Commentary Magazine


The Giants: Russia and America, by Richard J. Barnet

Revisionism

The Giants: Russia and America.
by Richard J. Barnet.
Simon & Schuster. 190 pp. $8.95.

There are three things wrong with this book, which is both a product and an example of the revisionist school of the cold war. The first is the author’s image of the Soviet Union; the second, his perception of the United States; and the third, his idea of Soviet-American relations.

To begin with Mr. Barnet’s image of the Soviet Union, this may be summed up as that of an insecure, bumbling giant. The giant had a difficult childhood, and its traumas continue to bedevil him in adulthood; this is why he must continue to throw his weight around, to brag, and to pretend to be the strongest of all giants. But one would be wrong to take the aggressive rhetoric or the ideology behind the rhetoric too seriously, for in reality this giant is mature and responsible and anxious to preserve the status quo.

How does Mr. Barnet deal with facts that are difficult to square with this image? There are always, it turns out, special explanations. Thus, the Soviets only became involved in Angola because the circumstances were “irresistible” and it was “a special situation not likely to be repeated.” (Ethiopia, one supposes, is yet another such special situation.) The spread of Soviet control over Eastern Europe was a purely defensive measure. The Soviet Union showed commendable restraint in not giving all-out support to the Portuguese Communist party. There was nothing the Soviet Union could have done to discourage the Arabs from attacking Israel in 1973. The invasion of Czechoslovakia “symbolized Russia’s moral weakness, not its strength.” In other words, even where Soviet aggression may be acknowledged to exist, Mr. Barnet believes that it is to be treated gently and with understanding, approached in the spirit of the psychotherapist who is reluctant to judge actions of his patient which may have been induced by the underlying traumas of childhood.

As for the United States, it gets no such benefit of the doubt. America in Mr. Barnet’s view is stronger than the Soviet Union, more cohesive and stable, more warlike and hostile. Where Soviet aggression must be seen in context and treated with compassion, and hostile Soviet rhetoric, in particular, must never be taken seriously, “American ideological fervor” is a real threat to world peace and must be taken very seriously indeed.

The main differences Mr. Barnet sees between the Soviet Union and the U.S. are those which can be used to justify a more critical stance toward the United States; for the rest, he sees similarities—a growing convergence between the two nations. This convergence, he argues, has been brought about through the technological modernization of Soviet society, which has made it more and more “American,” and also by a growing similarity between the elites running the two countries, including a similarity between their misperceptions of one another’s society. It is these misperceptions which Mr. Barnet finds responsible for much of the hostility between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and it is these which he would like to see reduced in the interests of mutual reconciliation. He stops short of adopting the philosophy of the Citizens Exchange Corps—that if enough Russians and Americans discovered one another’s human essence over good food, drinks, and talk, the problems between the two countries would be practically eliminated. But he too seems to believe that personal contacts between elites are of utmost importance, and that greater weight should therefore be given to after-dinner and cocktail-party conversation than to what is printed in Pravda—a proposition which some other “experts” in Soviet-American relations also seem to regard as self-evident.

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While one can question both many of the specific points and the major arguments advanced here, the greatest liability of this volume is the author’s addiction to highly dubious and sometimes grotesque parallels between the two societies and their foreign policies. The book opens with the following statement: “Each player depends upon the other not to upset the table . . . each imputes to the other a master plan that tends to be a mirror image of its own.” And it continues in this vein throughout:

In the years of coexistence . . . what each society has produced, how each has spent its money, how much secrecy each has craved, and how each has treated the rest of the world have been substantially determined by what a roomful of men in the White House and Kremlin thought their counterparts were doing or were about to do. . . .

The one thing American politicians and Soviet politicians have usually agreed upon since the beginning of the cold war is that they are engaged in an ideological struggle. . . .

. . . the official eschatology in both Washington and Moscow still embraces the fantasy of mass conversion [of the other side]. . . .

