When Yuri Andropov died in February 1984, the Central Committee waited four days to name his successor. It is not clear whether this resulted from a real struggle for power or was simply because of an intervening weekend. In either case, the delay symbolized the stagnation and even the retrogression during Konstantin Chernenko’s year in office.

In March 1985, the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary was announced just four hours after the announcement of Chernenko’s death, even though one Politburo member (Vladimir Shcherbitsky) was still in the United States. On the next day, all Soviet newspapers had the same format: page one contained a communiqué about the Central Committee session that had elected Gorbachev, a biography of the new general secretary and a large photograph of him; page two reported Chernenko’s death and carried his obituary and picture.

Even then, Gorbachev seemed to be signaling that he was a man in a hurry; events since confirm this impression. As we approach an important summit meeting in Geneva, it is time to give serious thought to who Gorbachev is and where he is going.


It would be a grave mistake to dismiss Gorbachev as only another typical party apparatchik, especially if such a judgment is combined with the more fundamental mistake of seeing the party apparatus as the opponent of change and the technocratic state as the proponent. Gorbachev was the most atypical regional party first secretary in the Soviet Union of the 1970s.

Nearly all of the provincial party secretaries in the Russian Republic and the Ukraine (excluding the autonomous republics based on other nationalities) were engineers or agronomists. Indeed, in the 25 most populous and politically important regions in 1981, 80 percent of the first secretaries had engineering backgrounds, with an average of nine years’ work in industry, construction, transportation or administration. With years of subsequent work in the party, they have had a chance to broaden their perspective beyond the narrow production focus of the Soviet manager; but many surely retain the disdain for the consumer and the distrust of the market that their early background encouraged.

Gorbachev, by contrast, was extraordinary. He was the only graduate of Moscow University among the regional first secretaries. He was the only lawyer. He joined the Communist Party at the age of 21, compared with an entry age of 25 for the average regional first secretary of the Russian Republic and the Ukraine in 1981. He was also on an extraordinarily fast track, becoming a regional first secretary in his home province of Stavropol at 39, compared with an average age of 47 at which his counterparts reached this level. In 1980, he became a full member of the Politburo when he was only 49, eight years younger than the next youngest Politburo member of the time, Grigory Romanov, and 17 years younger than the next youngest Politburo member serving in Moscow.

Gorbachev owes his rise to many factors. His rapid promotions almost surely reflected an understanding by the aging leadership that the Soviet Union faced new challenges that required a man with a different perspective to handle them—of course, after the aging leaders had themselves departed. In any case, he obviously was very bright to have been admitted to Moscow University with a peasant background at a time when lower-class origins were not a factor in admission. It is impressive that a man of this background graduated with distinction. A friend from his university days, Zden??k Mlyná?? (a Czech Politburo member during the "Prague Spring," now in exile), has painted a favorable picture: "Gorbachev the student was not only very intelligent and gifted, he was an open man, whose intelligence never carried over to arrogance; he wanted—and was able—to listen to the opinions of all he spoke to. Loyal and personally honest, he won an informal and spontaneous authority."

In addition, Mlyná?? reports that Gorbachev was very much a child of the 20th Party Congress of 1956 (the first congress after Stalin’s death). He adjusted well to the Khrushchev era, and it can hardly be a coincidence that when he picked the date to open next year’s 27th Party Congress, which will complete his own consolidation of power, he selected February 25—thirty years to the day that Khrushchev gave his secret speech denouncing Stalin.

Political ties were also, of course, enormously important in Gorbachev’s rise. The province of Stavropol in the Caucasus was the one that Mikhail Suslov, the longtime Politburo member, had led from 1939 to 1944. Gorbachev’s first major patron, however, was Fedor Kulakov, the party first secretary under whom he rose in Stavropol. Kulakov had been a close associate of Chernenko in the region of Penza in the mid-1940s, and this association had to have been a critical factor in Brezhnev’s promotion of Kulakov to Central Committee secretary for agriculture in 1965. In Moscow, Kulakov was in a position to render critical support to his own protégés, such as Gorbachev; this must have been a key reason in Gorbachev’s eventual selection as Kulakov’s successor as Stavropol first secretary. Since Gorbachev was promoted to the Politburo when Chernenko was riding high, the old Chernenko-Kulakov tie was probably important for Gorbachev.

During Gorbachev’s stay at Moscow University, the party first and second secretaries in Moscow at the time were Viktor Grishin, the first secretary of the Moscow party in the 1970s, and Ivan Kapitonov, the Central Committee secretary for personnel; they surely saw him as a Muscovite in the traditional political battles between the Moscow and Leningrad party factions. Gorbachev gave every indication of being the type of man who would cultivate such useful ties. Also, his legal education and background may have given him the chance to speak out on law-and-order questions when he was involved with the Moscow party leadership, and thus to court the secret police chief, Yuri Andropov, whom he may have met even earlier.

