Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
The Brezhnev era is clearly ending. This October he will mark his fifteenth year as the head of the Party, a span at least four years longer than Nikita Khrushchev's official term. In December, he will be 73 and next spring he will, if he holds on, pass Stalin as the oldest Soviet leader ever to hold the top Party position. He has already established the precedent of being both chief of state and Party leader; he has matched Stalin in being promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union. By almost any standard, the past 15 years have to be regarded as his "era." Now the advancing age and physical infirmities of the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party suggest that a presuccession period is under way and that the process of summing up the Brezhnev period can begin.
When Khrushchev was overthrown in October 1964, Leonid Brezhnev was the leading candidate to survive the hazards of Soviet politics and come to dominate the leadership. Although some observers grouped him with President Nikolai Podgorny and Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin in a new triumvirate, Brezhnev was in the advantageous position of Party leader. Other contenders along the way-Alexander Shelepin and Pyotr Shelest, the Ukrainian Party leader-were eventually removed; and even his supposed old comrade Podgorny was roughly pushed aside in 1977 so that Brezhnev could acquire the unique position of government and Party leader. But much earlier, perhaps by 1970, Brezhnev was clearly in a commanding position. And he seems to have succeeded on a program that might be called conservative or orthodox.
What Brezhnev has achieved has been a restoration of the status quo ante Khrushchev: he has strengthened the conservative elements in the power structure; the Party bureaucracy has been stabilized; and the military and the security organs have gained in authority. He has carefully avoided the experimentation of structural reforms in the economy despite pressure to adopt new approaches. Economic performance has not been impressive but nevertheless has been satisfactory in meeting the regime's priority of military growth.
His foreign policies have lacked the flamboyance of Khrushchev's and this has tended to soften Soviet defeats (e.g., Egypt). The overall theme has been one of persistence: building Soviet power in the Far East to counter China, playing the card of détente with Europe and the United States. Taking advantage of a decade and a half of turmoil and upheavals in the West, Brezhnev has relentlessly invested in Soviet military growth and in recent years has reached out for new strategic advantages in Africa and Southeast Asia. He will pass on a stronger legacy than he inherited: the U.S.S.R. is truly a global superpower, with near-term opportunities and significant geopolitical strengths.
Most of the characteristics of the Brezhnev regime emerged during the first few years after the coup against Khrushchev in 1964. In a fundamental sense, any anti-Khrushchev cabal-with or without Brezhnev-was bound to react against the Khrushchevian policies and, in particular, against what seemed to be his excesses. He had kept the Soviet Party and government in a state of turmoil for the seven years after his impressive defeat of the Molotov-Malenkov "anti-Party" group in 1957. Sputnik diplomacy, threats against Berlin, the split with China, the Berlin wall, the Cuban crisis followed in dizzying succession; simultaneously, the First Secretary railed against Stalin, insisted on reducing the size of the army, reorganized the economy, split the Party into industrial and agricultural sections and proclaimed a Party of the "whole people," offered a new Party program, removed Stalin from the mausoleum and insisted that he would build "communism" by 1980.
The period cried out for retrenchment. But there were also major dilemmas. Khrushchev unleashed political forces that could not be easily checked: a greater liberalization in the arts, some leeway for ideas on economic reform, a threat to the traditional priority for heavy industry, and, most fundamentally, a pervasive anti-Stalinism. The new regime could not simply put all of these genies back into the bottle. Moreover, anti-Khrushchevism bound together a small coalition in 1964, but it did not guarantee a consensus on an alternative program. There were diverse interests in the coalition; some could be reconciled; others required confrontation. The balance between conciliation and confrontation ultimately reflected the policy choices of the party leader, for if there was one overarching element it was the desire to reestablish a central authority and discipline. In the Soviet system no institution other than the Party could fill the role.
