Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THE other day I was re-reading Clarence Day's wise and delightful book, "This Simian World," and came across the paragraph remarking on what unpromising entrants in the struggle for supremacy on this planet the lemurs might have seemed many millions of years ago. "Those frowzy, unlovely hordes of apes and monkeys," he wrote, "were so completely lacking in signs of kingship; they were so flighty, too, in their ways, and had so little purpose, and so much love for absurd and idle chatter, that they would have struck us . . . as unlikely material. Such traits, we should have reminded ourselves, persist. They are not easily left behind, even after long stages; and they form a terrible obstacle to all high advancement."
It does seem to be true that, in our day, only in a sort of cyclical way do free societies retain an understanding of their own experience, and hold to the purposes which it has inspired. Is this because some echo of those early traits still persists, or because the inevitable hardening of the arteries of each generation brings on some failure of memory, or for still other reasons?
Certainly moods change as memories, once fearful, become dimmed, as new anxieties arise, and as present exertions become increasingly distasteful. The bitter teachings of 1914-1918, and the determination they fired, had quite disappeared by 1938, to be replaced by ideas of neutralism, withdrawal from conflict, "America First." After these, in turn, were swept away by the devastation of another world war and by a display of world leadership entailing vast national effort, another 20 years has ended by bringing back the old yearnings and errors under a new name. "Disengagement," it is called now; but it is the same futile—and lethal—attempt to crawl back into the cocoon of history. For us there is only one disengagement possible—the final one, the disengagement from life, which is death.
Soon after we had awakened from the daze of the Second World War, it became clear to us that our protected adolescence as a great Power was over. The empires which had spawned us, whose capital had developed us, whose balance of power had given us security, either disappeared in the two world wars or passed to more minor rôles. We were face to face with the responsibility of adult national life in the most critical situation imaginable. A world which for a century had had an integral life of sorts was split into three segments. One—the Soviet-Communist segment, militarily unequalled, except in nuclear power in which it was weak, was held together by an ideological and economic system supported by force. Another—containing the vast populations of Asia, the Middle East, and North and West Africa—was left in confusion and turmoil at the end of the war; and, in addition, either had newly gained national independence or was demanding it from rulers gravely weakened. To these people had come also expectations of an improving life to a degree never before imagined and, perhaps, unfulfillable.
The third segment was what was left of the old world order—roughly Europe and the Western Hemisphere. The second and third segments had certain important common characteristics. They were not in the Soviet power system. But various and large parts of them could, under some conditions, be added to it.
In this situation, as it appeared not long after the end of the Second World War, the task of what has since come to be called the Atlantic Community, that is, the states of Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere, was to bring about and maintain with increasing strength and vitality a non-Communist world system. Within this system, not only the states mentioned, but those in the second segment as well, should, if the system was workable and working, be able to pursue their national ends in their own way.
This effort required, at the beginning, a great deal of reconstruction, particularly in Europe. The only state strong enough to furnish the leadership in this effort was the United States. Both its government and its people responded vigorously to the press of necessity. The steps which were taken are well known and need not be recalled here. The important thing is that they were successful in bringing about a common sense of purpose, certainly in Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere, and to a large extent were effective in giving opportunity to those nations in Asia and Africa which were just coming to the point where they were free to pursue their national destinies undirected from the outside.
Since the war, therefore, the foreign policy of the United States has become, by necessity, a positive and activist one. It has been one of attempting to draw together, through various groupings, that Western area which must be the center of a free and open world system, and of taking the leading part in providing it with military security, and with a developing economy in which trade could grow and industrial productivity could be developed, both in areas which were already industrially advanced and those which were at the threshold. At the same time it was an essential part of this policy to produce the maximum degree of cohesion throughout the whole non-Communist area, through political policies which would make for integration and strength rather than for exploitation.
Various aspects of this effort—the military, the economic, the political—I have attempted to describe in some detail elsewhere. I have there pointed out the interdependence of the Western Hemisphere and Western Europe; how the power factors involved make it essential that this part of the world shall stand firmly united; how, without the American connection, it is impossible to maintain independent national life in Western Europe; and how, without Western Europe, the power factors would turn disastrously against the United States.
Broadly speaking, these conceptions have for the past decade or more had wide acceptance both in this country and throughout the Western world. They have been successful beyond the dream of those who first advocated them. They are beginning to bear the most valuable fruit.
