Two trendlines suddenly intersected in March 1985. The arms control negotiations between the two superpowers resumed, after a long break that had threatened to become a permanent breakdown. As the delegations were arriving in Geneva, Konstantin Chernenko died in Moscow, and Mikhail S. Gorbachev was quickly named the new general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The succession to Leonid Brezhnev had at last been completed.

The new talks in Geneva are indeed new: they begin against the backdrop of a threat of a revolutionary upheaval in the superpowers’ strategic competition. For the first time in the nuclear age, the possibility of strategic defense is being taken seriously: at issue is whether this prospect will prove to be the cause of a truly dangerous confrontation between Moscow and Washington, or the source of new common ground and even a political breakthrough.

In Moscow, for the first time, the leadership of the Soviet party has passed to a man born after the Bolshevik revolution. Change is in the air. A new generation is taking power. In his initial public remarks, however, the new general secretary elaborated on old and familiar themes: prosperity and reform at home, and peace and security abroad. He promised both, of course. But it was not a bad platform.

It is fashionable in the West to dismiss, with some contempt, the idea of any major changes in Soviet foreign policy simply because of new personalities. Nevertheless, the reelected President of the United States finally had a partner to deal with; a man who could easily survive well beyond the end of President Reagan’s second term. So the President extended an invitation for an early summit meeting. And the atmosphere of Soviet-American relations began to clear.

Much will depend on Geneva, and whether an acceptable resolution can be found to what looked like an immediate stalemate over American plans to proceed with a Star Wars defense and Soviet determination to block it. The resolution of this confrontation, in turn, will depend in some measure on whether Mikhail Gorbachev is a man who would be willing and able to challenge the Soviet system and change it.

II

The Soviet state and party form a massive bulwark against change. It is largely the same system as that created by Josef Stalin, though without his personal insanities. It is a heavy bureaucracy, bound by a stultifying ideology and administered by careerists, whose vested interests are in maintaining the status quo, perhaps occasionally permitting just enough change to mollify the forces of discontent. Only strong leaders have affected this mass inertia: Stalin by terror, Khrushchev by surprise attack. Stalin, of course, succeeded all too well; Nikita Khrushchev eventually faltered and suffered the fate of innovators—in October 1964 he was the victim of a coup staged by his loyal lieutenants, Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin and Mikhail Suslov. (Mikhail Gorbachev at the time was a minor functionary in the town of Stavropol in the Caucasus.)

There were flickers of change in the wake of the anti-Khrushchev coup. A reform program was sponsored by Kosygin in 1965. But the Brezhnev era was not to be a time of change. Rather, it was a time for the system to settle down after the tumult of Khrushchev. For a decade the Soviet leadership was virtually unchanged. Reform was quietly dropped, as was de-Stalinization. Party morale was repaired, the split with China became definitive, and Russia massively rearmed.

Leonid Brezhnev made the Soviet Union a true superpower. But there was a price. Stability became stagnation: the economy ran down; the leadership began to atrophy. And superpower status, once earned, could not be maintained without aggressive foreign and defense policies that eventually clashed with the main line of Brezhnev’s détente policies. By the early 1980s, the necessary flexibility and dexterity required to deal with growing problems abroad were beyond the capacity of the ailing and aging Brezhnev. It seemed to outsiders that it was time for a change.

But Soviet politics does not change much. There are rules of engagement. One of them is that seniority counts; that was Brezhnev’s contribution. Thus the succession progressed first to the reliable Yuri Andropov and then to the tried and true Konstantin Chernenko. It remains one of the Kremlin’s many mysteries why Chernenko, whom Brezhnev had anointed as the crown prince, was denied the succession in the first round after Brezhnev died in November 1982. It is also something of a mystery why, given his health, he was granted a second chance when Andropov died in February 1984.

In any case, Andropov proved to be something of a surprise. Thought to be the representative of the old orthodoxy by virtue of his service in the dreaded KGB, he loomed as a potentially disruptive force—but as a reformer. His campaign against corruption seemed to herald more sweeping changes, perhaps even a shift to the liberal economic reforms of Hungary, where Andropov had served in the 1950s. It was against this background that Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the nominal second in command and a potential successor; thus, Gorbachev came to be closely identified with the reform faction.

To be designated as the successor is a dubious and dangerous honor. The position has been occupied by many Soviet leaders who then passed into oblivion (Kirichenko, Kozlov, Kirilenko). Gorbachev’s success in surviving the change from Andropov to Chernenko, and then assuming power so smoothly, suggests he has formidable political skills, a conclusion that seems borne out by the firsthand testimony of his British interlocutors during his visit to London last December.

