Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Nations are inclined to be self-centered, quarrelsome and turbulent. Not all, but many; not always, but much of the time. They are easily carried away by fears, frustrations, presumed necessities or real or fancied offenses. While the resultant antagonisms could formerly be localized in scope and consequence, it has become harder to confine the area of conflict.
In no chronicle of our times are these baneful tendencies more apparent than in the one by Anthony Eden, now Lord Avon. The three volumes of his Memoirs are of impressive interest.[i] For they are not only an informative account of his own exertions but also a portrayal of the tippling course of diplomacy into war. Though animated by the natural wish to explain and justify his own actions, the narrative-which is carefully candid-transcends such a personal purpose. The incisive interpretations and conclusions are a stimulus to thought about the crucial problems of diplomacy today, since these are essentially the same as those which confronted Eden during his long career. How can nations be brought to conduct themselves so that they may live at peace? How can the unruly be constrained?
As youths, Eden's generation was flung into the First World War. Ever afterwards they lived in the gale of its dismal consequences. Too many of the most gifted young men were killed or disabled. The British and French people were worn down by the prolonged ordeal; their economic and financial resources were diminished and their empires were upset. The Germans blamed everyone but themselves. Resenting the terms imposed upon them, they soon began secretly to rebuild their armed strength and to plan to reverse their fortunes. Decadent Tsarist Russia collapsed and gave way to Bolshevism, through which surged an excited intent to bring about world-wide revolution.
The difficulties of peace-making surprised the American people. They were scared off by a chilling blast of recognition of how hard and dangerous it would be to act as one of the guardians of order and enforcers of peace. They repudiated the treaty which would have pledged the United States to come to the aid of France were it again attacked, and they refused membership in the League of Nations. Thereby they sought to avoid involvement in foreign quarrels and responsibility for their outcome and consequences.
During the First World War, Eden stood up under fire and fatigue most courageously. Wounded, he recovered to become a very young and well- regarded Adjutant-Major, decorated for valor. But his own experiences and the stroke of death of his brothers on the battlefield caused him to detest aggressors who brought on war. In his deep convictions about the prime principles of policy, the attitude of the soldier merged with the reflections of the diplomat.
Foremost among them was his ardent belief that nations must not provoke war by bad conduct and must act together to suppress any among them which did. The defiant violations of the League of Nations and its principles by Japan, Italy and Germany drove him to the conclusion that nations strongly bent on expansion and domination could not be placated by concessions to their desires without serious harm or danger to others. They might be caused to desist and, if need be, brought down only by superior power. Concordantly, that if Great Britain and the Commonwealth and Empire wished to be able to stand firm against threats and to play their part in maintaining international peace and order, they must be well armed and have the will to fight if peaceful means and methods failed.
In the attempt to quell the conflicts in the Far East, which in some form and measure had trailed through the whole past century, he was willing to let the United States take the lead, as it had since the Washington Conference of 1922 which eventuated in the pacts for the Pacific. The British Government, out of deference to American opinion and in order to have its policies in the region conform to American conceptions, had relinquished its Treaty of Alliance with Japan. But it had continued to regard prospects in China poorly and the intentions of China with mistrust.
Still, in 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria and attacked China, Eden did what he could to induce his government, of which he was then only a junior minister, to be firm in its condemnation of Japan. He did not yet have enough confidence or influence to overcome the indecisiveness of Sir John Simon, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Moreover, he doubted whether the American Government was genuinely and firmly willing to resort to coercion.
During the next few years, as Eden was advancing in office, assertive thrusts and threats by Mussolini and Hitler stirred him more deeply. In only one of the crunches of this period-a cruel and crucial one-did his own judgment falter. He drew back from the danger that the Spanish civil war might expand into a general European conflict. Thus he bore, though with growing indignation, Mussolini's gross violations of his avowals not to aid Franco, and Hitler's use of Spain as a training exercise for his air force.