Recently, efforts have been relaxed. Our military security and much of our prestige resting upon it have been impaired, though not so far that vigorous action cannot make the necessary repair. But, throughout the world, as I indicated at the beginning of this article, voices are being raised to ask whether it is necessary to continue facing the hazards of the military situation, to continue bearing the expense of making vital and progressive the economic life of the whole free world; whether coexistence with the Communist system cannot be bought at a cheaper price and with less effort. And so, when people are told, as they have been by Mr. George Kennan, a man of the highest character and reputation and justly entitled to a respectful hearing, that this is possible, his words have a powerful impact.
Mr. Kennan's views are not new to him. They do not spring from a fresh analysis of the current situation. He has held and expressed these views for at least a decade. The effect which they have had currently makes us realize anew that the reception given to the expression of ideas depends upon the mood of the hearers. This reception may have little to do with the truth of the ideas expressed; it has a great deal to do with their power. Mr. Kennan has told people what they want to hear, though not because they want to hear it. What is it that he has said?
The ideas are almost as vague as the style is seductive. The thoughts are expressed as musings, wonderings, questionings, suggestions. But what comes out of it is about this: First, there is the idea of disengagement in Europe. By this is meant mutual withdrawal of American, British and Canadian, as well as Russian, forces from somewhere. This somewhere first appears to be East and West Germany; then the "heart of Europe;" again, the Continent; and sometimes, from the general ethos of the discussion, it appears to be all overseas areas.
The second idea is the neutralization of Germany. The third is that there should be no nuclear weapons in Europe. And the fourth is that throughout Asia and Africa, in what are called the "uncommitted areas," there is little "to be done . . . except to relax;" that "It is perfectly natural that Russia . . . should have her place and her voice there too;" that "our generation in the West" has no "obligation vis-à-vis the underdeveloped parts of the world," and, anyway, there is no "absolute value attached to rapid economic development. Why all the urgency?" If any sound schemes for development are presented, we should support them, "when they arise;" but, only on the condition that they tell us first "how you propose to assure that if we give you this aid it will not be interpreted among your people as a sign of weakness and fear on our part, or of a desire to dominate you." If Asian and African states should find in this grudging, meager and humiliating policy no opportunity to push their economic development within the non-Communist system, and should turn to Communist methods and Communist help, we should accept their action without concern and with good nature.
One sees at once that these conceptions are the very opposite of those which the West has been following for the past ten years or more. It is an assertion that the struggle naught availeth; that it is dangerous, unwise and unproductive. It is a withdrawal from positive and active leadership in the creation of a workable system of states. It is a conception, blended of monasticism and the diplomacy of earlier centuries, by which the United States would artfully manœuvre its way between and around forces without attempting to direct or control them.
If we attempt to analyze these suggestions, the problems which they create promptly emerge. First, let us consider the idea that something called disengagement can be brought about by removing American, British, Canadian and Russian troops from some area in Europe. What disengagement does this bring about? Very little, as one sees if one pauses to consider the realities. Compare the confrontation which takes place between the United States and the Soviet Union in Germany with that which occurs along the DEW line—that system of early warning stations which stretches from Alaska, across the Arctic regions and far out into the Atlantic. Here there are daily contacts on a thousand radarscopes, and doubtless the same is true on the other side of the screen. Some of these blips on the radar are actual aircraft; sometimes atmospheric conditions produce them. But they represent a contact which no action in Germany can disengage. There is confrontation in every part of the world where the area of the open and free world system may be reduced by Soviet military, economic or political penetration. No action in Germany will produce disengagement here. The word is a mere conception, which confuses and does not represent any reality.
