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Home | Library | A Soviet Foreign Policy: A Revisionist Perspective

A Soviet Foreign Policy: A Revisionist Perspective

February 1, 2011

Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld History

[This excerpt from For a New Liberty was first printed in the Libertarian Review, 1978. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]

Since World War II, American military and foreign policy, at least rhetorically, has been based upon the assumption of a looming threat of Russian attack — an assumption that has managed to gain public approval for global American intervention and for scores of billions in military expenditures. But how realistic, how well grounded, is this assumption?

First, there is no doubt that the Soviets, along with all other Marxist-Leninists, would like to replace all existing social systems by Communist regimes. But such a sentiment, of course, scarcely implies any sort of realistic threat of attack — just as an ill wish in private life can hardly be grounds for realistic expectation of imminent aggression.

On the contrary, Marxism-Leninism itself believes that victory of Communism is inevitable — not on the wings of outside force, but rather from accumulating tensions and "contradictions" within each society. So that Marxism-Leninism considers internal revolution (or, in the current "Eurocommunist" version, democratic change) for installing Communism to be inevitable. At the same time, it holds any coercive external imposition of Communism to be at best suspect, and at worst disruptive and counterproductive of genuine organic social change. Any idea of "exporting" Communism to other countries on the back of the Soviet military is totally contradictory to Marxist-Leninist theory.

We are not saying, of course, that Soviet leaders will never do anything contrary to Marxist- Leninist theory. But to the extent that they act as ordinary rulers of a strong Russian nation-state, the case for an imminent Soviet threat to the United States is gravely weakened. For the sole alleged basis of such a threat, as conjured up by our Cold Warriors, is the Soviet Union's alleged devotion to Marxist-Leninist theory and to its ultimate goal of world Communist triumph. If the Soviet rulers were simply to act as Russian dictators consulting only their own nation-state interests, then the entire basis for treating the Soviets as a uniquely diabolic source of imminent military assault crumbles to the ground.

When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, they had given little thought to a future Soviet foreign policy, for they were convinced that Communist revolution would soon follow in the advanced industrial countries of Western Europe. When such hopes were dashed after the end of World War I, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks adopted the theory of "peaceful coexistence" as the basic foreign policy for a Communist state.

The idea was this: As the first successful Communist movement, Soviet Russia would serve as a beacon light and supporter of other Communist parties throughout the world. But the Soviet state qua state would devote itself to peaceful relations with all other countries, and would not attempt to export Communism through interstate warfare. The idea here was not just to follow Marxist-Leninist theory, but also the highly practical course of holding the survival of the existing Communist state as the foremost goal of foreign policy: that is, never to endanger the Soviet State by courting interstate warfare. Other countries would be expected to become Communist by their own internal processes.

Thus, fortuitously, from a mixture of theoretical and practical grounds of their own, the Soviets arrived early at what libertarians consider to be the only proper and principled foreign policy. As time went on, furthermore, this policy was reinforced by a "conservatism" that comes upon all movements after they have acquired and retained power for a length of time, in which the interests of keeping power over one's nation-state begins to take more and more precedence over the initial ideal of world revolution. This increasing conservatism under Stalin and his successors strengthened and reinforced the nonaggressive, "peaceful-coexistence" policy.

The Bolsheviks, indeed, began their success story by being literally the only political party in Russia to clamor, from the beginning of World War I, for an immediate Russian pullout from the war. Indeed, they went further and courted enormous unpopularity by calling for the defeat of "their own" government ("revolutionary defeatism").

When Russia began to suffer enormous losses, accompanied by massive military desertions from the front, the Bolsheviks, guided by Lenin, continued to be the only party to call for an immediate end to the war, the other parties still vowing to fight the Germans to the end. When the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin, over the hysterical opposition of even the majority of the Bolshevik central committee itself, insisted on concluding the "appeasement" peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.

Here Lenin succeeded in taking Russia out of the war, even at the price of granting to the victorious German army all the parts of the Russian Empire it then occupied (including White Russia and the Ukraine). Thus, Lenin and the Bolsheviks began their reign by being not simply a peace party, but virtually a "peace-at-any-price" party.

After World War I and Germany's defeat, the new Polish state attacked Russia and succeeded in grabbing for itself a large chunk of White Russia and the Ukraine. Taking advantage of the turmoil and civil war within Russia at the end of the world war, various other national groups — Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — decided to break away from the pre–World War I Russian Empire and declare national independence.

While Leninism pays lip service to national self-determination, it was clear to Soviet rulers from the very beginning that the boundaries of the old Russian state were supposed to remain intact. The Red Army reconquered the Ukraine, not only from the Whites, but also from the Ukrainian nationalists and from the indigenously Ukrainian anarchist army of Nestor Makhno.