Thus, it was not surprising that the revival of the Party's primacy became a hallmark of the Brezhnev era. The potentially explosive division of the Party into contending agricultural and industrial factions was quickly ended. Khrushchev's projected rapid turnover of Party leaders at all levels was put aside and then reversed so that the older comrades could take some comfort in their tenure and job security. The Party of the "whole people" was quietly forgotten. Power was drawn gradually back toward the Moscow center. And the trend was symbolized by a revival of the terminology of the old days: Politburo for Presidium, General Secretary for First Secretary. The Party apparatus was making a comeback and Brezhnev was leading it.
Since bureaucracy thrives on defined hierarchies, orderly procedures and a commitment to the status quo, there is little room for ideological innovation. Indeed, innovation is the plague itself. Thus, it was to be expected that little new would be added to the treasure house of Marxism-Leninism. The participants in the XXIII Party Congress (1966) would find the proceedings of the XXV Party Congress (1976) quite familiar; they could speak in the same idiom, from the same vantage point; indeed, they were, to a great extent, the same people.
If there was a symbolism in the early years of the Brezhnev period, it was the fact that in February 1966, on the eve of the XXIII Party Congress, a significant anniversary went almost unnoticed: the tenth anniversary of the XX Congress and Khrushchev's "secret" speech denouncing Stalin. It was given a passing reference here and there but evoked no ringing reconfirmation. In fact, the same XXIII Party Congress in effect settled the issue of Stalin: he was neither the total villain of the Khrushchevian period nor the putative hero of the brief rehabilitation of 1964-65. In what came to be the typical style of the new regime, a middle ground was found that left the issue ambiguous. One might cite Stalin's leadership during the war. But one could still criticize the "cult of personality," as long as the indictment was not broadened to criticize the "period"-which, of course, would raise questions about the legitimacy of the very people who had risen to positions of power during those years. (Brezhnev had been a candidate member of Stalin's last Politburo.)
Stalin is no longer in the mausoleum. His bust sits slightly to the left, a historical curiosity too prominent to be ignored, not commanding enough to reawaken the terror, but still a chilling reminder of what the system could produce.
If the limited rehabilitation of Stalin was a bitter blow to the Khrushchevites, a more definitive reversal was the systematic repression of dissent in the cultural and artistic community. It was Khrushchev who made Solzhenitsyn famous by permitting his novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch to be published in Novy Mir. The new regime indulged in no such quirks of experimentalism. It moved in the opposite direction: the arrest and trial of Andrei Sinyavskiy and Yuli Daniel in February 1966, a shocking and disturbing reminder that the state organs could and would still be used harshly and drastically.
The conservative-orthodox revival was also gradually extended to the Soviet economy. Khrushchev left a little-appreciated gift: a fine harvest (following, of course, a disastrous one in 1963). This created a short period of grace in which priorities could be sorted out. Almost immediately the claimants began to contend. The economic reformers argued for greater rationality and profitability; the agronomists for massive investments; the military-though disputing among themselves about the nature of war-united to demand a large share of the pie; the heavy industrialists invoked the hallowed priority of "Group A"; and there was the unarticulated demand to raise the standard of living-which in a period of gradual economic slowdown could only be at the expense of other sectors.
Brezhnev had his own priorities, though he was careful to press them gradually: heavy industry would have to be the foundation, then defense, agriculture, and finally the people's well-being. He laid out this scheme on the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, over which he presided for the first time, in November 1964. After much twisting and turning, this is about how matters came out. For a time the economic reformers made a bid for influence in their proposals of September 1965, and Kosygin seemed their champion, but Brezhnev's commitment was always hedged. The reforms withered away.
For a brief time it seemed that defense was to be an economic casualty. The first Kosygin-Brezhnev defense budget included a 500-million ruble reduction, because of the "easing of the international situation," Kosygin claimed. Even Marshal Sokolovsky spoke vaguely of more cuts in the size of the armed forces. But this trend was checked and then reversed. By July of 1965 Brezhnev was warning against any savings at the expense of defense and Kosygin was echoing him. The trend was indeed toward an enlarged defense. The professional soldiers began to reappear: Marshal Zakharov as Chief of Staff; General Shtemenko, the brains of Stalin's general staff, rehabilitated in time for the Czech invasion of August 1968. Scarcely concealed debate on a wide range of military issues broke out, but it was a debate among hawks.
