Accessibility links

East European Perspectives: November 11, 2004

11 November 2004, Volume 6, Number 21


By Paul A. Goble


The period between December 1979 -- when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, thereby accelerating its own demise -- and September 2001 -- when terrorists attacked the United States, refocusing the attention of the world on the importance of effective state institutions -- represented an interregnum in international affairs.

Like other historical periods when an old order is dying and a new one is yet to be born, this 22-year interval was one during which history appeared to accelerate and in which the normal relationships between states and societies, between senior officials and junior ones, and between policies based on pragmatism and appeals based on principle changed in often unexpected ways. And these changes provided an opportunity for particular kinds of individuals who would not have had such a chance at any other time.

I had the good luck to be one of those, someone who arrived in Washington only a few months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and whose career in Washington -- in the government, in think tanks and in the U.S. international broadcasting community ended not long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This essay, like the talk on which it is based, represents my reflections about that time and about why it was so different than the period out of which it emerged and to which it ultimately gave way.

Here I want to examine the evolution of relations between states and societies, between senior officials and junior ones, and between pragmatism and principle at the beginning of this interregnum, at its height, and then at its end. But to demonstrate how different these three relationships were during the interregnum, I must first make a few observations about these ties in the period before the interregnum began and then at the end conclude with the way in which the governments made their back to more traditional ideas about state and society and about the role of those who make policy.

But before I turn to this task, I must make three preliminary observations lest my remarks be misunderstood. First, I was involved with only one aspect of this interregnum -- the demise of the bipolar world, the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the rise of new states in its place. Those events defined the changes in this interregnum, but they naturally did not exhaust it. Consequently, my failure to discuss other issues does not mean that I do not think they were important as well.

Second, like those who write about the Middle Ages often do, one can push back the beginnings of this interregnum before December 1979 and extend its end beyond September 2001. Many things were happening long before Soviet troops crossed into Afghanistan that pointed to the end of the post-World War II settlement, and equally many things have continued after September 2001 that might justify extending the end of this interregnum up to the present or even beyond. But these two dates were moments of fundamental tectonic shifts and thus serve as useful boundaries for my subject here.

And third, the categories I use here to discuss this period -- states and societies, senior officials and junior ones, and pragmatism and principles -- are likewise not neatly defined and mutually exclusive. The nexus between states and societies is inevitably complicated, especially in democratic countries. Not only do junior officials become senior officials, but the line between these two categories is never as precise as any discussion of government might suggest. And principles and pragmatism are also not antithetical concepts. Pragmatism can be a means to realize principles, and thus a commitment to principles does not necessarily preclude the acceptance of pragmatism. But in times of uncertainty, principles are often better guides to policy. Indeed, when well-known boundary markers disappear, they may be the only basis for action. Nonetheless, one can use these six terms because they capture the tensions that exist at all times and that are particularly in evidence during interregnums.

Despite all the exceptions that one could name, the international order that existed between the late 1940s and the late 1970s was one in which governments rather than societies were the most powerful actors, in which senior officials dominated policy making to the point that junior officials seldom had the chance to be more than executors of policies made by those above them, and in which governments behaved pragmatically in their relationships with other states even when they proclaimed their commitment to particular and very different sets of ideas -- democracy and freedom in the West and Marxist socialism in the Soviet bloc.

Governments rather than societies were the most powerful actors on the scene precisely because of the military tensions inherent in the Cold War. Only states could mobilize the kind of resources needed to participate in that conflict, and even when states mobilized nongovernmental actors, it was the state rather than the society that drove most developments. Because this pattern lasted for a generation, everyone involved knew the rules of the game. That in turn meant that senior officials dominated decision-making because they knew these rules and therefore relatively seldom saw the need to depend on more junior ones or on outside experts in the formulation of their most fundamental policies. Instead, those policies were set, and consequently, senior state officials played a pragmatic game, one in which they could not only see the shape of the board but also the only game being played on it.

But in the late 1970s and especially in the late 1980s, that board and the game being played on it changed dramatically, and those changes ushered in the interregnum that is my subject here. By violating the rules of the game with the invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet government inevitably prompted the West to change the game as well. (Some of the changes that surfaced after 1979 -- such as Soviet economic decline and the importance of the Helsinki Process -- naturally had their roots in an earlier period.)

