Over the past five or six years, and particularly since the death of Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982, a wide-ranging reassessment has been taking place in elite Soviet policy circles concerning the Third World.

This reassessment has led to a distinct shift in the way the Soviets perceive and discuss developing countries, reflected in such documents as the new party program published in October 1985, and the report of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to the recently concluded 27th Party Congress. Gone are the ringing offers of military and economic support for the "liberated countries." Instead the program says only that the Soviet party "has profound sympathy for the aspirations of peoples who have experienced the heavy and demeaning yoke of colonial servitude"—a tepid phrase used repeatedly by both Gorbachev and his patron and predecessor, Yuri Andropov, to signal the limits of Soviet support for Third World clients. The radical "socialist-oriented" states—regimes like Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Afghanistan that came to power with the help of the Soviet Union and its allies in the 1970s—must, according to the party program, develop their economies "mainly through their own efforts." The Soviet Union will provide economic aid, training and defense assistance (in that order), but only "to the extent of its abilities." The document then leaves the subject of Moscow’s Marxist-Leninist allies altogether and suggests that "real grounds exist for cooperation [between the Soviet Union and] young states which are traveling the capitalist road," that is, countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the oil-producing nations of the Persian Gulf with market-oriented economies and strong political ties with the West.

The significance of these unremarkable phrases is perfectly clear to anyone who has followed past Soviet pronouncements on the Third World. No more is heard the optimism of the previous party program (adopted in 1961) that "a mighty wave of national liberation revolutions is sweeping away the colonial system and undermining the foundations of imperialism," or that socialism is capable of transforming "a backward country into an industrial country within the lifetime of a single generation."

Gorbachev’s Party Congress address de-emphasizes the Third World. Gone is the assertive self-congratulation found in Brezhnev’s addresses to the 25th and 26th Party Congresses in 1976 and 1981, in which he celebrated advances of Soviet clients in Southeast Asia and Africa, noted the trend toward increasingly radical socialist solutions to economic development questions, and praised Moscow’s military role in preventing the "export of counterrevolution." Gorbachev’s speech omitted separate discussion of the Third World altogether, mentions not a single Soviet client by name, and accords no special status to "Socialist-oriented" countries.

The rhetorical turnabout implies a sharply diminished Soviet interest in the Third World—indeed, a profound disillusionment with the activism of the second half of the 1970s and its accompanying support for marginal Marxist-Leninist states.

But anyone expecting these shifts in Soviet pronouncements to signal a retreat from established positions will be disappointed. Soviet foreign policy in the early 1980s has stressed consolidation; the changing Kremlin leadership is disinclined to take on costly new commitments and hopes to limit the expense of existing ones. Such consolidation, however, has not led Moscow to contemplate seriously negotiating its way out of places like Afghanistan or Cambodia. Indeed, under Gorbachev the Soviets have demonstrated a renewed willingness to expend resources and to take tough measures to back up important clients like Angola, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Libya.


Moscow’s reassessment of the Third World is directed against the foreign policy legacy of the late Brezhnev years, that is, the period of extraordinary Soviet activism that began with the joint Soviet-Cuban intervention in Angola in 1975, continued through the second joint Soviet-Cuban involvement on behalf of Ethiopia in 1977-78 and Moscow’s support for Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978, and culminated in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

The activism of this period resulted in an increase in the number of Moscow’s Third World clients as well as a shift in the political character of its client base. The number of self-professed Marxist-Leninist clients rose from three (in addition to Moscow’s traditional "bourgeois nationalist" allies like India, Syria or Algeria) in the mid-1960s to almost 20 a decade and a half later.

The new clients of the 1970s tended to be small, weak states, more susceptible to Soviet influence and control. They lent each other mutual support when threatened with "counterrevolution" and voted consistently with the Soviet Union in international forums. Angola, Mozambique, South Yemen, Afghanistan and Ethiopia established formal vanguard parties; these elite, centralized organizations modeled on the Soviet Communist Party provided an institutional basis for continued Soviet influence that would not be dependent on the fate or whims of individual leaders. With East German assistance these states set up internal security apparatuses to keep themselves in power.

