Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
A BRITISH VIEW
CIVIL war on the mainland of Asia, in a small country with a tradition of disorder and yet with a millennial record of persistent national identity, has mushroomed into the biggest politico-military issue of the times, comparable to the Arab-Israeli conflict in outside repercussions but far exceeding it in scale of operations. Exceeding it also in complexity. In the Middle East the issues are relatively simple and plain to see. In Viet Nam they are blurred. In the South the fighting is not even recognized as civil war but viewed as insurgency aggravated by intervention from the North.
Putting aside such questions as whether the war will go away when foreign forces go away, the prospects for Vietnamese non-communists and anti- communists, the effects on the morale of the American armed forces and of those of allies, how communists might exploit American defeat, and the verdict of the future, the problem remains: how is the United States to extricate itself? Plainly not after armistice and agreed settlement. Equally not as a disorderly rout. Fighting will slow down-though from time to time with renewed eruptions-but is unlikely to stop for a long time to come. The conclusion seems inescapable that there will be an American military presence in Viet Nam for much longer than advocates of immediate and complete withdrawal are clamoring for. In prosecuting the war the United States was militarily handicapped by inability to deploy the whole range of its armory. In extricating itself from the war it is militarily handicapped by the need to leave some military elements behind.
In battle and in negotiation the objective of the North Vietnamese and of the Viet Cong is political control. Since the death of Ho Chi Minh they can afford to wait a little longer. They do not now feel the same urgency to translate Ho's vision into reality in his lifetime. Moreover, they see the political and military outlook as promising. While it is in their interest to keep up the pressure because they want to see complete and unconditional foreign withdrawal in circumstances of political confusion in the South, there is no purpose to be served by shedding too much blood to win what they expect to win anyway.
Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese can afford to devote more of their effort to reconstruction in the North and to Laos. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the Thais had failed to protect Lao territories from Chinese marauders, the French invoked an old claim that all land east of the Mekong belonged to Viet Nam. Intervention led to the inclusion of Laos within the administrative framework of the Indochinese Union, In training the tribesmen in Laos and in supporting revolt there, the North Vietnamese may have more in mind than supply routes to the South.
There is little reason to suppose that Russia will exert political pressure on North Viet Nam, in the form of reduction of supplies and denial of facilities, to persuade it to do what South Viet Nam and its allies have failed to achieve through military and economic pressures-persuade it to moderate its aims and accept a mutually tolerable settlement.
Some new ideas are slowly permeating the minds of the rulers of the Soviet Union, There is some readiness to compromise on aspects of arms control and limitation. In managing the economy they are discovering parallels with the experience of large-scale industry in capitalist countries. Fervent party loyalty is not enough. There must be a high degree of expertise, some measure of autonomy, even the competitive spirit and the profit motive. As in the development of rockets and nuclear weapons, seen by them to be necessary for their security, the navy may likewise have, at first, grown out of defense needs. It was significant that early ships were modeled on those that would have been useful in the last war. The modern Russian navy has long outgrown this early mistake and seems now to herald an active thrusting policy of expansion of Soviet influence far afield.
By and large, however, the impression persists that Soviet political leaders-as distinct from managers of the economy and military strategists- are as old-fashioned, suspicious and doctrinaire as ever. Incipient liberalism and threats to the established order are suppressed ruthlessly. They have no monopoly of prejudice and intolerance-only more than their share. In doctrinal interpretation their reasoning is sometimes as tortuous as any in medieval theological disputations.
Many throughout the non-communist world, anxious over implications that the United States and the Soviet Union might become involved on opposing sides in the Viet Nam war, have been hoping that the two would work together to smooth the way to settlement in Viet Nam and to lessen the risk of their direct confrontation. However, it is clear that the Soviet Union is not exerting its maximum influence in Hanoi. Cessation of American attacks on the North has relieved the main Russian anxiety, that the war might escalate. With communist victory seemingly in the offing, the Soviets may calculate that this is not the moment to risk a rebuff from Hanoi by counseling compromise unless they see some important advantage to themselves in some other connection, such as American coöperation in reopening the Suez Canal. Besides, there is no particular reason why they should work too actively to bring to an end a campaign that is costly to the United States in men, money and prestige but no longer endangers Soviet security.
