The American way; or how the chaos, unpredictability, contradictions, complexity and example of our system undid communism and apartheid

The American way; or how the chaos, unpredictability, contradictions, complexity and example of our system undid communism and apartheid

John Chettle

“[T]oday, for the first time in our history, we

face the stark reality that the [communist]

challenge is unending …. We must learn to conduct

foreign policy as other nations have had to

conduct 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 South

Africa had entered the darkest age of its

history.'” Allister Sparks, Washington Post, May

10, 1987.

In our lifetime, there have been two epochal events that almost nobody anticipated, certainly not in the way in which they came about: the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, and the fall of apartheid in South Africa, in both cases with very little bloodshed.

The most fundamental reasons for the fall of each regime were the same: loss of legitimacy and economic failure. But there are many other countries where the United States would wish to see a similar outcome — North Korea and Cuba among them — where legitimacy is long lost and where the economic situation is worse than it ever was in the Soviet Union and South Africa. Clearly, more was involved than just these two factors. The crucial extra element was the engagement of the United States in each country — but it was an engagement of a somewhat paradoxical kind. For the process by which those two systems were brought down is almost directly a product of the seeming chaos and unpredictability that characteristically surrounds the formation and implementation of American foreign policy.

The view that the United States played a significant role in the overthrow of these two systems of government runs counter, of course, to the widely-accepted notion of the limitations on U.S. power that have prevailed since Vietnam. To give one influential example, Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University wrote as late as 1986 that:

[T]he ability of the West to effect change

within Soviet Russia, let alone rapid change, is

severely limited …. Even if the West were able

to impose extreme economic choices, the

system would not crumble, the political structures

would not disintegrate, the economy would not

go bankrupt, the leadership would not lose its

will to rule internally or to be a global power.(1)

Analysts were no more sanguine about America’s ability to influence developments in South Africa. Two of the most respected Africanists in the United States, Helen Kitchen and Michael Clough, wrote in 1984 that the bipartisan consensus was that:

The U.S. has only limited ability to influence

developments in South Africa.

Particularly in the short run, we do not possess

any levers that can be used to force the white

ruling group to move faster or further than its

own assessments of risks and gains dictates, or

to leverage blacks to adjust their priorities and

tactics to our perception of reality.(2)

Even Chester Crocker, who designed the Reagan policy of constructive engagement towards South Africa, warned that the United States had only “limited influence” over the South African government, and that it must be “carefully husbanded for specific application to concrete issues of change.”(3)

The belief that the United States had little influence appeared to be borne out by the reactions of the Soviet and South African governments to U.S. pressures. Both were sensitive to any impression that they could be bullied. In the 1970s the Soviets reacted sharply to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which sought to pressure them into allowing more jewish emigration, by actually curtailing it for several years. And in the immediate aftermath of the application of sanctions against South Africa in 1986, reforms skidded to a halt.

It was easy to conclude from these and other examples that U.S. pressure was almost always counterproductive, and to neglect the subtler, longer-term influence of the United States. Such a conclusion gratified many Americans: those who believed that the United States was suffering, in Senator Fulbright’s words, from “the arrogance of power;” those who opposed on principle the policies in 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 profits every quarter.

In truth, however, the nature and extent of American influence has been misunderstood. It was not just the armed might of the United States, nor its symbolism as the shining city on the hill, which was most effective in destabilizing these two regimes — it was rather the complex impact on closed societies of a powerful, appealing, seductive, and subversive society which carried within it, what was, for an autocracy, a virus as virulent as any Ebola. By helping to erode the core of belief that sustained each society, the United States contributed decisively to the overthrow of both regimes. The same process of erosion is now far advanced in China; while our 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 philosophy of government that is deeply appealing to people around the world. The reality is something else. For all its marvelous balance and its success in preserving democratic government, that system is complex in the extreme, incoherent to the verge of chaos, conflictual often to the point of gridlock, and very unpredictable.

Part of the reason lies in the separation of powers, one of those decisions of the Founding Fathers that has mystified foreigners ever since. Then there is the habit into which the American people have fallen of putting Congress and the executive branch in different hands: in more than half of the last fifty years, at least one and usually both houses of Congress were under the control of the party in opposition to the president of the day. In the absence of a strong, disciplined party structure, too, there is the diffusion of power in Congress itself, both between the two Houses and within each House. (And there are the significant divisions among relevant agencies within the executive branch.) As George Shultz once complained, there is no such thing as a final decision in Washington.