President Jimmy Carter�s decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the beginning of this process. However limited his intentions were, Carter�s action signaled that the United States and its Western allies were no longer willing to view the Soviet Union as a full member of the international concert of nations. And that in turn opened the way to greater activism within the Soviet bloc and to greater activism by human rights, academic, and ethnic organizations in Western societies. At first, this activism had an impact only on more junior government officials to whom these groups could gain access. But very quickly this outside activism empowered not only these groups themselves but also the junior officials in their dealings with more senior officials -- particularly as change in the system became more obvious and the need to respond to this change more insistent.

But the real signal for the changes that contributed to this interregnum was the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and especially his "evil empire� speech in June 1982. Until then, Western policy makers had tended to ignore the imperial dimension of the USSR. The one exception to that pattern, of course, concerned the U.S.-led policy of refusing to recognize de jure the incorporation of the three Baltic countries into the Soviet Union by Stalin as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Not unimportantly, that long-standing policy both encouraged the Baltic activism in the 1980s which contributed so much to the demise of the USSR and also provided a base for the expansion of the Western commitment to the right of all of the Soviet nations to self-determination.

Reagan�s introduction of this term was little short of brilliant for two reasons. On the one hand, by introducing the question of moral evaluation and hence of principle to the evaluation of the Soviet system, he opened the way for expanded criticism and reevaluation of this system. And on the other, by calling the Soviet Union an evil empire, Reagan allowed those who disagreed with him in many ways to drop the word evil but retain the use of the word empire. In the context of those times, as opposed to both much earlier and much later, whenever one said empire, one implied the necessity for thinking about decolonization. In sum, the "great communicator,� as President Reagan was known, understood the power of words to define not only what we see but how we do it.

The Reagan administration took a number of steps to give content to the president�s words. Perhaps most important, it named people like Harvard�s Richard Pipes, one of the most outstanding interpreters of Russian and Soviet history, to key positions in the administration. And it backed expanded international broadcasting by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America not only in Russian but ever more in the languages of the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union and the occupied Baltic states. But in addition to and to institutionalize in a public way this new American approach, the administration created a small office within the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department to track developments among the peoples of the Soviet Union.

I was fortunate enough to be named to one of the posts in that office and ultimately became the department�s special assistant for Soviet nationality problems and author of its quarterly report, "Soviet Nationalities Survey.� Our work there was not always welcome by senior department officers who quite publicly asked, "Why do we need to have anyone studying Soviet nationalities?� But it was greeted by ethnic activists in the United States and the USSR, by others in the government concerned about these issues including very importantly the Congress� Helsinki Commission, and by academic specialists working in the area. Indeed, the small room we occupied in Intelligence and Research -- a room typically filled with newspapers and journals from the non-Russian republics -- became a veritable Grand Central Station for everyone working in this particular field.

As ethnic activism inside the Soviet Union increased especially after the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev, the attitudes of senior officials toward our office in Intelligence and Research changed. It was no longer viewed as a kind of ideological fifth wheel but rather as a source of information about an issue senior officials typically had never studied but now needed to know about. This was all the more the case because until the very end of the 1980s, it was the only place in the U.S. government where the Soviet nationalities problem was studied independently of what had been the unholy trinity of issues involving "nationalities, religion and dissent.� Responsibility for following these three had typically been assigned to the most junior people in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow -- and not surprisingly, nationalities seldom got the attention that the other two issues did.

By the end of the 1980s, it was obvious to many that the Soviet Union could not long survive in its current form; but by that time, President Reagan had departed from office, and his successor, President George H.W. Bush, was more concerned with developing good working relationships with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev than promoting ethnic activism that might threaten his rule. This shift in Washington�s attention prompted me to leave Intelligence and Research and become acting director of research at Radio Liberty in Munich.

