This past weekend marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reunification of Germany, an event that formalized the end of the cold war. The so-called “German Democratic Republic,” one of the most repressive of the Soviet-imposed regimes established in the wake of World War II, was no more. It imploded without a shot being fired.
The largely bloodless revolution that swept across Eastern Europe, toppling Communist dictatorships from Berlin to Budapest, soon penetrated the epicenter of the “evil empire” itself – and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics evaporated like mist on a sunlit morning. It was the end of the cold war, and peoples all over the world breathed a joyful sigh of relief – and yet that joy was not shared by all.
The cadre of that troublesome little sect known as the neoconservatives weren’t convinced that the Soviets were on their last legs: they had opposed the arms control agreements signed by Ronald Reagan in the Kremlin’s twilight years, attacking them as signs of “appeasement” and arguing that any rapprochement with the Soviets would give them breathing room and the strength to gather their forces for one last push against the West. The United States, they averred, should take the opportunity to push harder and institute a policy of “rollback,” because only a foreign policy of aggression could defeat the Evil Empire once and for all.
They were wrong.
What happened, instead, is that the captive nations of the Soviet bloc rose up all on their own, without any substantial support from us, and overthrew their oppressors. Not because we had weakened the USSR in any significant way, but because a system that never worked to begin with had finally reached its endpoint. As the great libertarian theoretician Ludwig von Mises had predicted as early as 1920 that it would.
Indeed, it could be argued that all our efforts during the cold war era had merely strengthened the Leninist project, unnaturally extending its lifespan. For Joseph Stalin realized two vital facts early on:
1) That in spite of Soviet propaganda, the Russian economy was no match for the West, and that it was necessary to build up Soviet industry on a massive scale. Thus began the various Five Year Plans that sought to make the leap from a backward agricultural economy into something resembling an industrial powerhouse.
2) That the old Bolshevik ideology of “proletarian internationalism” – the idea that the World Revolution was a perquisite for the survival of the Soviet state – had to be ditched. The Trotskyists, who clung to the original Leninist conception, were purged, and in the place of the old party line the Stalinists substituted Soviet “patriotism,” i.e. Russian nationalism, as the official ideology of the post-Leninist Kremlin.
While the economic project of the Stalinist regime rendered dubious results – slave labor cannot serve as the basis of a modern economic order, and the inability of the Soviet system to overcome the calculation problem could not be overcome – their ideological revisionism met with more success. Instead of appealing to some abstract ideal, i.e. egalitarianism, the theories of Karl Marx, etc., they instead evoked loyalty to real-world allegiances: in short, they became “patriots,” in whatever country they were operating in.
In Russia, Soviet propaganda focused on the “Great Patriotic War” against Germany during World War II – of course downplaying Stalin’s pact with Hitler and their joint invasion of Poland, which sparked the conflict to begin with. Sure, the Russian people had to wait on line for the simplest items, but, the regime told them – with some justification – that the West was getting ready to destroy them, just as Hitler had tried to do, and that only the Soviet government could protect Holy Mother Russia from a repeat of that horrific catastrophe in which millions perished.
In the Third World, where the Soviets were engaged in an ideological battle with Western-backed regimes, they posed as champions of “national liberation,” and – abjuring purely communist slogans – called for a “national democratic revolution” and inveighed against “foreign domination,” denouncing the brutalities of colonialism. This is what made the victory of the Communist-dominated National Liberation Front of Vietnam possible, and it energized Marxist insurrections throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Fidel Castro never revealed himself as a Communist until well after taking power because he realized what Stalin discovered long before the Cuban revolution overthrew a US-supported despot: that nationalism – allegiance to a really-existing entity, rather than a moral or ideological abstraction – has the power to inspire people to resist.
So while economic reality eventually overcame the Soviets, and doomed their system to failure from the beginning, they managed to survive as long as they did – and inspire a global movement – in large part due to the energy imparted to them by the West. The very effort to “roll back” Communism had the opposite result, generating a nationalistic reaction that aided the Soviets to such an extent that, for a while, it looked – on the surface – as if they had the advantage. Communism, you’ll recall, was supposed to be the “wave of the future,” along with all the other totalitarian movements – fascism and national socialism – that gained ascendancy in the wake of World War I. As it turned out, Marxism proved to be a dead end, albeit one that had all the appearance of an idea whose time had come.
Looking back on the demise of the Soviets, one can see that the same hubris that blinded the Communists to their own imminent decline and fall has its echoes in today’s world.