The Soviets realized concrete military advantages, gaining access to new facilities in Vietnam, Angola, Ethiopia and South Yemen. The evident success of Soviet and Cuban intervention in bringing their friends to power gave Soviet foreign policy a dynamism and credibility that it had lacked. Soviet prestige also profited from the espousal of Marxism-Leninism by young radicals in the Third World—the latter being virtually the only people in the world who still seemed to believe in this moribund ideology.

Despite these evident successes, there was a dark side to the Soviet position in the Third World bequeathed by Brezhnev to his successors. The problematic character of this legacy was first discussed by officials responsible for Soviet Third World policy in the Central Committee’s International Department before being taken up by the party’s top leadership. In this as in other areas of policy, Brezhnev’s death in November 1982 seems to have broken a logjam, and it permitted a more thorough airing of three broad issues: the economic cost of the Third World empire, the impact on U.S.-Soviet relations of Soviet activism, and the poor economic and political performance of Moscow’s recently acquired Marxist-Leninist allies.

With regard to economic cost, it was clear that a number of political leaders resented the growing burden of military and economic assistance to Third World clients. In addition to the steadily increasing subsidy to Cuba (currently estimated at $5 billion a year), Soviet activism in the late 1970s saddled Moscow with costly new multibillion-dollar obligations to countries like Vietnam, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Angola. The total cost of the Soviet empire rose, according to one recent calculation, from an estimated range of $13.6 billion to $21.8 billion in 1971, to between $35.9 billion and $46.5 billion in 1980. At the same time, the growth rate of the Soviet GNP fell precipitously, due to a declining rate of growth in labor productivity. According to the CIA, the Soviet leadership decided to cut back the rate of growth in both investment and defense spending.

The most prominent critic of open-ended assistance to Third World clients was Brezhnev’s immediate successor, Yuri Andropov. His statements reveal a consistent skepticism concerning heavy Soviet involvement in the Third World. In June 1983 he delivered a lengthy statement setting forth his views on relations with the developing world in which he emphasized important qualifications on Soviet support:

We contribute also, to the extent of our ability, to [the socialist-oriented states’] economic development. But on the whole their economic development, just as the entire social progress of those countries, can be, of course, only the result of the work of their peoples and of a correct policy of their leadership.

These phrases would be repeated in the party program almost verbatim more than two years later, as would several others from that speech. Andropov was the first senior political leader to revive the dictum of Lenin and Khrushchev that the Soviet Union’s chief influence on the world revolutionary movement comes about less through direct economic assistance than as a result of the force of its example as a developed socialist society. Put another way, the Soviet Union helps its friends best by helping itself first.

The second point of criticism of the Brezhnev legacy concerned the impact of Soviet activities in the Third World on relations with the United States. Throughout the period of détente in the 1970s, Soviet spokesmen consistently asserted Moscow’s "right" to support national liberation movements and simultaneously pursue normalized relations and strategic arms control with the United States. They resisted American attempts to link behavior in the Third World to overall East-West relations. Whatever the theoretical merits of this argument, by the end of the decade it was clear that the United States would not accept this Soviet interpretation of détente: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led directly to the Carter Administration’s withdrawal of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks treaty from Senate consideration, just as the whole sequence of earlier Soviet interventions had poisoned the well of U.S.-Soviet understanding.

Since the early 1980s there has been evidence of a recognition in some Soviet circles of the deleterious consequences of Third World activism for the larger East-West relationship. Not surprisingly, this was most apparent among those Soviet commentators concerned primarily with relations with the United States. For example, both Fedor Burlatskiy, head of the philosophy department of the Institute of Social Sciences, and Aleksander Bovin, political commentator and occasional mouthpiece for Brezhnev and Andropov, suggested that measures be taken to insulate the central relationship from developments in the Third World, either through new superpower "rules" or through regional negotiations. During the "imminence of war" campaign to block Euromissile deployment, Andropov stated quite frankly that the worsening of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union under the Reagan Administration made Soviet support for Third World allies vastly more risky and less feasible.

The final criticism of the Brezhnev legacy concerned the emphasis placed on Marxist-Leninist regimes and vanguard parties. Moscow’s favored clients of the 1970s did not, as a whole, prosper in the decade following their arrival in power. They tended to be economically backward even by Third World standards, states whose developmental problems were compounded by overzealous efforts to transform their economies along socialist lines. In Mozambique and South Yemen, agricultural production dropped sharply for several years in a row, and Addis Ababa’s (and Moscow’s) inability to feed the Ethiopian population became an international scandal. In many parts of Africa, socialism had increasingly come to be associated with poverty.

