

METTA: Well I wouldn’t say, from anything that immediately springs to mind that you had a roaring success in the American scene.


METTA: It sounds as if you had more success on the other side.

TIRMAN: Well I don’t if I had any success. I do believe, and this has certainly been looked at by others. I don’t know to what extent. I haven’t really researched it thoroughly, but I don’t think that there’s any question that the Soviets took many of the ideas of Western peace researchers and incorporated them into their actual negotiating positions and military doctrine, not just with Gorbachev was talking about at sort of the rhetorical level, but what they actually put on the table. This was certainly true in the case of the CFE Treaty. The Conventional Forces in Europe was a defensive defence doctrine or proposal that they put on the table there. That did not come from Soviet military thinking. That came from the West.

METTA: Tell me more. I think that’s really interesting.

TIRMAN: Oh, well I saw only a summary of the document (of course, in an English translation), and I don’t think I even have that any more, but somebody like Randy Forsberg. Somebody’s got to have that nailed down. They had come forward, and I don’t remember the exact timing of this, but CFE followed fairly quickly on the INF treaty that was negotiated. Jonathon Dean would know this stuff at UCS here in Washington because he was the former negotiator. The treaty was to (of course, this was on the context of Nato and the Warsaw Pact) meant to reduce conventional forces on both sides. It was one of those negotiations that went on for years and years without any result.


TIRMAN: Yes. It was earlier called MBFR. At the time that I am talking about, this was about 1989, maybe, possibly 1990. I think I am pretty sure it was after INF. Shevardnadze or the negotiator (I can’t remember who it was), put on the table (I think Petrovsky might have even been involved in this at some point) their version of the Treaty. I don’t know if you would call it a revision or if it was the first version in the new set of negotiations because they would change names of the negotiations and what not so I’m not sure exactly where it comes in the line of versions. But it was kind of a new version, a fresh approach from the Soviets. It was not just building on their own negotiating position. And it was essentially, a non-offensive defence position. And if I remember correctly and I may not remember correctly, but I think they talked about demilitarized zones and then gradual layers of defensive weapons and reducing or eliminating the number of offensive weapons within a certain number of miles from the border and instituting confidence building measures and so on. This stuff came right from Robert Neild and all these other people who have been developing these ideas for the previous decade essentially.

METTA: Right.

TIRMAN: So that was very much, I think, a result of peace researchers in the West. And whether or not that, how that relates to unilateral, I don’t know but it was a very clear expression of the change that didn’t get much attention here and there was a final CFE treaty though. It was not just an overwhelmed by events. There was a CFE treaty that was signed that I think continues to be carried out. We published an article in the journal that in some ways was a precursor to our management of “Nuclear Times”. We published something called the “Annual Review of Peace Activism,” and by a fellow from Denmark named…

METTA: Anders Boserup


METTA: Dahl… oh, what’s his name…

TIRMAN: This was a journalist. Somebody who had been very interested in these issues.

METTA: I know. I’m 90% sure I know who you are talking about.

TIRMAN: I knew it was Yurgin something. I may have the wrong…

METTA: You’re right. It starts with a “D”. I’ve interviewed him. Anyway. It will come back to me.

[It was Jorgen Dragsdahl that we were referring to.]

TIRMAN: He’s done some work like this, looking at the whole Western influence on Gorbachev in particular, the new thinking. But I think that the CFE document was the codification and is more than just a Gorbachev speech and I suppose that people who are far more familiar with it than I could cite, changes in Soviet military doctrine. I think that the fact is, sort of the letting go of Eastern Europe obviously showed a big change, partly dictated by political events. But clearly the military must have said okay, it’s all right, let them go.

METTA: I found a lot of people who were working on non-offensive defense and who were promoting it and who claimed with some justice to have had some influence. I haven’t found any specific connection to the CFE Treaty. That’s a new one, and a interesting one that I’d like to pursue. When I think of that guy’s name, I’ll know I can get to him because I have his address. He wrote about it with specific reference to the CFE Treaty?

TIRMAN: I don’t know. No, I’m not sure.

METTA: Okay.

TIRMAN: I think it was before then.

METTA: Yes. It maybe the article that I have already read. Anyway, the other thing…

TIRMAN: I wrote something about it…

METTA: Did you?

