Interview with Robert Neild, 1994 by phone.
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Neild: I would like to see any bits that you want to use.
MS: Okay. I will send you the transcript. Can you tell me about your influence on Soviet policy.
Neild: I can tell you what we did. What influence it had I can’t tell you. Ony somebody within the Soviet system can tell you.I don’t know what other people were saying, and whether they would have got there themselves.
I was originally the first director of SIPRI and in those days I believed that disarmament will come about through negotiation. The chief contribution one could make at SIPRI then was to provide a better flow of information about what was going on in the arms race. I had the idea of starting the yearbook because there was incredibly little information available. What was released was what governments chose to release. And one hoped that by making politicians and diplomats better informed one might contribute to the debate. Later I came to doubt ( I wrote a book about it, An Essay on Strategy) whether negotiations were a way of stopping an arms race because they implied that you could get balance in arms. They operated on the criterion that balance was necessary. So long as you do that, you are in an almost hopeless game. You can’t tell what balance is because weapons are unmeasurable. You always think the other side has got more andyou are always negotiating to avoid inferiority. It was in disillusionment with the pursuit of balance that I met up with Anders Boserup, a Dane. It was he who got me interested in the ideas on defensive defence. A German, Horst Afheldt was deep into the subject. Anders and I started to write a book about the pure theory of strategy, and the logic of why to go defensive was the way to get out of an arms race because balance ceases to matter. You know the argument.
MS: Yes, I learned it from him.
Neild: Yes. We worked on it quite a lot. At Pugwash we met Russians quite a bit. And also there was Albrecht von Mueller, who became excited about the same idea. A German. The main important contact with the Russians came in, Gosh, which year was it that Gorbachev had his Nuclear Forum? The beginning of 87, I think.
MS: I don’t remember the date.
NEild: I could check that. A multitude of Westerners were invited. There were 7 gatherings. One of scientists, one of international relations, another of writers, and so on. It was a most extraordinary party. I went ahead early with Anders because in Pugwash we had been trying to put across our ideas on defensive defence to the Russians but we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere because the people coming to Pugwash did not seem to be connected to the policy-makers in any serious way. So we went ahead a day early and I arranged to see Arbatov Senior
MS: I know the father, not the son.
NEild: When we went to see him a day or two later I think Albrecht von Mueller was with us. We said to him, look, Gorbachev wants to get out of the arms race. The way to do it is to change your strategy and go defensive. I explained why, and that we had been working at this and trying to get it across through Pugwash, that we felt we were getting nowhere and what should we do? Whereupon Arbatov said, don’t think we’re not listening. We’re very much interested and it is very important. And two things happened. One was, we said, what should we do? Should we work through the Pugwash working group? He said, no, forget about Pugwash. For various institutional reasons that’s not the best way forward. Why don’t you and Anders, bring one or two other people with you, come back to Moscow soon as a small group, and come and talk to us. So they agreed to pay all our local costs. It was then arranged that I and Anders, Albrecht von Mueller, an American, and a Dutchman, that the five of us should go to Moscow.
MS: Was that Dutchman Von Eeghen?
Neild: No. I can probably find all this from papers. We spent a number of days at meetings. Arbatov himself didn’t deal with it so much. The chap who did was Andrei Kokoshin. Do you know him?
MS: Yes, but I never interviewed him. He got promoted too fast for me.
Neild: He is very bright and is now the Deputy Minister of Defence. And then there was Alexander Konovalov, a very earnest good guy working with him who was producing models of defensive defence. Very keen on it too. Also at Arbatov’s institute. People came from IMEMO, the Central Committee, and so on.
MS: If you can get the name of the guy from the USA Canada institute, I’d be grateful.
Neild: Hold on. Ah. February 1987 is the original meeting, the Nuclear Forum. Frank von Hippel was the American. And the Dutchman was Egbert Boeker.
The visit started on May 18. The people besides Anders, Albrecht von Mueller and me were Boeker, Andreas von Bulow, and von Hippel, I think.That was the group. On the Soviet side, Alexander Konovalov, Kokoshin, Bykov (who was deputy director of IMEMO), Selin, Sobokin (from the Central Committee). Konovalov was the man whose name I was seaking earlier who did a lot of work on defensive models.
And then there was a Pugwash meeting in 87 or 88 and after that we were in Moscow again and had further talks. By the time of, one of those meeting, I remember, that they had already adopted the policy of reasonable sufficiency. It had been proclaimed Soviet policy. We said, what does it mean? That you should have enough to defend yourself or what? And they hedged a little,though they were pretty open. I remember saying, look, I think I understand this. You’ve obviously had to strike a compromise in an argument with your military and you’ve struck on some ambiguous word (which one always does in politics). And one of them said, “Ah, Mr. Neild. You understand the world very well.” They had been having a fight with their military over it.
