FALLACIES UNDERLYING HOW AMERICANS THINK ABOUT THE SOVIET UNION
Alexander Dallin, 1984
Alexander Dallin is Professor of History in Political Science and Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His extensive publications include German Rule and Russia and The Soviet Union at the United Nations. He has co-edited volumes on Soviet Politics Since Khrushchev and Political Terror in Communist Systems. Honors and awards conferred upon Professor Dallin include Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships and The George Lewis Beer Prize from the American Historical Association.
Whiteley: Professor Dallin, you’ve indicated that one may think of Soviet American relationships as a stream of both constants and variables. What do you mean?
Dallin: Well, I think what I have in mind is that if you look at Soviet institutions, for instance, you have a great continuity; the same party, the same Politburo that you’ve had for over sixty years. If you look at the rhetoric, much of it is the same. There’s still an attempt to go back to, and then to have the legitimacy of what is being done now supported by references to the original Soviet creed. But in fact, I think many things have changed and we often underestimate it because the Soviets themselves don’t advertise it, and perhaps sometimes don’t recognize it. In fact, in terms of their priorities, in terms of their world view, in terms of their what makes them tick, I think there have been changes over time that are quite important and that we risk missing.
Whiteley: What are the principal ones?
Dallin: Well, I’m reminded of a conversation a few years ago with a bunch of students at Moscow University, and when they told me about national security and standard of living, and things of that sort. And I asked them what about world revolution. What you get are a few embarrassed giggles, that’s about all. It’s not a realistic operational goal for people in this generation. There is a tension, undoubtedly, between different objectives. Some people still have more far reaching goals abroad than the others, but more and more, especially the younger generation I think, is concerned to some slight extent with status as a great power, but they almost take it for granted. Standards of living, that’s much important. And you have some polls that suggest a number of things from videocassettes to motorcycles, traveling abroad, objectives of the younger generation that don’t sound all that different from ours.
Whiteley: In commenting about the Soviet/American relationship as a two-way street, you mentioned that one thing about the United States is its unwillingness to follow through, to sort of meddle in an issue and then move on. What did you have in mind?
Dallin: Well I think it’s generally true that Soviet policy, in spite of all the changes, has been more consistent than ours. Ours first of all, of course, varies from administration to administration, but in addition, because it needs to have explicit popular support, it often backs away from the more costly, from the more risky policies. And it seems as if we can’t resist getting involved, and that has been true with the Soviet Union, it was true after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 with the allied intervention there, it was true to some extent with China, with Cuba, with Nicaragua, with Vietnam. In every case there is a seeming inability of this country to leave the regime in existence without trying to do something to it, without toppling it. And yet in no case is there an all-out effort (except Grenada) to go in and overthrow it, replace it, one way or the other. I think it’s a characteristic tension in American policy.
Whiteley: You’ve noted two aspects of the American mindset that do not work to our advantage. The first is an irrational fear of Communism.
Dallin: Yeah. I think there’s been a tendency to attribute to Communism so many things that in fact should be attributed elsewhere. Much of the development in the Third World, which unfortunately, because of our policy turns out to have anti-American overtones, fundamentally as striving for change that I would think this country might wish to identify itself with, that is very much in line with the values that this country, I believe has in fact, we tend to write off as the result of Communist propaganda, tend to see it as far too successful. In fact, at least that’s my impression from trying to study it, the list of failures and misconceptions and errors on the part of the Communists, whether in Moscow or elsewhere, is quite formidable, and we, I think typically, tend to underestimate it.
Whiteley: A second part of the American mindset that you don’t think serves us well is a combination of not taking foreign relations seriously enough on the one hand, and on the other, expecting some kind of technological quick fix to problems.
Dallin: Yeah. Well, the nature of American politics is such that obviously people get selected, people get elected, people get appointed, not on the basis of their knowledge of the outside world. The political careers are determined by considerations inside the country. And unfortunately, and that is true as much of the White House as it is of a large part of Congress, many of the people who are successful know very little about foreign affairs. And you do in the best of cases have a sort of on-the-job training, but that’s a costly way of developing some expertise about the world including the Soviet Union, of course. But that’s one part of it. You referred to a second consideration, the quick fix which I think is a characteristic American attitude: That there is a solution to every problem, that everything can be taken care of if you just find the right button or the right combination - I think in the case of Soviet/American relations for instance, and that is something that is more familiar to European powers, I think, than to us. These are long-range problems. I think they can be much reduced in seriousness and virulence and explosiveness, but they’re not going to go away overnight. I think we may have some illusions that a Summit between two personalities can suddenly resolve all these things. Well, it can help but it need not, and I think it is a much safer assumption to say that these are problems that will be here for our lifetime and beyond, and let’s do the best we can but let’s not expect these things to go away.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that Americans have a tendency to overestimate Soviet power and influence, and offered as one example some remarks of Premier Khrushchev that first, the Soviet and Communist world would continue to grow in influence. From the perspective of three decades, has that happened?