Against the clamor and shoving of the dictators-against Mussolini as he defied the League of Nations and conquered Ethiopia, against Hitler whose vicious nature and excited determination to extend Germany's dominion were expressed in and symbolized by the tramp of his enlarged, booted armies and the shrieking Nazi rallies-he found that all pleas and protocols were useless. His experience and observations confirmed his conviction that the word of the dictators was never to be trusted; and that any and all of them would show regard only for power which might hinder or defeat them.
The maturing Minister found out how wavering were the ruling authorities of Great Britain and France, and how loath were the British and French people to risk war until the danger to their own national life and independence was imminent and inescapable. He pleaded with his colleagues to hasten the rearmament of Britain-a purpose which Stanley Baldwin professed to share but which did not lift him out of his lethargy. He formed a scornful opinion of the Labor opposition which clamored for collective resistance to aggression but opposed all motions to increase British armed strength and all measures that might require recourse to arms.
By the winter of 1937-38 Eden became aware that Neville Chamberlain, Baldwin's successor, was so self-assured in his belief that by concessions which did not injure or imperil Britain he could soothe the dictators and arrive at a reliable understanding with them that no argument could move him. Convinced that the Prime Minister was disastrously wrong, Eden resigned. Out of office, during the next two years, he watched with consternation the coming of the war in which he foresaw Britain would be disadvantaged by its slackness and evasion. Munich did not surprise him. Nor did the languid way in which the British and French Governments in the summer of 1939 conducted negotiations for an alliance with the Soviet Union, nor the Hitler-Stalin pact.
When the dreaded and expected war broke out, Eden's impulse and wish was to rejoin the regiment in which he had fought in the First World War. This he forewent for office under Chamberlain out of a sense of obligation rather than of opportunity. But not until the power passed to Churchill did his energies surge to their peak, as he strove to assure the survival of Britain and the defeat of the dictators.
Quite possibly Eden's achievement during the crucial seven months in 1940- 41 as Secretary of War-before he became Secretary for Foreign Affairs-will be remembered as the most notable of his long career. For under his direction England's army at home and abroad was improved and revived, so that it could stand sturdily behind those utterances of Churchill which defied Hitler. Even while the danger of invasion remained grave, he prevailed upon his colleagues to send a substantial portion of the scant supply of tanks, planes and other combat equipment to hold Libya and the Middle East, and he persuaded them to dispatch British forces to assist the Greeks when the Germans invaded their country, although he knew that the chances of battle were poor and the losses would be grievous.
It was in this period that he and Churchill-the warrior-drew close together and formed that affectionate bond which was at times hard tried but was never broken. Between the two there were upsetting disagreements, but never envy, rivalry or recrimination.
As the end of the war came into sight, Eden's efforts gradually turned back to the purposes of his earlier years-peace-making and the maintenance of peace by collective action. But in the way there stood Stalin's evident efforts to extend Soviet dominions and to bring the Communists into power throughout Europe. With Churchill he tried to persuade President Truman to keep American troops along the advanced lines in Europe which they had reached until the Russians constrained their ambitions. During the Potsdam Conference this same objective dominated his diplomacy. But by then he was tired and subordinated himself to an even more tired Churchill.
Thereafter, out of office for six years, he watched the Labor Government find out how unbending the Soviet Government could be, as by use of its veto power in the Security Council it devitalized the United Nations. His hopes were revived by the defense of South Korea and by the drawing together of the United States and the countries of Western Europe into a new alliance.
Upon resuming the office of Foreign Secretary in October 1951, circumstances seemed more auspicious than at any other time in his career; with the aid of the Marshall Plan the countries of Western Europe were progressing and becoming politically stable; the western segments of Germany were united; the NATO Alliance was becoming firm; a cease-fire in Korea was within sight. Thereafter he played a main and effective part in resolving other quarrels-those with the Soviet Union over the blockade of Berlin, between Jugoslavia and Italy over Trieste, with Iran over oil.
These developments confirmed his belief that if the Western democracies stood together they could foil Communist attempts to down them. They animated his conduct of affairs by sustaining the hope that by steadiness in pursuit of policies that were just and flexible, discontented nations and colonies clamoring for independence might come to trust in peaceful processes of change and the world's turbulence might subside.
