Gorbachev & the U.S.
To the Editor:
Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., in “Gorbachev’s Cultural Revolution” [August], reminds us once again that our side has still to work out a coherent response to the “new thinking” in the Soviet Union. After a half-year of deliberation, the Bush administration emerged with a decision which would have been the envy of King Solomon, namely, neither to help nor to hinder perestroika—in other words, not to have a policy at all. Why did it take so long to reinvent American isolationism?
In a way, I sympathize with the administration’s predicament. American foreign policy is a notoriously blunt instrument, incapable of subtlety, and past attempts to implement a “sophisticated” policy have invariably ended in disaster (cf. the détente of the 1970′s), while “simplistic” policies—containment, for example—have brought a modest success. Hence the tendency to opt for a simple one-liner, which is hard to do in the present crisis.
But the current non-policy is hardly a solution, because the monumental drama unfolding in the Communist world is unlikely to leave America in the position of a mere spectator. As the massacre in Tiananmen Square shows, no one, least of all the American public, can maintain an attitude of benevolent neutrality in a world in agony. Besides, those who know what they want are bound to seize the initiative and to hijack East-West relations in its name. In short, the United States must define its interests, its goals, and the means of attaining them, otherwise it will stumble into a policy like a blind giant, only to find itself on what may be the wrong side of the conflict.
This brings me to the questions dealt with by Mr. Fairbanks: the dangers of the Soviet crisis, its possible course and outcome. Ironically, most of us who write on this subject seem – to agree on every point. We certainly agree that glasnost and perestroika mean different things for the Soviet leadership on the one hand and for the Soviet public on the other: while for the former they signal a change of policy, designed to save the system, for the latter they are an opportunity to change the system. Yet in spite of this consensus, we have still failed to work out clear-cut recommendations, or to start advocating them in a single voice. I am not a great proponent of conferences or symposia, but perhaps we could use a get-together of like-minded people for this purpose.
There is, in my view, a basis for a policy simple enough to be implemented even by existing mechanisms, yet sophisticated enough to grapple with the problem. After all, even George Bush, his non-policy notwithstanding, was obliged to voice his support for the opposition in Poland and Hungary in order to counter the Soviet “peace” offensive in Europe. There is simply no other adequate response to the stunning success of the “new thinking.” But why has the United States stopped short of developing a real policy along these lines? Why could the President not muster a single word with which to condemn the massacre in Tbilisi, or a word of sympathy for the Baltic people striving for their national independence? A trip to Eastern Europe, successful as it may be, is a poor substitute for a consistent policy of support for those forces in the Communist world that seek actively to dismantle socialism.
What could be more natural for America, with its deeply rooted sympathy for national independence, and its freedom-loving spirit, than to be on the side of those nations in the Soviet empire striving for independence? What could be more natural for the President than to adopt a policy with such a popular appeal? And yet no one in government seems to be willing to speak out loudly in such terms. Are they, are we, afraid of causing a conflict? But the conflict has already spent itself, after raging for a half-century and more. Are we afraid of causing bloodshed? But there will be bloodshed in any case, and American support for the democratic forces can only reduce the total amount. Nothing is bloodier than a chaotic clash between a disorganized crowd and a scared regime which has no one on the opposite side to negotiate with. By contrast, the stronger the opposition in the Communist world, the better it will be organized, the more authority it will exercise, and the less blood will be spilled—as we have seen in Poland. If only 1 percent of the astronomical sums donated by the West to Gorbachev—sums which at best will be wasted on saving socialism, at worst will be used against us—were invested in the opposition, we would be creating the chance for a relatively bloodless transition.
So, my one-line policy recommendation is: You want to see democracy in the Soviet Union? Support the democratic opposition!
To the Editor:
Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr.’s article is the most penetrating analysis I have yet seen of what Gorbachev is up to, and of the dangers and opportunities presented by the “terminal crisis” of the Soviet Union. Mr. Fairbanks rightly rejects as wishful thinking the common view of Gorbachev as a mere pragmatic reformer, emphasizing instead his titanic ambition and his unprecedented and potentially explosive mobilization of long-suppressed dissatisfactions within the Soviet system. The most interesting question left unanswered by Mr. Fairbanks’s excellent discussion is to what extent Gorbachev himself is aware of the seriousness of his own predicament. Does he not see that (in Mr. Fairbanks’s words) his “cultural revolution is . . . close to spinning out of control”? Or does he have such supreme confidence in his improvisatory abilities that he believes he can indefinitely sow the wind without reaping the whirlwind?