While there -- and I was only in that beautiful Bavarian city for a few months -- I helped to promote the publication of "RFE/RL�s Daily Report," a publication that had a far more significant impact then and in the future than many understood at the time. First of all, it provided a daily drumbeat of information about developments across the Soviet Union that were seldom reported any other way. That increased both public and government attention to these issues. Second, it leveled the playing field between government officials, on the one hand, and outside experts and activists, on the other. The report made it almost impossible for officials to credibly fall back on the old line with outsiders that if you knew what we do, you would agree with us. In reality, the outsiders knew as much as or more than the insiders, and that changed how business was done in Washington. And third, the Daily Report provided a model for other reporting on the Soviet and post-Soviet world, including, among others, the "OMRI Daily Digest," the "Jamestown Eurasian Report," the "Intercon Daily," and now again RFE/RL�s indispensible "Newsline" and its family of publications.

I am very proud that I was involved with so many of these at one stage or another, and I remain a constant reader of those that continue to appear -- as do many inside of government and beyond.

Almost immediately after arriving in Munich, I returned to Washington for a conference in November 1989 at which I predicted that the Baltic countries would regain their independence within two years. Whether for that prediction -- which many thought was either irresponsible or insane -- or for other reasons, the State Department decided it wanted me to come back to work the nationalities account in some more policy-relevant role. I was brought back as an outside adviser in the run-up to Lithuania�s declaration of the recovery of its independence in March 1990 and then as a State Department employee as special adviser on Soviet nationality problems and Baltic affairs and as desk officer for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

In that capacity, I was privileged to watch both the demise of the Soviet Union and the discomfort that produced among many whose entire careers had been built on the existence of the bipolar world. One very senior former official remarked to me in July 1991, for example, that we had to save Gorbachev and the Soviet Union because otherwise we would not have anyone to negotiate arms-control treaties with. If that is not a classical example of confusion of ends and means at the highest levels, I don�t know what is.

Precisely because the nationalities were a subject with which few senior people had had much experience, these officials turned to me and other junior officials for assistance in ways they would not do in normal times. That had its good and bad sides. On the one hand, it gave us opportunities we would not normally have had. But on the other -- and as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his classic study "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions� -- revolutionary periods bring all kinds of people into the game, some of whom work well with the system and rise in it and others who cannot fit in and must ultimately leave. Both types were in evidence by the early 1990s: I was certainly one of the latter.

On 1 August 1991, President George H.W. Bush said in the capital of Soviet Ukraine that "the pursuit of independence is a form of suicidal nationalism.� That remark, which led William Safire to christen the speech "Chicken Kiev,� infuriated many, including me. (Like most Ukrainians, however, I think I was even more offended by Bush�s suggestion in the following paragraph of his speech that the only way Ukrainians could gain more freedom was for the central government in Moscow to get stronger.) Indeed, I decided to resign from the department over this speech but to do so only at the end of August so that the department could find a replacement.

Before I could leave, however, the anti-Gorbachev coup broke out in Moscow, a development that ultimately led to the recovery of independence of the three Baltic states and set the stage for the demise of the Soviet Union four months later. And I want to use this opportunity to say that President Bush�s words in Kyiv may have had the unintended consequence of producing precisely this train of events. His words there certainly encouraged those who staged the coup to believe that Washington would support any efforts to hold the Soviet Union together -- indeed, Bush�s initial but quickly withdrawn reaction to the coup -- suggests they were not entirely wrong. And consequently, his words that angered so many non-Russians and their supporters at the time may have helped more than any of them or us could have known to produce the outcome we wanted, the decolonization of the Soviet empire.

By early September 1991, I was in the Baltic countries accompanying Curt Kammen, the president�s special representative, to help organize the restoration of the exchange of diplomats between the United States and the three. It is worth noting that the United States, which many blamed for being only the 37th country to "recognize� the Baltic states in 1991, had never withdrawn the recognition extended to them in 1923. All that Washington did in 1991 was to restore the exchange of diplomats between the American government and governments in each of the three that actually represented the people there.

I remained at the State Department until the end of 1991 in order to help promote this, but it was clearly time to leave. And the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union was quickly leading many in Washington to search for a new stability, a stability that would begin over the 1990s to limit the role of junior officials and outside experts to play the kind of roles that they had earlier. I was fortunate enough to get a position as senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I was able not only to write but also to continue to help not only Baltic governments but all those concerned about helping to promote national self-determination in the post-Soviet region but also in Washington.