Perhaps more serious were political difficulties: precisely because these regimes proclaimed adherence to Marxism-Leninism, they tended to be narrowly based, lacking the broad nationalist legitimacy enjoyed by the previous generation of leaders like Nasser, Sukarno and Nehru. The fact that many of them had come to power with the help of the Soviet Union, Cuba and other socialist states, or depended on them for continuing support, made them suspect in the eyes of their own populations.

It is by now a commonplace observation that for the first time a large number of pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist regimes—including Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Cambodia and Ethiopia—have come under attack by indigenous guerrillas, forcing Cuba, Vietnam and the Soviet Union itself to deploy large numbers of combat troops in a counterinsurgency role. In an ironic turnabout, Moscow now faces the possibility of a Marxist-Leninist regime being overthrown by an anti-communist national liberation movement, a prospect heightened by the Reagan Administration’s policy of supporting the guerrillas.

The Soviets, of course, nowhere openly admitted that their clients were unpopular or faced domestic insurgencies. Nor was there unhappiness with the Marxist-Leninist vanguard party as the theoretical solution to the problem of influence in the Third World. What many Soviet commentators did, rather, was to distance themselves from their erstwhile allies and raise serious doubts as to whether the Marxism-Leninism of countries like Angola, Ethiopia or Afghanistan was anything more than declaratory. By the early 1980s, the Soviet theoretical literature was replete with remarkably frank criticisms of self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist clients for such mistakes as "leftism," "voluntarism" and making a "premature transition into socialism," admitting that these errors had in many cases alienated the leaderships from the "broad mass of the population."

The emerging consensus that most self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist clients were simply not sufficiently developed to permit their conversion into genuine socialist societies was neatly summed up by Andropov: "It is one thing to proclaim socialism as one’s aim and quite another to build it. For this, a certain level of productive forces, culture, and social consciousness are needed." The current party program continues this downgrading of vanguard parties. The civil war that broke out between two Marxist factions in South Yemen in January 1986 could only have confirmed Soviet skepticism, since it broke out within the "vanguard" Yemen Socialist Party. The conflict demonstrated the tribal mentality underlying the party’s thin veneer of socialist ideology and the weakness of Soviet control despite penetration by various socialist bloc states of South Yemen’s party and internal security organs.

Indeed, the performance of the Third World Marxist-Leninist clients has been so poor that at least one influential Soviet official responsible for Third World affairs has suggested shifting emphasis away from them to large, geopolitically important countries with relatively well-developed economies like Mexico, Brazil and India. This approach, endorsed in the 1985 party program, would seek to exploit the "contradictions" (i.e., conflicts of interest) between capitalist-oriented Third World states and the United States and other developed Western countries. It represents a return to a Khrushchevite Catholicism toward the developing world without Khrushchev’s illusions that countries courted by the Soviet Union would one day become communist.

The bottom line of the broad-ranging Soviet reassessment of the early 1980s is clear: the Soviet leadership would like to reduce the costs of its Third World empire in favor of the development of its own economy; within its empire, it would like to shift emphasis away from weak, narrowly based regimes to larger, more influential ones, even if this means cultivating capitalist-oriented states in place of Marxist-Leninist regimes. These conclusions are not those of some obscure academic specialist, but have been endorsed at the highest levels of the party.

But, to paraphrase Andropov, it is one thing to proclaim a new policy, and another to implement it. How has the critique of the Brezhnev legacy translated into current behavior, and how might it be manifested in the future?


Soviet interest in the Third World can be measured in two ways: by the risks Moscow is willing to take on behalf of clients, established or prospective; and in the military and economic resources it allocates to them.

