Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
The end of communism in Eastern Europe and the pending unification of Germany mark the political collapse of Russia in Europe. The rapid decline in the capacity of the Soviet/Russian state to influence the settlement of important geopolitical issues has been so thorough that Soviet political influence in the central theater of world politics is lower now than at any time since the mid-eighteenth century, when the Russian state first emerged as a truly European power. Even during the nadir of its power in the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet state inspired fear-or hope-far beyond its borders in ways that now seem nearly incomprehensible. Only the remarkable political skills of Mikhail Gorbachev obscure this disintegration of international influence. In its scale and speed, this collapse finds no precedent in the more leisurely and controlled declines of the French, British, Austrian, Ottoman and Spanish empires.
The reestablishment of the historical divide between Russia and Europe almost perfectly reflects the logic of Gorbachev's reform process. In his effort to reform a failed Soviet system, Gorbachev has set in motion powerful domestic and international forces. In principle these forces should support his program, but in practice they have moved beyond the point where Gorbachev-or any Soviet leader-can control or easily influence them. In order to preserve the momentum of radical reform at home, Gorbachev has found it necessary to accommodate political tendencies that he certainly did not intend to countenance at the outset of his rule in 1985.
Gorbachev's strategy has worked to dramatic effect in foreign policy. In the case of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe, disproportionate Soviet reductions cemented détente with the United States and removed a significant military threat. Moscow now apparently hopes that the momentum toward the demilitarization of the East-West relationship will make irrelevant the details of relative force balances and tactical concessions. The willingness to tolerate the complete integration of East Germany with West Germany also suggests that, faced with inexorable historical forces, the U.S.S.R. is hoping to benefit from a transformed German-Soviet relationship in which Soviet influence will be felt as part of some all-European process.
Regardless of hopes for a Pan-European structure, however, there is simply no way back to Eastern Europe for the Soviet Union. Moscow now confronts the unsettling prospect of practically all its erstwhile allies, at least the important ones, reclaiming their European heritage, which they define in explicit contradistinction to Russia. Within the year, all Soviet troops will leave Hungary and Czechoslovakia, with those in East Germany not far behind. (A token force may remain in Poland, at Polish request, as reassurance of the Polish-German frontier.) The future ability of Moscow to make its preferences felt in the councils of Europe will now depend on Soviet economic performance. Even to state that proposition underscores the difficulty of the Soviet Union's position in international affairs.
The West has been the beneficiary of the weakening of Soviet power. Concerned opinion, however, reflects worries about Gorbachev's domestic political position and the implications of a reversal of his policies or his removal from power. It cannot be denied that the disappearance or marginalization of Gorbachev would have a detectable impact on Western international interests; Gorbachev is undoubtedly central to the scope and pace of the Soviet Union's domestic and international reforms. The probability of such a reversal aside, however, it is now unlikely that a change in Soviet leadership, or a change in the pace, scope and character of reform, would have a corresponding impact on East-West relations and the most vital geopolitical interests of the United States.
Events have come to the point where there can no longer be a question of a return to some mythical status quo ante for the Soviet Union. The depth, strength and complexity of the modern Soviet state preclude a return to a neo-Stalinist political and institutional order. Any Soviet leader proposing such a path would have to address the following questions: How could a return to hypercentralized methods of administered economics and politics cure any of the problems now universally recognized as afflicting Soviet society? How could such a course prevent the permanent placement of the U.S.S.R. on the margins of international economic and political life?
The large number of Soviet politicians and officials unsympathetic to Gorbachev's vision of radical reform have failed to address these questions concerning the future power status of the Soviet state. This failure has prevented them from translating their opposition into an alternative political program and has thus assured Gorbachev's place in authority. Current Soviet reform is not rooted simply in the massive failure of the economy, which has already resisted all previous efforts at administrative tinkering. Soviet reform is now deeply rooted in sociological forces that have, in classic Marxist fashion, outgrown their institutional integument, rendering it obsolete.
Before entertaining ideas of the collapse of the East-West détente in the unlikely event that Gorbachev or his policies are somehow reversed, it is necessary to keep in mind the complex of internal and international forces that will now shape any Soviet leader's foreign policy.
The overwhelming forces that have changed and constrained Soviet international conduct are those rooted in the breakdown of the Soviet system. That breakdown has progressively hampered Moscow's ability to achieve its stated goals at home and abroad. The Soviet Union's traditional, ideologically infused vision of its interests and objectives is now recognized as incapable of even diagnosing the miasma into which the state has fallen. The resultant decline, and in some areas even collapse, of the key indices of economic and social performance has raised domestic reconstruction to a commanding priority. It is telling that the most compelling advocate of the primacy of domestic policy is now the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. The urgency of repairing the economic, social and-in the Soviet leadership's own words-moral damage to a society subjected to decades of Stalinist and neo-Stalinist political practice has placed domestic considerations far above international concerns.