Very quickly, however, it became clear just how much of an uphill fight that was going to be. In February 1992, American government spokesmen shifted from stating Washington�s commitment to the principle of national self-determination to arguing that there should be "no secession from secession� in the post-Soviet region. While perhaps understandable in the face of such massive change and as a reflection of concern about the dangers of loose nuclear weapons, that shift had two very unfortunate consequences. On the one hand, it trivialized what had happened at the end of the Soviet Union. And on the other, it encouraged central governments, and especially the one in Moscow, to do whatever they deemed necessary, to prevent the further dissolution of states and to do so with confidence that Washington would back them.

Not only did that contribute to the series of disasters with which we are still living in the North Caucasus. (Had Moscow recognized Chechen independence in 1991, Grozny would not be a synonym for Islamic terrorism in the Russian Federation now.) But it meant that Washington in its drive to again find an interlocutor in Moscow failed to see what was really happening in Russia. Having defined policy success as keeping the Russian Federation in one piece, Washington failed to see that what was happening there was much more like the death of a state than the end of an empire -- a development with frightening analogies that only now are becoming widely apparent.

Despite my own exit from government service and my time at Carnegie and again at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and despite these policy shifts, the role of societies relative to governments, of junior people to senior people, and of principles as the basis for action rather than pragmatism narrowly conceived continued throughout the 1990s. But this decade was a time when the interregnum was clearly coming to an end, when the traditionally dominant institutions, officials, and approaches were reasserting themselves. As such, it was clear that certain doors were closing for those fitted by talents, personality, and commitment to the world of interregnums.

Nonetheless, it was far from clear until the morning of 11 September 2001 that these doors were going to be shut tight, at least for a time. Those attacks and the response of the U.S. government and indeed the world means that this latest interregnum is over. How long until the next one, of course, is something that none of us can say. And because that is true, it is worth recalling what happened in the one just past and in thinking about the kind of opportunities that may emerge again.

There are many lessons one can draw from considering the nature of such an interregnum in international affairs, but I would like to draw attention to three. The first is that ideas are the most powerful thing in the world. Like a blade of grass that can grow through a cement walkway, they can overthrow even the most powerful political institutions arrayed against them and transform the world -- and they can do so often with little warning and remarkably quickly. No one in public life should ever ignore them or worse bet against that possibility.

The second lesson is that the political process -- however settled and circumscribed it may be -- can suddenly open up to those who are usually on the outside looking in rather than sitting at the table. These "insurgent� groups, be they junior officials, outside experts, or activists, bring not only new ideas into the process but change the process itself. As such, they are typically viewed by the more pragmatic officials who oversee policy in more normal times as both a nuisance and a threat. But these perennial outsiders can be helpful in normal times as well not only by calling attention to underlying sea changes that policy makers often ignore but also by serving as a reminder that interregnums happen -- and they happen when many least expect them.

And that is the third lesson: No trend lasts forever. Interregnums end, as did the one I have been discussing did; but so do periods of what we have come to think of as normal times. And they both tend to end precisely at moments when they are least expected but for reasons that become obvious later. In 1979, the Soviet Union appeared to be at the apogee of its power, but it was brought down by imperial overreaching and by the power of the idea of freedom. Neither was a surprise to a few, but both -- and even more, the result of their combination that began the revolutionary period of world affairs I have described -- were unexpected for almost everyone else. In 2001, the same thing could be said about anticipation of the causes and consequences of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the actions that ended this latest interregnum in world politics.

These are the lessons I believe we can all take from the events of the last generation. But as a participant in them, there is one additional lesson that I want to mention as well. A character in one of C.P. Snow�s novels observes that the great good fortune is not to be born rich but to be born in just the right country at just the right time. By the happiest accident, that has been my fate, and I will always be very, very grateful.

Paul A. Goble, former publisher of "East European Perspectives," is currently a research associate at Eurocollege, University of Tartu.

(An earlier version of this article was presented as a talk at RFE/RL's Washington, D.C., office on 27 July 2004.)