As evidence of a lower risk-taking propensity in the early 1980s, one can point to the fact that the Soviets have not intervened in the Third World on a scale comparable to their initiatives of the later 1970s, including their invasion of Afghanistan. While the absence of large interventions clearly reflects an absence of easy opportunities, it is not difficult to imagine certain instances in which the Soviet leadership could have exhibited less restraint. For example, Moscow did not move beyond routine airspace violations to attacks on Afghan mujahedeen bases and camps across the border in Pakistan in the face of steadily increasing U.S. support for the insurgency. Nor did it make serious efforts to sponsor Baluchi separatism and otherwise destabilize Pakistan, as some observers had feared at the beginning of the decade. The Soviets have up to now been fairly cautious in marketing weapons to Iran or excessively adding to Persian Gulf instability by encouraging ethnic or religious separatism. The Soviets have been cautious in avoiding political contacts with the New People’s Army in the Philippines, and even indulged in the misplaced opportunism of cultivating President and Mrs. Marcos as they were falling from power.

In Mozambique, Moscow’s unwillingness to expend more resources has had a very damaging effect on its political position. The ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) was a charter member of Moscow’s "second generation" of clients and converted itself into a formal vanguard party in 1977. Since 1980 Moscow has merely stood by as Maputo gradually slipped further into the South African orbit, under the relentless pressure of a guerrilla war waged by the Pretoria-backed Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), and the regime’s own economic mismanagement. While the Soviet Union increased its military and economic assistance for Maputo incrementally during the early 1980s and made symbolic gestures like the dispatch of naval combatants to Mozambican ports, it did not undertake a major intervention to rescue FRELIMO through, for example, the deployment of Cuban or Soviet combat forces. As a result, FRELIMO was forced to turn first to the West (including its former colonial masters, the Portuguese) and eventually to South Africa itself, a process that culminated in the March 1984 Nkomati ceasefire agreement.

Moscow’s failure to provide Mozambique with economic assistance appears to have been much more critical in causing this turn than its failure to provide military security. In 1979, FRELIMO security chief Sergio Vieira warned his Soviet hosts that "economics is the key to a revolution’s viability. We would not like to be a model of ‘poor socialism’." Between 1978 and 1982, Mozambique received an estimated $175 million in economic support from Moscow, less than one-tenth of the aid and credits received from Western countries during the same period. Moscow and its East European allies denied Mozambique membership in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance when the latter applied in 1980, since this would have required a costly "leveling up" of its economy.

In spite of these examples, it is very clear that the reassessment has not implied an across-the-board slackening of commitment to important clients around the world. Even as Mozambique was slipping away from Moscow, the latter took considerable pains to protect its investment in Angola, where Soviet-Cuban prestige was much more heavily engaged.

The Soviets concluded a multibillion-dollar military and economic aid package with the Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA) regime in Luanda in 1983. They also directed a major military offensive against Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) late in the summer of 1985 (in which Soviet advisers participated in the fighting down to the battalion level) and are currently preparing for another offensive in 1986. In these measures the Soviets again collaborated with the Cubans, who raised their troop presence from a low of perhaps 17,000 men at the beginning of the decade to the current level of approximately 35,000.

Indeed, if one surveys Soviet behavior in other parts of the Third World during the early 1980s, it is clear that Mozambique is an isolated case. Where necessary, the Soviets have been willing to take active military measures to support existing clients, even when involving risks comparable to those of the previous decade. The most significant of these was when Moscow deployed its own combat forces to man air defense sites in Syria in the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon war. When the decision to deploy SA-5 missiles was taken in August or September 1982, Ariel Sharon was still Israel’s defense minister; Moscow could not have known that it could remain aloof from a renewal of fighting between Israel and Syria.

The Soviets have been mounting offensives of steadily increasing intensity against Afghan mujahedeen positions in places like the Panjshir Valley each summer for the past five years, even as they conduct desultory talks on withdrawal with Pakistan. The Soviets supported not only the MPLA offensive against UNITA in 1985, but also Vietnam’s dry-season offensive against the Cambodian resistance in November 1984. The Soviet presence in Southeast Asia has been growing steadily, with the stationing of Badger long-range bombers at their base in Cam Ranh Bay in late 1983. The Soviets have traditionally been very wary of providing Kim Il Sung with modern weapons for fear that he would go to war; but as a result of the North Korean leader’s visit to Moscow in 1984, Moscow agreed to transfer to North Korea MiG-23 fighter aircraft.