In his Memoirs he tersely sums up the primary purpose he wished to accomplish when at long last, in 1955, he attained the office, the authority and the responsibility of Prime Minister. ". . . I foresaw a growing Communist ambition and wished the free world to find a closer unity to meet it." His experience gives the title chosen for that volume of his Memoirs in which he tells of crisis over Suez, and the divergence of British, French and American policy-Full Circle-a dual meaning. The same issue which, when only a junior diplomat he had concluded was crucial, determined his last momentous act in office.
Nasser's challenge seemed to him to be akin to and hardly less menacing than that of the other dictators-Mussolini and Hitler-whom England had once tried to appease. This judgment conjoined with his reckoning that it was imperative, as it had been in 1940, to protect the oil supplies which Britain procured from the Middle East as well as British connections with India. Deeming, as he did, that the reasons justified the action and that it would be craven and foolish to refrain from using coercion to supplement diplomacy because of fear of Russia, sure that the United Nations could not and would not face Nasser down and force him to "disgorge," he proceeded to concert with the French Government the measures he considered necessary. Nowhere does he admit or even hint that these were planned or taken in foreknowledge that Israel was going to invade Egypt.
When the American Government dissented and British opinion rebelled, he was once again frustrated and cast down. To him the experience seemed a repetition of his earlier ones. The predictive comment with which he ends his account of the denouement of the crisis over Suez has the same sombre import as those of 20 years before, when Chamberlain released him from office. "The Russian dream of access to the Persian Gulf draws nearer. These developments will not be checked by support for Nasser in the role of anti-Communist leader. To attempt this would be as useless as it was to seek to use Mussolini against Hitler and result in the domination of the friends of the West." The failure to check Nasser seemed to him to mark the destruction of the second effort to bring international political order into the world. "Look and see," he laments, "what has become of the United Nations since again, as between the two great wars, the great Western democracies could not agree upon resistance to the aggression of dictators."
Alas, in this row the considerations were many and complicated and the limits of tolerable misconduct arguable. Eisenhower and Dulles decided that all of Nasser's threats and measures did not warrant the outright use of armed forces to compel him to retract and to cease his efforts to extend his own influence over the Middle East. Ironically, and with no lack of legalistic citations, they based their American demand that Britain and France evacuate the troops from Egypt on the ground that their action violated the Charter of the United Nations. How jangled and contrary to each other can the opinions of professed devotees of the same cause become, when it passes through different national prisms! But will we ever know whether Eden's course or the American was the more expedient, or should I say, sagacious? The answer, like the ancient monuments in Egypt, may be submerged by the turgid flow of history.
The problem of judgment presented by Nasser during this crisis is perennial. It has remained before the democratic nations of the West steadily since Eden retired from office; it is before them critically now: whether to allow leeway to a nation or group of nations which are striving to extend their realm and influence pushfully, or whether-and at what stage- to stand hard and fast, even though the quarrel might then eventuate in war. The historical parallels are neither complete nor clear enough to provide statesmen with standard guidance because of diversity and fluidity of circumstances and indeterminate character of some of the pertinent considerations.
Exceptionally the problem is simple and the only sound answer clear-as it was when North Korea, encouraged and armed by the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. But the one posed by the revolutionary struggle in and over South Viet Nam is far harder and more mutable. The applicable principles may be discernible. But the facts are confusing and it is very hard to envisage an eventual outcome which will justify our interposition and stand up well in the political winds which blow over the region. The United States has acted in accordance with the same conviction and conclusion which determined Eden's career. Will we be able by use of armed force to balk Communist aggression in the region, not only temporarily but permanently? If we manage to bring Viet Nam and its neighbors under the aegis of the United Nations and improve the welfare of their peoples, we will have proven that we acted to uphold essential principles of peace and not because we are rigidly opposed to constructive change.
Our reflections may be interrupted, but they will not be deflected, by recalling some phases of Eden's relations with the American authorities. American opposition in the Suez crisis hurt Eden all the more since he had earnestly pursued agreement with the American authorities and had tried hard to adapt his responses to our ways and views. But he never acted nor spoke as a dependent; not even in 1940, when Britain was standing alone.