Brezhnev, with his ties to the military before, during and after the war, became their champion. (He had risen to Major-General during the war as a political commissar; in 1953-54 he was Commissar of the Navy and was later associated with the missile industries.) But he was too wily an operator to rest his political base on the thin reed of professional officers. There is little doubt he sought military support and institutionalized a new role by promoting his old comrade Marshal Grechko to the Politburo in 1973; but after the Marshal's death, he bypassed the professionals to promote Dimitri Ustinov to Defense Minister.
Brezhnev understood that Khrushchev had not been undone by his rough handling of a few Marshals but, more basically, by the perennial nightmare of Soviet agriculture. Khrushchev's quick fix of exploiting the virgin lands in the mid-1950s was a stroke of genius that temporarily produced real grain, not imaginary quotas; his lieutenant in the virgin lands had been none other than Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev knew enough about agriculture to recognize that he could not keep tinkering with the system; his approach was direct-more investment in agriculture, in fact, much more investment. His plan was announced in March 1965. He succeeded in slowing the decline, but good weather was, as always in Russia, the real arbiter; over the years Brezhnev has enjoyed somewhat more than his share, though the current bad harvest is an ominous reminder of Khrushchev's fate.
By the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution in November 1967, the transition had been made to the more prudent, orderly and consistent era of Khrushchev's successors. "Comrades," Brezhnev told the Party on that great occasion, "today our society combines the wisdom of maturity and the energy of youth." Maybe so. But clearly it was the wisdom of maturity that would be rewarded, not the energy of youth. The Party and its leadership were destined to grow old together. A decade later the top level of the political leadership was still largely intact, simply ten years older. The party's leading institutions had settled down, the turnover was embarrassingly small, and in 1979 over half of the "elite" was over 60 years old.
The price of stability was the threat of stagnation. In the 1950s the economy grew at five to six percent. In the 1960s, the growth rate dropped to the neighborhood of four to five percent. And in the 1970s the growth rate continued to slide to around four percent with ominous predictions of one to two percent in the 1980s.
Similarly, the leadership has not been revived with new blood. Brezhnev was 45 when Stalin appointed him as a candidate member of the Politburo in 1952. (He was immediately removed after Stalin's death and made commissar of the Soviet Navy.) With Brezhnev soon to be 73, his nominal successor, Andrei Kirilenko, is slightly older; Mikhail Suslov, the grey eminence, is already over 75; the indestructible Kosygin is only a year younger. Two recent promotions seem deliberately intended to avoid promotions of younger leaders. Nikolai Tikhonov is the only first deputy premier of the Soviet government; he was appointed at age 74. And a new entry in the succession contest, Brezhnev's former aide, the Party Secretary Konstantin Chernenko, is 67. Thus, the class of 1964 that threw out their comrade and mentor is coming to its end-living testimony, however, that orthodoxy and stability pay off in a system which has long since lost its revolutionary fervor.
What can be said of the balance sheet? It could be argued that the period has been a disastrous one. The Soviet Union's most talented artists have been forced out. A generation of political leaders has been lost. Little has been done to prepare for the coming economic stagnation; the Soviet Union falls further behind the industrialized countries; the temporary political stability will be paid for in the currency of upheavals and struggles in the next period. Russia is encircled by enemies.
A better case can be made for the proposition that the Brezhnev era has been a highly successful one. The political situation has been stabilized on a middle ground between the various excesses of previous periods. The rise in the general standard of living has been impressive, especially by "socialist" standards. Internal political dissent has been relentlessly suppressed. And, above all, Russia has at last emerged as a great power of global proportions, at least the military equal of its principal adversary in the West.
