The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

By Alexander Dallin; Gail W. Lapidus | Go to book overview

37 The Revolution in
Soviet Foreign Policy

ROBERT LEGVOLD

A revolution is under way in Soviet foreign policy greater than any in the postwar period, indeed greater than any since Lenin in the early years of his regime accepted the failure of the pan-European revolution and allowed the Soviet Union to join the game of nations. The current upheaval is on a scale with the other dramatic foreign policy reorientations of the last half-century: comparable to the 1940s when U.S. foreign policy moved from isolation to global engagement; greater, in fact, than the 1950s when French policy passed from the modest aims of the Fourth Republic to the grand enterprises of de Gaulle's Fifth Republic; and greater, too, than the 1960s in Chinese policy, a ten-year transition from a troubled alignment with the Soviet camp to an emerging realignment with the West.

Steadily but chaotically, with a lurching, creative energy, the transformation has cut wider and deeper into the rudiments of Soviet foreign policy. For three and a half years, changes have accumulated, spreading from one sphere to the next, altering not merely the workaday calculations that trapped Mikhail Gorbachev's predecessors in their Afghan imbroglio and in their leaden approach to the Euromissile challenge, but altering the assumptions by which the Soviets explain the functioning of international politics and from which they derive the concepts underlying the deeper pattern of their actions. Revolutions of this kind do not make states into saints nor do they remove them as preoccupations in the policies of other nations, but they do leave a vastly different challenge. Once understood by the outside world, such revolutions create new imperatives and often new opportunities.

Why now? Why, when only a few years ago Soviet policy seemed so menacing in its rigidity? A part of the answer lies in the fact that radical circumstance often stirs radical change, and the Soviet circumstance these days is surely radical. Rarely, if ever, has a leadership under the duress of a basic failure of its system attempted so much. It would be difficult to do what Gorbachev wants to do to the Soviet economic and political order and not also affect the foreign policy order, to focus on massive problems in one sphere and ignore those in another, to turn society upside down but leave the external stakes of the country untouched, or to reexamine the entire Stalinist experience but give no thought to the lessons of the last twenty years in foreign affairs.

When a foreign policy has diminished national welfare and weakened the state's ability to influence or control external change, as so many Soviet spokes‐

-421-

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