The American Way: Or How the Chaos, Unpredictability, Contradictions, Complexity, and Example of Our System Undid Communism and Apartheid
"[T]oday, for the first time in our history, we face thestark
reality that the [communist] challenge is unending. . . .Wemust
learn to conduct foreign policy as other nations have had toconduct
it for so many centuries--without escape and without respite. ..
This condition will not go away."--Henry Kissinger, 1977
"White South Africans have chosen the path of Ian D. Smith. . ..A
dismayed Archbishop Desmond Tutu said on Thursday that SouthAfrica
had entered the 'darkest age of its history.'" --AllisterSparks,
Washington Post, May 10, 1987.
In our lifetime, there have been two epochal events thatalmost
nobody anticipated, certainly not in the way in which theycame
about: the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, and the fallof
apartheid in South Africa, in both cases with very littlebloodshed.
The most fundamental reasons for the fall of each regime werethe
same: loss of legitimacy and economic failure. But there aremany
other countries where the United States would wish to see asimilar
outcome--North Korea and Cuba among them--where legitimacy islong
lost and where the economic situation is worse than it ever wasin
the Soviet Union and South Africa. Clearly, more was involvedthan
just these two factors. The crucial extra element was theengagement
of the United States in each country--but it was an engagement ofa
somewhat paradoxical kind. For the process by which those twosystems
were brought down is almost directly a product of the seemingchaos
and unpredictability that characteristically surrounds theformation
and implementation of American foreign policy.
The view that the United States played a significant role inthe
overthrow of these two systems of government runs counter, ofcourse,
to the widely accepted notion of the limitations on U.S. powerthat
have prevailed since Vietnam. To give one influentialexample,
Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University wrote as late as 1986that:
"[T]he ability of the West to effect change within SovietRussia, let
alone rapid change, is severely limited. . . .Even if the Westwere
able to impose extreme economic choices, the system would not
crumble, the political structures would not disintegrate, theeconomy
would not go bankrupt, the leadership would not lose its will torule
internally or to be a global power."
Analysts were no more sanguine about America's ability toinfluence
developments in South Africa. Two of the most respectedAfricanists
in the United States, Helen Kitchen and Michael Clough, wrote in1984
that the bipartisan consensus was that:
"The U.S. has only limited ability to influence developments inSouth
Africa. Particularly in the short run, we do not possess anylevers
that can be used to force the white ruling group to move fasteror
further than its own assessments of risks and gains dictates, orto
leverage blacks to adjust their priorities and tactics to our
perception of reality."
Even Chester Crocker, who designed the Reagan policy ofconstructive
engagement towards South Africa, warned that the United Stateshad
only "limited influence" over the South African government, andthat
it must be "carefully husbanded for specific application toconcrete
issues of change."
The belief that the United States had little influence appearedto be
borne out by the reactions of the Soviet and South African
governments to U.S. pressures. Both were sensitive to anyimpression
that they could be bullied. In the 1970s the Soviets reactedsharply
to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which sought to pressure theminto
allowing more Jewish emigration, by actually curtailing itfor
several years. And in the immediate aftermath of the applicationof
sanctions against South Africa in 1986, reforms skidded to ahalt.
It was easy to conclude from these and other examples thatU.S.
pressure was almost always counterproductive, and to neglectthe
subtler, longer-term influence of the United States. Such a
conclusion gratified many Americans: those who believed thatthe
United States was suffering, in Senator Fulbright's words, from"the
arrogance ofpower;" those who opposed on principle the policiesin
question; those whose business interests were adversely affected;and
those who, in the tradition of Wall Street stock analysts,believed
that influence, like a good stock, must show rising profitsevery
In truth, however, the nature and extent of American influencehas
been misunderstood. It was not just the armed might of theUnited
States, nor its symbolism as the shining city on the hill, whichwas
most effective in destabilizing these two regimes--it was ratherthe
complex impact on closed societies of a powerful, appealing,
seductive, and subversive society which carried within it, whatwas,
for an autocracy, a virus as virulent as any Ebola. By helpingto
erode the core of belief that sustained each society, theUnited
States contributed decisively to the overthrow of both regimes.The
same process of erosion is now far advanced in China; whileour
reluctance to use that influence in North Korea and Cuba may
inadvertently have prolonged communist rule in those countries.
The Power of American Complexity
There is a superficial simplicity to the American philosophyof
government that is deeply appealing to people around the world.The
reality is something else. For all its marvelous balance andits
success in preserving democratic government, that system iscomplex
in the extreme, incoherent to the verge of chaos, conflictualoften
to the point of gridlock, and very unpredictable.