Nevertheless, the man who almost certainly had the decisive influence on Gorbachev’s promotion in the late 1970s was Leonid Brezhnev. By that time, Brezhnev, general secretary since 1964, had no interest in policy innovations, but he was naturally keenly interested in maintaining his own political position. He had the political strength to impose two totally inappropriate cronies, Konstantin Chernenko and Nikolai Tikhonov as number two and number three in the political system. Brezhnev was not about to accept a new, young Politburo member, such as Gorbachev, who did not fit in with his political interests, and he still had the power to prevent such an appointment.

In fact, however, Gorbachev served Brezhnev’s interests perfectly. Brezhnev was strengthening his power with the appointments of Chernenko and Tikhonov and reassuring the Central Committee members with job security. In a sense, though, these moves also weakened Brezhnev’s political position. His political problem in the late 1970s was that the middle-level administrative elites were overwhelmingly in their fifties; these men naturally had to be more concerned about the future than Brezhnev’s generation. The military had to be even more concerned as the Soviet Union slowed the growth in its military procurements and as the American buildup accelerated. The chief of the general staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, began speaking out with increasing sharpness. If the rate of economic growth continued to decline, if administrative and labor efficiency continued to fall, if corruption was not punished, these conditions would have dangerous consequences for the 1980s and 1990s. In short, those concerned about the future might even come to believe that the removal of Brezhnev was indispensable.

Gorbachev’s promotion was an answer to these concerns. As a man with attractive personal qualities and well connected to a wide variety of political leaders, he was perfect insurance for Brezhnev. It would be assumed that Gorbachev was a potential successor, and thus a guarantee against long-term stagnation. Yet, his extreme youth in comparison with the rest of the Politburo meant that, in the short run, he could not be a credible alternative or threat to Brezhnev. Thus, Brezhnev could trust the Politburo and Central Committee to allow Gorbachev to gain experience and be tested while Brezhnev lived out his days in peace.

Brezhnev’s death, however, could have been a political disaster for Gorbachev if the new general secretary was to be a healthy 60-year-old, or even a healthy 70-year-old. Rather than risk defeat himself, it made more sense for Gorbachev to support an ailing general secretary who would set the stage for reform, appoint him secretary in charge of personnel and allow him to build his own political machine.

Viewed from this perspective, the events of 1982 (Brezhnev’s death and Andropov’s accession) appear very different from the conventional Western version. Instead of being a protégé, picked from virtual obscurity in 1983 by Andropov, Gorbachev was already a man of genuine standing and power. Andropov was not selected general secretary by the military and the secret police, who have as little right to become involved in factional politics in the Soviet Union as the American military and the FBI have in the United States. Rather, Andropov’s electors were the government and party officials on the Politburo and in the Central Committee.

Andropov’s major support was from the group associated with Andrei Kirilenko, the longtime senior personnel official in the Politburo, until he was replaced in that responsibility by Chernenko in 1977 or 1978. Both Andropov and Kirilenko had been Komsomol secretaries in educational institutions in the city of Rybinsk (now renamed Andropov) in Yaroslavl province in the mid-1930s, and Andropov shared Kirilenko’s substantive position in the great policy battles of the 1970s. With the exception of Gorbachev, all of Andropov’s chief appointments in his first year had been very close to Kirilenko—Egor Ligachev, Nikolai Ryzhkov, Viktor Chebrikov, Vitali Vorotnikov (all subsequently promoted by Gorbachev).

Andropov accepted—or had to accept—Chernenko as the nominal second secretary in terms of status, but he took away personnel matters from Chernenko’s jurisdiction and moved him into the slot of ideologist, far from the levers of real power. It was Gorbachev who became the real second secretary under Andropov. He not only retained responsibility for the agro-industrial complex, but he was also given Chernenko’s old responsibility for personnel selection. At some point, perhaps even from the beginning, or perhaps not until after Andropov’s death, Gorbachev was also given the duty within the Politburo of supervising economic coordination, including supervision of the economic department of the Central Committee led by the new secretary Nikolai Ryzhkov.

Everything was going well for Gorbachev. If Andropov had lived another six months, he could have completed his attack on Chernenko, for Chernenko’s declining health was undermining his own position as much as Andropov’s efforts. Alas, from Gorbachev’s point of view, Andropov died after only 15 months in office; fortunately, from Gorbachev’s point of view, the new general secretary, Chernenko, was also ailing. As part of the bargain that resulted in Chernenko’s selection as general secretary, Gorbachev was given a broad set of responsibilities that not only designated him as the heir apparent but also gave him control over so many levers of power that he was virtually unchallengeable as Chernenko’s successor.

Under Chernenko, Gorbachev assembled all or most of the duties of four members of the Politburo of 1980: his own duties of that time, which included supervision of the agro-industrial complex; Suslov’s responsibilities for propaganda, education, science, culture and relations with foreign communists; Chernenko’s authority for personnel (though not for the police); and, finally, Kirilenko’s assignment for coordination of the economy (but not detailed supervision of heavy industry and construction). He was thus in a strategically advantageous position to consolidate his control for a full year before Chernenko’s death. Other political figures had every incentive to jump on his bandwagon rather than struggle against him. Thus, when Chernenko died on March 10, 1985, there was no reason other than propriety to postpone the announcement of Gorbachev’s selection.


