Twenty years ago, and much to the shock of just about everyone, the mighty Soviet Union, the very embodiment of Hegel’s view of the state as the divine on Earth, dissolved and disappeared. The malicious foe of the U.S., the deadly grizzly that was said to wander the world seeking whom it would devour, just rolled over. .
What’s more, the satellite states became independent nations. The empire on its borders devolved into a series of secessions. The map looked totally different one day to the next.
The central power — said to be ruthless and all controlling — lacked the will to fight it out and just gave up, completely unable to control events. The pretense of communism in all these places was dropped, industry was privatized, the countries adopted their old names and their populations were rolled into the global division of labor after 50-plus years of being shut out.
The central plan stopped working, and not only in Moscow. The U.S.’ central plan also excluded the possibility that something this dramatic could happen. A decade of foreign and economic policy had been based on the Kirkpatrick Doctrine that totalitarian states were invulnerable and could only be contained or destroyed from the outside. It was on that basis that the U.S. chose its friends and enemies in the world.
Once the Iron Curtain was pulled back, we found societies ridiculously behind in the march toward material progress. The workers’ paradise had never materialized. And everyone wondered what we had really been afraid of all those years.
There’s no question that the Soviet state was an incredible threat to its own citizens — between 60-100 million deaths at government hands over 72 years — but was it really a threat to you and me? Far from being a superpower, it became clear that the Soviet Union had been decaying from within for a very long time.
I was raised at the tail end of the Cold War, but I find it nearly impossible to describe to younger people what it was like to be surrounded by the great Manichean conflict of those days. It consumed all political thinking from 1948-1991. Hundreds of thousands of experts devoted their lives to strategizing about it, writing about it and making a living off it in many different ways. It was the whole reason behind the gargantuan military empire that the U.S. put together over half a century. It was all done in the name of keeping us safe.
And then one day, it was gone.
Americans feared the communist menace for most of the 20th century. Russia was the embodiment of all evil but for those few years when, implausibly, Russia was oddly deemed an ally in World War II’s even mightier struggle against the horrors of Japan and Germany. Then in 1948, the status quo ante was restored again, and the Red Scare returned with a vengeance — from threat to ally to threat again in a matter of a few short years. It was a turnabout satirized in Orwell’s 1984 (flip the last two numbers and you see the point)…
The great debate of my early political experience concerned whether Russia should be treated as a unique evil in the world or just another country with whom the U.S. should have diplomatic relations. The thinker and intellectual who won the day was Jeane Kirkpatrick. Long before she became secretary of state, she wrote a famous essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” This 1979 classic became a blueprint for the foreign policy of the next decade.
This powerful piece of writing excoriates the Carter administration for its alleged wimpiness on foreign policy, particularly with regard to its unwillingness to support authoritarian, noncommunist governments against the leftist rebels. The idea here is that we can live with authoritarian regimes and eventually democratize them, whereas once a state falls to communism, it is gone forever.
Therefore, the U.S. should back noncommunist thugs of any variety, whether in or out of power. That’s how the U.S. ended up supporting the Islamic fundamentalists in the mujahideen in Afghanistan, for example, that later became the Taliban and later the terror network that the U.S. now says is the mortal enemy.
Kirkpatrick couches in her claims in history, noting, “there is no instance of a revolutionary ‘socialist’ or communist society being democratized.” From there, the forecast is implied: It could never happen, ever. “There are no grounds,” she writes, “for expecting that radical totalitarian regimes will transform themselves.”
A little more than 10 years later, she was not only proven wrong, but history conspired to shred her entire analytical model to bits and toss it in the air like so much confetti. Not only has the Soviet Union vanished, but China is completely transformed. Cuba is privatizing. North Korea is probably the toughest nut to crack, but it too will relent in time.
Now, one might say that it was precisely the military buildup she inspired that brought about this result. The problem with that claim is that the military buildup was not designed to bring about that result, but rather to permanently “contain” the global Soviet reach and prevent it from spreading. In the mid-1980s, not a soul — and certainly not Kirkpatrick herself — anticipated that the next decade would open without the existence of the Soviet state at all.
What had been her mistake? She attempted to forge a law of politics based on recent history projected into the future. Her law blew up because there are no laws of politics of the sort she imagined. There are no permanent regimes. There is no impenetrable system of rules. States are created by elites and uncreated by everyone else. They are all more vulnerable than they appear, because they all consist of the few tricking the many into coughing up their property and giving up their lives on grounds that are ultimately revealed to be lies. When people catch on, the states get shaky and eventually crumble, sometimes when we least expect it.
This is a fact to celebrate, for if any state could create permanent rule, human freedom wouldn’t stand a chance. This is because every state is a conspiracy against liberty. No state is satisfied with just a bit of power and no more, just a bit of your money and no more. There is never enough. We must give and give until our freedom is completely suffocated. In the end, the people don’t like this and will not stand for it forever. This is true everywhere in all times.
Today, our own theorists say that the United States has figured out the key to permanent rule. Madeline Albright called the U.S. the one “indispensable nation.” Mitt Romney said that the U.S. is “the greatest nation in the history of the Earth.” Surely, the current configuration of the United States will last forever. Surely, it is destined to be the one stable and eternal global hegemon. It is the U.S. now that embodies Hegel’s divine will on Earth.
The lesson of the Soviet collapse is not just that socialism doesn’t work. It is that all-embracing statism cannot last, regardless of whether this comes about under one-party tyranny or the illusion of democracy. This experience of 20 years ago ought to instill some humility. In the same way that the Soviet experience was upended, the future history of the last superpower could change just as quickly.