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What the [1985 Reagan–Gorbachev] Geneva Summit Was About

About this speech:
This is the text of prepared remarks delivered to a Luncheon of the University Affiliates, a voluntary community association in support of the University of California at Santa Barbara, on 21 January 1986.

In international relations, just as in interpersonal relations, a lot of what is possible depends upon how you think of yourself and of him with whom you’re talking. The title for these remarks seemed unmanageably broad to me, until I realized that Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan are probably quite typical of their fellow citizens, in how they think of their own and the other fellow’s country. So I would like to address, more or less in order and increasing depth, how we think of the Soviet Union, how people there think of themselves, how they think of us, and what it all means. (Since I’m not an expert on the United States, I’ll leave how we think about ourselves on the table for now.)

One caveat: unless I say otherwise, what I say about the Soviets will concern principally the Russians and other Slavs—mainly Ukrainians and [Belarusians]—who together make up about three-quarters of the Soviet population, the Russians of course composing slightly over half by themselves.

How Do We Think of the Soviet Union?

First of all, we can’t help making abstractions, especially because as individuals we often have limited contact with the people and the country. One unfortunate result of this is that we often fail to realize the complexity of life there. For example, although the notion of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian system may be useful for understanding some things, it would certainly be incorrect to suppose that each daily activity in the life of every one of the 300 million people distributed across the Soviet Union’s seven time zones can be directed by a group of one or two dozen men in Moscow.

So I’d like to start with a few remarks on how the Soviet system works from the bottom up. Let me briefly describe, for example, what it’s like to be a member of the Communist Party at the grass-roots level. First of all, if you want to join the party you need certain references, from your employer and others, and you need to be nominated by a member; after inspection of various credentials, you become officially a candidate for membership, or candidate member, of the party, a status in which you continue for a year or two, at the end of which time you are promoted to full membership if the local party organization is satisfied with your conduct and attitudes. Here, however, ends the resemblance of the Communist Party to a private country club. For once you are a member, you are expected to volunteer to do things that nobody else wants to do; you are more like a fraternity pledge. For example, if you work at a factory, then it might be your duty to pick up a copy of the day’s Pravda and read out the editorial to your coworkers at lunchtime. This is part of your political work, and although it may not win you great popularity among your coworkers, who might prefer to discuss the previous evening’s soccer match, nevertheless it does win you credit in the party. And if you believe in the party, as not a few communists do, then you believe that this duty has positive social value and you may take pride in contributing to your society in this manner.

How do the Soviets think of themselves? The party and the Soviet system are valued by the Soviet public also because they have historically provided channels for upward social mobility. People like Brezhnev and Kosygin, and others who constitute the generation now passing from the scene, came from peasant and worker backgrounds. They were promoted by Stalin during and after the Great Purges of the late 1930s and owed their careers to him. But they are not solitary examples.

Look for example at a peasant woman who may have had five sons. Let us say that two of them died at the front in war, and one in a labor camp. Perhaps she lost her husband in a camp as well; and who knows what else. However, the industrialization and collectivization forced upon the Soviet Union by Stalin in the decade and a half before World War II motivated, among other things, increases in education and literacy; for industrialization, after all, you need trained, competent, literate personnel. So perhaps one of this woman’s two living sons has become a lawyer, and the other has become an engineer. Yet without the upheaval unleashed by Stalin, they would probably have become peasants just like their mother. Now, they both occupy respected positions in society and have certainly risen to stations in life much higher than would have been possible without Stalin’s intercession. So even if this woman’s life has been uprooted however many times, she would be grateful for the opporunities her sons have had and indeed proud of their achievements. Here, then, is also a suggestion of an ambivalence widespread among the Soviet public, concerning Stalin and his period in Soviet history.

The cooptation of people with specialized training into advisory policy-making roles has been occurring for some three decades or more, but it is another aspect of change in the contemporary Soviet Union that a static totalitarian model of Soviet politics fails to illuminate. The existence of Soviet Americanologists such as Georgii Arbatov, the director of the Institute of the USA and Canada in Moscow who is also a member of the Soviet Central Committee and periodically appears on American television, is ready testimony to the phenomenon. And the phenomenon is even more widespread in domestic economic policy making and administration than in foreign policy.