TIRMAN: But it was a not bad, it was not anything that was very dramatic.

METTA: Where would have you put it?

TIRMAN: I can’t remember. It was probably the L.A. Times.

METTA: What Times.

TIRMAN: The L.A. Times.

METTA: L.A. Times, Okay.

TIRMAN: I could try to hunt it down but it was not in much more detail than what I am just telling you.

METTA: Okay. Also, I would love to find some evidence that there was any kind of influence like that in the INF agreement itself. I mean, that is, Gorbachev’s backing down and saying, ‘Okay, these are your options’, which is fine. I’ve asked Russian… Well for example, last week I interviewed Andrei Kortunov and some other folks but I keep asking if they can tell me any more about how the INF decision was made and nobody has anything very interesting or specific to say.

David Cortright has a book in which he was trying to handle the US side of what I am trying to do. That is, in fact, I got my idea from him when he was trying to say he wanted to show how the peace movement had an influence on the Pentagon policy or White House Policy. And I thought it would be hard to do that but a lot easier to show that the peace movement had an influence on Soviet Policy and since he’s not going to do that, I think I will. So that’s what I have been doing ever since although it’s quite a bit broader than that. But in his book, and I called him to congratulate him when he finally came out with it six months ago (or less), and he said the one thing he wished he had been able to do is pin down how the INF Treaty agreements… of course he wasn’t working on Russia, he was working on the US… but he still had a section on the Soviet Union. And he said he had a idea but he couldn’t prove it. So I’m still searching for anybody who thinks there is any connection between the INF agreement.

TIRMAN: I don’t know of one but again I think it’s… My feeling is that these things are an accumulation of a lot of different events and influences that can’t be… none of which can be isolated as being positive. And the acceptance of zero-zero option was a recognition by the Soviet Union that the West really was not a particular threat to them, the recognition of the military. And that, I think is something that was conveyed from years and years of contact through the Dartmouth Conferences and Pugwash meetings, much more significantly than the peace movement per se of the 1970s and 80s, and that the Gorbachev generation, having been more exposed to the West, and having been part of these meetings and so on for so many years, had sort of accepted this. The other side of the INF thing is simply that it was a mistake to put the SS-20s in there to begin with — a political mistake and militarily unnecessary by any standards, and Gorbachev knew that, and was able to accept a deal that didn’t turn the Soviet Union militarily again by any standard. It was simply pragmatic negotiating. But Gorbachev’s overall direction I think was influenced by Westerners in some more specific ways by peaceniks of various kinds.

METTA: Back to your unilateral thing. One of the things that… I don’t know why my ears flapped but I remember being at [Evry] at an END conference in ’86, maybe ’87. And Sergei Plekhanov was there. He was Arbatov’s right hand lieutenant I guess you would say. And he was in a debate with Mient Jan Faber. And it was the first time I think that Faber right before my eyes actually began to think maybe these guys are serious. Plekhanov was talking about that they really were going to change and you don’t have to fear us so much and he wasn’t just being rhetorical. He was a smart guy. He used the word ‘GRIT’. And I thought, ‘that’s strange’, because I don’t anybody except peace researchers, not even ordinary political science international relations (IR) specialists know that term.

TIRMAN: I don’t think that I know the term.

METTA: Oh that’s interesting if you don’t know the term! That’s wonderful. It stands for something like ‘Graduated Reduction Initiative Tension’, or something like that — GRIT. And… ‘Graduated Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension’ actually. There’s a long history in peace studies. Charles Osgoode. Maybe that’s his name. Psychologist who tries to use exactly some other non-negotiating kind of method. The basic idea is ‘okay. You tell the other side, “I’m going to take one step back and stop”, and then let’s see what you want to do. So you do this. And then the other side does or doesn’t. In that way, you keep taking turns. You don’t make it conditional and you don’t attach it to any rewards or punishments. You just say, “I’m going to take one step back.” And if they reciprocate, then you take another step back, and so on. Osgoode put this to Kennedy, who actually… I think there’s a book or at least a short monograph on this. He actually started doing this after the Cuban missile crisis when everybody had the daylights scared out of them and this was going great. They got as far as the [McCloy-Zoren] agreement. That was sort of the final phase in this contest of reversing the arms race. At that point there had been about three moves back and forth, unilateral initiatives, and people started to get scared and stopped. So it was Washington that stopped it. But every step that they took, the Russians met it. And anyway, this is something that the peace research people had always sort of kicked around but I don’t think anybody else knows the term.

