The Tradition of Change in Soviet Foreign Policy

By Van Oudenaren, John | McNair Papers, April 1990 | Go to article overview

The Tradition of Change in Soviet Foreign Policy

Van Oudenaren, John, McNair Papers

IN FOUR YEARS AS LEADER OF THE SOVIET Union, Mikhail Gorbachev has introduced radical changes in the theory and practice of Soviet foreign policy. In his self-proclaimed "new political thinking," he has downplayed the importance of class struggle in international relations, emphasized "mutual security" and the role of politics in resolving disputes, and stressed the interdependent nature of the contemporary world. He has called for common efforts to solve such problems as debt, hunger, pollution and above all disarmament. The Soviets have also invoked new political thinking to explain a series of surprising policy moves, including the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, the acceptance of on-site inspection in the 1986 Conference on Disarmament in Europe (CDE) and the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreements, and the payment of UN dues long in arrears.

Gorbachev is without question an innovator, but throughout Soviet history other leaders have also been responsible for sweeping changes in foreign policy doctrine and practice. Such changes occurred at the time of the revolution itself, in 1924, in 1953-1955, and, to a lesser extent, in the first few years after Brezhnev's rise to preeminence in 1970. In all these periods, change was imposed from the top down by drawing upon different strands in the body of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and borrowing ideas and slogans from the outside world. To understand current Soviet policy it is necessary to examine the tradition of change in Soviet foreign policy, as well as the specific antecedents to Gorbachev's "new political thinking" and the policy changes associated with it.

Change Before Gorbachev

The Bolsheviks took power convinced that it was neither possible nor necessary for revolutionary Russia to have much of a foreign policy toward the existing capitalist order. This attitude was summed up by Trotsky, the first peoples commissar for foreign affairs, when he predicted that he would issue a few revolutionary proclamations and then close up shop. (1) They believed revolutions to be imminent in the West, and thus saw little need to concern themselves with policy toward governments and leaders whose days were numbered.

To promote world revolution, the Communist International (Comintern) was founded in March 1919, with headquarters in Moscow. In its New Year's proclamation to the Soviet people in 1920, it declared "we shall establish workers' and soldiers' councils in Berlin and Warsaw, in Paris and London, and the might of the Soviets will one day extend throughout the whole world." (2) In this period of early post-revolutionary ferment, the Bolsheviks were not averse to using the resources of the Soviet state to speed up the world revolutionary process. In addition to providing arms, agents, propaganda, and indoctrinating German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, the Soviets unsuccessfully attempted the export of revolution in the Russian-Polish war of 1920.

As the revolution in the West failed to materialize, however, and as some of the new regime's class enemies proved less hostile than Lenin had predicted, the Bolsheviks began to formulate and to practice a diplomacy of "coexistence." They established trade ties and secured de jure political recognition from a growing list of countries, beginning with immediate neighbors such as Turkey, Afghanistan, Persia and the Baltic states, followed by Germany in the Rapallo treaty, and then by the major powers of the Versailles system, including Britain, France, and Italy. They still conceived of diplomacy, however, as a very temporary expedient. Bolshevik hopes still centered on proletarian revolution, and the new regime was unwilling, despite solemn pledges to the contrary, to eschew subversion in order to cultivate correct relations with "bourgeois" regimes. As late as October 1923 the Comintern backed an abortive uprising in Germany.

The failure of these attempts at revolution, changing conditions in the Soviet Union, and Lenin's death in January 1924 brought the first phase of Soviet foreign policy to an end and set the stage for a major doctrinal shift. …

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