Unsupported and limp foreign policies difficult to change once full effect has been felt
The unwitting surrender of U.S. hegemony has allowed Russia, once thought to have been sidelined for decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to incrementally expand its influence. Just as the Soviet collapse was not anticipated, the diagnosis for that collapse was weak, prompting speculation that it would not recover for some time. In fact, it has.
The death late last month of strategic genius Zbigniew Brzezinski prompted me to revisit an interview he gave long after the end of the Soviet Union in which he discussed the United States’ support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The aim was to draw Moscow into a quagmire, forcing it to deplete its already waning resources, resulting in the defeat of the main U.S. rival, Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, said.
As the Soviets pursued their ambition to prove they were a superpower, they failed to see that their resources were not of a scope to support this dream, wasted those resources and, in the end, were exhausted and splintered. The lesson that emerges for any leader that wants to dominate a region, or even the world, is that when a nation seeks to realize a foreign pol- icy for which it lacks the adequate underpinning, it may herald its own undoing.
It is important to note that once a policy is implemented, it may become impossible to change it, even when it is clear that it will fail. In other words, you can fall hostage to your own policies.
In Afghanistan, when the Soviets were met with setbacks at the outset, they felt compelled to devote more resources than they had anticipated to the intervention to prove their strength and protect their prestige. In insisting on this show of force, they were greatly weakened and, eventually, collapsed.
It would be an oversimplification to tie the fall of a nation to one event. Adam Przeworski, a political scientist of Polish origin, like Brzezinski, points to the loss of faith in the ideals that the Soviet Union projected, spurred by corruption and poverty, so that even those served by the system could no longer defend it.
Therein lies a second lesson. No matter how much the rulers of a country speak of morality, honesty and other lofty ideals, if these are apparent during the implementation of policies, an indisputable paradox emerges.
Let’s fast forward three decades. While Russia’s recovery may not be terribly impressive at first glance, it is clear that there is no absence of a state, and no one expects Russia to be thrust into chaos and break apart.
True, it is grappling with economic challenges; its economy is fragile and far too dependent on natural and raw resources. Other than commodities, it has few exports. The government spends its budget on defense and not on productive investments.
Yet Russia has again been elevated to the status of a global arbiter. Little remains of the country in ruins that former president Boris Yeltsin left behind in 1999, when he was succeeded by President Vladimir Putin. Though much of this success may be down to the high global oil prices of the 2000s, allowing Russia to rebuild its economy, another key factor cannot be overlooked.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union came with the acceptance by the elite who ruled the country that they could no longer sustain its unity. Beginning with the Baltic republics, the other members of the federal union split off without a fight.
But the institutions of that federal system remained standing. The Soviet army, which was always dominated by the Russians, turned into the Russian armed forces. Today’s Russian Foreign Ministry bears little difference from its Soviet predecessor; most of the diplomatic corps is still educated at an academy dating back to the Soviet period.
These examples of institutional continuity were, without a doubt, key to Russia’s rapid recovery. Building the institutions of state from scratch is difficult and time-consuming. Had the cadres that came to power in Russia toppled the organizations they were left, they would have struggled to build new ones and would have been beholden to the services these institutions provided.
This perspective offers a third lesson from the Russian experience. The administrators of the state should protect the institutions that they inherit and not forget that they can benefit from them. Sure, these institutions may not always allow those in power to do as they please. Yet they also reduce the chances of mistakes and increase the odds that decisions and policies are successfully implemented.
The Soviet and Russian example offers a humbling message to rapidly rising countries and their political rulers, whose self-confidence knows no bounds and who often fail to see likenesses in historical realities.