"War and militarism were the
gravediggers of classical liberalism."

For the rest, it was clear that Russia, like Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, was a "revisionist" country vis-à-vis the postwar settlement at Versailles: i.e., Lenin, the lodestar of both Russian and German foreign policy was to recapture their pre–World War I borders — what they both considered the "true" borders of their respective states. It should be noted that every political party or tendency in Russia and Germany, whether ruling the state or in opposition, agreed with this aim of full restoration of national territory.

But, it should be emphasized, while Germany under Hitler took strong measures to recapture the lost lands, the cautious and conservative Soviet rulers did absolutely nothing. Only after the Stalin-Hitler pact and the German conquest of Poland did the Soviets, now facing no danger in doing so, recapture their lost territories. Specifically, the Russians repossessed Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as the old Russian lands of White Russia and the Ukraine that had been Eastern Poland.

And they were able to do so without a fight. The old, pre–World War I Russia had now been restored with the exception of Finland. But Finland was prepared to fight. Here, the Russians demanded, not the reincorporation of Finland as a whole, but only of parts of the Karelian Isthmus that were ethnically Russian. When the Finns refused this demand, the "Winter War" (1939–1940) between Russia and Finland ensued, which ended with the Finns victorious and conceding nothing.

On June 22, 1941, Germany, triumphant over everyone but England in the west, launched a sudden massive and unprovoked assault on Soviet Russia, an act of aggression aided and abetted by the other pro-German states in Eastern Europe — Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Finland. This German and allied invasion of Russia soon became one of the pivotal facts in the history of Europe since that date.

So unprepared was Stalin for the assault, so trusting was he in the rationality of the German-Russian accord for peace in Eastern Europe, that he had allowed the Russian army to fall into disrepair. So unwarlike was Stalin, in fact, that Germany was almost able to conquer Russia in the face of enormous odds. Since Germany otherwise would have been able to retain control of Europe indefinitely, it was Hitler who was led by the siren call of anti-Communist ideology to throw away a rational and prudent course and launch what was to be the beginning of his ultimate defeat.

World War II and the Soviets

The mythology of the Cold Warriors often concedes that the Soviets were not internationally aggressive until World War II — indeed, they are compelled to assert this point, since most Cold Warriors heartily approve the World War II alliance of the United States with Russia against Germany. It was during and immediately after the war, they assert, that Russia became expansionist and drove its way into Eastern Europe.

Mises Academy: Stephan Kinsella teaches Libertarian Legal Theory

What this charge overlooks is the central fact of the German and associated assault upon Russia in June 1941. There is no doubt about the fact that Germany and her allies launched this war. Hence, in order to defeat the invaders, it was obviously necessary for the Russians to roll back the invading armies and conquer Germany and the other warring countries of Eastern Europe. It is easier to make out a case for the United States being expansionist for conquering and occupying Italy and part of Germany than it is for Russia doing so — after all, the United States was never directly attacked by the Germans.

During World War II, the United States, Britain, and Russia — the three major Allies — had agreed on joint three-power military occupation of all the conquered territories. The United States was the first to break the agreement during the war by allowing Russia no role whatever in the military occupation of Italy. Despite this serious breach of agreement, Stalin displayed his consistent preference for the conservative interests of the Russian nation-state over cleaving to revolutionary ideology — by repeatedly betraying indigenous Communist movements.

In order to preserve peaceful relations between Russia and the West, Stalin consistently tried to hold back the success of various Communist movements. He was successful in France and Italy, where Communist partisan groups might easily have seized power in the wake of the German military retreat; but Stalin ordered them not to do so, and instead persuaded them to join coalition regimes headed by anti-Communist parties. In both countries, the Communists were soon ousted from the coalition. In Greece, where the Communist partisans almost did seize power, Stalin irretrievably weakened them by abandoning them and urging them to turn over power to newly invading British troops.

In other countries, particularly ones where Communist partisan groups were strong, the Communists flatly refused Stalin's requests. In Yugoslavia, the victorious Tito refused Stalin's demand that Tito subordinate himself to the anti-Communist Mihailovich in a governing coalition; and Mao refused a similar Stalin demand that he subordinate himself to Chiang Kai-shek. There is no doubt that these rejections were the beginning of the later, extraordinarily important schisms within the world Communist movement.

Russia, therefore, governed Eastern Europe as military occupier after winning a war launched against her. Russia's initial goal was not to Communize Eastern Europe on the backs of the Soviet Army. Her goal was to gain assurances that Eastern Europe would not be the broad highway for an assault on Russia, as it had been three times in half a century — the last time in a war in which over 20 million Russians had been slaughtered.