Russian policy in Southeast Asia as a whole is to gain influence in any country which can be helped to become anti-Chinese and which one day might help to form an anti-Chinese association. At present Moscow is pursuing this policy not by helping local communist parties but by getting onto amicable terms with governments, whatever their complexion, through cultural agreements, expansion of civil aviation and merchant shipping, trade and other normal activities of bourgeois powers. In the case of North Viet Nam these tactics are not wholly applicable. In the long run, relations between China and Viet Nam are unlikely to be cordial even if both are communist-controlled. In the short run, North Viet Nam cannot afford to be anti-Chinese. The Russians have no option but to recognize this.
In most wars, distance lends detachment. Close neighbors watch the fighting and await the outcome with far greater anxiety than those far away. The Viet Nam war is an exception. The equanimity with which countries in Southeast Asia have regarded it is in remarkable contrast to the passions roused not only in combatant countries, but in distant places not directly involved, like Britain. The attitude of, for example, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and even India and Indonesia, has usually been interpreted as due to fear of communism or of China or of both, and therefore willingness to see an American military barrier placed between them and China. Moreover, some in Southeast Asia have benefited from American offshore purchases- particularly Japan and Hong Kong.
There may be more to it than this. Southeast Asia seems to be taking the prospect of American withdrawal as placidly as it did the prospect of indefinite American involvement There is a much simpler explanation than the sophisticated theorizing popular in the West: the nations of Southeast Asia are intensely preoccupied with their own internal affairs. No comparable collection of neighboring countries anywhere in the world exhibits such astonishing diversity of cultures, races and traditions or such wealth of natural resources that from time immemorial have attracted the attention of traders and adventurers from poorer lands-China, Japan, India, Arabia and those in Europe. With the single exception of Thailand, all have only recently achieved independence after colonial status.
Russia will probably succeed in gaining acceptance as a trading partner. She is unlikely to succeed in attempts to sponsor a Southeast Asian association. Only the peoples of Southeast Asia themselves can do this, and for a long time to come they will be handicapped by their differences. For the next decade or so the outlook is turbulent. Fighting in Viet Nam is unlikely to escalate into war between the United States and China-thereby relieving the main Russian anxiety-but it is likely to continue and to spread, in Laos, perhaps to Cambodia and northern Thailand. If new alliances are formed in the area, they are more likely to be based on religion than on awareness of common interests as members of the same geographical region. The most astute politicians in the area, the Thais, skilled diplomats and well versed in international affairs, may set out to develop closer relations with their Buddhist neighbors, Burma and Cambodia, as well as with their kinsmen, the Laos.
There are some signs of reappraisal of policy in China, though not yet of the Chinese attitude to the Viet Nam war.
One assumption about China's external policy can be made with some confidence because it flows from her traditional search for security: she will not readily abandon her objectives in Viet Nam. These are first and foremost the withdrawal of foreign forces to allay her fears of encirclement, and the establishment there of a government friendly to her and not to the Soviet Union, A Vietnamese communist party ideologically associated with the Soviet Communist Party represents a threat almost as serious, though in a different way, as an American military base. Economically, freedom of transit across North Viet Nam would improve access to Yunnan and to Kwangsi. There is no question of Peking suddenly abandoning these aims or her present policy of helping and encouraging the North Vietnamese. Side by side with that policy, however, she is likely to try to lessen her diplomatic isolation from the outside world.
One result is that Taiwan will probably become once more a live issue. A decade or so ago, representation at the United Nations was seen in Peking as desirable for one reason only, to discredit the Nationalists. Today this is no doubt still in the minds of Chinese leaders, but there are some indications that they now see other values for them in a seat at the Security Council. It would give them a more effective voice in world affairs, now that they can no longer count on the Soviet Union to speak for them. Any such bid depends for success on recognition of the government in Peking instead of that in Taiwan by enough members to make the issue turn on credentials, not on admission as a new member. This would be an important step forward for Peking. From the point of view of the United Nations as an institution, it would become more representative of the world community, though it would not necessarily make that community more harmonious or the institution more effective.
A question mark has hung over the future of Taiwan for the past twenty years. It is much too early to consider a final answer, which in any case will be a matter for the two Chinese governments to decide for themselves. However, others are entitled to say, and in their own interests must say, that while ready to accept the verdict of the Chinese themselves it must not be a verdict reached as the result of fighting which might threaten general security or plunge East Asia back into another war. The only way out of this dilemma, as of so many other international problems, is to proceed step by step to explore temporary solutions without presuming to dictate the final result. If the Mainland and Taiwanese governments agree to rule out the use of force against one another, there is no great difficulty about devising a formula which would facilitate contacts between them and Taiwan's continued membership in the United Nations, even if the Security Council seat were occupied by a nominee of Peking and even if neither formally recognized the independent existence of the other. West German gestures toward East Germany may be instructive in the context of Taiwan. But if neither the Mainland nor Taiwan agrees to renounce force against the other, the present stalemate will continue, to the detriment of both and especially that of Peking. Obduracy in respect of Taiwan will serve to perpetuate China's diplomatic isolation.