So, let us turn from it to consider something more capable of delineation. For instance, exactly what is the extent of the mutual withdrawal about which we are asked to negotiate? The answer to this question does not depend upon penetrating the vagueness of Mr. Kennan's language. For there can be little doubt, I believe, that, once a withdrawal begins, it will be complete, so far as United States, British and Canadian troops are concerned. All the forces, foreign and domestic, will combine to bring this about. As the withdrawal makes the military position weaker, our forces will be less desired wherever they may remain. If withdrawal is represented as advantageous for Germans, it would seem equally advantageous to Frenchmen. Icelanders, Moroccans, Saudi Arabians and the rest would quickly follow. And, once the idea caught hold, Americans would, of course, join in the general demand. The New Statesman shows us how the matter is now being presented to a small section of British opinion and how it could bemuse a still larger one in that country:
Yet the missile agreement is one of the most extraordinary and complete surrenders of sovereignty ever to be made by one country for the exclusive benefit of another. For the missiles are not intended to defend Britain; on the contrary, they decisively increase its vulnerability. Their prime purpose is to reduce the likelihood of a Soviet ICBM onslaught on America during the crucial three-year period which must elapse before America possesses ICBMs herself. The sole beneficiary will be America.[i]
We should not deceive ourselves. After disengagement, we would soon find ourselves discussing complete withdrawal from all European areas and, very possibly, from bases in the Far East and Near East as well. Indeed, Mr. Khrushchev has twice served warning, once in Berlin in 1957 and again in January of 1958, that the sort of withdrawal which he is talking about is withdrawal from all overseas bases. This would cut the striking power of the free world by at least a half, and, perhaps, until our missile program accelerates, by much more.
We must think of what we purchase for this vast price. What would Russian withdrawal from Germany or the heart of Europe amount to? Is it possible to believe that the Soviet Government, whatever it may say or whatever agreement it may sign, would, or could, contemplate withdrawing its forces behind, say, the River Bug, and keeping them there? And, by forces, I mean effective Russian physical power, by whatever name called. It is hard to see, after the events in Poland and Hungary, whatever the Russian Government might wish, how it could possibly undertake so hazardous a course. For, if its physical force were permanently removed from Eastern Europe, who can believe that even one of the Communist régimes would survive? Therefore, wherever Soviet forces might be garrisoned, the expectation and threat of their return must continue to be ever present (at most it would require from 12 to 18 hours) if Russia is to maintain the power which it has insisted upon as recently as the Hungarian uprising.
At this point in our discussion we must examine the conception of the neutralization of Germany; and then bring together the consequences of withdrawal and neutralization. It is necessary, we are told, that Germany should not be allowed to be free to choose its own course after unification. It must accept limitations upon its military forces and its military alignment. In other words, its national life will be conducted under far greater limitations than those in which other sovereign people live. The possibility that any such situation could endure seems to me quite fantastic.
Whatever Germans might initially think they would be willing to do, there is no precedent in history for, nor does there seem to me to be any possibility of, the successful insulation of a large and vital country situated, as Germany is, between two power systems and with ambitions and purposes of its own. Constant strain would undermine the sanctions of neutralization. The final result would be determined by the relative strength of the pressures from the two sides. As I have already suggested, the pressure would all be from the Russian side. For, there would be no Power in Europe capable of opposing Russian will after the departure of the United States from the Continent and the acceptance of a broad missile-free area. Then, it would not be long, I fear, before there would be an accommodation of some sort or another between an abandoned Germany and the great Power to the East. Under this accommodation, a sort of new Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement, the rest of the free world would be faced with what has twice been so intolerable as to provoke world war—the unification of the European land mass (this time the Eurasian land mass) under a Power hostile to national independence and individual freedom.
But, without this withdrawal of forces and the neutralization of Germany, Mr. Kennan sees "little hope for any removal of the division of Germany at all—nor, by the same token, of the removal of the division of Europe." Naturally enough, these words have found a strong echo in Germany. But it is a fading one, as Germans ponder the conditions which would flow from unification by withdrawal and neutralization, and see the end of the best hopes of the German people. Two weak states—East and West Germany—jockeying for position in a sort of no-man's land, could raise the East-West "tensions" to a point compared to which anything we have yet experienced would seem mild indeed. In all this West Berlin would, of course, be the first victim. It would be a wholly inadequate judgment upon those whose naïveté and weakness produced this result that they should share the guilt of those Western politicians whose preaching of "liberation" encouraged the uprisings in East Berlin and Hungary, and, like them, should sit in supine impotence while more gallant men suffered. The best hope for German unification I shall mention shortly.
Turning to Eastern Europe, Mr. Kennan sees those countries, without the withdrawal of Russian troops, caught between the dilemma of constant revolutions, bloodily suppressed, and the acknowledgment of Soviet domination. This view seems to me founded on nothing but its assertion. I cannot for the life of me see how the movement toward a greater degree of national identity in Eastern Europe is furthered by removing from the Continent the only Power capable of opposing the Soviet Union.