By and large, Moscow has shown a similar willingness to pay whatever necessary to maintain its political position with established clients. The growth rate of its large subsidy to Cuba has tapered off somewhat since 1980 with the ending of the period of intense Cuban combat activity in Africa, but remains substantial, as does that of the subsidy to Vietnam. The Soviets concluded three multibillion-dollar arms deals with India in the early 1980s, which included rights to manufacture under license advanced MiG-27, -29 and -31 aircraft. Soviet assistance to Nicaragua has mounted steadily, including a commitment for $200 million obtained by President Daniel Ortega during his visit to Moscow in April 1985. Deliveries to Moscow’s major Arab clients—Syria, Iraq and Libya—have all increased during the 1980s, though economic considerations compete with political ones in explaining Soviet motivations. While military assistance to certain clients like Ethiopia and the two Yemens may have fallen slightly, this probably reflects the clients’ lower immediate needs rather than an across-the-board decision to cut back.

Kremlinological evidence notwithstanding, early indications suggest that Gorbachev is, if anything, trying to stake out a more combative position in the Third World. Already during his tenure in office the Soviet Union has supported major offensives against the guerrillas in Angola and Afghanistan, and concluded a highly visible arms deal with Nicaragua in the immediate aftermath of Congress’ voting down military aid to the "contras." In December 1985, Moscow provided Libya with SA-5 antiaircraft missiles just as a crisis between Washington and Tripoli over a terrorist incident was breaking.

Thus, whatever the practical policy consequences of the recent Soviet reassessment of the Third World, it is clear that they do not include a diminution of Soviet support for existing clients. This should not surprise us: retrenchment need not imply withdrawal and a sharply reduced willingness to live up to commitments, as it did for the United States during and after Vietnam. Soviet policy in the early 1980s is best described as a kind of "muscular consolidation," that is, greater caution in taking on new commitments, and concentration on the problem of protecting established Soviet positions. In the short run this has implied increasing levels of political and material assistance where it is already entrenched, despite a desire to reduce costs over the long term.


This characterization of Soviet policies of the past few years does not seem to provide fully satisfactory answers to the issues raised by the internal reassessment. The period of consolidation has neither brought about substantial monetary savings—just the contrary—nor an appreciable change in the character of Moscow’s client base. It is possible that this has been due to the prolonged succession process, which has brought three general secretaries to power in as many years and has weakened top-level direction of Soviet foreign policy. Can we expect a much sharper change in direction once Gorbachev consolidates his own domestic power base?

In the political sphere, Gorbachev’s line of march is toward cultivation of key capitalist-oriented Third World countries—by implication at the expense of radical but weak Marxist-Leninist clients. Early evidence of this orientation may be Moscow’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Oman and the United Arab Emirates in 1985. Such a shift fits in nicely with the multilateralist thrust of Gorbachev’s overall foreign policy, which has sought to improve the atmospherics of Soviet relations with influential American allies in Western Europe and Japan. The Soviets, of course, have always kept open their lines of communication with the capitalist Third World; in the late 1970s, for example, Moscow assiduously cultivated the right-wing junta in Buenos Aires in order to protect its rapidly growing economic ties with Argentina.

But it is far from clear how a shift in emphasis to the capitalist Third World could be implemented much beyond the current state of affairs. Given the enormous amount of prestige invested in acquiring and keeping its Marxist-Leninist clients from the 1970s, the Soviet Union cannot abandon them now that the project of transplanting Leninism to the Third World has gone sour, any more than it could abandon bourgeois nationalist allies like India in the 1970s.

An example of Moscow’s dilemma is Angola: however disappointing its performance, the Soviets are stuck with the MPLA, both in view of the efforts of the socialist bloc in 1975 to put it into place, and because of the special ideological status it was accorded in the past. A significant lessening of Soviet-Cuban support could very possibly lead to its overthrow by UNITA, and this in turn would have adverse consequences for the Soviet Union’s status as a great power. The same is true of Afghanistan. Despite Moscow’s encouraging noises about interest in withdrawal at the time of last November’s summit meeting between Gorbachev and President Reagan, the Soviets will have to consider carefully the implications for their worldwide position—including the situation in Soviet Central Asia itself—if they appear to be retreating under pressure from a Western-supported Islamic insurgency, an act that will inevitably look more like weakness than statesmanship.

