At a used book sale, I happened upon a book by Richard Nixon, written in 1988, called 1999, about his thoughts on foreign policy and the situation on the Cold War, and how to remain vigilant against every incremental advantage our worthy adversary might take in a struggle with no end in sight.
1988. Gorbechev was on his last legs, of course. Domestically, he was trying to save his economy with Glasnostroika and Paranosk. Internationally he wanted the best deal he could get to get out from under the ruinous expenses of the Cold War and arms race. Of course he was practically surrendering the Cold War and the Communist project, and hard-liners were after him, but what could the despised, beleaguered old man do? Nothing but exit the stage after one concession too many, to become an elder statesman, and take his Nobel Peace Prize. He didn’t know that yet, of course, but surely it was clear he lacked confidence in the strength of communism and the legitimacy of Russia’s relationship with its satellites, and was just trying to stave off collapse. Right? Well, here’s Nixon:
“Gorbachev is a new kind of Soviet leader. Khrushchev tried to cover up Soviet weaknesses by bragging outrageously about Soviet superiority. Brezhnev knew that his nuclear forces were equal to ours, but he still talked defensively by constantly insisting that the Soviet Union and the United States were equals as world powers. Gorbachev is so confident of his strengths that he is not afraid to talk about his weaknesses.”
Nixon sees the same thing we do, but he doesn’t know how it ends, so he doesn’t interpret it the same way. Gorbachev’s apparent weakness only proves his strength, like at a job interview.
Moreover, “Gorbechev has supreme self-confidence, iron self-control, and a healthy degree of self-esteem.” He wasn’t born to be a doormat, the nice guy who finished last, apparently. “In the past forty years, I have had the opportunity to meet a number of great leaders—Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer…Gorbachev is in that league.”
We now see Gorbechev as practically complicit in the collapse of his empire and the Communist system, so conscious of their weaknesses that he gave up without a fight. Basically, we see Gorbechev the hardliners who perpetrated a coup against him saw him. I had always wondered how the Soviets folded so easily, or why there wasn’t a coup against Gorbechev long before. But it is clear that as late as 1988, it was possible to believe that his approach was a reform effort that would modernize the Soviet Union and make it a more dangerous opponent than ever. We see history backward, of course, so what looks to us like a period of movement toward our own era will have looked like nothing of the sort at the time.
“Since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power three years ago…there have been no signs that the Soviet Union has altered its international goals….Under Gorbachev the Soviet Union’s foreign policy has been more skillful and subtle than ever before. But it has been more aggressive, not less. If his dramatic domestic reforms are as successful, in the twenty-first century we will confront a more prosperous, productive Soviet Union.”
“He also knows that in the last fifteen years the Soviet Union has made significant gains. [Notes increased superiority in conventional power, achievement of superiority in land-based ICBMs, projection of power in Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America.] Whatever its other weaknesses, communism has proven to be an effective means for winning and keeping power. That experience serves to confirm Gorbachev’s ideological beliefs. While he knows that the Soviet Union must address great problems, he still believes it represents the wave of the future.”
So one could see the Soviets’ problems as just like those any state faced, and expect that the state would adapt and survive as most states do, most of the time. Nixon saw the same problems for the Soviets that we do in retrospect.
“[A]s [Gorbachev] surveys the international scene, he cannot be encouraged….
“As he looks to the west, he sees signs of political unrest in virtually every country of the Soviet bloc. [Notes the West’s revitalized commitment to defense over the last decade.]
“As he looks to the south, the threat is already at hand: The Soviet Union is mired in a war in Afghanistan with no prospect for a quick victory….
“When Gorbachev looks beyond the regions on his immediate frontiers, he finds all his communist clients in the Third World queuing up for handouts. They are not allies but dependencies….
“When Gorbachev looks at the battle of ideas, he sees that the communist ideology has lost its appeal. After a visit to the Soviet Union seventy years ago, a liberal newspaper reporter, Lincoln Steffens, wrote: ‘I have seen the future and it works.’ Now we have all seen that future and it does not work….In the 1950s, many noncommunists in the Third World admired the Soviet model of economic development. Today, no Third World government aspires to become a bureaucratic nightmare like the Soviet Union, with its jungles of red tape and its stagnant swamp of an economy. Today, Americans who have been convicted of spying for the Soviets did it for cold, hard cash.
“Moscow’s military power is its only asset. Great as that may be, military power cannot be sustained over the long term without matching economic power. [Gorbachev knows he needs to reform and boost economic growth.]”
So why speak of the accumulation of client states as among the Soviets’ “significant gains” in the last 15 years, if these client states are a drag rather than a strategic asset, and if the Afghan War is clearly wearing the Soviets down? Why should the Soviets’ military buildup be a strength if the arms race is crippling them, but not us? Doesn’t that fact, and the Soviets’ shaky legitimacy in East Europe, obviously trump everything in the big picture? Apparently, it isn’t obvious at the time.
As to Gorbechev’s ideology, many people like to say something like the following: “Oh, he was a committed Communist, you know? He wanted to reform the system so as to preserve it.” Well, he wanted the Communist Party to remain in power and the Soviet Union to remain strong. But is that an ideological commitment, or a commitment to the interests of the entities that he ran? I’ve seen film of him telling the Estonian leadership to keep their people in line- he is willing to discuss changes, but only within the “framework of socialism.” Well, what’s inherently non-socialist about Estonian independence? Basically, socialism means whatever the state wants it to mean, as in China today.
In that sense, one could say, like Nixon, that Gorbechev remained confident in the future of Communism, in that he thought a nominally Communist Party would retain power in the USSR and its satellites; he was obviously not confident in strictly Communist economics. Communism had proved itself to be “an effective means of winning and keeping power.” Yet much of that power was based on ideological strength, and on the ability of the Soviet state to force industrialization through central planning and devote that industrial strength to its purposes. By Gorbechev’s time, these things were no longer strengths at all. Catchup growth had stalled out completely, and people were no longer tolerating inferior living standards for whatever reason. Nixon sees that, but he doesn’t draw what in retrospect seem like clearly the right conclusions.