He did not, and does not, complain of our former attempt to stay out of the quarrels in Europe. But he was ready to risk a deeper cleavage between Great Britain and the dictators if, in any guise and no matter how tentatively, the entry of the United States into the contest might be induced. This is shown by the eagerness with which in 1937 he grasped at Roosevelt's briefly entertained idea of convoking a conference of nations to agree upon a few vital principles. Lurking in the Presidential suggestion a greatly prized intent could be detected to compel the challenging dictators either to reveal their real purposes or renounce them. Eden wanted to respond quickly and warmly. Chamberlain's rejection of this advice, for fear of offending Mussolini and Hitler, steeped his conclusion that he could no longer serve under such a stubbornly mistaken leader.
As in 1939-40 England's deficiency of weapons became startlingly evident, Eden did his utmost to secure the means for continuing to fight the war from the United States. For what was provided, his official papers and Memoirs show him to have been pleased and appreciative, though he probably felt that what we did was the least we ought to be doing, even in our own behalf. A suggestion from Washington that Britain turn over to us its island colonies in the Caribbean for 50 old destroyers seemed to him exorbitant. It was quickly forgotten. The lease of bases in these islands Eden deemed to be adequate military and political compensation for these vessels, almost all of which, he recalls, needed so much repair and refitting that few were usable in battle during the period of England's greatest peril.
Even though Eden appreciated the skill and boldness with which Roosevelt found ways to support and aid Britain against Hitler, he never felt that he could rely on the President's approval of Britain's aims and actions, or trust in the steadiness of their association. During his several visits to Washington and encounters at conferences, Eden enjoyed Roosevelt's amiability and liveliness of spirit. But he did not make the same indulgent allowances for the restless roaming and probing forays of the President as he did for those of Churchill. As often as not, Roosevelt's thoughts seemed to him to be straggling and unsettled. For example, after several talks in 1943, the impressions as recorded in his Memoirs were that, while Roosevelt was familiarly informed about the history and geography of Europe, . . . "the academic yet sweeping opinions which he built upon it were alarming in their cheerful fecklessness. He seemed to see himself disposing of the fate of many lands, allied no less than enemy. He did this all with so much grace that it was not easy to dissent. Yet it was too like a conjurer, skillfully juggling with balls of dynamite, the nature of which he failed to understand."
Between the two men there were real differences of purpose. The most aggravating concerned the treatment of General de Gaulle. While Eden also thought de Gaulle unreasonable, excessively proud and critical, he perceived that stricken France needed such a figure at the time and he was sure that the French people would respond to his call for valor and visions of greatness. Roosevelt's obdurate attempt to debar de Gaulle from leadership Eden attributed to mistaken judgment of French sentiment and to a reluctance to have the French Colonial Empire reconstituted at the end of the war.
It was the issue of colonialism more than any other, Eden thought, that stood in the way of the conjunction of policy between Britain and the United States. In his judgment, Roosevelt and Truman, and Eisenhower after them, all failed to appreciate the benefits which Britain had brought to the many other members of the Commonwealth and Empire, and of its sincere wish to have these become self-governing when properly qualified, and of its efforts to qualify them. In almost every time of trouble and dispute between Britain and some segment of its Empire, he found the United States on the side of the separatists. This he resented all the more because Roosevelt, while standing aside from Britain (on the score that for the sake of peace they must not seem to be "ganging up"), clung to the belief that by being patient and fair with Stalin he could overcome Communist mistrust and wash out of the minds of devout Communists the determination to spread their faith throughout the world.
In his Memoirs, there are hints of liking and admiration for Truman as a man of direct and fearless nature who was ready to stand up for the causes in which Eden believed. Of Acheson there are explicit statements of admiration for his brilliance and decisive part in the formation of NATO; this supervened over the occasional spurts of irritation between the two men. Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander, Eden liked and esteemed for his ability to manage the huge combined combat forces harmoniously; he found him as President to be well-intentioned but vague, indecisive, and dominated by John Foster Dulles.