TIRMAN: Yes. I don’t think I have heard that particular acronym. I have heard… the concept is well known.

METTA: But what surprised me was that Plekhanov used that word as if he was in a familiar setting where everybody must know surely what he was talking about. He took it for granted that we all knew that term, which really astonished me. It meant to me that somebody was doing a lot of homework about peace research. Does that square with anything you know?

TIRMAN: I think that the Soviets were avid consumers of Western literature of all kinds. I remember one incident… the first time I was in Moscow, someone mentioned to me that… I want to think of his name. His last name was Kapinsky. I think his first name was Sergei or something like that. He was a well known scientist in the arms industry, and he wrote a book on Star Wars. And he quoted a book that I had done.

METTA: Oh Kapitza. Sergei Kapitza?


METTA: I know him. I have interviewed him too.

TIRMAN: He had footnoted a book that I had done. Not on Star Wars, but an earlier book that I had done on militarization of high technology. And it was not a… it had a small loyal readership among people who had an interest in that topic, but it certainly was not anything that got a great deal of notice. I was amazed at the attentiveness to something like that. That just said to me that these people are reading everything that they could get their hands on.

METTA: Serious. Can you hold a second. I can smell my coffee-pot burning.

I decided to turn over my tape while I was up, so it took longer than I thought. Kapitza is the son of Peter Kapitza, who stood up to Stalin. Do you know that story?

TIRMAN: Yes, yes.

METTA: Yes. He used to write letters to Stalin telling him what to do and he survived it because he didn’t go public. You know, he stayed in Stalin’s graces. It’s amazing. Anyway, I’m sorry I distracted you.

TIRMAN: Well, that was just a little anecdote about how much attention they were giving to Western work and that in combination with lots and lots and lots of meetings with Westerners, I think, began to create a coterie of people who were more or less convinced that these were good ideas, a way to get… that the ones that realized that they could not stay in an arms race.

Basically, the sons and daughters of Prague Spring, believed in liberalization. This was a set of military ideas, military force structure ideas and so on that made a lot of sense to them, and they got the power. I mean, it’s like anywhere else. So that was very impressive. It was sort of unintentional, as far as I know, an unintentional effect of the peace research, which, as my way of thinking, was always aimed at the Western governments more than the East. Maybe the Europeans were taking Moscow into account more than we do here but, the fact that those ideas took hold there first and then reverberated back to the West is really quite astonishing.

METTA: It is. I think it’s so counter-intuitive that I don’t know very many peace-movement people who know that it’s true. And that’s the reason I find my project very interesting because nobody seems to know it, you know.

TIRMAN: Right, exactly.

METTA: Now you say you have spent time there talking to people like Kapitza?

TIRMAN: I have been there on two different occasions, basically foundation-related trips, and had the opportunity at various times to see people like Petrovsky over here, but I haven’t really personally researched this myself. I’ve been interested and I’ve always wanted to somehow demonstrate that this was the case because it’s an important historical dimension of the end of the Cold War that simply has not been given any attention, but I haven’t pursued it.

METTA: Now you say Mattison told you that he had been approached for your book. Can you remember anything more about that.

TIRMAN: Yeah, I have the… I really, really… What I recall was him saying that they were interested, that somebody that he knew, they had a Soviet project in those days.


TIRMAN: …and we supported that project from time-to-time and… You know, when he asked me this, I thought this is Lindsay just being Lindsay, you know, flattering his funders and what-not. But in any case, I do recall he said that there was somebody interested, they were thinking along these lines, they were interested in seeing what I had, because he knew what I was working on, and right then what I had.

METTA: Well he told me this guy’s name was Aksilenko, and that he was a high-level KGB guy, and he suggested that I try to call him and interview him, but when I did, the guy said, “No”, he didn’t want to talk to me and Lindsay told me that he had actually had a breakdown and had been hospitalized.

TIRMAN: Oh really.