This point introduces some rather important differences in how that politics as a vocation is regarded in the Soviet Union, compared with how politics as a vocation is regarded here. First of all, there are formal limits on the accumulation of wealth in the Soviet Union; consequently, it is not possible to use accumulated wealth as a resource for and vehicle through which to enter politics. Politics is reserved to the people who have received political training in and risen through the party, which indeed resembles in more ways than one Mayor Daley’s old political machine in Chicago. The broad masses of the people in the Soviet Union regard this kind of training in practical politics as a technical field just as, for example, civil engineering is a technical field. And since the man in the street in Moscow or Leningrad or Khabarovsk would not think of telling a civil engineer how to build a brdige, he would also hesitate, for analogous reasons, to tell the people who are running the political system how to do their job.

Second of all, people in the Soviet Union are conditioned to accept, and it indeed is the case, that they have relatively little chance to affect the system as a whole. This is one ramification of the existence of vast centralized bureaucracies in the Soviet Union: things are administratively initiated from the top down rather than from the bottom up. Grand transformations, especially, are initiated only from the top down. The result, third of all, is that things do not change very fast in the Soviet Union; and this gives people who live in that society a certain security, particularly since they are brought up to depend upon the state for employment, housing, and other essentials. Indeed, if you have employment and housing in any country, then you have something to lose and prefer relative stability. This is also the case in the Soviet Union, and it leads Soviet citizens to value their system for the security that it provides.

How Do the Soviets Think of Us?

This particular kind of security reflects in an interesting way the general image of capitalism that Russians have: I do not mean capitalism as an ideologically opposed world system but as a microlevel economic operation, an entrepreneurial affair. In the United States we typically think of entrepreneurial capitalism in terms of the kind of service that a small business might render to the community. Not so in the Soviet Union. Although a given individual in the contemporary Soviet Union may engage in some black-market or grey-market activities that have a privatistic economic motivation, this individual nevertheless will more likely than not oppose the state’s legitimation of that activity. It would mean first of all that his activity become subject to administrative controls. But even if his economic activity were more efficient under those controls, he would still oppose its legitimation, out of fear that someone else should take better advantage of the opportunity to pursue it. His own relative inability to take advantage of the situation would then disadvantage him, and a situation such as this is greatly to be feared; for in the war of all against all, which is an image of society that has cultural and historical Russian roots stretching back for centuries before 1917, no social contract for mutual restraint exists other than the personification of Hobbes’s Leviathan, the Tsar.

There was no period of feudalism in Russia as in Western Europe. Feudalism, as you know, implied a reciprocal set of rights and obligations between the lord of the manor on the one hand and the tenant peasants on the other hand: the right, for example, to take refuge in the lord’s manor during time of attack and the obligation to pay a tax in kind on the crop raised in his fields. Out of this sort of reciprocity there evolved the notion that we take for granted, in what the Soviets call bourgeois society, that the relations between a state and its citizens are rationally organized for the purpose of mutual advantage.