MS: There was an important piece that had been written a little earlier by Zhurkin, Karaganov and Kortunov on reasonable sufficiency. That language had already been promoted.
Neild: I don’t remember when. I found a paper here. The Pugwash meeting was in August 1988 at Dagomys. Other people who had been very important in our Pugwash meetings, where the Russians hadn’t been very important, were the Eastern Europeans. The Hungarians, Poles were very much in on defense strategy. They may have been pushing it, and probably were, through the Warsaw Pact.
MS: Interesting angle.
Neild: How far they got I do not know but there was a chap called Deak from Hungary and a military man from there and the Pole, Andrei Kokoshka, was quite keen on it all. So there were various things going on. But what I remember was staying on alone a day or two to see a lovely old man at the Soviet foreign office. He was high up in their planning department; he had been ambassador in Denmark.
MS: Yes. It starts with an M. Mendelevich?
Neild: Yeah. You know him?
MS: No, I didn’t know him personally but I interviewed Dragsdahl, who was a Danish journalist who told me about him.
Neild: Anders had sold him his ideas back in Denmark and they had become good friends. Anders and I went to see him on the first visit, I think. I was in Moscow three times: once at the nuclear forum, once on the visit of the small group organized at the invitation of Arbatov in May, 1987, then after the Pugwash meeting the following autumn. So, Mendelevich, he’s dead now.I’ve got his card here. Director of Evaluations and Planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Isokovich, Mendelevich. When I was there on my own I remember going to see him. He was there with several of his young men and we had very very free conversations about how to advance in the Gorbachev era. It was wonderful. But I remember him in particular a propos the meaning of reasonable sufficiency, I said, “You really need to define this and sort it out because the West doesn’t understand it. I see you’ve got a compromise, but what can be done about it?” He then made the suggestion that we (the small group) write to Gorbachev and ask what it meant, and let him and Arbatov know when we were writing. I was clear what he meant: you send Gorbachev a letter. Let Arbatov and me know when you send it, and we will draft an answer and get an answer saying it means only defensive sufficiency. So we went in for a curious exercise that in the end changed shape a bit.
Albrecht von Mueller got involved in Germany. The letter turned into, not just a letter asking that question, but rather laying out a scheme as to what would be the right level and pattern of forces. Anyhow, in the end we wrote and we got back a letter from Gorbachev. It was an interesting, strange experience. So one’s involvement was quite strange. They were using us to get ideas with which to fight an internal battle, quite clearly. And on this occasion, we seemed to be providing ammunition for the battle.
MS: Do you have anything about the proposals that von Mueller, were his suggestions reflected in the kind of answers you got back?
Neild: They were commonplace suggestions that we had all been kicking around — Konovalov and all. So there was nothing special about them. I was a bit skeptical about trying to pack so much into one letter, but my colleagues and our Soviet friends thought it was best to do it that way. I may be able to find the papers now. Hold on. Ah! It ended up saying we are a group of scientists who have been working on reduction of tensions…
MS: You are reading the one—
Neild: It is the one to Gorbachev signed by Boserup, Neild, von Hippel, and von Mueller and it is not saying, what do you mean by reasonable sufficiency? It is opening it up wider. I can send you copies.
Neild: And then an outline of what was meant, how much of each. Where is his answer? I must have a copy. Here we are. I’ll send you copies. There seems to be a page missing but I have a complete Russian script. You can get somebody to translate it. And in August 87 I wrote to the others describing my visit and Mendelevich’s suggestion to write Gorbachev.
But to know what the effects were on Russian policies is quite another matter. I should think that Kokoshin and Arbatov might have a view.
MS: I interviewed Arbatov, who said there had been influences. He was rather general. I spoke to Rogov — who was head of a commission for the Russian government to revise military doctrine. I think he was a shooting star, came up very quickly. But he had said that this particular issue was very important in influencing policy. The defensive defence. I do have people saying this. I wish that Arbatov had been a little more specific.
Neild: I think the short answer is that these ideas were brewed up in a lot of places but that Germany was very important. Horst Afheldt was extremely important.
MS: Should I contact him?
Neild: I don’t know how to reach him. If you ask von Mueller I don’t think you’ll get an answer. There is a lot of jealousy, or was — I mean, Albrecht is a splendid chap…
(tape runs out here. There is a gap.)
Quite a lot of this is set out in a book that I wrote called An Essay on Strategy, published by Macmillan, 1990. It deals with the arguments.
MS: You didn’t complete the book that you and Boserup had begun together?
Neild: This is it really. I carried on with it alone. The difficulty with Anders was that he was such a perfectionist that we could never agree. He was always wanting to work on it further. Maybe rightly. He thought that my approach was too simplistic. So in a very friendly way he asked me to go on my own. And then he died. Tragic. We didn’t disagree on any major point. I stated my debt to him because half the book was his or more. It will give you a clear, simple statement of the ideas and what was going on at that time.
