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Soviet Foreign Relations

The USSR was determined to increase its power relative to its adversaries and anticipated an inevitable conflict with them, but it was also intent on avoiding a conflict for some time to come and on avoiding provoking strong reactions from its adversaries. Ambitious goals - animated by both ideology and realpolitik - guided Soviet foreign policy. While world domination may have been an ultimate Soviet objective but should be viewed as a remote and largely theoretical aim.

The Soviet Union was generally viewed in Washington as hostile to US and Western interests. The wartime image of the USSR as an ally that the United States had willingly aided and as a potential postwar partner in assuring peace had been superseded by a growing concern in the United States over Soviet behavior in the emerging Cold War. In early February 1946 Joseph Stalin delivered a notable speech explaining to the Soviet populace that hard times would continue because of the international situation. One week later, George Kennan sent his "long telegram" from the US Embassy in Moscow exploring the reasons for Soviet behavior. Three weeks later, Winston Churchill delivered his famous "iron curtain" speech in Missouri. These tocsins set the stage.

Significant elements of Tsarist foreign policy influenced the Bolsheviks, especially imperial expansion and a strong Russian nationalism. There was even an analogy between the Tsarist "crusade" to liberate the Slavs oppressed by the Turks and the Hapsburgs, and the Soviet concern with "wars of national liberation." The paradox involved in both cases: the Tsarist rulers over a "prisonhouse of nationalities" worrying about the Czechs and Croats, who were much better off than the Poles and Ukrainians under the domination of St. Petersburg, and the totalitarian soviet regime in Moscow concerned about the "victims of colonial oppression" while ruling the last great "imperial" empire.

It was commonplace to hear Soviet actions explained as motivated by traditional Russian goals. Even so eminent a Sovietologist as George F. Kennan, who in 1947 ably showed the importance of the ideological aspect in shaping the Soviet-Russian view of the world, could comment in 1980 that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was primarily an expression of a desire for security. But the Soviet regime ultimate failed to learn one lesson from their predecessors, not to let commitments outrun the military and economic potential of the state.

The Soviet leaders, though influenced more than they liked to admit by their Tsarist heritage, were Marxists. Their Marxism, however, is something never dreamed up by Karl Marx. Ideology was an important factor in the shaping of Soviet foreign policy. The Soviet concept of the correlation of forces was central to an understanding of the wholly different way Soviet decision makers approached a foreign policy question, how they perceived the problem, what they saw as the issues, and what they thought were desirable options for solving the problem. The concept of correlation of forces was fundamentally different from the Western concept of 'Balance of Power'. The correlation of forces was not a simple formula for duplicating Soviet analysis and determining probable courses of action. The concept of correlation of forces was a logical extension of that ideology which can enable the Western observer to approach an international problem using what might be called a 'cognitive map' fundamentally different from the mind set from which the West habitually interpreted the nature of historical change.

According to Soviet theorists, the basic character of Soviet foreign policy was set forth in Vladimir I. Lenin's Decree on Peace, adopted by the Second Congress of Soviets in November 1917. It set forth the dual nature of Soviet foreign policy, which encompasses both proletarian internationalism and peaceful coexistence. On the one hand, proletarian internationalism refers to the common cause of the working classes of all countries in struggling to overthrow the bourgeoisie and to establish communist regimes. Peaceful coexistence, on the other hand, refers to measures to ensure relatively peaceful government-to-government relations with capitalist states. Both policies can be pursued simultaneously: "Peaceful coexistence does not rule out but presupposes determined opposition to imperialist aggression and support for peoples defending their revolutionary gains or fighting foreign oppression."

The Soviet commitment in practice to proletarian internationalism has declined since the founding of the Soviet state, although this component of ideology still has some effect on current formulation and execution of Soviet foreign policy. Although pragmatic raisons d'etat undoubtedly accounted for much of contemporary Soviet foreign policy, the ideology of class struggle still played a role in providing a worldview and certain loose guidelines for action in the 1980s. Marxist-Leninist ideology reinforces other characteristics of political culture that create an attitude of competition and conflict with other states.

The general foreign policy goals of the Soviet Union were formalized in a party program ratified by delegates to the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in February-March 1986. According to the program, "the main goals and guidelines of the CPSU's international policy" included ensuring favorable external conditions conducive to building communism in the Soviet Union; eliminating the threat of world war; disarmament; strengthening the "world socialist system"; developing "equal and friendly" relations with "liberated" [Third World] countries; peaceful coexistence with the capitalist countries; and solidarity with communist and revolutionary-democratic parties, the international workers' movement, and national liberation struggles.

Although these general foreign policy goals were apparently conceived in terms of priorities, the emphasis and ranking of the priorities have changed over time in response to domestic and international stimuli. After Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, for instance, some Western analysts discerned in the ranking of priorities a possible de-emphasis of Soviet support for national liberation movements. Although the emphasis and ranking of priorities were subject to change, two basic goals of Soviet foreign policy remained constant: national security (safeguarding CPSU rule through internal control and the maintenance of adequate military forces) and, since the late 1940s, influence over Eastern Europe.

Many Western analysts examined the way Soviet behavior in various regions and countries supports the general goals of Soviet foreign policy. These analysts have assessed Soviet behavior in the 1970s and 1980s as placing primary emphasis on relations with the United States, which is considered the foremost threat to the national security of the Soviet Union. Second priority was given to relations with Eastern Europe (the European members of the Warsaw Pact) and Western Europe (the European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--NATO).

Third priority was given to the littoral or propinquitous states along the southern border of the Soviet Union: Turkey (a NATO member), Iran, Afghanistan, China, Mongolia, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and Japan. Regions near to, but not bordering, the Soviet Union were assigned fourth priority. These included the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Last priority was given to sub-Saharan Africa, the islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and Latin America, except insofar as these regions either provided opportunities for strategic basing or bordered on strategic naval straits or sea lanes. In general, Soviet foreign policy was most concerned with superpower relations (and, more broadly, relations between the members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact), but during the 1980s Soviet leaders pursued improved relations with all regions of the world as part of its foreign policy objectives.

By the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union had progressed from being an outsider in international organizations and negotiations to being one of the arbiters of Europe's fate after World War II. In the 1970s, after the Soviet Union achieved rough nuclear parity with the United States, it perceived its own involvement as essential to the solution of any major international problem. The Soviet Union's effort to extend its influence or control over many states and peoples has resulted in the formation of a world socialist system of states whose citizens include some one-fourth of humanity. In addition, since the early 1970s the Soviet Union had concluded friendship and cooperation treaties with a number of Third World states. For all these reasons, Soviet foreign policy was of major importance to the noncommunist world and helped determine the tenor of international relations.

Although myriad bureaucracies were involved in the formation and execution of Soviet foreign policy, the major policy guidelines were determined by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The foremost objectives of Soviet foreign policy were the maintenance and enhancement of national security and the maintenance of hegemony over Eastern Europe. Relations with the United States and Western Europe were also of major concern to Soviet foreign policy makers, and relations with individual Third World states were at least partly determined by the proximity of each state to the Soviet border and to Soviet estimates of its strategic significance. Despite domestic economic problems, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who became general secretary in 1985, emphasized increased Soviet participation in international organizations and negotiations, the pursuit of arms control and other international agreements, and the reinvigoration of diplomatic, political, cultural, and scientific initiatives in virtually every region of the world.

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Page last modified: 10-12-2018 18:49:17 ZULU