Stalin, An Incompetent Realist

Stalin, An Incompetent Realist

Mini Teaser: Marxists are not alone in stressing that the wellsprings of a state's foreign policy almost always come from its domestic social, economic, and political systems, a perspective that has been reinforced by the recent arguments.

by Author(s): Robert Jervis

John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Vojtech Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Krushchev (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

Changes in historical accounts are driven mainly by developments, if not fashions, within the historical profession, by current political concerns, by the availability of new sources of information, and by the way in which the events being explored turned out. Although the first two factors are not to be dismissed, I believe the second two are of greater importance in our current efforts to understand the Cold War. Most obviously, recent years have seen the release of major documents from Russia's archives, and the rise of a new generation of Russian historians to help analyze them. In some cases these documents have at least temporarily settled previous debates and in others have surprised us all--the most obvious example of the latter being the revelation that the Soviets deployed large ground forces armed with tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba in 1962. But although these gifts are certainly welcome, they have been limited in number and quality, and it appears that much of what we would like to know was never written down. Indeed, even if all documents were open (and none had been destroyed), there would still be much to argue about, just as we still argue about the causes of the First World War.

Archives can never fully answer questions about human motivation or fully elucidate the sincerity, let alone the sources, of the beliefs expressed. Nor can they tell us how each state would have behaved if others had acted differently, in part because people often do not know how they will respond to a situation until it arises. Archival research alone can provide no magic bullet, no sudden revelation that explains all.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the way the Cold War ended has had at least as strong an influence on how we interpret its origins and course as have the new documents. More specifically, the close temporal association between this epoch and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union makes salient the connections between domestic and foreign policy. Marxists are not alone in stressing that the wellsprings of a state's foreign policy almost always come from its domestic social, economic, and political systems, a perspective that has been reinforced by the recent arguments that, just as idealists have long claimed, democracies have many singular virtues. Unlike every other political system, they rarely fight each other and seem to do a better job of dealing with disputes among themselves.

This perspective is shared by all three of the books under review, but is most central to that of John Lewis Gaddis. I think he is right. Stalin said as the Second World War drew to a close, "This war is not as in the past. Whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own social system." But Stalin did not get it quite right, and his lack of understanding is crucial both to our moral judgments about the Cold War and to the course it took: the immediate postwar occupation period excepted, the United States did not have to impose its system on others, but Stalin's USSR did. Although Gaddis and others have been accused of "triumphalism" for believing that the West won the Cold War because of the ethical and practical superiority of its values, societies, and politics, I think that this view is nevertheless correct, and can be maintained without denying the many faults of democracies in general and of the United States in particular. Estimates of the differing levels of effectiveness of the Soviet and Western systems have led Vojtech Mastny to conclude that the outcome of the Cold War was largely decided by 1949, and Gaddis to say this was the case by the end of the Cuban missile crisis. While these seem overstatements, they do correctly stress the importance of the differences between the essential characteristics of the Soviet and American empires.

This view supplements, if it does not contradict, the standard geostrategic argument that, to use Raymond Aron's phrase, the United States and USSR were "enemies by position." There is much to this bipolar perspective. Because these two countries were the only ones strong enough to menace each other, it was almost certain that they would eye each other with suspicion. But would there have been a Cold War had the USSR been a democracy? Although the United States and Britain were suspicious of each other's postwar objectives and clashed over the future of the British Empire, it is hard to imagine their contemplating war with each other, even had they not faced a common Soviet threat. It is also not likely to have been an accident that the Cold War ended with the demise of European communism.

It has long been understood that vital to the course of the Cold War were the facts that West Germany and Japan not only recovered economically but did not resume their expansionist ways, and that they and the United States were able to deal with their subsequent conflicts with a minimum of friction. But only more recently have analysts stressed that it was the democratic habits of compromise and heeding the legitimate interests of others that gave the Western alliance. It has long been understood that vital to the course of the Cold War were the facts that West Germany and Japan not only recovered economically but did not resume their expansionist ways, and that they and the United States were able to deal with their subsequent conflicts with a minimum of friction. But only more recently have analysts stressed that it was the democratic habits of compromise and heeding the legitimate interests of others that gave the Western alliance its enormous resilience (see Thomas Risse-Kappen's 1995 Cooperation Among Democracies). The situation was very different on the communist side, and this had profound and widespread implications. As Gaddis notes, our focus on the superpowers led us to underestimate the power of others: "The difficulty of managing any empire is bound to vary [according to whether its subjects collaborate or resist]; but it is the occupied, not the occupiers who make this choice."

Although the contrast here flared to its extremes only in isolated incidents such as the East German uprising of 1953, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and the ultimate overthrow of communism--if not the Communists--during 1989-90, it was important throughout the Cold War. This is not the way Soviet leaders thought relations among allies on either side would develop. All the authors show convincingly that the conventional image of Stalin as the quintessential realist is inaccurate. His ideological beliefs generated two hopes that were the pillars of his immediate postwar policy and that, ironically, led him to act in ways that brought these pillars down.

The first of these hopes was that war among the capitalist countries was inevitable. Not only did he not feel obliged to worry about a united opposition to Soviet ambitions, but he believed he could expand with special ease where American and British interests clashed, as in Iran and Turkey. The truth, of course, was that the Western countries would not have fought each other in any event, and, in fact, it was Stalin's own threatening behavior that did much to falsify his assumption that the Western countries could not unite against him.

Second, and more interestingly, it now appears that Stalin hoped both that communist rule would be welcomed in Eastern Europe, and that the Soviet system would have great appeal in the West. He might have been right had he not behaved so brutally. Here, as Gaddis stresses, the enormous contradiction in Stalin's behavior was epitomized by what happened in East Germany. While he expected rapid economic regeneration and sufficient popular support to make the regime not only stable but a magnet for the Western zones, he permitted his troops to pillage and rape the Eastern zone for several years. When Stalin found, much to his surprise, that indigenous support was lacking, he responded the only way he knew how, by repression. One of Mastny's major themes is that it was the failure to gain popular consent, even more than the growing Cold War with the United States, that led Stalin to consolidate his hold over Eastern Europe. The irony, of course, is that while these actions increased his security in the short run, they also increased Western fear, solidified the image of the ussr as a grave menace, and diminished the appeal of communism in the West. (Mastny also shows that American attempts to undermine Soviet control of Eastern Europe, although ineffective, reinforced Stalin's drive to eliminate all opposition. But much about these efforts remains hidden by the American refusal to declassify the relevant documents.) While American analysts later came to fear the "Finlandization" of Western Europe, it is now clear that only if Stalin had been able to "Finlandize" Eastern Europe--that is, make it strategically harmless without satellizing it--would the ussr have been secure.

Essay Types: Book Review