The failure of the Soviet economy affects the ability of the Soviet state to engage in external commitments demanding substantial material resources. An economy yet to master the first industrial revolution, one that, according to Gorbachev, is the result of twenty years of progressively declining growth rates and traumatized by an effective depression in the early 1980s, is in no position to sustain the role of a major international power.
More profound is the strong desire, spanning the Soviet political spectrum, to redefine the basic values of society. From the "social-democratic" left, through Gorbachev, to even the Russian nationalist right, have come calls for a different Soviet foreign policy and a changed international environment for the Soviet state. A more benign international political-military environment is perceived as the wider domain of Soviet domestic reform. The primary task of Soviet foreign policy is now to shape an international environment that facilitates the reshaping of the domestic political agenda. Invoking the foreign threat no longer helps to achieve Soviet internal objectives. Cohesion is now recognized as coming from within. In fact, any effort at coalescence by creating an external bogeyman would be seen as a mark of the failure of the current reform program.
Another element also argues strongly for the continuation of a revisionist foreign policy under any likely future political dispensation: Gorbachev's diagnosis of the current Soviet crisis is broadly accepted. Despite the actual differences within the Soviet political class and Soviet society over the scope and pace of reform, Gorbachev has effectively defined the parameters for all future debate. Even the conservative Yegor Ligachev, who is widely seen as an alternative to Gorbachev, can argue his case only within the framework of perestroika. Ligachev's speech in February 1989 at the truly extraordinary meeting of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, although widely interpreted as an assault on Gorbachev, actually bears witness to the degree to which Gorbachev has redefined the Soviet political agenda. Whatever his reservations about the reform program itself, Ligachev accepted Gorbachev's analysis of the crisis of the system; he accepted Gorbachev's reform strategy as the only realistic choice, and he supported Gorbachev as the man best able to achieve the goals of reform. This demonstrates that there is no apparent alternative to Gorbachev, in terms of either programs or individuals. More important, it shows there is a strong consensus on the need for reform, and thus on the near absolute priority of economic, political and social development.
International factors are also shaping and constraining contemporary Soviet foreign policy. For years certain Soviet analysts, many of whom now occupy influential positions in Gorbachev's administration, have attempted systematically to assimilate the meaning of international developments, such as the impact of nuclear weapons on world politics, the prosperity, stability and cohesiveness of the West, the emergence of a communist China as an external threat, and the cost and difficulty of sustaining influence in far-flung regions of the Third World. These analysts, increasingly pragmatic, skeptical and even pessimistic, were reinforced in the 1970s by the impact of other new forces: the information revolution, the collapse of a strict bipolar world order, the costs to the Soviet Union of remaining aloof from an ever more interdependent and obviously mutually profitable international economic system.
The existence of such intellectual and analytical currents did not by themselves translate into meaningful political influence within the Soviet system. International circumstances sharpened the assessments of Soviet policy and accelerated the dynamics of internal change. The policies of the early Reagan administration had a particularly strong impact. Whatever the administration's precise intentions, its policies coincided with the critical stasis of the Soviet political and economic system. The harsh tenor of the early Reagan years thus clarified certain choices for the Soviet leadership and facilitated Gorbachev's implementation of a clean break with past Soviet foreign policy.
The strong ideological tone adopted by the Reagan administration in 1981, together with its downgrading of arms control, eventually shattered a strong consensus in Moscow that there were strict limits to hostility intrinsic to the Soviet-American relationship. After its frustration with the Carter administration, Moscow initially considered a Republican president a more reliable partner for détente. But Reagan's more aggressive tack deeply unnerved the Kremlin and discredited the prevailing paradigm of Soviet-American relations among the political class at large. This proved to be a necessary, though by no means sufficient, condition for the sea change in Soviet foreign policy undertaken by Gorbachev.
The promulgation of the Strategic Defense Initiative in March 1983 also triggered a latent sense of alarm in Moscow over growing internal and international power trends. Although perhaps not by Washington's design, SDI proved essential in forcing Moscow's formal reevaluation of the relationship between Soviet military power and security interests. SDI threatened to call into question the decades of investment in strategic nuclear weapons and parity with the United States. It also portended a new and apparently limitless high-tech competition for which the U.S.S.R. was ill prepared, and one in which the Soviet Union would constantly be reacting to terms set by America. SDI suggested to Soviet leaders that the traditional quantitative approach to the arms race and arms control was at an end. After SDI Soviet experts, and Gorbachev himself, began to question the relationship between parity and strategic stability. For the first time, the Soviets publicly recognized the desirability of maintaining mutually assured destruction, at least as a transitional security order. It is hard to imagine that the Reagan administration could have envisaged the traumatic impact SDI would have on Soviet leaders, or the role it would play as a catalyst for the rethinking of security interests and strategic concepts that many in Moscow had already begun.