MS: I interviewed Egon Bahr. People in Moscow said that he had been influential. Arbatov had known him on the Palme Commission. Afterwards when I read the transcript it sounded to me as if his whole notion of common security is nothing different than mutual assured destruction.
Neild: I know nothing. Bahr was very good in promoting ostpolitik and being friendly. Common security, like reasonable sufficiency, always seemed to me to be pretty ambiguous. It meant you should disarm, not threaten each other, but I don’t think it had the notion of defensive defense in it at all. They hoped to get there by negotiation, which seemed to me a dead-end.
MS: He told me, I wrote a paper and I left it on my desk for a month and couldn’t find anything wrong, so I ran it past von Wiesecker. He said that as long as you have nuclear weapons you are de facto in a situation of common security, since each side depends on the other.
Neild: That is a proposition from nuclear strategy, yes.
MS: He deduced from this that you could start by destroying your conventional weapons (which I think makes sense, you could do that, I guess) because you always have the ultimate reality of common security as long as you have nuclear weapons. He takes this and gives it to Arbatov, who passes it on. The first time he meets Gorbachev, Gorbachev tells him this particular theory. He said, it was my own words exactly. I asked Arbatov and he said he had explained it and he had assimilated it so well that he really thought it was his idea. As I understand the idea, I’m not sure how it has anything different from mutual assured destruction — that as long as you have nuclear weapons you are safe.
Neild: I absolutely agree. And I can cast no light on it except that the vanity of politicians is infinite.
MS: I know him only by phone.
Neild: I haven’t a clue what that’s about.
MS: The Russians told me that he was very influential.
Neild: I think he was in ostpolitik, but whether he was in respect of strategy, I do not know. You ought to re-read the Palme Report. What happened in the end was that Gorbachev said he wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons, not that they are lovely. It sounds odd to me.
MS: I also interviewed Valentin Falin, who is working at Bahr’s institute.
Neild: I think I met him. He knows a lot about Germany.
MS: He was connected with Bahr, although I don’t know that they thought along the same lines at all. Karstein Voight’s name was also mentioned as instrumental, and when I mentioned Voight’s name in the same breath as Bahr’s, Falin said they are not at all alike. I need to find out the differences.
Neild: Who is he?
MS: With the Social Democratic Party in Germany. We had an MBFR conference here 7 or 8 years ago and was one of the speakers. But how they differ I don’t know.
Neild: I don’t know. Each group will often adopt one approach to a problem. Our group got involved with defensive defence; other chaps went off and got involved with common security. They no doubt feel that what happened in the ending of the arms race was the achievement of common security. I feel it was something pretty different— it was the cessation of negotiation on the old ideas around balance and the recognition by the Soviet Union that you need, so far as possible, to be defensive not offensive. The change in strategy was the absolute key to what happened. Gorbachev said, all right, I’ll give everything away that’s excessive. I don’t want it. Negotiation ceased because he gave everything away.
MS: Those unilateral initiatives on his part was evidently a policy. I spoke to Petrovsky, who said that it had been a decision that they had undertaken. NOt everybody liked it. Milshtein thought Gorbachev had given everything away and should have tried to get something for what he gave away.
Neild: That’s interesting. I’m not surprised, but I didn’t know that it was the plan. Now what am I going to send you? Papers about our first meeting.
MS: The stuff around the letter to Gorbachev. And what did you say went on at Dagomys?
Neild: I can’t remember the technical nature of the discussions, but I remember more the extent to which one talked to Arbatov. Arbatov was extraordinarily friendly to Anders and me.We dined with him every night. And who else? I think Kokoshin was there but I can’t remember who else. Senior guys. Extraordinarily friendly to Anders and me. We had a little competition over who bought the bottle of vodka each night.
MS: All the people who have stories to tell, about 90% of them go through Arbatov. That man must have been a broker of peace ideas like nothing in this world! He is very modest. I asked him about his role and he said it is not for me to say what my role in history is. Everybody goes through Arbatov or Petrovsky.
Neild: I would agree very much about Arbatov being very important. What impressed me was that when we went early to this 1987 gathering in Moscow, saying, why don’t you pay attention to defensive defence? Arbatov appeared to know exactly what was going on and took the initiative, saying let’s arrange to have you come immediately back, you guys who have some ideas, and let’s pick your brains. He was very well plugged in! And certainly he obviously was keen on these ideas they were afloat already and keen to use us to help them forward. So I gave him very good marks for being receptive to our ideas and being very well plugged in. He was excellent. I had known him from my days at SIPRI. I was at SIPRI from 67 to 71 and I used to go to Moscow about once a year and I would usually go see him.
Please, before you quote anything let me see it.
MS: I’ll send you a transcript. Thank you. Bye.