Policy is a mixture of strategy and tactics. Because the latter change often with bewildering rapidity in response to changing circumstances, it sometimes seems as though policy is in a state of perpetual flux.
China is a country where the basic elements have not changed despite major changes of tactics. Her aims are little different from what they were fifty or a hundred years ago-unity, self-sufficiency, security. The new collective leadership in Peking will not, indeed cannot, change these. They may, however, adopt a new approach in dealing with the internal situation inherited from Mao. Because in all countries foreign policy is a reflection and extension of domestic policy, it follows that there may also be a new approach in dealings with others. China's most pressing need at the moment is time to deal with the situation at home without outside interference. A less provocative note is likely to manifest itself in her contacts with the outside world, even with the United States.
When he came to power twenty years ago, Mao Tse-tung set out to consolidate the authority of the central government, to modernize agricultural industry and defense, and to colonize empty spaces in the far northwest. He set out, too, to remold men's minds as well as their environment. There has been nothing in Chinese history since the Analects of Confucius to be compared with the influence of the Thoughts of Mao Tse-tung.
This Herculean task has proved impossible of fulfillment in his lifetime. As Mao fades from the scene, the weaknesses inherent in a long continuity of authoritarian rule under one man become apparent. Though many of his achievements will endure, he has created rifts from which China will take years to recover. Size is to be taken into account in determining forms of government. Concentration of power at the center may yet prove inappropriate for the Soviet Union, just as control from the capital does not work well in India or in Indonesia. Homogeneous though she is, China may yet prove too big to be administered under a highly centralized form of government. Provincial autonomy or some degree of devolution of authority may return. Either would be anathema to orthodox communists.
Some elements of Chinese policy now appear to be going into the melting pot. For the sake of internal stability, the pressing need, there will have to be less emphasis on revival of revolutionary zeal-a prime cause of the present rifts-and more on efficiency in agriculture, industry and transport; on rebuilding the shattered educational system; on administrative reform and on provincial and local initiative and responsibility.
Internal evidence that this is to be the trend in China is as yet barely detectable. In dealings with the outside world, however, there is a new note of conciliation in public pronouncements about the Soviet Union, suggesting that after all, despite violent frontier clashes a few months ago and despite deep differences of opinion, peaceful coexistence is possible. The appeal Ho Chi Minh made in his will for world communist unity is eloquent confirmation of the depth of these differences from a man in a unique position to know both Chinese and Russian standpoints. But in addition to quasi-theological quarrels, there are questions of land settlement and of frontier demarcation, Chinese resentment of economic disparities, and rivalry between the two for the allegiance of other communists.
Sooner or later, fighting between the two is inevitable. China now appears to have recognized the folly of precipitating it. For its part, the Soviet Union must also tread warily, although there has been some loose talk of "taking out" Chinese nuclear installations while this is still, militarily, relatively easy. Whether this talk emanated from impatient young officers or was deliberately spread about by the authorities as a warning to China, it is certain that in the aftermath of a quick blow Russia would have to maintain large forces indefinitely on the frontiers with China, with harmful effects for the economy and for defense dispositions elsewhere. A more extensive campaign against China would probably prove inconclusive and might well escalate, with repercussions at home and in Eastern Europe. There is no knowing how the enemies of communism might exploit the situation. On the other hand, it is permissible for the Soviets to hope that in postponing the day of decision the situation need not become critical for a decade or more, because of China's preoccupation with affairs at home.
It would be shortsighted on the part of the Western world to regard tension between the Soviet Union and China with complacency, or even with indifference. If serious and prolonged fighting broke out between the two, Russia would seek to deploy her military and naval power to maximum effect, an objective which entails freedom of transit through the Dardanelles, the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal-even at the price of supporting the Arab states in the extinction of Israel. Already, tension with China is a spur to Russian ambitions for influence in the Moslem world despite the probability that this will result in the Indian Communist Party swinging more and more into the orbit of the Chinese communists. In Europe the quandary for Russia is that while she wants to avoid a crisis with the NATO powers on her western frontiers she must continue to repress symptoms of restiveness among her Warsaw Pact allies. At the eastern end of Asia there are already some indications of strengthened Russian friendship with Japan.