Dallin: It’s grown some but not nearly as dramatically as they had expected, especially as far as the Third World is concerned. It’s also been much more costly than they had expected. They had also more trouble holding on to some of the areas to which they thought they had managed to spread Communism. Of course the other aspect of it is the split in the Communist world itself, most dramatically between Russia and China, but also Yugoslavia and some of the Western Communist parties that no longer follow the Soviet line at all. That is something that had not been foreseen, that wasn’t suppose to happen, that the Soviets would have said cannot happen. Well, it has.
Whiteley: You indicated that Khrushchev firmly believed that the economies of the West, particularly Japan and the United States would falter, Soviet economy would do dramatically well.
Dallin: Oh yes, that had been the expectation, and that of course goes back to the Depression in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They have reversed themselves a little bit on that in the 1970’s it made no sense otherwise to tie themselves to our technology and our economy, and it would not have made sense for them to want to increase trade with us if they expected our economy to collapse because in substance, since they’re lagging behind, an increase in interaction means greater dependence on their part on our economy. So at this point I think probably they have begun to give up that notion about the inevitability of a collapse of the capitalist economy, at least in the short-run.
Whiteley: In stating that another problem Americans have in relating to the Soviet Union is our tendency to always assume the worst case. Has that proven to be historically valid?
They are not eager at all to get involved in an all-out conflict with the United States. So from that point of view, the worst-case analysis which is very difficult for a military establishment, serves us very poorly.
Dallin: Well, I think it’s true that we have often assumed the worst case, at least as a real possibility. I think in fact the worst case has not come about. To begin with, obviously we have not had an all-out nuclear conflict as so often had been foreseen. And the whole skew of conflict management, conflict prevention has become so important a problem for us, and so far, while they don’t call it that, while they don’t speak in those terms, in fact the Soviets too have pursued what probably ought to be called the low-risk policy. They are not eager at all to get involved in an all-out conflict with the United States. So from that point of view, the worst-case analysis which is very difficult for a military establishment, serves us very poorly.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that a number of fallacies underlie how Americans think about the Soviet Union. I’d like to give those to you one at a time and ask you to clarify for us what each is intended to explain. The first is that the Soviet Union is an ideology in power.
I’m convinced that the zeal, the ideological commitment of the present leaders, two, three generations after the Revolution, is much less than was that of the initial ideologists, if you will, of Communism.
Dallin: It seems to me we sometimes assume that the whole purpose of the Soviet system is to bring about Communism, the fact that it is Russia, the fact that it is located in a particular historical position and geographic position that shapes the thinking of the people, seems to vanish from the scene. In fact I’m convinced that the zeal, the ideological commitment of the present leaders, two, three generations after the Revolution, is much less than was that of the initial ideologists, if you will, of Communism.
Whiteley: You’ve also indicated, however, that Marxist/Leninist thought is not particularly applicable to the world as we approach the end of 20th Century.
Dallin: Absolutely. It is not and at times they recognize it and at times they revise it quite openly. But they have a little difficulty with it since it has the status (well almost) of a state religion.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated a second fallacy is to view the Soviet foreign policy as one more attempt at world Communist revolution.
Dallin: I think that too is a fallacy in fact, because in fact Soviet foreign policy, if you look at it on a day-by-day basis, is concerned with the practical issues not so different from the foreign policies of other powers. And what the long-range vision is may or may not be irrelevant to it, but certainly does not directly in form and shape leave the foreign policy of the state whether it’s on the arms control negotiations, or purchasing a technology abroad, or trying to extend Soviet influence to Third areas.
Whiteley: Is there an ideological imperative to seek conflict with other countries?