Russia, on the other hand, is an expanded principality—Moscow originally was the Duchy of Muscovy—and in contrast to Western Europe, there was on the Eurasian land mass no geographic barrier to the Empire’s military-political expansion or to the flight of people who lived on the land away from the expanding House of Romanov. Relationships among the Tsar, the landed gentry, and the peasants consequently differed from the analogous relationships in Western Europe. The Tsar gave the landed gentry the right to extract taxes from a given portion of land so long as the landed gent paid a tribute to the Tsar, and no system of common law prevented the nobility from extracting as much as possible from the peasant on that land, who therefore had every reason to flee as far away as possible. Rights in principle did not exist, and obligations existed only to one’s superiors. Indeed, only the Tsar could protect the peasant from the nobleman, for the Tsar was the principal landlord of all Russia. Out of this Russian background evolved Soviet legal doctrine and practice, according to which individuals do not have rights except insofar as these are given them by the state, which—it follows—may also withdraw those rights, without fear of transgressing what the Western tradition takes to be the inalienable rights—“human rights”—of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Soviet state is therefore valued by its citizens as a grand equalizer, and the level at which citizens are equalized becomes less important than the guarantee that equality—that is, the absence of threat through disadvantage—be universalized. Consequently, even if the Soviet Union were the day after tomorrow to be penetrated throughout by Western laisser-faire ideas, there is little chance that the people en masse would embrace these and set about transforming the whole system from the bottom up. Liberal Western values—“liberal” in the nineteenth-century European sense of limitation on the role of government and belief both in the natural generation of conflict within society and in the natural legitimation of the free expression of such conflict—are just that: liberal Western values. The notion that there is a universal tendency in the world for people to seek after and be drawn toward them—not to be confused with the fact that most people think first of themselves and their family—is, tragically, an ethnocentric myth. As desirable as it may be that the West trumpet these values to the broad Soviet public, the walls of the Kremlin have already stood longer than those of Jericho. In the absence of the Communist Party, the Soviet population would be unlikely to stampede toward a multiparty system; indeed, the relative absence of political conflict that goes with a one-party system gives to Soviet political life a certain undeniable stability, to which the broad Soviet public ascribes a value that should not—for reasons just alluded to—be underestimated.

The vast majority of people in the Soviet Union literally cannot conceive a wholesale transformation of the system, because they cannot conceive of what might take its place. So such a transformation they cannot articulate: can we, for example, imagine the United States having any form of government other than that established by the Constitution? Being children and grandchildren of peasants, the Soviet people have first of all a deep attachment to the history of the land and to the land itself in the literal sense that in this country perhaps only a Midwestern farmer can fully understand. Many of them believe that they have better lives than we do in the West. Even those who recognize that material conditions of life in the West are better, still prefer Russia. The West is a forbidden fruit that promises material delights. But with the exception of members of the intelligentsia who may feel deprived of the ability fully to develop their artistic creativity, the feeling is very widespread that while the West is perhaps technologically more advanced than Russia, still Russia is morally more advanced than the West.

This, in one way, I can vouch for. Living in Moscow [in the early 1980s], I met a greater proportion of saints than in the United States. I am speaking metaphorically of individuals who shine forth with an attitude of all-embracing beneficence toward other human beings and life in general. Consider that if the Soviet system is like a cement sidewalk, then these individuals are like the rare blades of grass poking up through it. Clearly, their very existence makes them hardier and stronger and more intense than the more numerous blades of grass that sprout freely in open fields.

Another reason why many Russians think themselves materially well off is that they compare their standard of living not with that in the West but with that which they have known in their personal past. And compared with previous conditions in their own lifetimes, their present standard of living is undeniably higher and much to be preferred. The government—particularly late Khrushchev and early Brezhnev regimes, say the decade and a half from 1961 to 1976—has “delivered,” and this is by and large recognized by the people in general.

What Does It All Mean?

To answer this question I have to move from cultural understandings to political explanations, and from mass to elite attitudes. As you no doubt know, one of the fundamental issues in the Soviet Union today is economic reform. What is not often brought out is that this issue has international as well as domestic ramifications. The annual total of imports plus exports is lower for the Soviet Union, as a proportion of gross national product, than for any other industrialized country, including those of Eastern Europe. The development of a quality-oriented domestic economy, as oppposed to a quantity-oriented one, is linked to the question of international trade, because the uncompetitive quality, on the world market, of Soviet finished products in many industries is an important reason why Soviet international trade is so low. Because the West provides potentially the biggest markets for the Soviet Union, a major divide in contemporary Soviet thinking about policy toward the West concerns the degree to which the domestic economy should be reformed to promote exports. On each side of that major divide, we may identify two variants.