In this volatile and explosive situation, with the certainty of Sino-Soviet tension and the possibility of open rupture, entailing consequences that cannot be foreseen, the aim of the West and especially of the United States should be to seek to defuse the risks in so far as that is possible.
American confrontation with China-and perhaps with Russia-seems to have passed its peak of intensity. There still, however, are formidable obstacles to meaningful American-Chinese coöperation: the impact it would have on the United States and on its worldwide relations with others, including the Soviet Union, Viet Nam, Taiwan and Korea; the legacy of twenty years of mutual distrust and recrimination; how Peking could afford a major switch of foreign policy at a time of internal confusion. The obstacles are obvious. It is equally obvious that if they could be overcome there would be sweeping changes in the international outlook. China would be able to diversify her supplies of oil and of modern technological products. She would have a bigger say in world affairs. The United States, having discarded a sterile policy of containment, would gain greater freedom of man?uvre in foreign policy. There might be a hope of negotiating an international "hands-off" arrangement in respect of Viet Nam and of Korea, which would not resolve their internal differences but would limit external consequences.
Will enough pragmatism develop in China's external policy to permit this? There is some evidence that this is happening in dealings with Russia. There is as yet no public evidence that it extends to her attitude toward the United States.
It was a major blunder by Mao to conduct policy toward the two leading world powers, themselves at odds with one another, both with powerful forces close to China, in such a way as to antagonize both at the same time. If frontier clashes between China and Russia had escalated into major hostilities, the United States, bogged down in Viet Nam and at risk in Korea, would have had an opportunity to encourage the Chinese Nationalists to create a diversion from Taiwan. Most observers in the West would have discounted such an American policy as highly improbable. Apart from any other considerations, massive and open American support would have been required to make the diversion effective. To the leaders in Peking, however, the risk must have seemed very serious; nevertheless, they continued to provoke both. Even if dictated by the need to rouse and unify public opinion by exploiting instinctive Chinese isolationism and xenophobia, the tactic was dangerous. In fact, the Chinese nightmare of encirclement by the U.S.S.R. and the United States acting in collusion is a fantasy for which they have only themselves to blame.
In the early years of consolidating communist control in China, anti- Americanism served to destroy the popular image of the United States as China's chief foreign benefactor and friend, as well as to whip up public support for Chinese intervention in Korea, Those days are gone. The present generation of Chinese has been reared on anti-American slogans; such pro- American sentiment as still lingers is a negligible political threat to the régime. Militarily, the evidence is clear that America is seeking to lessen its commitments on the mainland of Asia. With less to fear from the United States, China may be disposed to relax anti-Americanism. Moreover, between the two there is no permanent conflict of national interest such as exists between China and Russia.
There is no greater possibility of a neat, quick, final solution to tensions in Viet Nam than to those elsewhere, some of which stem from the past, the product of racial or cultural friction between Moslem and Hindu, Arab and Jew, African and white, Chinese and Malay. In some respects human psychology resembles that of other animals in dislike or fear of those markedly different from themselves. In the United States and in Britain this basic human frailty is apt to be seen in simple terms of black versus white and the solution in simple terms of education and legislation and equal opportunity. It is far more complex and far deeper-rooted than that. As a source of tension, racial and cultural differences are of ever- increasing importance.
Today there is a new factor, a surge of restlessness seeping across national boundaries, the product of improved standards of education, of greater social awareness among young people with more leisure and more contacts than ever before, of the expansion of mass media of communications, of disillusionment with old reformers. A new cosmopolitan radical movement is in the making, as yet without structure, emotional and anarchical, aimless and negative. It may develop its own structure or it may be harnessed by others to serve their causes. It is going to be politically significant.
The choice is not between peace on earth, which is beyond man's grasp, and mutual destruction, which though within his grasp is highly improbable, but between greater and lesser degrees and frequencies of violence. It is to this more modest target that men should turn their minds, not in a futile attempt to preserve the status quo but seeking to comprehend the roots of tension and to take corrective action while there is time. If we are patient enough and humble enough we can hope to curb some of the superficial excesses and, over a period, to channel the currents into constructive instead of destructive courses.