But I personally don’t share the notion that I think some American observers have that the Soviets need conflict abroad if only to take the minds of people off their troubles at home. I try to visualize how decisions are made in Moscow and I can’t believe that they would intentionally, let’s say go into Afghanistan in order to take the minds of their people off problems at home.
Dallin: I personally don’t believe so. There is a predisposition to divide the world into friends and enemies. They have difficulty seeing a third alternative; the
whole notion of neutrality is not very comfortable and familiar to them. But I personally don’t share the notion that I think some American observers have that the Soviets need conflict abroad if only to take the minds of people off their troubles at home. I try to visualize how decisions are made in Moscow and I can’t believe that they would intentionally, let’s say go into Afghanistan in order to take the minds of their people off problems at home. That’s not the way the whole Afghan thing is being played in the Soviet media; that’s not the way the Soviet leadership reasons.
Each tends to imagine much greater wisdom and cleverness and diabolical manipulation on the part of the other. In fact, each side makes a lot of mistakes, fails to understand a lot of things that go on, and often is baffled by what goes on in the world, and only later realizes the mistakes it has made.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated a third American fallacy as somewhat related to this which is to see every action as part of some master plan.
Dallin: That I think is typical on both sides. Each tends to imagine much greater wisdom and cleverness and diabolical manipulation on the part of the other. In fact, each side makes a lot of mistakes, fails to understand a lot of things that go on, and often is baffled by what goes on in the world, and only later realizes the mistakes it has made. I think we make a great mistake in seeing all Soviet behavior as orchestrated and coordinated and perfectly fitting together as we have typically done.
Whiteley: Wasn’t there, at the early formulations of both Karl Marx and Lenin, some itinerary for world revolution?
Dallin: Well, the itinerary certainly has not gone through Albania, Angola, Vietnam, you name it. The Third World was suppose to be hardly a factor at all. The world revolution was suppose to go through the most developed industrial countries. Certainly Germany or England or the United States hardly seem to be the countries where Communism has had much support over the last half century.
Whiteley: A fourth fallacy Americans engage in in your view is the notion of seeing Soviet foreign policy as Czarism in overalls.
Dallin: Ah, yeah. Well, that is a controversial matter, and my own opinion is that this much oversimplifies matters. Sure, there is a memory of what happened before the Revolution that continues, and the Soviet leaders themselves occasionally refer to earlier claims, the Chinese remind the Russians of it, that after-all, all of Central Asia and the Far East was really a Russian conquest. They took it away from the Chinese, from others. There is that memory. On the other hand, the fact that the Russians earlier partitioned Poland, and have an interest in controlling Poland now, does not prove that the motives, the goals are the same in both instances. I think it’s - this is a pretty tricky area I think that could stand some further discussion.
Significant things have changed, and I think to take an attitude that it cannot change would have made impossible the kind of changes that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the downfall of Nazi Germany produced; things have changed in the world and there’s no reason to assume that it will be any different with the Soviet Union.
Whiteley: You’ve written, however, that history is not simply a repetition of what came before.
Dallin: Yeah. I think that is important to bear in mind if we talk about the prospects for change in the Soviet Union, that there is an assumption after-all, that on the part of some of the more extreme critics of the Soviet Union in this country that nothing can ever change as long as the Soviet system exists. That may or may not turn out to be true. I think in fact things have changed over the past generation, certainly since Stalin’s death in 1953. Significant things have changed, and I think to take an attitude that it cannot change would have made impossible the kind of changes that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the downfall of Nazi Germany produced; things have changed in the world and there’s no reason to assume that it will be any different with the Soviet Union.
Whiteley: A fifth fallacy is the fallacy of seeing Soviet foreign policy as adventurism.
Dallin: Yeah. That goes back to an earlier point: the risk-taking in Soviet policy. I think in fact whatever their intentions, they have been fairly good at gauging risks (sometimes they miscalculate), but on the whole they have not been interested in taking great chances of getting themselves enmeshed with the United States, with China. Verbally they can give all the support to the Vietnamese first against the Americans, then against the Chinese. But in fact they are not going to commit themselves, commit their own forces. They’re prepared to provide support, to work through proxies, but on the whole their own game has been quite cautious, at low risk. Now the threshold of risk may go up in time as they get stronger or as they feel that they have more strength, but I think the notion of an adventurous Soviet policy is vastly misleading. The few examples of that that one can think of, like at the Cuban Missile Crisis, backfired tremendously, and they have learned from that.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that a corollary for Americans is to be absolutely clear what our commitments are and are not.