A similar effect could be discerned in the Reagan administration's deployment after November 1983 of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. This successful deployment discredited Moscow's strategy of neutralizing NATO by appealing over the heads of governments and directly to popular antinuclear sentiment in Europe. Moscow's diplomatic strategy of pitting the interests of key NATO capitals each against another had failed. This diplomatic defeat dramatically increased the threat to the Soviet military's ability to prosecute its preferred conventional option in Europe. It also undermined the value of seeking Soviet security by military means and at the expense of the security of others.
Similarly, American support for the Afghan resistance materially raised the cost of the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, making the maintenance of the status quo increasingly untenable for a Soviet leadership hard pressed by problems at home. The United States did not by itself force a reversal in Soviet policies, but the cumulative effect of these policies, including the rhetorical and budgetary commitment to high levels of military spending, coincided with a kind of latter-day "scissors crisis" in Soviet foreign and security policy.
The interaction of these international and internal circumstances sharpened the choices and accentuated the costs of existing policies for the Soviet leadership. By the mid-1980s the choices had become so stark, and the opportunity costs of not making them so high, that it was easier for Gorbachev to make a clean break with the past than would otherwise have been the case.
Almost any Soviet leadership confronting the same set of internal and external dilemmas in the mid-1980s would have favored a reorientation of energies toward domestic affairs and a dramatic amelioration of tensions with the West. Gorbachev's foreign policy philosophy of "new thinking" had its intellectual roots in the Brezhnev period. Discussion of the very concept of new thinking predates the Gorbachev period and appeared in work published in late 1983 and early 1984, a year and a half before Gorbachev assumed power. Moreover the intent to turn around Soviet-American relations was strongly expressed in the fall of 1984 by Gorbachev's predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko.
It was Gorbachev, however, who was in a sense able to realize the Brezhnev agenda in Soviet-American relations, i.e., to reestablish arms control as the central defining element of the superpower relationship. This agenda now aimed not only to create a ceiling for future force levels, but to facilitate Soviet reform at home. In fact, for the Brezhnev leadership, détente was in many ways a substitute for domestic reform. But the exaggeration of the Soviet "threat" in the West undermined the possibility that a comprehensive, geopolitical détente could be maintained with Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Important domestic forces in the United States failed to accept the original, highly competitive concept of détente put forward in 1972 as a decisive contribution to a "generation of peace."
The recent talk about the end of the Cold War obscures the fact that in substantive political terms the Cold War had been put to rest by both East and West in the period between the late 1950s and the late 1960s. During that time both sides accepted that a stable balance of power-economic, political and military-had been created in Europe, and nearly all parties were satisfied with the de facto resolution of the German Question in the form of two German states in separate alliance systems. In substantial measure, what had come to drive the East-West relationship was the set of images, instruments and institutional interests generated by the Cold War itself. The perceptions of threat, the large standing military forces and the entrenched military-industrial complexes of both sides were scions of the Cold War in its substantive political stage. They outlived the period in which they were born, however, and came to shape the East-West relationship thereafter.
Gorbachev's decisive contribution to Soviet foreign policy and East-West relations was to address these epiphenomenal aspects of the Cold War. He sought to ensure that parochial institutional interests would no longer drive the political agenda in East-West affairs. Given the character and scale of his domestic tasks, Gorbachev needed to assert the primacy of politically determined interests in Soviet foreign and security policy. He then extended that same primacy of politically induced change to the East-West international agenda.
The classic, early instance of Gorbachev's strategy involved the agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe. Although it appeared to many as a victory by capitulation, seen as a tactical concession, the disproportionate Soviet reductions transformed the domestic American debate on U.S.-Soviet relations and cemented détente as the only viable policy for the foreseeable future. Thereafter the only politically realistic debate could be over the terms of that détente, not over its desirability. Gorbachev's impatient determination to conclude a quick arms control agreement with the Reagan administration puts in relief what would otherwise be seen as a dramatic Soviet capitulation.
In the same vein, Gorbachev's remarkable acquiescence in the disintegration of communist power in Eastern Europe reflects his understanding of the nature of concession. Although he believed almost until the end that reform was compatible with Soviet-informed values, by ultimately dissociating the fate of the internal political order in Eastern Europe from the nature of Soviet security interests, he prevented a backlash against his own position at home and defused the inevitable pressures for intervention that would have accomplished the same purpose.