An understanding of Gorbachev’s strategy rests on two bases. First, he gives the appearance of being a truly world-class chess player who delights in complex combinations and knows how to make them. Second, as a relatively young man, he must worry about the Soviet Union’s very serious problems with a long-term perspective (he will be 69 in the year 2000). But Gorbachev has to play a very complex game. Unless we comprehend the nature of that game, we will never understand his individual moves. We have to move beyond notions of simple dichotomies between reform and discipline, between détente and anti-Westernism, or fuzzy concepts of decentralization, for these notions leave us ill prepared for what will be occurring and what is to come.

Certainly, it is correct that Gorbachev’s primary problem is the economy. The central difficulty is not the long lines at the stores. Standards of living are, in fact, rising steadily, and in such circumstances the Soviet people will endure lines for years. Nor is the central difficulty lagging rates of economic growth. Western countries could live quite easily with steady two-to-three-percent growth, especially when coupled with an absence of unemployment.

The problem with the Soviet economy is technological backwardness. The party has successfully identified itself with the goals of national defense, of national power and of catching up with the West; this identification with Russian nationalism and patriotism is a major reason why the Soviet system has been stable compared with regimes in East Europe where communism has meant a loss of national independence and power. Talk about the superiority of totalitarian controls that never can be challenged is simply inconsistent with events in Hungary and Poland, for domestic revolts would have swept away those regimes had it not been for the presence of outside Soviet troops.

The technological lag, however, threatens a series of disastrous consequences for the Soviet Union. First, it completely undermines the ideological claim that only socialism is capable of maintaining the drive for growth and technological advance. The question for the Soviet Union now is not equality with the West, but with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Brazil and even Taiwan. It turns out that the Soviet model was good for heavy industry and growth in the smokestack period of industrialization, but is terrible for heavy industry in the current electronics-computer phase.

Second, the lag in technology also seriously undermines certain aspects of Soviet foreign policy. The standing of communist parties in Europe has been declining for over a decade, even in the face of quite poor economic performance in their respective countries that should theoretically be advantageous to local communists. In the Third World, radical revolutions have been occurring only in preindustrial states. The politics of industrializing Third World countries—Indonesia, India, Egypt, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico—have all been moving to the center and to the right, while radical regimes such as China, Mozambique and perhaps now even Vietnam have been evolving in the same direction. A fundamental cause is that the Soviet economic system is widely seen as a completely ineffective model.

The technological lag undercuts Soviet foreign policy in another way. If the Soviet economy were capable (and it should be) of exporting capital and advanced technology as Japan does, foreign policy consequences would follow. For example, the Middle East is on the Soviet southern border, and the Soviet Union is fortunate in having millions of citizens with Muslim backgrounds and linguistic skills who would be excellent salesmen and representatives in this area. If the Soviet Union had a properly functioning economy, it would have a major role to play in Middle Eastern economies, and political lines of influence would tend to follow the economic ones.

The technological lag also threatens to open an enormous window of military vulnerability for the Soviet Union in the future. As Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov wrote, both before and after he was removed as chief of the general staff, nuclear weapons are almost impossible to use. As conventional weapons undergo qualitative improvements in coming years, and as the modernization of the Chinese economy gives Beijing a stronger military machine, the Soviet Union needs to computerize its own conventional forces or risk falling seriously behind. And if a breakthrough occurred in the American space defense program, perhaps even one that was simply transferable to conventional weaponry, the situation would be immeasurably worse. It is one thing for a country such as the Soviet Union to develop a specialized high technology element such as a guidance system for its rockets; it is something quite different to introduce miniaturized computers and related equipment in all military components and to recruit and train soldiers who can operate such a modernized force.

Without question, Gorbachev understands all of this. He has not been talking about agricultural reform or about lines in the shops, but about technology, technology, technology. He has spoken repeatedly about the urgency of the task of raising the Soviet Union to world levels of technology. He has repeatedly said that foreign policy depends on the effectiveness of one’s domestic model. Even while Chernenko was alive, Gorbachev had the Supreme Soviet’s Foreign Policy Committee, which he chaired, hold a session on foreign economic relations with the Third World (the committee never had substantive sessions under his predecessors). Everyone knows that the Soviet Union cannot develop such economic relations except on the basis of the export of manufactured goods.

A series of interrelated problems must be attacked if the problems of growth and technology are to be seriously addressed. First, in the trade-off that any society must make between growth and technological innovation, on the one hand, and social welfare and individual security on the other, the Soviet leadership of the last quarter of a century opted heavily for the latter. This trade-off became the focus of the great political battle of the Brezhnev era, with a Politburo group led by Kirilenko supporting growth and investment and the Chernenko-Suslov group supporting what they called "social justice"—egalitarian wages, subsidized food prices and job security for the worker. Brezhnev supported Chernenko and Suslov, and this was a major cause of the declining rate of economic growth.

Second, the Soviet system is too centralized, and the problem becomes progressively worse as the economy becomes more complex and moves toward the "third industrial revolution" of computers and electronics. With all investment and product decisions having to go through the ministries and the State Planning Committee (GOSPLAN) in Moscow, huge bottlenecks and inflexibilities result. Yet, it is impossible simply to decentralize authority to the factories, for uncontrolled managers will maximize profits by raising prices. If central administrative controls are reduced, they must be replaced by the even harsher controls and discipline of the market.