"The only real difference between a democracy and a dictatorship on making war is that in the former more propaganda must be beamed at one's subjects to engineer their approval."

In short, Russia wanted countries on her border that would not be anti-Communist in a military sense, and that would not be used as a springboard for another invasion. Political conditions in Eastern Europe were such that only in more modernized Finland did non-Communist politicians exist whom Russia could trust to pursue a peaceful line in foreign affairs.

And in Finland, this situation was the work of one far-seeing statesman, the agrarian leader Julio Paasikivi. It was because Finland, then and since, has firmly followed the "Paasikivi line" that Russia was willing to pull its troops out of Finland and not to insist on the Communization of that country — even though it had fought two wars with Finland in the previous six years.

Even in the other Eastern European countries, Russia clung to coalition governments for several years after the war, and only fully Communized them in 1948 — after three years of unrelenting American Cold-War pressure to try to oust Russia from these countries. In other areas, Russia readily pulled its troops out of Austria and out of Azerbaijan.

The cold warriors find it difficult to explain Russian actions in Finland. If Russia is always hell-bent to impose Communist rule wherever it can, why the "soft line" on Finland? The only plausible explanation is that its motivation is security for the Russian nation-state against attack, with the success of world Communism playing a very minor role in its scale of priorities.

Schisms and World Communism

In fact, the Cold Warriors have never been able either to explain or absorb the fact of deep schisms in the world Communist movement. For if all Communists are governed by a common ideology, then every Communist everywhere should be part of one unified monolith, and one which, given the early success of the Bolsheviks, would make them subordinates or "agents" of Moscow.

If Communists are mainly motivated by their bond of Marxism-Leninism, why do we have the deep China-Russia split, in which Russia, for example, keeps one million troops at the ready on the China-Russia frontier? Why is there such enmity between the Yugoslav Communist and the Albanian Communist states? How can there be an actual military conflict between the Cambodian and Vietnamese Communists?

The answer, of course, is that once a revolutionary movement seizes state power, it very quickly begins to take on the attributes of a ruling class, with a class interest in retaining state power. The world revolution begins to pale, in their outlook, to insignificance. And since state elites can and do have conflicting interests in power and wealth, it is not surprising that inter-Communist conflicts have become endemic.

Since their victory over German military aggression in World War II, the Soviets have continued to be conservative in their military policy. Their only use of troops has been to defend their territory in the Communist bloc, rather than to extend it further. Thus, when Hungary threatened to leave the Soviet block in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets intervened with troops — reprehensibly, to be sure, but still acting in a conservative and defensive, rather than expansionist, manner. (The Soviets apparently gave considerable thought to invading Yugoslavia when Tito took that country out of the Soviet bloc, but were deterred by the formidable qualities for guerrilla fighting of the Yugoslav army.) In no case has Russia used troops to extend its bloc or to conquer more territories.

Professor Stephen F. Cohen, director of the program in Russian studies at Princeton, has delineated the nature of Soviet conservatism in foreign affairs in a recent issue of Inquiry:

That a system born in revolution and still professing revolutionary ideas should have become one of the most conservative in the world may seem preposterous. But all those factors variously said to be most important in Soviet politics have contributed to this conservatism: the bureaucratic tradition of Russian government before the revolution; the subsequent bureaucratization of Soviet life, which proliferated conservative norms and created an entrenched class of zealous defenders of bureaucratic privilege; the geriatric nature of the present-day elite; and even the official ideology, whose thrust turned many years ago from the creation of a new social order to extolling the existing one. …

In other words, the main thrust of Soviet conservatism today is to preserve what it already has at home and abroad, not to jeopardize it. A conservative government is, of course, capable of dangerous militaristic actions, as we saw in Czechoslovakia … but these are acts of imperial protectionism, a kind of defensive militarism, not a revolutionary or aggrandizing one. It is certainly true that for most Soviet leaders, as presumably for most American leaders, detente is not an altruistic endeavor but the pursuit of national interests. In one sense, this is sad. But it is probably also true that mutual self-interest provides a more durable basis for detente than lofty, and finally empty, altruism ("Why Detente Can Work," December 19, 1977).

Similarly, as impeccable an anti-Soviet source as former CIA Director William Colby finds the overwhelming concern of the Soviets in the defensive goal of avoiding another catastrophic invasion of their territory. As Colby testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,

You will find a concern, even a paranoia, over their [the Soviets'] own security. You will find the determination that they shall never again be invaded and put through the kinds of turmoil that they have been under and many different invasions. … I think that they … want to overprotect themselves to make certain that that does not happen.

