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Does Gorbachev Matter Anymore?

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House. White House Photographic Office

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.

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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.

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