METTA: Yes, because, you know, these guys were jumping out windows, and, you know, whatnot, people who felt that their lives had been in vain and Aksilenko was one of them. He felt so depressed that he was in a hospital. So he didn’t want to talk to me and I suppose he never will. I won’t try him again. But I would’ve asked him (if I’d dared), how he had been authorized or why and by whom he’d been authorized to pursue information, because Lindsay was told by him that he wanted, that anytime Lindsay could get his hands on anything having to do with unilateral initiatives, he should send that to them. So you were historic and didn’t know it.

TIRMAN: Well, I’m delighted.

METTA: That’s really nice. Did your book have anything to do with Soviet policies.

T; No, and I really, I regret not putting it more in that context, because, what I wish I had done now; it wouldn’t have been too difficult to do this is I should’ve written a book whose title was, “How to respond to Gorbachev”, and make it more set in contemporary events as people understand them. And then I would’ve needed to deal more with the Soviets themselves. I just looked at Soviet policy in terms of their own interest, would they respond to initiatives from the West, had they themselves made proposals for certain kinds of actions that the United States could agree to without formal negotiations and the like, you know, studying the history of the Test Ban and that sort of thing. They had, for example, the Soviets responded favourably, (I can’t remember exactly now how this is initiated)… the Soviets initiated the ASAT Testing Moratorium, which Congress essentially enacted by denying the Air Force the money to test ASATs as long as the Soviets continued to observe their own moratorium, which is in effect to this day. But now, there are all kinds of potential reasons why the Soviets did that. This is where you get into the possibility of many motives. They had a far inferior ASAT to ours, naturally, and the hard-nosed political analysts over here said, well of course, they could give up testing — that’s a stupid old system that wouldn’t work under the best of circumstances. We have a high-tech, computerized homing system, and so forth. But the fact is that they used this particular mechanism of restraint and looking for it to be reciprocated. It was reciprocated, and they continued to restrain and so did the United States, and that was that. And as a result, the result is that there are no anti-satellite weapons.

METTA: I’m trying to remember, there is… One of the people I should have got back to is Jo Rotblat, with PUGWASH of London, and he had told me a story, which I need to get on tape, and I think and it was about a guy named Milionshchikov, and I think it was with respect with ASAT. This is one of those cases where you could see somebody changing his mind right on the spot, being persuaded by a particular discussion, and then going home and doing something about it, and I think it was the ASAT decision that he was responsible for. So it would be very interesting to link both Western influence on that decision and the whole notion of unilateral initiatives — mutual. If I could do that…

TIRMAN: Right. Well I think that the Soviets came around, and they actually have a history of doing this. It was not just under Gorbachev. You could see it during the SALT I negotiations and the ABM treaty. Gromyko was dead set against restricting ABM systems. They were building a system around Moscow. They believed in ABM systems and they were adamant about not negotiating on ABMs. He was turned around on that issue and it started at the summit between Johnson and — Kosygin I guess — in New Jersey in 1967, and again, there was a process of education. I think it was conducted between scientists mainly, high level scientists, through Pugwash and other meetings, to educate the Soviets on why ABM systems were bad for strategic stability. So the Soviets changed their mind. It was a big deal for them to sign that set of accords. Of course, they were the first major arms control treaty of actual deployed weapons. So they did have a capacity all along to adapt when they saw that such adaptation was in their interests, and just in the interest of a more stable relationship.

METTA: But you say it was Gromyko who was individually affected?

TIRMAN: Well he was the foreign minister and he was pretty much running the show on arms control. Someone… I can’t remember if it was ever… somebody wrote about this. And it may have been that there was a particular person or two who sort of got to Kosygin from the American side and convinced him. It may have been… I’m just guessing now — I don’t know if this is true, but it may have been somebody like Hans Bethe or someone like that. I don’t remember. Paul Warnke would now.

METTA: Ever? You mean Jack Ever? You say somebody wrote about this, you can’t remember.

TIRMAN: Well, who wrote about it I don’t know. I can’t remember.

METTA: Okay. But you think Warnke would know?

TIRMAN: Well, he was in the Defence department at the time.

METTA: Interesting. Okay.