A balance sheet of Soviet foreign policy is also a mixed one, but Brezhnev can point to some solid achievements. Khrushchev ran a gigantic strategic bluff and failed in Cuba in 1962. Brezhnev then set about accumulating real military power, carefully but constantly. And in the process he reshaped Soviet foreign policy. Khrushchev's monument was the break with Mao. He forced it at every turn, challenging Chinese interests, disparaging Mao's philosophy and policy, refusing to run risks for China (in the Taiwan Straits), quarreling over politics and ideology, and finally pulling out the Soviet economic technicians and stopping military assistance. With Khrushchev gone, it was not surprising that Chou En-lai embarked for Moscow in November 1964 on a reconnaissance which, however, only confirmed that Khrushchev had articulated the fears of his comrades. A reconciliation was not to come from the new Soviet leaders. They eschewed Khrushchev's rantings, but gave the basic policy the real muscle of a military buildup along the frontier. Eventually, Soviet forces in Asia came to outnumber the Red Army garrisons in Eastern Europe.
The war in Vietnam might have been a cause worth bridging the differences for; but in practice it greatly aggravated the conflict between Moscow and Peking. Against this background the Czech crisis and the new doctrine that appeared in 1968 under Brezhnev's name suggested a Soviet right to intervene in China. A war scare in the spring and summer of 1969 dissolved into negotiations without Chinese preconditions-an initial Soviet coup; but in time the Chinese outmaneuvered the Russians and the talks stagnated. Brezhnev and his comrades then found themselves waiting for Mao to pass on. For a time in early 1977 they tested his successors, but without result. In the fall of 1978, the Soviets began to cement their ties to Vietnam and thus to apply new pressure on China. By early 1979 the relationship was slightly ambivalent; some signs of tactical flexibility appeared in Peking after the clash with Vietnam and the two sides are now groping for a new negotiation. But the basic fact is China's determination to rise to the ranks of a great power by the end of the century-the last thing a Soviet leadership can abide.
If the Soviet Union has failed to solve its eastern problem, it has made progress in the West. For years, Stalin, Molotov and Khrushchev insisted that the status quo in Europe had to be accepted and recorded in at least a symbolic act. This was the "fact" created by the Second World War. Stalin thought it had all been arranged; Khrushchev tried to force it through a crisis in Berlin. Brezhnev and company sought to achieve it by "détente," first in the treaty with West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in August 1970, and then in the "Final Act" at Helsinki in 1975.
The irony was that even this ratification in the Finnish capital came at a time when the strict division of Europe was of less practical significance than the pan-European links that were appearing here and there. Rather than discouraging and weakening Soviet adversaries by nailing down the status quo, Helsinki began a process of change in Europe in which the Soviet Union held some high cards, but was by no means in command.
Soviet predominance in Eastern Europe continues and severe challenges do not appear likely. Yet there is a malaise in the relationship. The more liberal regimes-Poland and Hungary-continue to move gradually into positions that elude strict Soviet discipline. And all of the East European governments are forced by economic necessity to look increasingly westward. And, finally, in the more orthodox regimes-East Germany and Czechoslovakia-internal divisions seem to be always just below the surface. Overall, a modus vivendi seems to have been achieved since 1968, but it is an uneasy one.
The elusive nature of Soviet policy, however, is best demonstrated by the fluctuations in their relations with the United States. In 1964, when Khrushchev departed, there was still something of a "détente"; the atmospheric test ban of 1963 was supposed to be an opening move in a broader development of "peaceful coexistence." Brezhnev might have pursued it, but Vietnam intervened. The U.S.S.R. could scarcely proceed with serious negotiations while U.S. Marines were landing in South Vietnam. But by carefully containing its support for Hanoi and keeping lines open to Washington (e.g., at the Glassboro summit in 1967), Moscow managed to support Vietnam without paying any serious price in relations with the United States. Indeed, it was able to use the period to invest in a major arms buildup without provoking an American reaction. Nevertheless, in 1968 both Washington and Moscow were able to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty and plan for a summit, only to see it collapse as Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. But Vietnam also enabled Brezhnev to avoid paying a price for his Czech policy or his new "doctrine." Within a year, the old themes-a summit, arms control, European security-were revived. Indeed, in 1969 it was Nixon, not Brezhnev, who was criticized for stalling.