The Western response to the Communist implosion was, at first, quite reasonable. In negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw the Soviet empire crumbling all around him, Western leaders guaranteed that NATO would not move eastward. As Joshua Shifrinson, citing declassified US government documents, argued in Foreign Affairs:
“The story begins in the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as policymakers struggled to determine whether and how a divided Germany might reunify. By early 1990, U.S. and West German officials decided to seek reunification. Uncertain about whether the Soviets would be willing to withdraw from East Germany, they decided to offer a quid pro quo.
“On January 31, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher publicly declared that there would be “no expansion of NATO territory eastward” after reunification. Two days later, US Secretary of State James Baker met with Genscher to discuss the plan. Although Baker did not publicly endorse Genscher’s plan, it served as the basis for subsequent meetings between Baker, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. During these discussions, Baker repeatedly underlined the informal deal on the table, first telling Shevardnadze that NATO’s jurisdiction ‘would not move eastward’ and later offering Gorbachev ‘assurances that there would be no extension of NATO’s current jurisdiction eastward.’ When Gorbachev argued that ‘a broadening of the NATO zone’ was ‘not acceptable,’ Baker replied, ‘We agree with that.’ Most explicit was a meeting with Shevardnadze on February 9, in which Baker, according to the declassified State Department transcript, promised ‘ironclad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward.’ Hammering home the point, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl advanced an identical pledge during meetings in Moscow the next day.
“At that point, it was easy to see the outline of a new strategic landscape coming into view: Germany would reunify, the Soviet Union would pull back, and NATO would halt in place. According to any ordinary sense of the term ‘east,’ all of the countries to which NATO later expanded would have remained outside the Western orbit. As a diplomatic cable summarizing Baker’s meetings put it, ‘The Secretary made clear that the US had supported the goal of [German] unification for years; that we supported a unified Germany within NATO, but that we were prepared to ensure that NATO’s military presence would not extend further eastward.’”
Yet the domestic pressures in the US for NATO expansion were too strong to let this guarantee stand for very long. NATO maintains standards for its member militaries, and the upgrades required for the entry of the East European countries would prove immensely profitable for US weapons makers – who soon launched a campaign for NATO expansion that had its tentacles reaching into both political parties. And there was also the inherently expansionist dynamic embedded in all global empires, such as the American. This was fueled by the ideological Kool-Aid of the “end of history” fable, pushed by the neoconservatives, who dreamed of a Hegelian “universal homogenous state” – to be established by the United States.
As NATO pushed up to the gates of Moscow, what happened, oddly enough, is that the Americans and the Russians switched roles. The former, invoking a militant “democratic” internationalism, adopted the revolutionary rhetoric and mindset of the early pre-Stalinist communists, while the latter took up the conservatizing role abandoned by Washington.
Which is where we are today – except that the danger posed by Washington is far greater than any the old Soviet empire could have mustered, for two reasons:
1) The Soviet economic system was inherently unworkable, and ended the only way it could have ended. On the other hand, the American economic system is the mightiest industrial machine the world has ever known: capitalism has created enormous wealth, and while we’ve eaten a lot of our seed corn and built up an enormous mountain of debt, the system is still coasting along on the achievements of the past.
2) Stalin was essentially an “isolationist,” that is, he didn’t want to get too involved in the affairs of other countries, concerned as he was with cementing his own despotic rule at home. That’s why he ditched the old Leninism, drove Trotsky into exile, and declared the official Soviet doctrine of “socialism in one country.” In the US, however, “isolationism” is out of style: both parties support an “internationalist” foreign policy, differing only in the details of how to apply the general principle of empire-building on a global scale.
What all this means is that the world’s wealthiest nation has now decided it can and should rule the world – and has embarked on a campaign, consisting of both military and “soft power” aspects, to achieve just that. And while this effort effectively undermines whatever claim the US once had to be being the leader of the “Free” World – as Edward Snowden revealed, and as the continuous erosion of our constitutional liberties underscores every day – Washington still wields the banner of “freedom” to great effect, especially when compared with the regimes it seeks to overthrow.
Baldly stated, the United States government is the greatest danger to peace and freedom the world has ever known. This is true precisely because it has held aloft the torch of liberty for so long, an example to the world of what a society based on individual freedom can achieve. That is the great paradox of American power. As we abandon our libertarian heritage – even as we retain the forms of a constitutional republic – we destroy what made our power possible.
The process is reversible: we can restore our old republic – but only if we give up the mirage of empire. If we continue to pursue the fatal dream of a beneficent internationalism, America will lose itself, dissolve its unique character – and wreak destruction, not only on its own people but on the peoples of the world. In switching roles with the Soviets, we prefigure their fate: and the resulting implosion is going to shake the world to its foundations in a way that the fall of the Kremlin never did. In programming our own self-destruction, we will likely drag much of the world with us.
Those are the stakes, and they are high – too high for us anti-interventionists to rest for a single moment.