Third, Soviet industry has enjoyed a level of protectionism unthought of in the non-communist world. Even protected Japanese manufacturers have long been forced to export and hence to compete with foreign manufacturers in foreign markets. Soviet industrialists are seldom compelled to export and have few incentives to do so. Even when the Soviet Union imports Western goods, Soviet manufacturers lose no business and hence do not have to meet Western standards in production. It is no coincidence that the negative features of the Soviet economy are precisely those that any textbook on free trade would predict.

In sum, economic reform is politically very difficult. It has to attack the social policy that benefits the industrial worker, and the worker has been one of the few secure supports of the regime. Moreover, the industrial managers are ambivalent: they would support a change in social policy and a widening of their prerogatives vis-à-vis the workers ("decentralization" is often a code word for this), but they have no desire for the harsh discipline of the market, let alone for the pleasure of competing with Toyota. And, of course, an attack on protectionism involves an opening to the outside world that arouses many fears. While it would be advantageous to have Tadzhik salesmen selling Soviet computers in Teheran, what ideas would they bring home, especially when they studied the local culture enough to advertise effectively?


As a Soviet leader handles the politics of building coalitions and neutralizing opposition—political as well as popular—he has a very sensitive problem of the proper sequencing of decisions. It would be madness to arouse all the potential opposition at the start, and Gorbachev surely is not going to do so.

The first stage of his strategy has become clear. He (like Andropov) has promoted men who were very close to Andrei Kirilenko. These men are likely to support industrial growth and a change in social policy, and these steps will come first. In this sense, the policies of Gorbachev and Andropov are similar to Reaganism and Thatcherism. Indeed, the Gorbachev Politburo rejected the Five-Year Plan for 1986-1991 drafted on Chernenko’s guidelines. The new guidelines surely will reflect Gorbachev’s new priorities.

The second part of Gorbachev’s strategy is to launch a major attack on the central state apparatus in Moscow. He was absolutely scathing in his denunciation of the ministries in his speech on June 11, 1985, and he was absolutely correct in pointing to the Moscow technocracy as the center of the opposition to reform:

The ministries, in their present form . . . have no interest in the economic experiment. . . . [They] have vast experience and ability in swaddling up everybody and interpreting the decisions of the Central Committee and the government in such a way that after their application . . . nothing is left of them.

His audience applauded, and Gorbachev retorted sarcastically, "If the ministers are applauding too the ice has begun to shift." This produced both laughter and applause.

For this purpose he intends to mobilize the provinces and, specifically, the regional party officials against the central ministries, much in the way that Khrushchev did in 1957. The provinces feel all the constraints and rigidities embodied in ministerial directives and decisions made in Moscow, and this anger pours forth in the articles their officials write in the press. Like Andropov before him, Gorbachev has been promoting men with provincial backgrounds. None of the three men named to the Politburo and Secretariat this July had ever worked in Moscow before 1985. The five Politburo members over 70 (their average age is 74) have worked in Moscow for nearly a quarter of a century on the average; but the eight members who are under 70 (their average age is 60) have worked in Moscow for an average of only six years (four years if the KGB chief is excluded).

The problem is not just an economic one. The phenomenon Gorbachev is attacking reflects a major devolution of power from the Politburo to the ministries in the Brezhnev era. As the Soviet scholar Tatyana Zaslavskaya expressed the point in Izvestia on June 1, "The present system is characterized by obvious hypertrophy on the middle level and a relative weakness on the lower and, to some extent, on the higher level." Another Soviet scholar called this condition "feudalistic socialism," for under Brezhnev the ministries really did come to act like independent baronies, operating under a weak king. Gorbachev is determined to end this decentralization, but in favor of a different form of decentralization that better achieves central goals.

A great many of these governmental officials will surely be replaced before the new Central Committee is elected at the next party congress in 1986, including probably the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikolai Tikhonov. This in itself will not transform the administrative system, only give Gorbachev the chance to appoint more supporters to the Central Committee. The major attack on the ministries will have to be on their powers.

The question that Gorbachev has studiously avoided answering is what type of reform ("perfecting of the economic mechanism") he will sponsor. It is easy for a Soviet leader to talk loosely about more initiative for the provinces and the factories, for both the provincial and factory officials will love that. Moreover, who can oppose, in principle, a policy emphasizing industrial growth? But behind the generalizations lie hard choices.

First, if Gorbachev is going to reduce the very high level of agricultural investment and shift some of it to industry, how can he improve agricultural performance without a major reform that permits private peasant investment? How can he attack social policy without giving the workers something in return, like a better diet? While he has said almost nothing about agricultural reform, it has to be high on his agenda if he is serious. Zaslavskaya has rightly said that agricultural reform should have priority, and should center on the creation of such mechanisms as the family-sized brigades.