The détente that finally emerged, however, was rooted first in a rapprochement between Bonn and Moscow. The appearance in the fall of 1969 of the first Social Democratic government in Germany in 40 years was a watershed. At a time when tensions with China were growing, the offer by Willy Brandt to initiate a new Eastern policy was a major opportunity no Soviet regime could pass up. Initially the détente was limited to Europe, and tensions with the United States persisted. There were sharp clashes over the Middle East and Cuba, and not until after the Polish riots in December 1970 did the Soviets begin to move toward a more broadly based détente. The Brezhnev "peace program" was unveiled at the XXIV Party Congress in March 1971, which committed Brezhnev personally to a new line. The SALT deadlock was broken in May 1971, and after the secret Kissinger trip to China, the Berlin negotiations were quickly settled in late August, and a summit with Nixon was agreed upon and announced.
Despite the severe complication introduced by the mining and bombing of Haiphong, Brezhnev went through with the summit in May 1972, purging one of his anti-détente opponents (Pyotr Shelest) in the process. Of course, Brezhnev expected dividends. At a minimum he foresaw significant economic benefits, American credits and trade and participation in large developmental projects, especially in the Far East. He certainly hoped for a shading of American policy away from China, and repeatedly warned Nixon of the Chinese threat to both the United States and Russia.
What he achieved was well short of expectations. In Europe his détente seemed fairly firmly based, but one of its architects, Willy Brandt, disappeared. Coincidentally with Nixon's own departure (and partly as a consequence) the expected economic benefits from the United States were denied; then the attempt to patch up SALT was thwarted by a combination of new issues not resolved at Vladivostok, the intervention of American domestic politics and the U.S.S.R.'s own policy of interventionism in Africa.
As détente weakened and relations with China failed to improve after Mao's death, it must have appeared to Brezhnev and his colleagues by 1977 that what might be happening was a new form of encirclement. The relationship with Washington was strained by a new Administration that wanted to break with the policies of its predecessor, but chose not to challenge Soviet adventures in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and South Yemen. The Sino-Japanese talks finally made a breakthrough in 1978 and a treaty was signed with American encouragement. China was avidly pursuing European economic links, including arms supplies. U.S.-Chinese relations were proceeding toward normalization.
Brezhnev tried to break this trend by underwriting a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which had the aim of exposing Chinese impotence but ended with some question of Soviet willingness to run risks. On the other hand, the Vienna summit in June 1979 showed how far the policy of détente had faded as a counterweight to Sino-American accommodation. Brezhnev seems to have made little effort in Vienna to revive a relationship that went beyond the necessity of concluding SALT II. Leaving aside his health, the overall impression he and his colleagues created was one of extreme caution in avoiding the kind of commitment he had made in the early 1970s. The subsequent contention in the United States over the SALT II treaty almost certainly justified the hesitancy of the Soviet leadership to become too closely tied to an uncertain policy and to another American president.
While triangular relations have been in flux, the turmoil in the Third World has developed in a manner that provided setbacks as well as new opportunities for Soviet policy. The Middle East, of course, was the principal area of Soviet involvement, other than India; but Khrushchev's successors failed to consolidate the breakthrough he achieved. At first the Brezhnev group encouraged a new adventure in the 1967 War, which led to the humiliation of their clients. Then they abetted Egyptian rearmament and a confrontational program in the early 1970s, only to suffer a defeat by Israel in the semi-war of deep penetration raids in 1969-70, and then in 1972 a major humiliation in being evicted by Sadat (ironically because of Brezhnev's conciliation at the Moscow summit with Nixon, which convinced Sadat the Soviets would never deliver a negotiated settlement, or back a new attack). But the Soviets were back in the picture in the 1973 War, and despite their exclusion from the subsequent shuttle diplomacy and partial settlements, Moscow has managed to retain a position in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But it was in Africa that the new breakthrough occurred. The United States was defeated in Angola in 1975-a partially self-inflicted defeat but one that nevertheless was a watershed for the Soviet position, which led in 1977 to new Soviet strategic footholds in the Horn of Africa. Cuban mercenaries were the new-found instrument. Coups in Afghanistan and in Yemen, whether wind-falls or careful orchestrations, were in any case important if temporary gains, magnified by the removal of the Shah. By 1978-79 the red star seemed in the ascendancy and Washington perceived an "arc of crisis," also magnified by the energy crisis and the aggressiveness of OPEC.