Even the Chinese, for all their bluster, have pursued a conservative and pacific foreign policy. Not only have they failed to invade Taiwan, recognized internationally as part of China, but they have even allowed the small offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu to remain in Chiang Kai-shek's hands. No moves have been made against the British and Portuguese-occupied exclaves of Hong Kong and Macao. And China even took the unusual step of declaring a unilateral cease-fire and withdrawal of forces to its border after having triumphed easily over Indian arms in their escalated border war. (See Neville Maxwell, India's China War [New York: Pantheon Books, 1970].)

Neither is China's reconquest and suppression of national rebellion in Tibet a valid point against our thesis. For Chiang Kai-shek as well as all other Chinese have for many generations considered Tibet as part of Greater China, and China was here acting in the same conservative, nation-state manner as we have seen has guided the Soviets.

Avoiding A Priori History

There is still one thesis common to Americans and even to some libertarians that may prevent them from absorbing the analysis of this chapter: the myth propounded by Woodrow Wilson that democracies must inevitably be peace-loving while dictatorships are inevitably warlike. This thesis was of course highly convenient for covering Wilson's own culpability for dragging America into a needless and monstrous war. But there is simply no evidence for this assumption.

"Once a revolutionary movement seizes state power, it very quickly begins to take on the attributes of a ruling class, with a class interest in retaining state power."

Many dictatorships have turned inward, cautiously confining themselves to preying on their own people. Examples range from premodern Japan to Communist Albania to innumerable dictatorships in the Third World today. Uganda's Idi Amin, perhaps the most brutal and repressive dictator in today's world, shows no signs whatever of jeopardizing his regime by invading neighboring countries. On the other hand, such an indubitable democracy as Great Britain spread its coercive imperialism across the globe during the 19th and earlier centuries.

The theoretical reason why focusing on democracy or dictatorship misses the point is that states — all states — rule their population and decide whether or not to make war. And all states, whether formally a democracy or dictatorship or some other brand of rule, are run by a ruling elite. Whether or not these elites, in any particular case, will make war upon another state is a function of a complex interweaving web of causes, including the temperament of the rulers, the strength of their enemies, the inducements for war, public opinion, etc.

While public opinion has to be gauged in either case, the only real difference between a democracy and a dictatorship on making war is that in the former more propaganda must be beamed at one's subjects to engineer their approval. Intensive propaganda is necessary in any case — as we can see by the zealous opinion-molding behavior of all modern warring states.

But the democratic state must work harder and faster. And also the democratic state must be more hypocritical in using rhetoric designed to appeal to the values of the masses: justice, freedom, national interest, patriotism, world peace, etc. So that in democratic states the art of propaganda the elite uses over its subjects must be a bit more sophisticated and refined. But this, as we have seen, is true of all governmental decisions, not just war or peace.

For all governments — but especially democratic governments — must work hard at persuading their subjects that all of their deeds of oppression are really in their subjects' best interests. What we have said about democracy and dictatorship applies equally to the lack of correlation between degrees of internal freedom in a country and its external aggressiveness. Some states have proved themselves perfectly capable of allowing a considerable degree of freedom internally while making aggressive war abroad, while others have shown themselves capable of totalitarian rule internally while pursuing a pacific foreign policy. The examples of Idi Amin, Albania, China, Great Britain, etc., apply equally well in this comparison.

In short, libertarians and other Americans must guard against a priori history: in this case, against the assumption that, in any conflict, that state which is more democratic or allows more internal freedom is necessarily or even presumptively the victim of aggression by the more dictatorial or totalitarian state. There is simply no historical evidence whatever for such a presumption.

In deciding on relative rights and wrongs, on relative degrees of aggression, in any dispute in foreign affairs, there is no substitute for a detailed, empirical, historical investigation of the dispute itself. It should occasion no great surprise, then, if such an investigation concludes that a democratic and relatively far freer United States has been more aggressive and imperialistic in foreign affairs than a relatively totalitarian Russia or China. Conversely, hailing a state for being less aggressive in foreign affairs in no way implies that the observer is in any way sympathetic to that state's internal record.

It is vital — indeed, it is literally a life-and-death matter — that Americans be able to look as coolly and clear-sightedly, as free from myth, at their government's record in foreign affairs as they increasingly are able to do in domestic politics. For war and a phony "external threat" have long been the chief means by which the state wins back the loyalty of its subjects. War and militarism were the gravediggers of classical liberalism; we must not allow the state to get away with this ruse ever again.


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