Second, if Gorbachev is going to decentralize authority from the ministries and state committees, he must institute other controls. He has said that GOSPLAN should be a center of "economic science." If this means it will be headed by a major economist, he has real change in mind. But whatever he is thinking, he will soon face the dilemma that Khrushchev encountered when he established regional economic entities. He will either have to start instituting administrative controls over "localistic abuses" or move forward with the reform.

Gorbachev has described the problem in such urgent terms that he has made it difficult for himself to go backward. He has called for "a deep reconstruction of the whole economic mechanism," "a decisive revolution in the economy," "a fundamental perfecting of the system of price formation," "a major reconstruction in the minds of economic managers." He has specifically pledged not to allow deeds to lag from words, and he asked the rhetorical question, "Are we not turning too sharply?" His answer was direct: "No . . . a different approach, a calmer one would not do for us. The times dictate that this is exactly how we must act."


The West, of course, is far more interested in Soviet foreign policy than in the inner structure of socialist economic systems. The debate has begun on whether the replacement of Andrei Gromyko as foreign minister signals a significant change in foreign policy.

The debates in the West about Soviet foreign policy are, unfortunately, marred by an excessive narrowness in posing options for the Soviet Union. Usually the discussion does not go much beyond whether a Soviet leader is for or against arms control or détente with the United States, whether the Soviet Union is going to be assertive or passive in the Third World. Since the Soviet Union had the same foreign minister for 28 years—and one who was basically America-oriented in his policy—we came to take for granted his view of the available alternatives and the views of his like-minded bosses as the only ones possible. It simply is not true. Far more fundamental questions are now being debated in the Soviet Union.

First, the basic Soviet policy toward the West in the last 40 years has, in my opinion, been imperfectly understood. We talk about constant Soviet efforts to undermine NATO and the Japanese-American alliance, but then note with relief the clumsiness, the inflexibility or the sheer stupidity of the Soviet leaders who have conducted these policies. A different—and, I think, more accurate—explanation is that the leaders of the Gromyko generation have actually been quite intelligent in their tactics toward the alliance, but have had very different goals than we have assumed.

The vast majority of men of the Brezhnev-Gromyko generation were born between 1900 and 1910 and were almost all thrust into high positions in the wake of the purges of 1937-1938. Men of this generation remember World War I; their fathers may have fought in the Russo-Japanese War and reminisced about it; they, themselves, were high officials in World War II. (Brezhnev was a political officer at the front, Dmitri Ustinov was a defense industry minister, and Gromyko was head of the American desk of the foreign ministry in 1939 and ambassador to the United States in 1943.) Thus, clichés about the Russian obsession with Germany and Japan are quite relevant to this generation, which has dominated the Soviet administrative system for nearly 50 years.

Basic Soviet foreign policy since the war has been based on the theory that international relations are determined by two contending camps. Stalin thought that the relations between the two had to be hostile, while his successors have thought—or at least hoped—that détente between them was possible. All, however, have insisted on Soviet control of the communist bloc, and all have essentially been willing to concede American dominion over the industrialized non-communist world.

Indeed, men such as Gromyko have even been tolerant of NATO and the Japanese-American alliance precisely because they were mechanisms to control Germany and Japan and to keep them non-nuclear. In addition, as the Soviet commentator, Aleksander Bovin, seemed to taunt Gromyko in the late winter, "a healthy ideological instinct is at work in the bipolar policy" and "a multipolar policy noticeably complicates the work of diplomats." Gromyko, of course, has been willing to play on alliance tensions as a means of influencing the United States, but he has rarely gone further. Those who warn against German revanchism and Japanese militarism in the Soviet press are, in fact, supporting this Gromyko line; real independence for these two former enemies would be against a long-term Soviet interest.

Recently, however, there have been advocates of a fundamental change in the direction of a more multipolar policy, in large part for reasons related to economic reform and domestic politics. They warn in the Soviet press of American "fascism" and the dangers of a first-strike strategy and advocate the need to seek allies against these dangers. This view contemplates much more radical changes toward the end of the decade than Gromyko would have ever considered, i.e., approaching Japan and Europe by such concessions as returning the southern Kurile islands to Japan, permitting far closer East German-West German economic ties, and encouraging equity ownership for foreign investment in the Soviet Union.

The second fundamental question for Gorbachev is the nature of Soviet policy in the Third World. If radical revolutions are likely to occur only in preindustrial countries, the Soviet Union is playing a losing game if it concentrates its policy on radical regimes and movements. It is betting on Nicaragua with its three million people and conceding Mexico with its 70 million to the United States. And it is doing this when it knows in its heart that Mexico is quite likely to draw Nicaragua tightly within its sphere of influence in the long run.

In the Soviet debates on the Third World, many Soviet analysts, most notably the best of them, Nodari Simoniya of the Institute of Oriental Studies, essentially argue that Marx was right: capitalism normally follows feudalism and the Third World is therefore basically on the Western European path of development. They conclude that the Soviet Union should concentrate its foreign policy on the important, industrializing, capitalist Third World countries. Soviet policy toward India is explicitly put forward as the model.