Dallin: I think that is important. That is very important I think because they must be able to gauge what the consequences of their actions are, rather than stumble into crises. I think the notion that ambiguity in international diplomacy is helpful, as I think some of our partitioners have tended to believe, is a dangerous one in the nuclear age. And I think greater clarity of where our commitments are and what the consequences of Soviet actions would be, helps stabilize the international scene.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that a sixth fallacy is directly related to the nuclear age and that is that Soviets plan on engaging in and winning a nuclear war.
Dallin: Well, that has been a widespread notion in this country, and in fact first of all there has been some division of opinion among Soviet military specialists over the last ten, fifteen years on that subject: whether or not one can win a nuclear war and what exactly it would mean to win it. But secondly, I think virtually all the information we have about what the Soviet civilian leadership thinks is to avoid a nuclear conflict almost to the end. Certainly they want to have the capability of fighting a nuclear war just as we do, and it’s certainly the job of the military in both countries to prepare for that eventuality as long as the weapons are there, but I think it’s vastly misleading to think of a Soviet plan to wage a nuclear war as something they themselves take seriously as part of any program for the future.
Whiteley: A seventh fallacy is that Soviet policy is a product of a totalitarian unanimity.
Dallin: Well, yeah. I feel pretty strongly on this one that we have tended to miss a lot of opportunities by assuming that there is a single actor in the Soviet Union, a single decision-maker, a single point of view. In fact, behind the scenes there are serious differences. These days it’s enough to go to Moscow, and some of us get there occasionally for conferences, for contacts with acquaintances, professional colleagues, and in fact they have serious and very legitimate and interesting differences of opinion on a wide range of issues including what the United States is up to. And the differences are not mere academic disputes; they have very practical policy implications.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that Americans simply must recognize, if they want to deal effectively with the Soviet Union, that it is a conservative system at this point in time, capable neither of superhuman achievement or subhuman treachery.
Dallin: Well, who knows. Maybe the treachery could still come about someday, but the typical Soviet behavior, I think, is at neither extreme of the range of the possible. They have so many practical problems at home: the economy, the society, the values of the new generation, the corruption in the society for that matter (which is spreading), that the typical concerns of the Soviet leaders are inevitably with many of the things in the country that include the economy, because in the Soviet Union, unlike the United States, the government, of course, is responsible for running the whole economy. That’s where their priorities are, that’s where their concerns are, that’s where most of their thinking goes, and most of their time and attention, and that’s where most of their experts work. I think they have learned a few things from the past. You don’t have purges the way Stalin did, you don’t go ahead with adventures like the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a number of other things that they have learned. It’s a slow learning process, but I think gradually it’s making some headway.
Whiteley: An eighth point is very related to that, that we tend to view them as having some compensatory expansionism to compensate for these many problems they’re having internally.
Dallin: Yeah. That is precisely the point we have heard in recent years; I think the Secretary of Defense mentioned it, a number of other prominent Americans have commented on it, that the worse things get at home in the Soviet Union the more they’ll be tempted to strike out with new aggression or adventures outside the country. Well, one never can tell. Of course that is possible, but if you go by precedent, that has never been the case. Whenever they’ve had real problems at home they have tended to become more conciliatory, to become more willing to negotiate with other countries, and that goes back to the 1920’s and 1930’s; you can cite a number of examples of that sort. And I can really not envisage somebody sitting in the Politburo and arguing we have a shortage of grain, we need computers, people are getting drunk all over the place, therefore let’s go and invade another country. It just makes no sense.
Whiteley: The ninth fallacy you singled out is the fallacy of Communist ideology as an external threat to the world.
Dallin: Well, if there is a problem for the United States, I think for the rest of the Western world, it is Soviet military strength; I don’t think it’s ideology. Ideas as such are not a threat and I think it’s a mistake for us to think that it’s the ideology that needs to be fought. We can argue with it, but we seem to be perfectly able to live with it in its Yugoslav incarnation, or its Chinese version. We have no trouble with Hungary and other countries that are nominally Communist. The problem is the power of the Soviet Union and what it is used for, and I think we mislead ourselves in identifying that military machine with Communism as a body of beliefs.
Whiteley: Professor Dallin, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into understanding the Soviet Union and the Soviet/American relationship.