TIRMAN: It’s interesting to understand later Soviet behaviour, that these kind of changes in doctrine, radical changes and that was a radical change in doctrine. They were capable of doing this when they saw their interests were affected. It wasn’t just Gorbachev on the one hand and it wasn’t also just expediency. There were many, many of the cynics here in the 80s that were saying, “well, … they just want to ban them because they have a lousy one and we have a good one,” or they want to prevent an arms race in space, because they could see that we were getting way ahead of them, which may be true, but it can’t only be explained that way. There were precedents.

METTA: I interviewed General Milshtein, who was very active in Pugwash and everybody told me, “you’re going to like him,” and actually, he and I disliked each other intensely. I don’t know why but he just couldn’t stand me and it was really clear. He didn’t even try to hide it. But anyway, I asked him about the practice of unilateral initiatives rather than negotiation and was scathing. Basically, he said that they had given away the store, that he didn’t get enough in return, and that it wasn’t a good idea, and so on. I guess… well, he is also a military man who thought (now he’s dead) that Gorbachev didn’t know or care enough about the Army and you have to take care of your army if you want to be any good in this life. So I suppose it isn’t that unusual for army people to have the view that you have to do a hard game of negotiating.


METTA: Do you know of any other cases of people, particularly military people, who took that view?

TIRMAN: On the Soviet side?

METTA: On either side. I guess what I am asking is, ‘what sort of people bought your book, liked your book, and what kind of opposition did it inspire?’

TIRMAN: Well, I don’t think there was enough… there really wasn’t enough reaction to the book in general to gauge something like that. I had a very certain uneven review that appeared in “Foreign Affairs”, for example, that basically said that he didn’t know what to make of the book. And I had a very good review in the “Journal of Choice”, which is for educators. I got some individual comments: a guy in the state department read it and said that he liked it a lot and so on. But I don’t think that you could judge much by what happened with that particular book. It was not… in some ways I didn’t frame it correctly as I was discussing earlier. I should’ve put it terms of responding to Gorbachev, and it came out of the time when the interest of arms control was sort of plummeting because it looked like everything was going to be hunky-dory at sometime around the time the Berlin Wall was coming down. So it didn’t get enough notice to really gauge anything useful for your purposes. But I do think that there is a, among military people, I think that there is a very prevalent, certainly a strong strain of belief that negotiations can enhance a military position and that negotiations are part-and-parcel of what’s going on in the strategic environment and that they have to pay attention to them and of course, nobody was a better negotiator than the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They would negotiate with the President on anything. So they were very adept at it. And they basically would sink any negotiation just by going to Congress and saying it was dangerous. So they were very much involved.

METTA: Interesting. Well this has been good. And if any other associations get triggered in your mind.

TIRMAN: Now you are really working on the Russian side of things.

METTA: Yes. I don’t know anything about what goes on in Washington.

TIRMAN: And how they responded to overtures of [negotiations].

METTA: It’s actually broader than that. I started off with that as my theme and it just got to seem arrogant. We smart guys came and saved you stupid Russians and shouldn’t you be glad. So it became necessary to look also at important internal sources of critical thinking so I go back to oh, various kinds of dissidents, but also people within the P you know, and pressing in that direction whenever they got a chance. And little circles of people who were trying to be influential. I’m not just… I think it’s important actually, not to just focus on Western sources, but certainly half the book is going to be on the international peace movement and its relations to changing policies and how face-to-face interactions and networks, ideas moved through networks and so on. So it’s definitely broader than say, Cortwright’s approach, which definitely tries to pinpoint particular decisions and show how specific people or organizations lobbied and had some impact. I don’t do it that way.

TIRMAN: That’s a very useful book.

METTA: Hope so. It’s fun to do.

TIRMAN: What’s your schedule for it?

METTA: Well, if I weren’t doing three other books simultaneously, it m— I have to go back to teaching in September, and I want to have the thing done by then. But as I say, I’m doing other books as well and it’s a question whether I can get it done by September. I may, we’ll see. Anyway, you have been very helpful.

TIRMAN: I’ll look through my files sometime soon, if it jogs something that might be interesting to you, I’ll just send it along.

METTA: Terrific. Do you have my address?

TIRMAN: Yes I do.

METTA: Thanks very much. I really appreciate it. Okay.

TIRMAN: Nice talking to you.


The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books