The third and most fundamental question on the Soviet agenda is the basic relationship to the West. In the West we analyze Soviet policy toward Europe almost exclusively in geostrategic terms. But these considerations are far from the only ones. An opening to the West in foreign policy has often been favored or opposed primarily because of the impact of exposing Russia to Western culture and ideology.

The battle in Russia on the proper relationship to the West has been a long and basic one. In the nineteenth century, the forces that we loosely call Westernizers were gradually winning over the forces we loosely call Slavophiles. Events such as the pogroms were the anxious response of traditionalist forces to trends in Russian development that they saw emerging as victorious. In this broader historical perspective, the Bolshevik revolution became a victory for many values within the Slavophile tradition—for the image of Russia as a country different from Western Europe, a country not to be corrupted by European values and institutions and a country that should civilize Europe rather than the opposite.

The issue of the relationship to the West was repeatedly fought out after the revolution—in the battle over recognition of the foreign debt and the monopoly of foreign trade in the early 1920s, over the continuation of the Grand Alliance in the mid-1940s, over the degree to open up the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s and the late 1960s. Now the issue is central once again, but the balance of forces is very different from the 1960s. Slavophile exclusivity has proved a failure in achieving the Slavophile goal of Russian dominance or even equality. Now those forces that want to integrate Russia more into the world—although not, of course, to make it identical with the West—can use the old slogans about catching up, about a foreign threat, about Russian equality and leadership. But they can now argue that only by attacking protectionism, only by subjecting the industrial managers to foreign competition, can these goals be achieved. They can now call for an opening to the West in the name of national defense. It is a winning argument.


Gorbachev comes to power with very little foreign policy experience. He handled himself well on trips to countries such as Canada and Great Britain, and he showed himself to be quite knowledgeable. He made a favorable impression on his British hosts, including some very hard-headed politicians. Foreign travel, however, is a different matter than having an interest in the substance of foreign policy. In England, Gorbachev became enlivened when people asked him about domestic policy, not when he talked about foreign policy; the conventional judgment that his overwhelming priority is domestic affairs is surely correct.

Where the conventional judgment about Gorbachev is wrong, however, is in the assumption that domestic policy can be isolated from foreign policy. If a prerequisite of economic reform is to subject industrialists to foreign competition, and if the central domestic political question is the relationship to Western ideas and institutions, then foreign policy is an intimate component of domestic policy.

As he surveys foreign policy, Gorbachev faces two major problems. The first is that domestic economic reform involves contradictory foreign policy imperatives. On the one hand, economic reform is politically very difficult, and the classic answer is for a leader to emphasize a foreign threat. On the other hand, the pressures that an increase in investment pose for social expenditures could be alleviated if military expenditures were reduced, while the emphasis on a foreign threat could actually lead to pressure for an increase in military expenditures. Moreover, any attack on protectionism is incompatible with a policy of isolationism and autarky.

Several answers to this dilemma suggest themselves. One is to emphasize the long-term threat rather than a short-term one. Military readiness and weapons procurement are extremely counterproductive economically. The long-term threat, by contrast, can be met by relying more on research and development, including basic computer and laser technologies. Such expenditures can be quite useful in helping to overcome the technological lag. In this sense, Star Wars and the Chinese modernization are perfect threats: neither is any danger for the next decade, but both pose an ill-defined yet potentially enormous danger over the long run.

Another way to resolve the conflicts between domestic and foreign policies is to move away from the old two-camp theory toward the multipolar theory. The United States could be singled out as the greatest threat, while fundamental concessions could be offered to Europe and Pacific Basin countries such as Japan and South Korea in order to guarantee a secure economic opening to the outside world. Such a policy differentiation would have the further political benefit of allowing a Soviet leader to call for an opening to the West, not in the name of "liberalism," but as a strategy of attack on the United States and its alliance system.

Andropov may have been moving in such a direction. In September 1983, after the KAL 007 incident, he warned in an interview against having "illusions" about dealing with the United States. While not rejecting détente as such, he seemed to be addressing his foreign minister and the validity of Gromyko’s America-oriented policy. This tentative Andropov line was reversed under Chernenko, and was symbolized by the growing cannonade of press attacks on German revanchism.

If the first problem that Gorbachev faced in March was the contradictory imperatives of domestic reform, his second major problem was Andrei Gromyko. Part of the Gromyko problem was related to policy, assuming that Gorbachev does, in fact, want to return to Andropov’s multipolarism. While Gromyko had accommodated himself to very different leaders over a 45-year period, it would have nevertheless been awkward to have a foreign minister who fundamentally opposed a shift from the old policy. Moreover, if Gromyko could be moved aside, this could be a signal of change in the way that Vyacheslav Molotov’s replacement of Maxim Litvinov was in 1939.

Probably an even more important part of the problem, however, was a personal one. Gromyko was the one Politburo member other than Gorbachev with real stature and the only one with real foreign policy experience. And what experience! He headed the American desk of the foreign ministry when Gorbachev was in the second grade and became foreign minister when John Foster Dulles was secretary of state and Gorbachev was two years out of college. Gorbachev may well respect and even like Gromyko, but he had to rebel against the situation from a personal point of view. Imagine how a new U.S. president would react in, say, 1988, if Dulles had been serving as secretary of state continually since the mid-1950s.

