'New Thinking' in Foreign Policy; Give Peace a Chance

By Evangelista, Matthew | The Nation, June 13, 1987 | Go to article overview

'New Thinking' in Foreign Policy; Give Peace a Chance


Evangelista, Matthew, The Nation


New Thinking' in Foreign Policy

V. I. Lenin once said that "there is no more erroneousor harmful idea than the separation of foreign from internal policy.' Ironically, the link between foreign and domestic affairs has traditionally been used by Western cold-warriors to underline their accusations of Soviet expansionism. It may seem surprising, then, that Mikhail Gorbachev himself has argued that the "new thinking' in Soviet foreign policy depends on making Soviet society more democratic. Speaking at the international peace forum in Moscow in February, Gorbachev called attention to the "revolutionary transformations' taking place in his country, to the need for a "wide democratization of the entire life of the society.' He declared that a fair assessment of Soviet foreign policy required an understanding of the goals of domestic reform. "More than ever before,' Gorbachev said, "our international policy depends on our internal policy.'

In certain respects Gorbachev does appear to have adoptedsome of the assumptions of his harshest critics. U.S. opponents of arms control treaties, for example, frequently raise the specter of Soviet cheating by asking, How can we trust a government that doesn't trust its own people? In the wake of the release of Andrei Sakharov and scores of other political prisoners, Gorbachev has responded to those critics on their own terms. One consequence of the domestic reforms has been a marked "strengthening of trust in our society,' he said at the peace forum. "And this has strengthened our confidence in the possibility of bringing the necessary trust into the sphere of interstate and international relations as well.' Finally, he stressed the importance of having Soviet citizens, not just politicians and diplomats, take part in the process of building mutual trust.

Gorbachev's words have been greeted with mixed reactionsin the West. Surely, a certain amount of skepticism is warranted, especially on the matter of internal changes in the regime's attitude toward its people. The government's continued suspicion of contact with foreigners and its reluctance to allow unsanctioned political activity bar the kind of independent "citizen diplomacy' that Gorbachev claims to endorse. Yet whatever the conjunction of internal causes, the consequences for Soviet foreign policy are exactly as Gorbachev describes: an increased confidence, a willingness to take risks in pursuit of accommodation, and a creative approach to dealing with international relations that is unparalleled in recent Soviet history.

Gorbachev's foreign policy since becoming General Secretary,in March 1985, has been characterized by flexibility, sophistication and a high level of energy. He has emphasized independent relations with countries in Western Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific, while keeping the door open to agreements with the United States. In the area of arms control he has made substantial concessions and has shown a remarkable degree of unilateral restraint. Most important, he has recast the internal debate on the meaning of security, by accentuating political, diplomatic and economic concerns over strictly military ones.

In implementing his foreign policy, Gorbachev has soughtto overcome Leonid Brezhnev's legacy of conservatism and inertia. One particularly revealing symbol of the stagnation that beset Soviet foreign policy in the waning years of the Brezhnev regime was the Foreign Ministry itself. It had been directed since 1957 by Andrei Gromyko, and its organizational structure reflected the world of three decades earlier. Responsibility for relations with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for example, rested with the British desk, as if the sun had not yet set on the empire. Emblematic of Gorbachev's changes was the "promotion' of Gromyko to the largely ceremonial position of President and the rearrangement of the ministry under Eduard Shevardnadze. Organizationally, Australia and New Zealand became part of a new Pacific department; Canada was moved to North America; and Britain finally joined Europe.

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