Nor do I see that the facts bear out Mr. Kennan's gloomy predictions. For instance, if the experience of 1956 had produced only the development in Poland or if the Hungarians had acted with as much restraint, it would have been plain to all that the attraction of the power of the West, of the possibilities which its system opens to all, was proving very strong indeed—stronger even than the secret police and Soviet occupation troops. The fact that in Hungary the reaction was pushed to the point where the Russians felt it necessary to suppress it with force proves only that it was handled unwisely.
So, as we think about the matter, we must wonder whether there is anything we can purchase "one-half so precious as the goods" we sell. We are told not to worry about this; that, even though it seems quite unlikely that the Russians would carry out any withdrawal, nevertheless, it is good propaganda to make the offer and cause them to refuse it. This seems to me profoundly false. In the first place, it treats international negotiations as though all the figures on the chessboard were made of wood or ivory; whereas, in fact, we are dealing with living people, subject to all the emotions of mankind. If I were a European and had to live through two or three years of American negotiations about withdrawing from the Continent, I think that very early in the game I would discount America's remaining and would prepare to face a new situation. Furthermore, to believe that the Russians can be put in the position of refusing to evacuate Europe underrates their skill in negotiation. They would simply, as they have already done, continue to raise the price. And it would be we and not they who would do the refusing.
The evils of a timid and defeatist policy of retreat are far deeper than its ineptness as a move in the propaganda battle. It would abandon the efforts of a decade, which are bringing closer to realization the hopes of Western Europe, of Germany, and of Eastern Europe as well. From the low point of 1946-1947 the economic, social and political health and strength of Western Europe—of which West Germany has become an integral and vital part—have grown greatly. Their pull on Eastern Europe continues to mount. To continue this the American connection is essential. The success of the movement toward unity in the west of Europe is no longer in doubt. Only the rate of progress is undecided. The Coal and Steel Community, Euratom, the Common Market have been accepted. A common currency and political community are on the way.
All of this is threatened by the call to retreat. It will not do to say that a united Germany, made militarily impotent and neutralized, can play an effective part in bringing to fruition a united and vigorous European community. The slightest puff of reality blows this wishful fancy away. The jockeyings and tensions of the two parts of Germany, the unopposable threat of Russian power, the bribes which can be dangled before Germany by the Soviet Union in the form of boundary rectifications and economic opportunities—these alone are enough to put an end to hope of a united and strong Europe, invigorated by Germany.
For those who believe that Eastern Europe would welcome American and Russian troop withdrawals as the beginning of liberation, I suggest a quiet sampling of candid Polish opinion. I venture to predict that what they would find is a horror at being abandoned by the West and left between the Soviet Union and a Germany similarly abandoned, to which the offer of another partition of Poland might be irresistible.
But, if one looks at the other side of the medal, what a different face it bears! A strong, united Europe could have the men and the resources—along with British and United States contingents—to deal by conventional forces with invasion by conventional forces, particularly as the Eastern European satellites are becoming a danger, and not an asset, to Soviet military power. This, if pressed, gives real mutuality of benefit to a negotiated reduction in forces. It makes possible, too, a time when nuclear forces would no longer have to be relied on as a substitute for conventional forces, and with it a real opportunity to negotiate this threat further and further into the background.
Finally, a thriving Western Europe would continue its irresistible pull upon East Germany and Eastern Europe. This would, in turn, have its effect upon the demands of the Russian people on their government. With a rise in the standards of living in the Soviet Union, and as some broader participation in the direction of affairs was made essential by their very magnitude and complexity, the Russian need for the forced communization and iron control of Eastern Europe would diminish. Then negotiations looking toward a united Germany, under honorable and healing conditions, and toward the return of real national identity to the countries of Eastern Europe, while preserving also the interests of the Russian people in their own security and welfare, could for the first time be meaningful and show the buds of hope. This has been the goal of Western policy for the past decade.