In the spring and early summer of 1985, Gorbachev solved an extraordinary number of his problems with a truly brilliant combination of moves. First, the press played down the themes of German revanchism and Japanese militarism, thus returning to the general approach of the Andropov period. In the Bitburg controversy of last May, it was President Reagan who was treated as a near-fascist in the Soviet press, not Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Gorbachev’s own speeches were sharply anti-American.

In July, Gorbachev removed Grigory Romanov from the Politburo in disgrace. Romanov had represented the military and the defense industries on the Politburo, and was a leading spokesman for the policy of stressing the near-term threat. Romanov’s slot on the Secretariat was given to a new appointee, Lev Zaykov, a former defense industry plant manager from Leningrad, and a man whom Gorbachev had personally installed as Leningrad first secretary in 1983. Romanov had not been a serious political threat to Gorbachev in recent years, and the Soviet military had never been strong during succession periods. Romanov’s removal, however, dramatized Gorbachev’s authority to those at home and abroad who had a different opinion on these questions.

At the same time, Gorbachev relinquished his right to the chairmanship of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and returned to the more normal pre-1977 pattern of reserving the post for a ceremonial figure or a defeated rival. Not only did he give the post to Gromyko, thereby removing him from the foreign ministry, but in his nominating speech Gorbachev emphasized the importance of the Supreme Soviet Presidium’s role in supervising local Soviets.

Of course, this step in itself did not solve Gorbachev’s problem, for Gromyko remains on the Politburo. If someone used to deferring to Gromyko (worst of all, a foreign ministry subordinate) had been named foreign minister, it would have taken years for him to achieve real independence. The appointment of an outspoken enemy of Gromyko would have caused bad feelings, and such a man still could not have been promoted to full Politburo membership at once. The selection of Eduard Shevardnadze as foreign minister was the totally unexpected masterstroke that achieved the objective.


Shevardnadze is a man with very little experience in foreign policy and, judging by his speeches, a man without a great deal of interest in it. Unlike most other Politburo members, he did not even mention the subject in his Supreme Soviet election speech in February 1985. Thus, his appointment ensures that Gorbachev will be his own foreign minister.

Shevardnadze, however, has personal ties with the general secretary. He was Komsomol leader in Georgia from 1957 to 1961, precisely the same time that Gorbachev held an analogous post in the bordering province of Stavropol. The two must have met at that time. Moreover, shortly after Shevardnadze became first secretary in Georgia in 1972, Brezhnev encouraged a number of republics to conduct experiments in agricultural administration. Georgia entered the "competition" in 1974, and its particular experiment was endorsed by Gorbachev when he was the agricultural secretary of the Central Committee. In the process of implementing the system nationwide, Gorbachev consulted Shevardnadze frequently. Shevardnadze is a man with whom Gorbachev can work easily, but with his lack of experience there will be no question which of the two is dominant.

If one is to judge by the newspaper of the Georgian Central Committee, Zarya Vostoka—and there are subtle but substantial differences in foreign coverage from one republican newspaper to another—Shevardnadze is quite enthusiastic about negotiations and dialogue. For example, the Georgian newspaper covered the Gromyko-Shultz talks in Geneva in January favorably in comparison with many other newspapers (notably, that of the Ukraine, where the hard-liner, Vladimir Shcherbitsky, is first secretary). It paints a more favorable picture of the need for negotiations in the Middle East than does, for example, the newspaper of neighboring (and Muslim) Azerbaidzhan, where Geydar Aliyev (now a deputy premier) was first secretary.

Shevardnadze gives every impression of being an ideal foreign spokesman for the first media-oriented general secretary. He is handsome, speaks with a light and even humorous touch and has shown a real interest in public opinion in Georgia (both in conducting public-opinion polling and in trying to influence public opinion with a sophisticated newspaper). All of the talk about the "dour" foreign minister that marked the Gromyko period is now likely to disappear from the foreign press.

The real question is Shevardnadze’s capability and inclinations as a foreign policy adviser to a general secretary who also has little experience. He was a strong supporter of economic reform and of promoting exports early in the Chernenko period, and thus should have no trouble subordinating foreign policy to reform. And he should have no problem with a policy that becomes more Europe-oriented. He is likely to be a strong supporter of a policy that opens the country more to the West in general. Georgia was a Christian country, whose church had long ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, and which joined the Russian empire in the nineteenth century more or less voluntarily as protection against Iran and Turkey. The Georgians have looked upon themselves as a European, not a Middle Eastern, country, and they tend to look at an opening to the West and a more relaxed Soviet system as a way to ensure more leeway for Georgia within the U.S.S.R.

But does Shevardnadze have the conceptual framework or experience to conduct a complicated multipolar policy? As Aleksander Bovin warned, such a policy does "complicate the work of diplomats." Much will depend on whom Shevardnadze relies for advice. Gorbachev still must change the 81-year-old and 76-year-old Central Committee secretaries responsible for foreign relations, and he does not yet have a new personal assistant for foreign relations. There is a strong possibility—perhaps even a probability—that Gorbachev will follow the examples of Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy and Nixon, and leave his foreign minister to conduct public diplomacy while pulling actual policymaking control into his own office—that is, into the Central Committee apparatus.

