A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I intended to read Robert English’s book Russia and the Idea of the West, which examines how Westernizing ideas gradually took hold of an element of the Soviet intelligentsia from the 1950s onwards. I’m now about halfway through, and on page 125 I came across a passage that I thought was very appropriate for today. Here English writes the following:
The steady growth of reformist, anti-isolationist thought [in the USSR] was also aided by two other developments. The first was a sharp deterioration in relations with China, to the point of armed conflict; this forced a deeper rethinking of the two-camp outlook … Second, and more important, was the rise of détente with the West; though accompanied by a tightening of ideological orthodoxy at home, détente provided specialists their broadest access to the West in 50 years… [As a result] the early-mid 1970s saw many calling not just for expanded intercourse with the West, but also for more radical changes that would move their country toward broader integration with the liberal international community.
Détente was a brief effort in the 1960s and 70s to lessen East-West tensions by negotiating arms control settlements, increasing trade, and carrying out cultural exchanges. Eventually it was abandoned by the United States once Ronald Reagan became president, on the grounds that it had emboldened Soviet aggression. But English argues that rather than promote aggression, détente had a positive effect (from a Western perspective) by encouraging pro-Western sentiment in the Soviet foreign policy community.
Today, it seems to me, we’re moving, or perhaps have already irrevocably moved, in the opposite direction. Russia-China relations have never been stronger, and we have entered an era of anti-détente. In this, the West is cutting relations with Russia via sanctions, and is also shredding what remains of the old arms control system. Somehow, this is meant to induce Russia to change in what the West considers a positive direction, i.e. to make it more ‘liberal’ and more friendly. Yet, if English is right, then one might expect it to have the opposite result.
Of course, historical parallels are never 100% valid. Circumstances are very different now compared to 1970s. Back then, opening up the West to the Soviets enabled the West to flex its soft power, by exposing Soviet intellectuals to Western ideas as well as to the obvious superiority of the capitalist economic system in terms of wealth production. This is a strategy that can’t be repeated today because Russians are already very well acquainted with the West. As I’ve pointed out before, cultural exchanges don’t have the ‘wow’ factor they once did.
That said, English points out other ways in which détente encouraged liberal, pro-Western thinking in sections of the Soviet elite. Arms control created strong personal ties between Soviet and US diplomats. After months of working together and then reaching agreement, the former came to respect and admire the later, and with it also came to reject ideas of the necessity of East-West conflict. In the process, détente created its own bureaucratic momentum. This is the way of things; to do something, you have to create institutions and cadres dedicated to it, who in due course become committed to doing more of it, in part out of genuine belief but in part because out of bureaucratic interest and inertia.
And so it was within the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, elements of which became decidedly more ‘liberal’, if that is an appropriate word, than the regime as a whole. English thus describes how liberal-minded diplomats, notably Lev Mendelevich and Anatoly Kovalev, slipped the Helsinki Final Act, with its commitments to human rights, past Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ‘signed the Final Act “without really reading it through”.’ The diplomats hoped, thereby, ‘to encourage domestic reforms, a gradual liberalization of the Communist system, and a humanization of Soviet society.’
One might wonder why diplomats thought that such domestic issues were their concern, but that’s by the by. The point is that détente helped to develop a liberally-inclined, pro-Western element within the Soviet diplomatic service, which used its position to, let’s put it somewhat crudely, undermine the Soviet Union from within. (I’m sure that wasn’t that element’s intent, but it was the effect.)
English describes the intellectual process that took place in the Soviet Union as a gradual abandonment of the isolationist outlook. Compare this to today: the Western policy of endlessly piling up the pressure on Russia, with what seems like a new round of sanctions every month, is having the opposite effect. I can’t say that I follow the readings of the Russian foreign policy community in huge detail, but insofar as I do, I get the strong impression that it’s becoming more and more inclined to the view that it’s pointless to make any concessions to the West because the latter is incapable of responding in kind.
One can see this even among what I call ‘establishment Westernizers’, such as, say, Dmitry Trenin. Particularly striking are some recent articles by one of Russia’s leading foreign policy experts Fyodor Lukyanov, who is now arguing that Russia and the West need to go their own ways and have as little to do with each other as possible. ‘External interactions’ with the USA should be reduced to the ‘absolutely essential’, writes Lukyanov. The two countries should ‘keep out of each others’ way’, he adds. It’s quite a contrast to the kind of thinking that English describes as having developed in the Soviet Union in the era of détente.
I suspect that the more the West tries to isolate Russia, the stronger this tendency in Russian thinking is likely to become. If nothing else, there will be subtle shifts within the Russian foreign policy bureaucracy. Fewer and fewer people will be involved in arms control, trade and other negotiations with Western partners. Meanwhile, more and more will be dealing with China and other parts of the world. With that, the power that the West exerts on Russian foreign policy thinking will inevitably diminish.
As far as the West is concerned, this is very much a self-inflicted wound. The way you influence people is by having contact with them, and reaching agreements with them. It is something that we once at least partially understood. I fear that we do so no longer.