Underlying all of these episodes was a hard, irrefutable fact. The Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev had step by step increased its military position to a point where the balance of power, for decades dominated by the United States and its allies, was in danger of shifting to the U.S.S.R. One raw fact demonstrated what was occurring. The Soviet Union was still putting over ten percent of its entire economic effort into the military, and, according to the CIA's latest estimate, its defense spending in 1978 was $44 billion more than that of the United States.
There was no way around the fact that a consistent commitment at this general level for over more than a decade would not only pay off in the near term but would create a base for continuing expansion. Leonid Brezhnev would leave his successors some major ambiguities in his dealings with the West, a legacy of bitterness and suspicion in his dealings with China, and a number of openings elsewhere that skillful Soviet handling might turn to permanent gains. But above all he would pass on an inheritance of military power unrivaled in Russian history since the days when the Czar strode into Paris at the end of the long march from Borodino.
How will Brezhnev's successors handle this legacy?
In one sense the succession has already begun, as Brezhnev probably limits his involvement in daily affairs. But the succession period proper is likely to be a prolonged one with at least two phases.
The first phase should be an interim settlement. The fact that the members of the top layer of the Politburo are of roughly the same age means that the decline and eventual disappearance of Brezhnev will leave the remaining members increasingly in charge as a kind of corporate board of elders. The current favorite to succeed Brezhnev is Andrei Kirilenko, a man whose career has been so routine as to defy political characterization. Other than the fact that he has survived and prospered under his old colleague Brezhnev, it is difficult to add much to Kirilenko's formal credentials: a Party man, rising out of the Ukrainian apparatus, blessed by a stroke of luck in being associated with Brezhnev in the Dnepropetrovsk Party machinery. For about a decade he is thought to have been the "second" secretary, filling in behind his boss, taking up the slack in administrative chores.
The point about Andrei Kirilenko is that, at age 73, he scarcely qualifies as the solution to the succession problem. Even if he is in fairly good health, it is difficult to visualize him as the leader for more than a few years. It is also difficult to conclude that Kirilenko could dominate a politburo that includes Kosygin, Suslov, Ustinov, Gromyko, and Andropov. It is simply not feasible for him to overawe or overpower this Politburo of senior officials. More likely would be a form of collective leadership, which is inherently unworkable in an authoritarian system with a strong tendency toward centralization. In any case, it is unlikely that this group will repudiate its own record and launch radically new policies.
A second succession is certain to take place, though it may be more of an evolution than an abrupt shift. As the aging Politburo gradually disappears, replacements will be made; at first the collective will make decisions on personnel, but second-echelon appointments will increasingly be made by the first or second secretary.
Before 1985 a new leader will probably emerge, still within the formal framework of the collective leadership, and probably someone who presently occupies a position in the Soviet elite-if only because the system works against rapidly rising dark horses. Who will it be? The general requirements would be an official serving in the center in Moscow, with experience mainly in the Party rather than the government, probably including service in the secretariat, and some experience in directing a major Soviet Republic, or at least a large oblast or subdivision therein. Possibilities among the current crop would be Gregory Romanov (56), the first secretary of the Leningrad Party; Vladimir Shcherbitskiy (62), the leader in the Ukraine; Peter Masherov (60), the leader of the Byelorussian Party; and two members of the current secretariat: Vladimir Dolgikh (54), who specializes in industry, and the youngest and newest member of the hierarchy, Mikhail Gorbachev (48), an agricultural specialist from Stavropol. While the Kremlinologist could make a few deductions about the policy preferences of this group, they are in reality largely unknown, especially compared to Brezhnev and Kosygin when they took over in 1964.