And on and on. John Foster Dulles’s view of Communism was the “mirror image” of the Communist view of capitalism. If there were no free elections in Eastern Europe, neither were there any in the American South. The massive, orchestrated, all-embracing vilification of the U.S. by the Soviet Union is equated with the author’s recollection of “American comic-strip caricatures of the Soviet Union in this [cold-war] period. . . .” Academic institutions “in both countries” are at the service of the government and intelligence-gathering operations, and “scholars at the [Moscow] Institute for the Study of the United States are in much the same position as scholars at the Harvard Russian Research Center or at the Columbia Institute of Russian Studies.” And needless to say, “The military establishments on both sides subscribe to the same basic principles. . .” and “constitute a potent political force with which the political leadership must negotiate.” In short, Soviet-American relations during the cold war come down to “a history of mutually reinforcing misconceptions.” “The madness of one bureaucracy sustains the other.”

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In its refusal to concede that there are fundamental differences between the American and the Soviet systems and their foreign policies, this book is typical of a certain American mindset. But what explains the reluctance to confront such differences? Why the fascination with convergence theory and the relentless search for symmetry and “mirror images”?

I can think of several explanations. A major one is that if we can believe that the Russians are not so different from us, are in fact becoming more like us every day, then they also become less threatening. One can “understand” that Russians want cars, washing machines, suburban homes, and trips abroad, and one can therefore “understand” the mentality of a leadership which says it wants to provide them with such amenities but has to balance its domestic priorities against its foreign-policy objectives. The notion of convergence even succeeds in making such qualities as greed, corruption, and bumbling positively endearing, and somehow preferable to ideological purity, dedication, or adherence to principle.

There is also the persistent lure of a technological-economic determinism. Insofar as the Soviet Union has become a modern industrial society, it cannot be all that different from our own—or so the argument goes. Economic rationality presses for similar solutions to similar problems; the pursuit of efficiency is incompatible with ideological dogmatism. This idea is especially reassuring because of its apparently hard-nosed, quasi-scientific underpinnings: it is not wishful thinking, but merely an acknowledgment of how modern industrial societies must operate. So too with Mr. Barnet’s particular emphasis on the similarities of the two elites, which rests on the currently fashionable idea that in our times entrenched bureaucracies shape the course of international relations (bureaucratic determinism).

The belief in American-Soviet similarities also derives from a genuine difficulty which pragmatic people have in accepting that others take ideas and ideologies seriously. Surely, if American politicians running for office or trying to stay in office don’t mean what they say, can Soviet functionaries be different? The notion that their-elites-are-as-bad-as-our-elites is probably rooted in a generalized mistrust of those who hold power. As such it is certainly a healthy impulse. Yet it unfortunately obscures more than it illuminates.

The same applies to the “mirror-image” perspective which Mr. Barnet embraces so wholeheartedly, and which facilitates his explanations of the two countries’ behavior. The “mirror-image” perspective allows one to take a more “objective” view of Soviet-American relations: both systems may be seen to be at fault, for each has its own specific vices which mirror those of the other. We have McCarthyism and racism; they have Stalinism and the purges. We are obsessed with money and profit; they are obsessed with ideological conformity. Yet as with the notion of a growing similarity between the two societies, the policies or actions that are alleged to mirror one another turn out on closer inspection to have little in common.

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Mr. Barnet does have some reservations about the benefits of convergence; in fact he acknowledges that it may lead to greater Soviet assertiveness in international affairs. But he reaches this conclusion by arguing that the Soviet military bureaucracy has become a mirror image of the American and therefore more aggressive. This is entirely characteristic of the benign attitude he takes toward almost everything the Soviet Union says and does; of his pervading suspiciousness toward American policy-makers; and of his spurious attribution of symmetry to two highly dissimilar regimes. There must be better ways to pursue the possibilities of peace and international stability than through misreading the nature of both Soviet and American society.

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