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This month marks the 20th anniversary of the 1989 revolutions that ended communist rule in Eastern Europe. Two decades later, analysts are debating where the momentum for these events came from, how anticommunist movements played out in individual countries, and how to manage the post-Cold War relationship between the United States and Russia. We are pleased to bring you these select articles from the Foreign Affairs archives that recapture how those momentous events appeared in real time.
"The Revolution in Soviet Foreign Policy." By Robert Legvold. Foreign Affairs 68, no. 1 (1988/89): pp. 82-89.
"Gorbachev's Nationalities Problem." By Gail W. Lapidus. Foreign Affairs 68, no. 4 (1989): pp. 92-108.
"The Collapse of Soviet Power in Europe." By Coit D. Blacker. Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1990/91): 88-102.
"U.S.-Soviet Relations: The Threshold of a New Era." By Arnold L. Horelick. Foreign Affairs 69, no. 1 (1989/90): pp. 51-69.
By the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had drastically reformed Soviet foreign policy by turning away from the old notion of socialist internationalism to a new principle of noninterference in the politics of satellite countries. Robert Legvold explained the switch as a product of both the Soviets' worsening economic situation and Gorbachev's new security calculus: not only was the existing policy enormously costly, but it also dragged the Soviet Union into dangerous and unnecessary standoffs with the West. Legvold noted that Gorbachev's reforms left Eastern European regimes "alone to solve their own problems and make their own mistakes." Gail Lapidus, writing just a few months before the revolutions, examined the unintended consequences of Gorbachev's noninterference policy. By abandoning socialist internationalism, she wrote, the Soviet leaders had lost the one force that had kept ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe at bay. With that gone, the Soviet leadership would have a difficult time keeping its satellites in order. Coit Blacker, for his part, wrote that, while Gorbachev's decisions may have indeed been his own undoing, his calculus may not have been all wrong. A Soviet Union less threatening to the United States, Blacker noted, would stand a better chance of "attaining a more secure place in Europe." Arnold Horelick argued that Gorbachev's policy changes had a positive impact on U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union throughout 1989 and beyond.
"The Springtime of Nations." By Michael Howard. Foreign Affairs 69, no. 1 (1989/90): pp. 17-32.
"Poland: The Demise of Communism." By Abraham Brumberg. Foreign Affairs 69, no. 1 (1989/90): pp. 70-88.
"A United Germany." By Ronald D. Asmus. Foreign Affairs 69, no. 2 (1990): pp. 63-76.
In addition to publishing articles on Soviet decision-making Foreign Affairs covered the revolutions on the ground. In a sweeping overview of events across Eastern Europe, Michael Howard finds some parallels between 1989, 1789, and 1848 and questioned whether 1989's springtime of nations would be followed by the same cycle of anarchy and repression as the others. In a case study of Poland's liberation from Soviet rule, Abraham Brumberg traced the evolution of Poland's Solidarity movement from a trade union to a national ruling party. He wrote that Solidarity's victory over Soviet communism was total but that it faced several problems in trying to rule Poland: an economic crisis, a demographic crisis, and a lack of a clear identity. In East Germany, the question was less about the viability of a liberation movement and more about whether, when, and how quickly Germany should be reunified. Though both the Soviet Union and the United States had an interest in a slow reunification, that was no longer an option after the fall of the Berlin Wall, noted Ronald Asmus. With a quick reunification all but ensured, the world would have to contend with a Germany that had "outgrown the framework, restrictions and low-profile role it eagerly accepted in the early postwar period."
"Communism in Russian History." By George F. Kennan. Foreign Affairs 69, no. 5 (1990/91): pp. 168-186.
"The Soviet Union Adrift." By Richard Pipes. Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1990/91): pp. 70-87.
"Toward the Post-Cold War World." By John Lewis Gaddis. Foreign Affairs 70, no. 2 (1991): pp. 102-122.
As 1989's dust began to settle, the status of the Soviet Union itself remained unclear. It would be tempting, wrote George Kennan in 1990, to assume that Russia's 70-year communist interregnum was only a temporary interruption in its development, which would now resume. But the ravages of the past seven decades were too profound for Russia return to normalcy any-time soon. It would be up to the United States to provide aid, understanding, and a positive example to bring Russia and a reformed Soviet Union back on track. But where Kennan saw despair, Richard Pipes saw resurgent Russian nationalism among a population that felt it would be better off on its own, without the less economically productive Soviet satellites. There was little chance that the Soviet Union would be able to last in the long run, he foresaw, with forces both within Russia and without pulling it apart. Writing just months before the Soviet Union did finally dissolve, John Lewis Gaddis declared the Cold War over. The United States would have no great rival in the future, he predicted. But it would have to find the balance between the forces of integration (NATO, the European Community, the UN) and the forces of fragmentation (nationalism, protectionism, fundamentalism) that would challenge national sovereignty in the coming decades.