Renewed emphasis on the capitalist Third World poses another problem as well: it is not clear what the Soviet Union has to offer large, geopolitically important states like Mexico and Brazil. Obviously, Moscow’s package of internal and external security measures, so important to the survival of a small Marxist-Leninist regime like Angola, is of limited value to larger and more self-confident states. While the Soviets have had profitable economic dealings with Argentina in the past, their economic competitiveness in the Third World is dwarfed by that of the Western industrial countries, both as a market and as a source of technology or finished goods. Soviet relations with Brazil, which is itself a major exporter of arms, will never resemble those with South Yemen, let alone Cuba. The Soviet Union can at most hope to establish diplomatic relations with a few capitalist countries and play a marginally more important role in the politics of some regions.

In the economic sphere, the message of the recent reassessment is straightforward: concentrate on building the Soviet economy at home and discontinue pouring resources into dubious new Third World adventures. But it is difficult to see what opportunities Gorbachev will have for saving substantial amounts of money.

The lion’s share of the Soviet "foreign assistance" budget for the Third World (including both military and economic aid) goes to Cuba and Vietnam, which occupy positions much like Israel and Egypt for the United States. If the Soviets are to conserve resources on a scale that will have any considerable effect on the domestic Soviet economy, they will have to start economizing here. In the Soviet view, however, Cuba and Vietnam are not even part of the Third World, but full-fledged "socialist" countries on a par with the East European allies; the Cuban and Vietnamese portfolios are not even handled by the Central Committee’s International Department, but by the Liaison with Socialist Countries Department within the Central Committee. Like Israel and Egypt in the U.S. foreign assistance budget, their share of the pie may be virtually sacrosanct.

This means that budget cuts will have to be made in the tier of clients below Cuba and Vietnam—states like Angola, Ethiopia, Syria and India. But not only will the savings available from these clients be considerably smaller, any cuts will have much more damaging political consequences. The Soviet Union already has a poor reputation among its clients as a source of support for economic development, a factor that played an important role in the turn of countries like Mozambique away from the Soviet Union. Should Moscow decide nonetheless to cut current aid levels, the United States and other Western countries would obviously be presented with opportunities to encourage the defection of further clients from the Soviet camp.

The one area where Gorbachev has a much greater degree of flexibility is in deciding whether to take on new clients and commitments when opportunities arise. We can expect the present Soviet leadership to be more selective in responding to appeals for help from revolutionary movements or regimes than the Kremlin leadership of the 1970s, particularly if these appeals come from small radical Marxist-Leninist groups in weak, economically backward countries. But this conclusion can be stretched too far: the Soviets’ postulated lower propensity to exploit new opportunities applies only to situations whose risks and benefits are comparable to those of the previous decade. It by no means implies that the Soviets would avoid cultivating relations with a communist Philippines, should the New People’s Army ever take power after Marcos, or that Moscow would not intervene in a chaotic post-Khomeini Iran. In both cases, but particularly the latter, the risks and benefits are larger by an order of magnitude than adventures like Angola or the Horn of Africa; Moscow may find the potential gains so great as to overwhelm the restraining considerations.

Gorbachev’s future choices are constrained in many ways. He does not have attractive alternatives either to exchange his current clients for ones of a higher quality, or to save substantial amounts of money. Indeed, it is likely that he will have to pay an incrementally increasing bill simply to stay where he is. As a new leader with little foreign policy experience, he has a strong incentive to demonstrate to both internal and external audiences a certain toughness in support of Third World allies that have come under open pressure from the United States. This may account for his initial stance in support of Angola, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Libya. In the longer run, there is no reason why Gorbachev could not constrain Third World expenditures if he were willing to take some political risks. To date, Gorbachev has spoken a great deal about major reorientations in both domestic and foreign policy without making the fundamental structural reforms or concessions necessary to bring them about. If this also comes to characterize his policy toward the Third World, then the inconclusive pattern of behavior of the past five years is likely to persist for the remainder of the decade.


A crucial variable affecting the level of Soviet activism and commitment in the Third World is the policy of the United States. The Soviet reassessment was brought about in no small measure by America’s somewhat belated reaction to Soviet activism in the late 1970s. As we have seen, the Soviets have taken some account of the subversive effect that their behavior had on the broader U.S.-Soviet relationship, and of how the arrival of a more belligerent Reagan Administration raised the dangers of superpower confrontation and therefore restricted Soviet options for supporting clients. In this respect the unraveling of détente that began in the late 1970s has had a salutary effect. American support for the Afghan mujahedeen and the contras in Nicaragua (together with Chinese backing of the Khmer resistance and South African patronage of UNITA and RENAMO) have accentuated the problems of Moscow’s clients by damaging Soviet prestige, costing the socialist bloc economic resources and effort, and forcing the Soviet political leadership to reconsider the wisdom of taking on such shaky commitments.