H. W. Johns
To the Editor:
In your August issue I read a brilliant and insightful article by Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., “Gorbachev’s Cultural Revolution.” As an analyst/commentator for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and someone who follows closely day-to-day developments in the Soviet Union as well as Western policy, I fully agree with the thoughts and conclusions of the article. An interview with the émigré writer Alexander Zinoviev, which appeared in a recent issue of Moscow News, also lends support to Mr. Fairbanks’s argument.
Washington, D. C.
Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr. writes:
I am pleased that Vladimir Bukovsky and Mihajlo Mihajlov, who know the reality of Communist politics better than I ever could, share my reading of the current situation, and I appreciate H.W. Johns’s thoughtful comments.
Mr. Johns poses the perplexing question of how Gorbachev understands his situation. It seems in retrospect that in the early 80′s it was widely felt within the Soviet ruling class that the system was moving toward a crisis, but that no one, including Gorbachev, understood the depth of popular anger against the system. There are certainly indications that some of Gorbachev’s supporters were astonished by the fearsomeness of the genie they called up. After all, these were members of an isolated and protected ruling class who customarily invoked ritualized versions of genuine popular feelings (such as Russian and non-Russian nationalisms) within a rigid political framework that contained the effects very neatly. They wanted to make the party political again without ever having experienced open politics.
Gorbachev, too, was surprised, but I suspect he has inwardly been more thrilled than disappointed. His Leninist training may have prepared him to face the unexpected side-effects of his mobilization campaign. Leninism emphasizes how often a disaster turns out to be an opportunity in disguise. When there have been no real dangers, Leninist politicians have created phony ones: Stalin began saying in 1928 that the USSR was about to be invaded; Gorbachev began claiming perestroïka was about to be reversed soon after he became General Secretary. Gorbachev the man is ready for this brand of politics. He is like a bird that enjoys flying straight into the thunderstorm. He thrives on disorder, struggle, risk, and danger. Gorbachev seems to have a supreme confidence that whatever develops, he will somehow be able to handle it. The rational basis for his confidence lies in his double position as leader of the opposition and head of state. In principle, the greater the discontent he looses, the farther his enemies are forced back and, at the same time, the more he is needed to cope with it. A brilliant formula, so far.
Like Mr. Bukovsky, I was surprised at our reaction to the Baltic autonomy movements and to the experiment in terror in Tbilisi. I agree with his powerful call for a policy of forthright support for the forces that seek actively to dismantle socialism. The Bush administration has a few quiet years to strengthen pro-Western forces in the world before the existing international order cracks and we are hit by the instabilities now being created every day. Instead the administration conveys a sense of drift.
Mr. Bukovsky convinces me that a well-organized opposition, like Solidarity, is likely not to increase the chances of bloodshed and instability but to reduce them. When we say, as the administration often does, that we want Gorbachev to go farther, without saying what we expect him to create or protect, we are (it is now apparent) encouraging a process of unraveling without an end point.
But it is not only the Bush administration that, as Mr. Bukovsky says, is rediscovering isolationism. The problem seems to me wider. From many of those who most successfully resisted Soviet power in the Reagan years, we are hearing a great deal about what we should not be giving to Gorbachev and the Eastern European governments and very little about what we should be giving to the freedom movements in those countries and about how we can help them win. I still think that this is the most serious and principled segment of the political debate, but principle can easily turn into a tendency to abstain from effort, abstain from spending and sacrifice, just as for our ancestors principle once meant abstaining from enjoyment.
It reminds one strangely of the time when we as a nation savored our moral principles with Jimmy Carter’s human-rights policy. I believe that the enthusiasts for that policy genuinely felt for the sufferings of the peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, yet what we were to do for them in practice seemed to come down to not giving their governments security assistance, not giving them loans, not having summits with their leaders. These recurrent patterns in American history ought to evoke in us real reflection.
Mr. Bukovsky reminds us of the contradiction between our listlessness toward the Soviet and Eastern European freedom movements and the universal outrage over the Tiananmen Square massacre. This unanimity was a surprise; the voices in favor of the Chinese dictatorship on the grounds that it had brought equality and “justice” have been, for now, silenced, as well as the voices of those who took pride in realpolitik. But the contradiction remains: we condemn Communism but do little for freedom. And this too is reminiscent of the 19th century, when Americans were wild about Kossuth and his revolt against the Austrian empire but stayed on our side of the water. Then we had good excuses: we had our own evil, slavery, to cope with, and an open frontier. We had a continent to mold. Now everything has been done and the world seems to have grown old. We may feel that we are at the end of history. But just at this moment the future opens up again. In the Soviet bloc a cruel system of power is decaying and will be replaced—by what? It is the last frontier.