Yet the transfer of power from Chernenko to Gorbachev was the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline, Soviet politics was marked by the clash between the forces of continuity and the imperative of change. The tendencies toward reform that began under Andropov (presumably supported by Gorbachev) were stifled under Chernenko’s brief reign. Indeed, some advocates of economic reform were officially chastised in one of those Aesopian pronouncements that signal major controversy in Soviet politics. The magazine that had sponsored some suggestions of change was forced to apologize for its errors.

The strength of the old guard was also dramatically demonstrated in September 1984, when the chief of the general staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, was summarily dismissed, and sent to the military equivalent of Siberia. His ostensible error was that he complained too publicly about the economic inefficiencies that were blocking the kind of military progress necessary if the Soviet Union was to adjust to an era of nuclear stalemate. One suspects that he was removed less for his heretical views than for his boldness in challenging the aging political coalition in the Politburo. It is intriguing to speculate about the military’s position in politics, now that Chernenko has departed. Could there be a comeback for professional officers such as Ogarkov? One thinks of Marshal Zhukov’s career. It was this general atmosphere of reaction under Chernenko that led to speculation that the new successor would not be Gorbachev, but the more conservative Grigory Romanov. One can wonder whether this would have been the outcome had Chernenko lingered on.

III

Now the Gorbachev era begins. The conventional wisdom in the West is that we should not expect much change until Gorbachev has consolidated his position. It took Khrushchev a full three years to defeat his rivals for Stalin’s mantle. It took Brezhnev about four to five years to emerge from the group that overthrew Khrushchev. One would expect a younger, less experienced leader to take even longer. Moreover, Soviet history suggests that succession struggles lead to strange turns in policy. Stalin vilified Trotsky, drove him out of the Soviet Union in 1929, but then adopted his economic program. Khrushchev attacked Malenkov for his heretical departures from Stalinism, then used de-Stalinization to drive out Molotov. In the Khrushchev era it was Frol Kozlov, the potential successor, who was portrayed as the Stalinist (in a famous poem by Yevtushenko), but it was Kozlov’s rival, Brezhnev, who prevailed and then halted the attacks on the memory of the dead dictator in the name of restoring stability.

Thus it is conceivable—indeed consistent with Soviet history—that Gorbachev too will be forced to carry out the careful maneuvers, strike the political bargains, and engage in the shifts of policy that the system requires if he is to hold on to power in the Kremlin. But there is also reason to believe that this will not prove to be the case this time. Gorbachev’s position as second in command was only mildly challenged when Chernenko was in office in the summer and fall of last year (1984). He has been presiding over the Politburo for some time, and the circumstances of his accession to Chernenko’s position suggest a prior decision, one dating back perhaps several months. And most important, he does not assume power as only the first among equals, as was the case with Andropov and Chernenko.

The Gorbachev Politburo, which shrank to only ten members when Chernenko died, is not a collection of powerful contenders, as was the case when Stalin died or when Khrushchev was overthrown. The Gorbachev Politburo has two tiers: the remainder of the old guard (Andrei Gromyko, Nikolai Tikhonov, Viktor Grishin, Mikhail Solomentsev and Vladimir Shcherbitsky) and several younger members. His rivals are not particularly impressive. It is difficult to put Grishin, the long-time leader of the party bureau in Moscow, in the same category as Molotov in 1953 or Kosygin in 1964. This does not mean that Gorbachev’s power approaches that of Brezhnev in his prime. The old guard, especially the durable Prime Minister Tikhonov and the redoubtable foreign minister, Gromyko, clearly will influence politics and policy. Moreover, Grigory Romanov, who might have succeeded Chernenko, remains a potential rival for Gorbachev.

Politics in the Kremlin does not stop simply because of a change in generations. Nevertheless, the position of general secretary carries with it enormous power and wide prerogatives. And there is ample room on the Politburo for Gorbachev to build up his own base of power. He acts like a man in charge, and there may be good reason for his self-confidence. We may well be spared the dreary process of Kremlin infighting.

Gorbachev’s emergence as a reformer seems now to be taken for granted—at least in the West. "Impatient Seeker of Economic Change," ran one headline in an American newspaper. His most frequently quoted statement has been: "We will have to carry out profound transformations in the economy and in the entire system of social relations." Yet the Soviet Union is not China, where a nearly magical transformation could take hold because Mao’s system had made only a scratch on an ancient society.