To the extent that the Soviets have been forced to reconsider the costs and consequences of Third World expansionism, the reassessment has been all to the good. But Moscow’s unwillingness to discuss seriously negotiated solutions to regional conflicts—reflected in its unbending positions on Afghanistan and Cambodia—raises the question of whether the reassessment has gone far enough. Whatever second thoughts Soviet specialists and political leaders may be having, the Soviet Union cannot be compared to the United States at the close of the Vietnam War, with that conflict’s massive impact on American elite opinions and social fabric. This suggests that the present would be an inopportune time to ease the pressure on exposed Soviet positions, which might relieve the Soviet leadership of the responsibility for making difficult decisions in the future.

At the same time, the admission of vulnerability implicit in the Soviet reassessment suggests that the moment might be right for a somewhat different emphasis in American policy. The United States can make use of a number of different instruments in dealing with the Soviets and their clients in the Third World, including outright military pressure, economic incentives of aid, trade and investment, or political and diplomatic means. The "Reagan Doctrine" thus far has primarily emphasized the first of these. Military pressure plays an extremely important role in driving up the costs of the Soviet empire. But since not one anti-communist insurgency is likely to defeat outright the regime it is fighting, military pressure alone is not likely to achieve a reduction of Soviet influence.

Nor will economic inducements work in isolation from other means. Much of the Soviet reassessment has centered around the costs of the empire, and many Western observers have pointed out that Moscow’s inability to provide its clients with sufficient economic assistance is a major vulnerability that the West can exploit. But the Soviets have been aware of this problem too.

For some time they have been counseling their clients not to cut their economic ties with the global capitalist economic order and to accept Western assistance, while leaving their political/military security apparatus in the hands of the socialist bloc. The Soviets thereby maintain their political influence while allowing the West to pick up the economic bill. A good example of this was Ethiopia, where the Marxist-Leninist government received massive Western humanitarian assistance without changing its relationship to Moscow or having to alter the disastrous policies that were in large measure responsible for having brought on the famine in the first place. Showering Soviet clients with economic aid and investment without tying that aid to certain clear standards of political performance risks playing directly into Moscow’s hands.

The United States needs to combine military pressure and economic inducements in a political framework reflecting the real possibilities of each Third World region. In a case like Afghanistan, this involves direct negotiations with Moscow to secure the eventual withdrawal of Soviet forces, while in most others it requires efforts to wean vulnerable clients away from their Soviet mentors. Earlier successful efforts to break clients out of the Soviet orbit, such as the U.S. courtship of Egypt in the 1970s and South Africa’s handling of Mozambique, invariably involved a careful combination of military sticks with economic and political carrots. The Administration appears to be moving in this direction with President Reagan’s proposal for regional negotiations in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in October 1985. The choice of format for such talks requires careful consideration, however, since few countries can be expected to retreat from established positions or change sides altogether under the scrutiny of open negotiations.

Moscow will not be happy about attempts to break clients out of its orbit, and at some point will be forced to respond. It is important not to overestimate Soviet weaknesses, particularly in the military sphere, which traditionally has been an area of comparative advantage for Moscow. While the Soviets were embarrassed by UNITA’s successes in the early 1980s, they eventually responded with massive aid to Luanda and a major offensive that seriously weakened Savimbi’s organization, to the point where earlier Western hopes for the MPLA’s overthrow have been replaced by fears for UNITA’s survival. A similar scenario may unfold should the United States dramatically increase the quality of weapons going into Afghanistan.

But if the United States is willing to live with these risks in the short run, compelling the Soviets to escalate their economic and military investment in existing clients is not necessarily a bad thing. It will only underline their weaknesses and exacerbate existing Soviet resource allocation dilemmas. Through such policies the United States can hope that Moscow’s reassessment of the Third World will not be a closed book, but will continue and deepen through the remainder of the decade.

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  • Francis Fukuyama is a member of the political science department of the Rand Corporation and was formerly a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the Rand Corporation or its sponsors.
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