But does it matter who emerges? A cold-blooded analysis of Soviet history might conclude that "objective" factors determine the trends, but one cannot help but feel that individuals do matter. Suppose Stalin had been shot in 1934 and Kirov had lived. Or suppose Zhdanov had not died in 1948, but had survived Stalin. Suppose Frol Kozlov had not suffered a stroke in 1963, and, instead of Leonid Brezhnev, had been the coup leader against Khrushchev. Or one could speculate on what might have happened if Molotov and Malenkov had defeated Khrushchev in 1957. Personalities do have an impact, but our problem is that we cannot really divine the nature of that impact. Certainly Khrushchev was not a good candidate for leading a de-Stalinization drive. And some very important Kremlinologists dismissed Brezhnev in 1964.
Nevertheless, the "second" succession will be more than a shifting of Central Committee clones. In the 1980s we will finally arrive at what could be described as a generational change. The man who takes charge will certainly never have known pre-revolutionary Russia and probably not even the pre-Stalin Soviet Union. All of his education in secondary schools will have occurred during the Stalin period and his higher education after World War II. He might have been about 15 to 20 years old at the end of the war. Most of his adult political career will have been after Stalin's death, and his more significant Party or government assignments will have been in the post-Khrushchev period. The political characteristics of this generation can be the subject of extensive sociological speculation. But the central point is that two successions will create a tendency toward political turmoil as the new internal power balance is worked out. True, the succession will occur in circumstances of greater stability compared to the death of Stalin and the coup against Khrushchev-both of which created an atmosphere of crisis. But after a period of relative steadiness under Brezhnev, a period of change seems highly likely.
The economic situation will be basic. No analysis foresees a bright outlook. A slowdown in general economic growth in the 1980s seems virtually certain. The dispute among experts is really over the rate of slowdown, rather than the general trend. And the causes are fundamental: a declining labor force, declining productivity and diminishing and more expensive resources.
Basic solutions are therefore called for. One way out is the revival of economic reforms to decentralize decisions and create new incentives, which could have a major impact on the quality of Soviet output and on overall efficiency. This, of course, has been obvious for well over a decade. But it has been resisted on political grounds. Given a new leadership probably somewhat unsure of its mandate and its political base, the likelihood of a round of economic-political experiments seems quite remote. If so, the economic crisis could worsen.
Among the other options, cutting back on defense is the one most intriguing for outside observers. There are some misconceptions about the pressures created by high defense spending. In the current SALT II debate, the idea has become current that the Soviets are up against a threshold which will not allow much more defense spending. But we are dealing with fairly wide margins of possible error in U.S. estimates of Soviet defense expenditures. The United States officially estimates that about 11 to 13 percent of Soviet gross national product goes into national defense, but even this two-percent spread allows a margin of about 10 billion rubles. Moreover, strategic attack accounts for only about 10 percent of the defense budget. So an increase of five percent in the overall budget could be turned into an increase in spending for strategic attack of 50 percent! Thus the Soviets could make a substantial strategic impact with only a slight burst in spending. And given expenditures for research and development that exceeded the United States by $100 billion in the past decade, the U.S.S.R. has a solid base to draw on.
Nevertheless, the defense share will loom as too inviting a melon to be ignored by the Politburo when resources become scarce and expensive, and there is a demand for investment to revive growth. Any sector commanding high quality resources and over ten percent of the economy is a tempting target. But the costs of challenging the defense establishment are even greater than tinkering with reforms. What new leader would try to consolidate a bid for power on a platform of reducing defense? True enough, both Khrushchev and Brezhnev, for brief periods, did take that position. In Khrushchev's case he kept toying with the defense establishment, but Brezhnev eventually unleashed it. Given the respective political fate of each, a successor is not likely to take on the added burdens of a quarrel with the military. The most we could expect would be limiting its growth to somewhat slower rates, which over time, of course, could have some significance.
In short, one can foresee a leadership more or less tied to conservative elements, doomed to maneuver within narrow limits, caught up in an economic crisis but unable to adopt policies that would constitute a decisive solution.