This is not true of the Soviet Union. The Stalinist system has been maturing for decades. It cannot be easily reshaped. Soviet officials, with some indignation, insist that the U.S.S.R. is not Hungary, that reforms that are possible in a small economy are not applicable to the vast machinery of the Soviet Union. And, even if Gorbachev is determined to make significant changes, what would be their essence? Will a tired party apparatus be able to institute a dynamic economic reform program that would threaten that party’s very legitimacy? Or will the party have to be shaken and reformed as well? But this was Khrushchev’s downfall—an example Gorbachev surely must remember.

Nonetheless, we must be prepared for a period in which the Soviet Union does attempt to throw off some of the dead weight of the past. Gorbachev seems likely to be a vigorous leader, forceful and dynamic. Is this in the Western interest?

IV

Strange as it may seem, a healthy, self-confident Soviet Union may now be more in the Western interest than an adversary that is brooding and snarling to cover its fears and weaknesses. Some observers believe that only when the domestic crisis deepens will we witness any genuine reforms or shifts in Soviet foreign policy. But one aspect of that crisis may now be over, with the change in leadership. At this stage in the nuclear era, the President of the United States needs a reliable counterpart in the Kremlin who can commit the U.S.S.R. beyond the next change in the old guard. The United States needs to negotiate with a leadership that is not cowed by the fear of compromise. And the United States should want a leadership that will recognize that the Soviet Union needs to put its own house in order instead of taking refuge in a bombastic and dangerous foreign policy.

This does not mean that the Gorbachev succession is all to the good. He is an untested and, to a large extent, unknown quantity. He could even prove a short-term leader. His road to power has been almost effortless—and, to a degree, fortuitous. It remains to be seen whether he has the ruthlessness that is a prerequisite for ruling in the Kremlin.

It would also be rash to conclude that activism means genuine reform. A shrewd Soviet leader can operate for a long time by treating the symptoms of the U.S.S.R.’s problems rather than attacking the structural base. Nor can we assume that liberal economic reforms mean conciliatory foreign policies. It is much too early to diagram a Soviet game plan. But we have to take careful note of certain objective factors that operate on Soviet foreign policy.

Gorbachev inherits a foreign policy that recently suffered a major failure, which has been only partially repaired. During the interregnum since Brezhnev, the U.S.S.R. met with one of its worst and most significant defeats: failing utterly to prevent the U.S. deployment of missiles in Western Europe. This failure may have been partly because, as the confrontation over the missiles unfolded, Brezhnev was no longer up to the challenge. As usual, the Soviets relied too heavily on the "peace forces" in Europe and on German politics to head off the U.S. deployments. Moreover, while Brezhnev was ailing, major diplomatic openings were missed. Andropov ran to catch up, turning out proposals almost every month; but he fell seriously ill, and a possible slight turn in tactics was snuffed out by the Korean airline disaster in September 1983, which coincided with the beginning of his final illness. It is still fascinating to speculate about who made the ghastly decisions during this crisis. What was Gorbachev’s role? He was, after all, thought to be Andropov’s second in command at that time. If so, he did not suffer from the crisis, whereas the chief Soviet public spokesman, Marshal Ogarkov, was removed from office a year later.

It was left to Konstantin Chernenko to salvage what he could. A Brezhnev protégé who had advanced in the years of détente, Chernenko apparently fell back on that experience—creating an opening to the Americans. His initial instinct was to shift away from the harshness of superpower relations. His first major speech on March 2, 1984, seemed to move in this direction. He laid out several measures that could be taken to rebuild confidence. It seemed like the beginning of a new dialogue. But something or someone interfered (perhaps the old guard could not agree). Relations worsened when the Soviet Union pulled out of the Los Angeles Olympics. But a sudden turnaround began shortly thereafter, when on June 29, 1984, the Chernenko administration invited the United States to new arms control talks, thus refuting the conventional wisdom that the Soviets would not do business with Ronald Reagan. Despite the failure of that particular exchange, by the early fall Gromyko was in Washington chatting with the very man who had written off the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

The new line was shored up in innumerable statements and interviews attributed to Chernenko, thus suggesting that he had played an important role in initiating the turn toward the United States. Even when he was taken ill, the new line was not abandoned, suggesting collective support of the Politburo. By then, however, the Soviet leadership was under the nominal control of Gorbachev, who for his part took a rather conciliatory position during his visit to the United Kingdom. And the Soviets nailed down the opening of new arms control talks. In his initial address to the Central Committee after taking power, Gorbachev confirmed that there was indeed a new line, when he fondly recalled the détente of the 1970s in terms reminiscent of Brezhnev. And the Soviet delegation in Geneva ostentatiously revealed that Gorbachev had presided over the Politburo meeting of March 7 that authorized their negotiating instructions.

