Cold warriors look at Soviet policy

Wednesday, September 18, 1991

By Roderic Pitty

Soviet Foreign Policy Today: Gorbachev and the new political thinking
By Robert F. Miller
Allen & Unwin. 1991. 210 pp. $24.95 (hc), $17.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Roderic Pitty

This is a superficial book by one of the many "objective Western analysts" who would have wanted to waste more of the world's resources on weapons of mass destruction if the conservative coup in the Kremlin had succeeded.

Robert Miller's account of Soviet foreign policy is based on the dubious assumption that Soviet ideology or Marxism-Leninism was a genuine world view rather than a boring ritual used by antediluvian leaders to control criticism from below and beyond.

The reality was revealed long ago by Vladimir Lukin, a once radical Soviet intellectual who popped up at the height of the recent political crisis as Yeltsin's spokesperson. In response to a reprimand for opposing the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, Lukin in 1969 wrote a clever article on the role of ideology in societies "of an anti-colonial peasant-statocratic type" (a euphemism for Stalinism).

He observed: "Bit by bit the formerly mighty factor of social orientation is turned into an obligatory, although very tedious ritual, the use of which indicates the observance by the society's members of an already old tradition of the 'rules of the game', not established by them, rather than any identification of their internal aspirations with an obsolete dogma".

Miller argues that most Western observers have been wrong in considering Gorbachev a pragmatist. He refers to an important speech in April 1987 by Aleksandr Yakovlev, but misinterprets this as a sign of theoretical continuity, not as a call for new ideas to fill the vacuum created by decades of mindless censorship.

In 1990 Yakovlev told students at Moscow University that the Soviet leadership was "still forced to act largely intuitively, relying more on common sense than on theory". The point of this statement is that the real views of Gorbachev and company cannot be understood through the short cut of dusting off old doctrines and displaying them as a concoction called"Leninism" (a term invented by Stalin to fool the faithful).

The only reliable method of analysis is to investigate the society which Gorbachev has been trying to change, and imagine how a newly dominant reformist faction of the Soviet elite could make sense of its position in the world.

Miller does not even attempt to do this in Part I, on the setting

of Soviet foreign policy. Instead, he presents a potted history of Kremlin diplomacy which is reasonably accurate but largely ignores the enormous decline in the Soviet state's authority during the "years of stagnation", and he engages in some incredibly out-of-date assertions about pacifist groups being "swallowed up" by Soviet "front organisations".

Part II provides a descriptive account of some regional patterns in recent Soviet policy toward capitalist countries, the former Soviet bloc and the Third World, plus a few general conclusions. His basic message is that Gorbachev has won Western governments' support by making successive concessions to the United States on arms control, by accepting the end of the Warsaw Pact and by ceasing to undermine US positions of control in the rest of the world.

Miller views all these changes in Soviet foreign policy with satisfaction, but remains sceptical because of his perception that in the end "everything depends" on Gorbachev's "one-person rule" in external affairs. This judgment now seems as untrustworthy as Gennady Yanayev or as dead as Boris Pugo.

The reactionaries in the Kremlin would not have delayed their coup so long if Gorbachev's reforms had lacked significant support amongst the Soviet elite. Miller refers in passing to Gorbachev's "colleagues of the post-Stalin generation" and notes some similarities between "new political thinking" and Khrushchev's approach to foreign policy in the late 1950s, but he does not elaborate on either point.

A few of Gorbachev's second-rate contemporaries (like the ambassador to Poland, Vladimir Brovikov, and the former head of the Russian Communist Party, Ivan Polozkov) have attacked his new deal with the West, but they have been whistling in the wind. Most Soviet leaders nowadays gained nothing from Stalin's purges and were frustrated by the way Brezhnev wasted their time and their state's resources while the country's insecurity grew, so they would have accepted an open orientation toward Western capitalism as necessary.

Miller's failure to appreciate this profound reorientation of Soviet foreign policy is reflected in significant errors of fact and omission. He suggests that Gorbachev's speech in May 1986 demanding that Soviet diplomats "face the realities of the present world" remains a secret, when an extensive summary was published in August 1987 in the first number of the Foreign Ministry's new information bulletin, which is easily accessible to the author in the National Library.

Remarkable, Miller's most extensive quotations are from Konstantin Chernenko and Viktor Afanasev, a Brezhnevite who edited Pravda during the 1980s. Miller notes the significance of

Shevardnadze's appointment as foreign minister in July 1985, but

refers to him only six times and appears ignorant of Shevardnadze's most important foreign policy speech, in July 1988. He could be excused for mentioning Yeltsin only once, but not for believing his suggestion that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took place "against the advice of the Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov".

With the knee-jerk reflexes of a cold warrior, Miller enjoys the luxury of a cheap attack on Wilfred Burchett while completely ignoring Fedor Burlatsky, a policy adviser to Khrushchev and Gorbachev who has been a regular commentator on foreign affairs for years and is now editor of the Russian intelligentsia's weekly newspaper. But the saddest indication of Miller's closed mind is his description of Gorbachev's proposal in 1986 (during the Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing) to hold a conference on Pacific security in Hiroshima as an example of "remarkably blatant opportunism".

This book would not be important if it did not faithfully reflect the views of most Western diplomats about Soviet foreign policy. It arrogantly assumes that new thinking is needed only "over there", not everywhere. Miller is not even really interested in Soviet new thinking, since he fails to pose the obvious question of whether it could have developed much further. The answer may not be yes, but then the obstacles to democratising international life could be clearly seen.

Ironically, Miller's book suffers from ignoring two of Lenin's basic premises: first, that foreign policy reflects the nature of the system making it, and second, that Russia stands historically "on the border between Europe and Asia, West and East". It also suffers from the boring practice of repeating one-sided assertions instead of undertaking a dialogue with others in order to comprehend common problems and work out possible solutions.