In the latest London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson provides a revealing vignette of the machtpolitik that is the true guiding principle of the Potomac Empire — despite all its never-ending evangelical cant about promoting "democracy" and "freedom" around the world. Ascherson shows American leaders confronting the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 in "Gorbachev Betrayed." Here we see American elites scrambling to preserve the "stability" of Soviet rule across Eastern Europe — even at one point signalling U.S. approval for armed intervention by the Soviets to control the situation.
But this should not be surprising. In an imperial system, power exists for its own sake; it is not an instrument for the advancement of principles or the public good. Its only true goal is self-perpetuation, and so it seeks to protect itself against any and all possible threats, however remote or minor. "Instability" is always one of the great bugbears of power-systems. Any movements that arise outside established norms are always highly suspect (even those in line with the system’s professed ideals) — and subject to the most strenuous attempts to bring them to heel as soon as possible. (Such as the murderous dose of economic "shock doctrine" that was administered to the former Soviet Union.)
Unfortunately, the LRB piece is subscription only; but here’s the relevant excerpt:
Bush the Elder took over in 1989, suspicious of Gorbachev and determined to halt Reagan’s rush into arms reduction agreements, which Bush thought were destabilising the global balance. But he was far from being a passionate freedom fighter. As the year drew on, and widening cracks spread across the Cold War’s architecture, he was not so much happy about the new birth of liberty as worried about Europe’s growing unpredictability. All these books [under review] give examples of his exaggerated caution. He came to prefer reforming Communists, who at least had experience of managing things, to dissidents and opposition heroes. In Poland he urged General Jaruzelski to run for president, judging him a much safer pair of hands than Lech Walesa, and declined to pour aid money ‘down a Polish rat-hole’. In Hungary, he shocked opposition members by appealing to them to back the new Party leadership. He was dismayed by the enthusiasm of rebels like the bearded János Kis, who reminded him of a Woody Allen character: ‘They’re just not ready.’
His team shared his fear that the Cold War might end in chaos and local conflicts. At the start of the year, Bush had sent Henry Kissinger (codenamed ‘Kitty’) to Moscow on a secret mission to make contact with Gorbachev. Kissinger, going far beyond his brief, suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union set up a joint superpower condominium over Europe: ‘Let us make an agreement so that the Europeans do not misbehave.’ Bush later backed away from this appalling proposal, but Kissinger wasn’t wrong about his president’s instincts. At the end of 1989, as Ceausescu’s tyranny fell apart in wild bloodshed, Secretary of State James Baker sent a message to Gorbachev that the United States might not object if the Soviet Union intervened with armed force in Romania.
Ironically, the Soviets eschewed this proffered collusion for preserving their empire. As Ascherson notes:
All [of the authors under review] agree, because it’s inescapable, that none of these events [the liberations of 1989] would have taken place as they did without Gorbachev, and his decision that the Soviet Union would no longer use armed force to rescue Communist regimes from their internal problems.
Obviously Gorbachev believed, in his own naive and bumbling way, that the purpose of power was not simply its own perpetuation, that when you could no longer even pretend that it was serving a good purpose, when those under your dominion wished to order their own affairs, then you had to lay power down. Contrast this to the far more sophisticated viewpoint of America’s bipartisan elite, who believe with evangelical fervor that you never take any option of "national power" off the table, and that armed intervention — "humanitarian," "defensive," "pre-emptive" or otherwise — in the affairs of other countries is a righteous doctrine to be applied liberally and continuously all over the world.
And what of the betrayal in the title of Ascherson’s piece? This was of course the promise that the West would not extend NATO to the east, in exchange for Soviet approval for the reunification of Germany. This was no small concession for a nation that had lost more than 20 million people in a war against German aggressors less than 50 years before. But as Ascherson notes, the Western "promise" was nothing more than a "historic swindle":
On 9 February 1990, at the end of a visit to Moscow lasting several days, James Baker met Gorbachev. The previous day, with Shevardnadze, he had talked about conventional force reductions, and then about Germany. Baker’s handwritten notes read like this: ‘End result: Unified Ger. anchored in a changed (polit) Nato – whose juris. would not move eastward!’ In other words, the Soviet Union was agreeing to accept German unification in return for an assurance that Nato would stay where it was. Gorbachev’s notes of his meeting with Baker the next day say the same: ‘any extension of the zone of Nato would be unacceptable.’ Baker then explained his bargain with Gorbachev to Kohl. When Kohl met Gorbachev, the chancellor repeated that Nato ‘would not move an inch eastwards’. This was disingenuous. Two weeks later, in Washington, Kohl was saying that Nato should cover the whole of the new Germany.
This was the deal that unlocked the heart of Europe. The Soviet Union, overcoming all its doubts and memories, had consented to a united Germany. But, unfortunately for Gorbachev, he had not bothered to make Baker put the deal in writing. And the West cheated him. That September, it was agreed that Nato should include the whole of united Germany. Gorbachev protested. But he had been outsmarted, and that public humiliation contributed to his overthrow a year later. In 1999, Nato enlarged to cover Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In another five years, Nato had reached Estonia, only 100 miles from St Petersburg.
And so died Gorbachev’s idea of "a Common European Home": an "enormous association of independent states, socialist and capitalist, stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals," peacefully evolving, with a common security system, no NATO, no Warsaw Pact, no bristling "missile shields" massing on borders, no military encirclement and brutal exploitation threatening Russia and turning it inward toward nationalistic, "strongman" rule. Perhaps even no Yeltsin, no "shock doctrine," no oligarchs, no Chechen Wars, no societal and systemic collapse that led to the ruin and premature deaths of millions of people.
Naturally, there would have been many hurdles to overcome in this approach, as Ascherson rightly notes. But in any case, it was a viable alternative that was not even tried, or even seriously considered by the other power-players in the Soviet endgame.
Yet it does remind us that alternative visions to the grim self-perpetuations of deeply entrenched massive power systems do exist. We must of course deal with the world as we find it; but reality is not destiny. We do not have to accept that the world remains as we find it, that it cannot change, that no alternative is possible. We do not have to live forever in the stunted, blood-dimmed imaginations of power.