It is easy to dismiss Gorbachev’s early statements as campaign rhetoric. After all, one would not expect the new general secretary to start his career by frightening his audiences with threats of war. Yet it was only a year ago that the Soviet Union was warning of the danger of a new war. The late minister of defense, Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, was one of the most strident voices; Gromyko, with some reluctance, seemed to fall into line. Romanov lacerated the United States: "The American reactionaries are ready to commit any crime, even the vilest one, to incite tensions." And Gorbachev echoed some of the same language in December 1983:

Not we but capitalism has to maneuver, camouflage its actions and resort to wars, terror, falsification and subversion in an effort to hold back the inexorable advance of time. . . . In terms of its intensity, content and methods, the ‘psychological warfare’ that imperialism is currently waging constitutes a special variety of aggression that flouts that sovereignty of countries.

Within a year, by the time of his visit to the United Kingdom, he was taking a more conciliatory line, thus supporting Chernenko—to the point that Prime Minister Thatcher said that he was a man she could do business with.

V

If the West can do business with Gorbachev, it will have to be on new terms worked out by both sides. If Gorbachev intends to consolidate the current turn in Soviet-American relations, the focal point has to be the arms negotiations in Geneva. He will have to address the issues without too much delay, and, in particular, decide how to cope with the famous Star Wars defense. The United States is not likely to yield to the blandishments and threats of the Soviet negotiators. Good atmospherics, an affable manner and clever tactics will not charm the United States under Ronald Reagan—though in the age of television and instant global communications Gorbachev may be a formidable public rival. The new Soviet leader will be challenged at some point to offer a realistic basis for compromise.

If and when such a Soviet offer is made, the United States will then be challenged to find a response, rather than rigidly insisting on its own proposals. A failure in Geneva this time could have vastly more serious consequences than the last breakdown, when the Soviets walked out in December 1983. This time we cannot simply wait for another turn in the Soviet leadership. The structure of the superpower relationship could collapse. This is a heavy burden on both leaders.

The shifts in superpower relations cannot be attributed only to the changes from Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko. The clash between the United States and the Soviet Union has deep roots in the conflicting national interests of each side—from Afghanistan to Poland to Nicaragua—to say nothing of the fierce strategic competition and the failures in arms control. In this broad sense, personalities are not overly important.

But it would be foolish to take a pseudo-Marxist view and dismiss the human factor altogether. Stalin made a difference. So did Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Now Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev takes their place. He is reported to be highly intelligent, quite capable, and bristling with energy. If so, then he should understand that at some point he will have to grapple with strategic realities. One of those realities is that the Soviet Union finds itself beset with problems: a potential explosion in its decaying East European empire; an endless war in Afghanistan; infectious religious fanaticism along its southern borders; vibrant adversaries in China and Japan. Above all, its main enemy (to borrow a phrase from Mao)—the United States—has proven its amazing resilience, ten years after the debacles of Vietnam and Watergate.

It may not be that the Soviet Union is headed for a historical decline, as some Americans have been too eager to predict. For Moscow still has opportunities for strategic gains in Europe, perhaps in China, and even in Central America. But the new leaders in Moscow should also recognize that the "correlation of forces" that they so carefully assess is no longer favorable to the Soviet Union. Thus, it may be an opportune moment for a new leader to establish an equilibrium with the United States. It would not be a bad policy for Gorbachev to consider as he prepares for the next Party Congress, which should be held late this year. The new Five Year Plan should be adopted at that time, and Gorbachev will have an opportunity to shore up his political leadership.

Perhaps the most that can be said at this very early point is that vitality seems to be the watchword of the Gorbachev succession. There are certainly dangers in a Soviet Union that is pressing outward, under new and more dynamic leadership. (A "Soviet Kennedy" has been a recurring Western nightmare.) But belligerence is not Gorbachev’s only option; he may choose to tend to the malaise in Soviet society. His first pronouncements point in that direction.

The United States, in the Bush mission to Chernenko’s funeral and the Reagan invitation to Gorbachev, seems to be extending its hand. A summit meeting seems likely. There is always the risk of another "peace offensive" designed to buy time for a new Soviet leadership, as was the case of the Geneva Summit of 1955. Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism at this critical juncture in the relations between the two superpowers.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now