The abandonment of communist ideology in Eastern Europe certainly reflects the historical decline of Soviet political hegemony in that region and by extension on the international stage. But relinquishing control of Eastern Europe was the only way to maintain course on the now transcendent Soviet political objective: the comprehensive reconstruction of the Soviet economic, social and political order, which is itself the precondition for any future power of the Soviet state. Much the same may now be intended in the obviously reluctant Soviet acquiescence to German unification on West German terms. What appears as capitulation on a historical scale may well represent an effort to accommodate the inevitable forces of change and, in the process, to redefine the very significance of the problem facing the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's political sleight of hand will seek to transform the stakes for the Soviet state, and the commitments they entail as well.
In this sense Gorbachev has proven decisive in effecting a veritable breakthrough in East-West relations: he has been the right man at the right time. Yet, for a number of reasons, it is less certain that Gorbachev will prove as decisive to the future of East-West relations.
-First, the expanding network of international treaties and agreements-especially in the field of arms control-dramatically raises the price of a reversal in Soviet policy. The Stockholm Conference on Disarmament in Europe, held in 1986, which elaborated a series of military confidence-building measures in Europe, illustrates the point. The Soviet Union and the United States, faced with political alienation from all of Europe if the conference collapsed, amicably and quickly settled their apparently irreconcilable differences. Progress since then, and the incorporation of detailed verification mechanisms, has further raised the price of a policy reversal for any future Soviet leadership. Moreover, since that price also includes risking valuable economic ties and the renewal of a political-military competition without the Warsaw Pact allies, it will remain a most effective deterrent.
-Second, largely due to the impetus provided by Gorbachev himself, the course of political events in Europe is no longer within the control-or even easy influence-of the Soviet state. There is simply no way for Moscow to retrieve its position in Eastern Europe, at least not in any way resembling the hegemonic pattern of the postwar period.
-Third, the means to regain some illusory status quo ante-above all, the requisite economic power-now elude the Soviet state and will remain extraordinarily difficult to obtain.
-Finally, under any future political dispensation in the Soviet Union, domestic affairs will retain a nearly absolute priority on material and political resources. Soviet leaders are already increasingly absorbed in preserving some minimum sense of national unity consistent with the aspirations of the non-Russian peoples of the U.S.S.R. Preoccupation with what Russians call the "international relations" within the Soviet Union itself practically assures the marginalization of Soviet Russia in global affairs. This is as true for any future Soviet or Russian leadership as it is for Gorbachev today.
What of a Russian nationalist coalition? What will become of the increasingly disaffected military, party and blue-collar elements that find their positions threatened by genuine political and economic reform? Certainly a reactionary Russian dénouement would be the antithesis of everything for which Gorbachev has stood. Any attempt to protect the interests of the allegedly exploited Russian nation in coercive ways would jeopardize the personal and political fortunes of those who have already committed Soviet society to the path of radical reform. Such a turn, moreover, could end the already uncertain prospects for the U.S.S.R. to pull itself into the 21st century.
Even such a reactionary swing toward Russian self-preservation could not reverse the fundamental direction of Soviet foreign policy or East-West relations. The enormous domestic and international constraints on the Soviet Union aside, an explicitly nationalist leadership would provoke such a hostile reaction from Soviet non-Russians that the consequent civil turmoil would paralyze the state and absorb any energies that might have been devoted to international affairs. Thus even a worst-case alternative to Gorbachev would complete the marginalization of Russia from international life.
The future challenge to international stability implicit in the forces Gorbachev has set in motion is not the prospect of his overthrow or the advent of some preconceived aggressive design against the international community. It is, rather, the possible spillover of the explosive social, political, economic and nationalist currents from within the Soviet system into the international arena, especially in Eastern Europe. Despite his heroic efforts to redefine the terms of affiliation with the Soviet federation for Russians and non-Russians alike, Gorbachev has less and less to say about what shape and direction these nationalist forces will take. While it is preferable to the West that Gorbachev remain at the helm of the Soviet state, the irreducible American interest in a plural distribution of geopolitical power in Europe is now assured, independent of events in Moscow.
The stakes for West Europeans are somewhat different. Europeans are naturally more sensitive to the relative balance of political and economic power, while for the United States it matters only that such a balance exists. The management of the German Question is thus at heart a matter for Europeans. The most important internal and external forces buffeting the Soviet Union are systemic in nature and will themselves shape the range of choices facing any Soviet leader. This situation provides the foundation for a stable long-term relationship between the Soviet Union and its neighbors because it is rooted in powerful geopolitical and economic realities, not the political skills of one man. The sooner the West relinquishes its fascination with Gorbachev, the sooner it can assume the responsibilities of a sober long-term analysis of the foundations of its relationship with the U.S.S.R. and their consequences for peace.