In such circumstances, a new leadership might be tempted to make up for its domestic problems with foreign successes. Certainly, the paradox of the U.S.S.R. is that it has created enormous military strength, but has not been able to translate this strength into permanent political gains-either through confrontation or détente. Reflecting on the 1970s, it may be that a new leader will conclude that his predecessors were too timid, too hesitant or too erratic. After all, the Soviet Union could insist on certain "rights" as a superpower; but the situation that actually evolved in the 1970s found the U.S.S.R. faced by a tentative alliance of all the major power centers: Europe, America and Japan holding the key to much-needed technology, and all three developing lines to China, the U.S.S.R.'s "main" enemy.
A new leader may conclude that the Soviet Union should indeed claim its place in the sun. Unaffected by the World War II experience and only vaguely aware of the period of Soviet weakness in the 1930s and 1940s, a new generation might be willing to press its claims with much less regard for risks, with greater persistence and determination but resting its policy on a solid foundation of military power. If, in fact, the United States and NATO do embark on a program of remedial military measures by the early 1980s and if China continues with its modernization plans, then there might be the added hazard that a Soviet leadership could also conclude that time was running out, and that the optimal moment for a geopolitical breakthrough had arrived.
This is not to say, of course, that the Soviet Union will seek war or act recklessly. Rather, the Soviet calculation of the balance of forces will probably seem favorable and a new leadership, perhaps younger and more vigorous, may have the imagination required to turn this calculation to the U.S.S.R.'s advantage.
Yet there are some factors working against the early emergence of such a policy. First, there is the likelihood that any new leadership, after the passing of the Brezhnev generation, will not have much experience in foreign affairs. For a time Khrushchev deferred to Molotov, and Brezhnev allowed Kosygin to conduct foreign affairs for a few years after 1964. But an inexperienced leadership will be only a temporary state of affairs.
A second and more fundamental inhibition will be the degree to which the Soviet Union is tied into the global economy. Present trends suggest that for a long period the U.S.S.R. will need to import technology, grain and perhaps even oil. The sources of technology-the United States, Japan and Western Europe-are also, of course, the main victims of any Soviet effort to establish a predominant global position. These countries thus will have it within their power to shape Soviet policy choices in a succession period, but only if they are prepared to go beyond a commercial policy and to regard their economic strength as a means of influencing the U.S.S.R.'s foreign policy. And the United States must reexamine the aims of the Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson prohibitions against trade and credits.
Third, there is the probability that trends in strategic and regional military balances will be perceived by Brezhnev's successors in Moscow as progressively more favorable in the 1980s, so as to permit them ever greater freedom of action in exploiting local crises or opportunities, especially in the vital areas of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. If this should be the case, then the most difficult period for the West is still some years away (when the succession settlement may still be open). Unfortunately, those perceptions are being affected by American decisions taken now-whether in the growing debate over defense, or the fate of SALT II, or the question of economic relations.
And this raises one of the most difficult tactical problems: how to conduct Western policy in a succession period. Should we make concessions to Brezhnev to block more dangerous policies, or do we thereby contribute to the emergence of such policies? Or should we simply wait for a clear change in leaders? In 1953, Churchill sensed confusion and uncertainty in the Kremlin and began a campaign to bring the new Soviet leaders to the negotiating table; the Soviets were apprehensive and John Foster Dulles and President Eisenhower were skeptical and wanted to build up Western strength. It may be that a major opportunity was lost, and that the process could repeat itself.
The West is correctly concerned about growing Soviet strength and has begun what may be its own rearmament program. We are increasingly suspicious of promises of Soviet change in the distant future, and we cannot paralyze our policy by subjecting it to the vagaries of Kremlin politics. What we seem to face is the necessity of a dual policy: in the near term to strengthen our position in anticipation of a period of potential challenge in the early to mid-1980s (and perhaps thereby deter the challenge), but to leave open the option of accommodation that might prove attractive to a Soviet leadership that will face the fundamental internal problems that are certain to appear in the late 1980s.