It would be self-delusion to close our eyes to the difficulties which lie before us along this road. Some we have created ourselves. Our military strategy, with its sole reliance on massive retaliation, and a budgetary policy which has neglected even that, have caused us a loss of relative military power and of prestige. Some of our political policies have weakened our alliances. Our allies, too, are having their troubles. In what are perhaps the two closest of them, we could wish (as they undoubtedly do, too) that both the present and the immediate future held greater promise for the development of strength and popular attitudes more attuned to reality. We all share together the common problem of devising a military policy for NATO which will avoid making the proposed defense seem as fearsome as the potential enemy's threat, and which will be a real deterrent because it is a credible one.
I have suggested elsewhere that this is possible. Briefly, the way is to create a situation in fact which equals the political purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty—that is, a situation where in order for the Soviet Union to attack, or coerce, Europe it would have to attack, or coerce, the United States as well. This, if we all use a fair degree of intelligence about our defenses, the Soviet Union could be deterred from doing. What is required is a short-range effort which does not preclude a sustained effort toward a wiser long-range goal. The short-range effort would be to provide NATO with such effective nuclear power that the Soviet Union could not have its way without destroying that power; and an attempt to destroy it would be impractical apart from a simultaneous attempt to disable the United States, which could be made too dangerous. The longer-range purpose would be to develop adequate conventional forces in Europe, with British and American participation, to make mutually desirable a real reduction and equalization of both Soviet and NATO forces and a controlled elimination of nuclear material for military use.
I quite understand that all of this is difficult. But I believe also that "the mode by which the inevitable comes to pass is effort."
Finally, Mr. Kennan's discussion of the uncommitted countries of Asia and Africa seems to me to disclose a complete lack of understanding of the forces which are at work there. In the first place, he would like to tell them, as Thoreau would have done, that the whole march of industrial civilization since the beginning of the nineteenth century has been a mistake; that they must be patient about increasing their standard of living; that they must curb the mad rate at which they reproduce; that we have no sense of guilt or obligation to them because we are in a position to help their economic development as our own was helped. But when they have any sound plans, we will consider them on terms which they cannot accept. This means that we find nothing to our interest in their industrialization; and that they are in reality ward heelers who threaten one political side with desertion to the other unless they receive a handout or a sinecure.
Nothing could be further from the truth. These governments are faced with a demand, just as are the Government of the United States and the Government of the Soviet Union, that conditions shall exist under which a rising standard of living is possible. The conditions in these countries vary from those which are still deep in an agricultural stage to those which have begun industrialization and are ready, once capital is available, to push it speedily forward. Governments cannot stay in power unless they respond to the demands of those who will keep them there. Even the oligarchs in the Kremlin are under pressure, which they cannot altogether refuse, to expand the standard of living in Russia.
There are two ways in which the governments of the undeveloped countries can bring about conditions which their peoples demand. Both of these involve acquiring capital, but under very different conditions. One involves the adoption of totalitarian authority, a temporary depression of the standard of living, forced savings, and industrial equipment from Russia, paid for by the export of raw materials. The other involves the maintenance, and perhaps a steady expansion, of the standard of living, the maintenance of systems of government in which there is a considerable area of freedom, the import of capital from Western Europe and North America, and the repayment of these loans over a considerable period of time by participation in the expanding trade of an open economic system. To say that economic development has nothing whatever to do with political alignment is a fallacy of the gravest sort. It is, of course, true that economic aid cannot force, cannot ensure, a political alignment from any country. But it is certain that, without it, a different alignment will take place.
May I conclude by repeating that the new isolationism which we have been discussing, and the reception it has received, is gravely disturbing, not only because it is utterly fallacious, but because the harder course which it calls on us to forego has been so successful. If one compares the non-Communist segments of the world today with what they were 12 years ago, one sees enormous progress. If one compares, as we have tried to do here, the pull of a vigorous free system, held together by the joint efforts of at least some of its members to provide military security, economic power and political leadership, one sees how strong it is and what effect it has had. If one considers the changes which have already occurred within the Soviet Union, one can see the time approaching when adjustments in Eastern Europe are possible, when military forces can be reduced, and when the menace of nuclear destruction will be greatly diminished, if not removed. Surely, there are dangers, and great dangers, but with good sense we can live through these. We will not make them less by weakening ourselves, destroying the confidence of our allies, and refusing to help those people who are willing to work to some extent, at least within the system which we and our allies, together, have created and can make ever more vigorous and appealing.
[i] "Britain's Suicide Pact," New Statesman: The Week-end Review, January 4, 1958, p. 1.