Dulles was Eden's Nemesis. Time and time again Eden was baffled and put out of his straightforward stride by Dulles's roundabout and shifting tactics. In the end he felt he had been misled and worn out by a legalistic sleight- of-mind man. With quiet satisfaction he notes that not long after the Suez episode Eisenhower and Dulles concluded that the United States had to deploy its armed force to prevent unfriendly elements from gaining control in Lebanon and Jordan.
Among the conclusions emerging from Eden's narrative, one dominates. It has two faces-one grim, one reassuring.
Most of the triumphs of the militant and turbulent nations have been more easily achieved because of the disarray and dissension among the three great Western democracies-Britain, France and the United States-and by the wavering of some of their smaller allies. Although the political leaders of all three have incessantly maintained that they wanted to coöperate with one another, their disagreements have been frequent and critical. Their failure to mesh their wills and share risks has been deplorable and sometimes disastrous. The dictators have gained great advantages from their differences; and other dictators are trying to do so now.
In contrast, the few great diplomatic and military triumphs of the West have been achieved when these three countries came together. The tardy American support of Britain's resistance to Hitler enabled that country to maintain the struggle until Russia was dragged into it by Hitler, and then, together with reviving French forces, to win it. When in unison they braved the risk of war, they managed to defeat the Russian blockade of Berlin and forced Stalin to acknowledge failure. They contained and defeated the Communist attempt to take over South Korea.
The lesson is plain: these three countries-now along with West Germany and Japan-must submerge their differences. Each must, in the necessary ways and measures, defer to the requirements of common policy in crucial situations. None can be willful nor believe it can save itself by remaining apart from the others. Otherwise sooner or later one and all will be further endangered and struck down, either in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East or everywhere.
Once upon a time, when Britannia ruled the waves, it could almost if not always by itself cause other nations to accept its terms and abstain from going to war against each other. Its ability to do so and the effectiveness of balance-of-power arrangements were broken in 1914. Briefly after the Second World War, the United States, undamaged, its productivity rising, and in sole possession of atomic weapons, was insuperable. Had it the will to do so, it could alone have controlled the behavior of nations. But now no one country-West or East-capitalist or Communist-has by itself the power to subdue turbulence and maintain order in the world.
Eden, as is his wont, downrightly acknowledges that effective coöperation will require comprehensive mutual engagements. At the terminal of his reflections stands the conclusion that "Alliances cannot be limited geographically in a cold war which is global. . . . The interests of Allies cannot be regarded as vital in one area and expendable in another, without danger to the whole structure of the alliance."
In this connection, the flail of history at the moment seems most confounding and curved. Eden supported de Gaulle as the preserver of France most steadfastly. The American statesmen who opposed him were succeeded by others who were contrite. But regrettably, in my view, when the General proposed that there should be a directorate of the United States, Britain and France within NATO, we held back. Now he is the great opponent of a close and comprehensive concert of policy and action among these three countries and their associates. Conceivably, by cultivating its relations with Communist China and the Soviet Union and by refusing to yield more of its independence of action to the European Economic Community and NATO, France may be able to act effectively as intermediary to bring the war in Viet Nam to an end and arrange an accord about the future of Germany. But this is improbable. It is more likely that if French intransigence continues it will contribute calamitous confusion.
Neither by itself nor by the compacts it may enter with smaller countries can France or any other single Western country convince the Communists that, whatever their methods and their faith and their readiness to sacrifice themselves and others, they cannot rule the world. Thus, the Western powers will either fail separately or prevail together. Their unity would, I believe, enable them to remain at peace with the Soviet Union, provided they abstain from attempts to line up a unified Germany against it. With or without Russian coöperation, they also will be able to prevent Communist China from bringing on the next great war. Thus, and only thus, may they still bring to realization the ideal of a community of nations which will allow peaceful procedures to rule over the turbulence of their nature and the rasp of history.
[i] The Memoirs of Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon. "Full Circle," 1960; "Facing the Dictators," 1962; "The Reckoning," 1965. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.