He already has selected a longtime specialist on foreign relations (and the sharpest public critic of the Gromyko foreign policy), Aleksander Yakovlev, as head of the propaganda department of the Central Committee—a department that will once again take over the role which has been handled in recent years by the foreign information department of the Central Committee. Yakovlev’s writings are virulently anti-American. His recent book, From Truman to Reagan, is quite extreme, even for recent years, and it won the Soviet equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize in May of this year. His recent writings have been quite favorable about Europe and especially Japan. If Gorbachev is going to combine a strong anti-American theme with a more general opening to the West, Yakovlev seems the ideal man to be in charge of the Soviet media.

Gorbachev obviously sees himself as a strong leader, and such leaders surround themselves with lieutenants of conflicting views. Only the future will show whose ideas he will ultimately adopt. The first key test will come at the summit meeting with President Reagan in Geneva. Gromyko oriented his policy toward the United States and sought agreements for agreements’ sake. The Soviet Union was even willing to pay fairly high prices for agreements, for example, Jewish emigration in exchange for the SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) treaty. The summit will provide some indication of whether this pattern will continue.

That Soviet policy may be shifting was indicated by reports of contacts between Soviet and Israeli diplomats. If these reports are correct, it may be that the Soviet Union will no longer accept a linkage between U.S. policy and Jewish emigration, but instead will deal with the "center of power" in the Middle East on that question, Israel.

One also suspects that the Soviet Union may be modifying its position on Star Wars, agreeing to a separation of research from testing and perhaps even agreeing to tie such a limited agreement to cuts in offensive weapons. However, it is likely that the Soviets will be quite rigorous in defining testing and quite insistent on the inclusion of anti-satellite testing within a reaffirmation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Thus, while one can imagine some type of agreement at the summit—perhaps a reaffirmation of the SALT limits, with a second new type of missile permitted (the SS-24 Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile and the U.S. Midgetman)—not much movement on key issues seems likely.

Gorbachev may well play the summit as no more than a stopgap. He could then use the meeting to complete the movement of policy away from the Gromyko line. To Gromyko and to the Europeans he could say: "We tried. We even talked with the devil, but Andropov was right. One cannot have illusions about the possibility of dealing with the Americans." Indeed, a flawed summit would give even Gromyko a way to suggest gracefully that a new strategy must be tried. Star Wars would remain the threat that drives Soviet economic reform.


The way in which Gorbachev’s foreign policy plays out will not, however, depend on him alone. In chess, one must react to an opponent’s moves as well as plan one’s own, and a combination that is appropriate in one circumstance is not the best in another. It may be that Gorbachev is deliberately postponing some personnel and policy decisions until after the summit in order to judge what he needs to do.

Of course, in drawing on the analogies to chess, we cannot go too far. Gorbachev is playing a different game. In diplomatic chess, one also must conduct one’s moves in ways that are as obscure—or more obscure—to onlookers as to one’s opponents. President Reagan discovered early in his administration that it was counterproductive in Europe to combine a hard-line policy toward the Soviet Union with hard-line rhetoric and an unwillingness to negotiate. He changed his public posture, and the results were gratifying. Gorbachev surely has learned this lesson, and his desire to influence the Europeans will require him, too, to give the appearance of reasonableness toward the United States, regardless of the core of his policy.

Ultimately, however, the real question is: which game is Gorbachev playing? Clearly, he is playing the game of economic reform, and his foreign policy will be heavily influenced by that fact. He will not be able to conduct an effective foreign policy unless he reduces the level of Soviet secrecy. But to what extent does he have the independent goal of integrating Russia back into European civilization? By choosing to open his party congress on the anniversary of Khrushchev’s secret speech, he has ensured world press attention to that historic event. He has used other signals, such as naming a lawyer to the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences who has written in Pravda about the inviolability of the mails and telephone conversations. One of the first Pravda editorials after Gorbachev took office emphasized the need for honesty in history; his own acceptance speech highlighted the need for publicity in government.

It is precisely with such an accumulation of subtleties that the Soviet Union initiates major changes in policy, but there are many harbingers that do not have their spring. Economic reform is politically very difficult, and the last thing that Gorbachev will tolerate is organized dissident activity or agitation for free trade unions while reforms are under way. As in the mid-1950s, political change will be contradictory and gradual, if it comes at all. As 1953 was in fact a major watershed, so, in retrospect, we may look back to 1985 as another great divide in Soviet history. At this point, the most we can say with confidence is that the fundamental questions of Russia’s relationship to the West are under debate, and that the new Soviet leader is a chess player of a quality that we have not seen for many decades. The West must give the most serious consideration to Gorbachev’s strategy and to the best ways to seize the opportunities that are offered and the challenges that are posed.

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  • Jerry F. Hough is J. B. Duke Professor of Political Science at Duke University, and a staff member of the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He is the author of the forthcoming The Struggle for the Third World: Soviet Debates and American Options.
  • More By Jerry F. Hough