So there are four basic attitudes, toward the U.S. and the West in general, that contend with one another, within the Soviet elite. The first of these is the conventional “conservative” view that the U.S. is unalterably opposed to the Soviet Union and its socialist allies, and seeks to erase them from the map or at least to reverse the course of their history through restoring capitalism; from this premise it follows that the Soviet military must continue to be the nearly exclusive priority in Soviet economic planning. Although no one in the Soviet elite would discount the importance of maintaining strong armed forces, this rather exclusive, traditional, and unsophisticated school of thought is taken seriously only by a minority that grows smaller almost daily. Second, there is what we might call the classical detente school, “classical” after the fashion of the Brezhnev policy of the 1970s. The detente of that era was most important to the Soviet leadership from the standpoint of trade, but in a sense other than export-promotion. The Brezhnev detente policy sought to import Western technology in order to increase domestic production, for the purpose of circumventing the need for economic reform. So this school is still a relatively trade-restrictive tendency of thought. Although Brezhnev has passed from the scene, there are still some officials in the USSR who fall into this category, but they too are passing from the scene as Gorbachev consolidates his power and replaces holdovers with his own men.

On the other side of the major divide I referred to, we find people who do not close their eyes to, or even blink at, domestic economic problems, and who indeed seek reforms that would open up the Soviet economy more to the world. (But let me mention that by “reform,” they do not mean what we might think. The Russian word they use literally means “perfection,” so this involves tinkering with the economic system now in place and not any wholesale transformation.) There are two variants of this export-promoting tendency of thought. In the first, we may count those in the Soviet Union who want to promote Soviet trade not just with the world at large but with the United States in particular. In the second, we may count those who want to promote Soviet trade with the world at large and with Western Europe and Japan in particular. It’s not often realized the degree to which, on the map of world politics, the Soviet Union has traditionally “conceded” Western Europe and Japan to an American sphere of influence. Now, following the U.S. grain embargo after Afghanistan and the gas-pipeline controversy, there are a number of people in the USSR who seriously contend that the American government not only establishes obstacles to trade but moreover is simply unreliable, forbidding at its whim U.S.-based companies to fulfill contracts they have signed with Soviet counterparts. “We can’t do business with the Americans,” they say; “let’s go elsewhere.” The other school on this side of the divide favors domestic economic reform and its concomitant opening to world trade, but continues to consider the U.S. the most important country for Soviet foreign policy, and this school therefore advocates continued commercial contacts with us for that political reason.

Naturally, the school that will create the most problems for U.S. policy is the one that advocates increased economic and political contacts with Western Europe and Japan, along with fuller participation in the international economic order including trade with the Third World. Gorbachev appears very favorable to this school of thought, and his actions up to now suggest not a little skill at implementing its strategy. I would like to suggest reasons why this tendency in Soviet foreign policy will not get any weaker in the near future, and then conclude with two observations on what light that sheds on the recently held summit.

Soviet foreign policy appears to undergo periodic reorientations. In the late ’teens, just after the revolution, Lenin signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Germans, taking Russia out of the First World War and implicitly admitting that neither bourgeois Germany nor any other Western power would soon fall to the international socialist revolutionary movement. Two decades later, in the late 1930s, the Popular Front strategy permitted Western communist parties to join in parliamentary coalitions—such as Léon Blum’s government in France—in which they, the communists, were a minority. And two decades after that, in the late 1950s, the Soviets decided that war in the nuclear age was not inevitable with the capitalists, and chose against sponsoring local communist parties in the Third World, preferring instead state-to-state relations with the bourgeois and other nationalist regimes being established there.

But there was no comparable reorientation in Soviet foreign policy twenty years again thereafter, in the late 1970s. A glance at the domestic sources of the previous changes explains why. In the late ’teens the Bolshevik regime was newly arrived in power, and its survival was hardly assured in the midst of the upheaveal of World War I. Lenin was able to see what was necessary to maintain the newly acquired power, and indeed he singlehandedly persuaded the other Bolsheviks of his views. In the late 1930s the Soviet Union again saw itself threatened, this time by the rise of Nazi Germany; the Popular Front strategy was the first of a series of tactical compromises by Stalin that culminated in his treaty of mutual nonaggression with Hitler, signed in 1939 and broken by Hitler in 1941. In the late 1950s the Soviet Union saw itself threatened anew, this time by American nuclear superiority. Khrushchev therefore sought accommodation with the West—the Limited Test Ban Treaty, negotiated by Averell Harriman in Moscow over a period of eight days, is an example of his moderation—and sought simultaneously to outflank American influence among the newly independent developing countries.

With the exception of Stalin’s reorientation in policy in the 1930s, therefore, each new phase was marked by the coming to power of a new leader. It is only in the 1980s that Brezhnev has passed from the scene, so I would suggest that the apparent reorientation of Soviet policy now under way is in fact another periodic phase, delayed from the late 1970s.

But there is here a deeper point. All of the reorientations I have mentioned, including the one initiated by Stalin and the present one, are also characterized by a broad turnover of personnel in the Soviet system at the level immediately below the highest decision-makers: in the ’teens, a neophyte complement of Bolsheviks arrived at power in the Kremlin; in the ’30s, Stalin promoted men of the generation of Brezhnev and Kosygin, to replace the Old Bolsheviks eliminated during the period of the Great Purges; in the ’50s, new specialists trained in economic and technical fields were coopted to replace the generalists who were seconded to the central apparatus in Moscow after Stalin’s death: and now? Andropov during his brief tenure was able to replace about one-fifth of the individuals at this subelite level in the system; Gorbachev has replaced another fifth; and next month there is a quinquennial General Congress of the Communist Party at which still wider-ranging personnel changes will likely be announced.

The point is that although each of the reorientations of Soviet foreign policy that I have suggested, resulted from the decision, the change of mind, of only the highest leaders of the country, still those reorientations were “institutionalized” (if you will) by the subsequent renovation of cadres at the subelite level; so that, hypothetically, the new policies themselves would continue even if the General Secretary of the Party personally were to pass from the scene. The “institutionalization” came from the knowledge, by those promoted, that a new spirit is abroad in the land, which the new trend in Soviet foreign policy expressed; rather like Lee Iacocca bringing a new bureaucratic culture to Chrysler, and his subordinates seeing that to survive they should internalize a new corporate ethos in their attitudes and behavior.

I promised I would tell you what this means for the Geneva summit. There are two points here, on which I will conclude. First, it means that Soviet foreign policy learns what it must learn to adapt to a changing international environment. Yet this is very different from saying that we can teach them lessons. To take an example close to home, parents teach their children what they want them to learn, but in the end the children learn what they like; it’s the same with students in the classroom; and the Soviet system is so much more complex than any individual child or student, that its learning process cannot be reduced to the stimulus-response simplicity of a model based on B.F. Skinner’s experiments with caged pigeons.

From this it follows, second, that we can influence what lessons the Soviets draw from their esperience, not through treating the USSR as a unitary and monolithic entity, but through realizing that it is a composite of contending factions or schools of thought. I have suggested what those schools of thought are today. Indeed, we know that our own foreign policy making bureaucracies are riven by differences in opinion; the Soviet Union is not terribly unlike this, except that we are less aware of it, since Pravda and Izvestiia tend not to publish press leaks on their front pages under banner headlines. We can influence what experience teaches the Soviets by acting in such a manner as to prove correct one or another of the various schools of thought in their domestic debates over foreign policy. Being right is a powerful political resource in any government, and the lessons the Russians learn will depend on which of their schools of thought about American policy we validate.

The Summit?

You will recall that when Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev shook hands before announcing their final communiqué, Reagan said, “I bet the hardliners in both our countries bleed when we shake hands”; and Gorbachev, in reply, smiled and nodded. The arms negotiations in Geneva are not really between “us” and “them,” between the United States and the Soviet Union. They are between an American-Soviet coalition of arms-controllers and an American-Soviet coalition of arms-builders. The “sides” doing the talking at the table merely happen, by accident, to be defined differently.


Dr. Robert M. Cutlerwebsiteemail ] was educated at MIT and The University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science, and has specialized and consulted in the international affairs of Europe, Russia, and Eurasia since the late 1970s. He has held research and teaching positions at major universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia, and contributed to leading policy reviews and academic journals as well as the print and electronic mass media in three languages.

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