Over and above these structural features, there are the multiplicity of interests and interest groups, the immense diversity of American society, and the excessive rhetoric that characterizes the conflict of those separated in fact by minor differences. From the 1960s through the 1980s there was one difference that was not minor: substantive disagreement on the central question of the nature of communism and how to deal with it. At its extremes, the difference was between a view of the Soviet Union as a ruthless and insatiable enemy that had to be confronted at every point, and one that saw it as a country not substantially different from other countries, whose encroachments offered no particular threat to the United States, and with whom we should be prepared at all times to negotiate. In a country that seldom strays too far from the middle of the road, neither extreme was often in control of policy; but these extremes always had to be taken into account by the Soviets, and their differences had real consequences.

American differences over how to handle South Africa also arose from the Cold War. For much of the period, apartheid was anathema to the vast majority of Americans. But at the same time South Africa was a friendly, staunchly anti-communist country that supported the United States in the Cold War. Those whose priority was the conflict with the Soviet Union resisted policies that might topple the South African government, whatever their reservations about its domestic misdoings. Those who were less impressed with the importance of the Cold War were more willing to help end apartheid.

These differences — symptomatic of similar differences that prevailed over a wide range of issues, including how to relate to China, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Chile — seemed to most observers to constitute an element of weakness in U.S. foreign policy. In reality they constituted one of its crucial strengths. In its crudest manifestation, the existence of this pattern of differences created a good cop/bad cop alternation which was not only difficult for America’s opponents to deal with, but turned out to be profoundly destabilizing to dictatorial regimes.

Both the Soviet Union and South Africa were forced, by the sheer power of the United States and its capacity to damage their interests, to have a relationship with Washington. Both felt obliged, by the logic of that position, to attempt to improve their relationship, or at least to prevent its deterioration. Both sought to manipulate the U.S. system, usually by trying to ingratiate themselves with those in opposition to putative hard-liners. And both were confronted every day with the implications of their attempts at manipulation, as well as by the insistent, multifarious, and seemingly inconsequential demands of a free society: journalists seeking a visa, wanting to travel to forbidden areas, or sending out an adverse report; businessmen concerned about the conditions under which they had to operate; academics requesting collaboration with peers or use of research facilities; relatives of would-be emigrants seeking help; trade unionists angered by anti-labor policies; churches opposed to limitations on freedom of religion; peace groups calling for arms control; ethnic groups protesting Soviet policies; or politicians bombarded by aggrieved constituents, who could be any of the above.

There was no respite from this pressure, because there can be no respite from the demands of a free and powerful society. The only alternative for a despot was to insulate his country from contact with the United States, or to have it sealed off by the United States itself — in other words, to be like North Korea or Cuba. No doubt, other things being equal, the rulers of both the Soviet Union and South Africa would have often preferred insulation, but other things were not equal and neither was prepared to face the consequences that would flow from such isolation.

More Than a Negotiating Technique

The phrase “good cop/bad cop” is in one critical sense misleading. It can imply a mere negotiating technique, as in the technical sense used by police, in which a suspect is induced to be truthful by alternating harsh interrogatory techniques with more understanding, sympathetic treatment. While this technique is used quite consciously by American diplomats from time to time, its success in the cases of the Soviet Union and South Africa came not from its use as a negotiating tool but from the perception — and the reality — that there were indeed powerful forces in the United States that were deeply hostile to both countries and wanted to use punitive measures against them. In other words, the success of the strategy resulted precisely from the fact that the Soviet and South African leaderships believed it was not just a negotiating technique.

This is the point that Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs throughout the Reagan presidency, misses in his otherwise highly perceptive account of his tenure:

Ted Koppel had written in April 1985 that

constructive engagement, conducted against the

backdrop of an aroused public, could enable us

to “calibrate” pressures and enhance our

influence on P.W. Botha’s government in Pretoria.

Theoretically, this might make sense. But the

good cop, bad cop analogy — arming a

reasonable and balanced policymaker with the “threat”

of a meaner alternative — does not

always work well in American foreign policy….

Koppel’s model would have worked if the good

cop and the bad cop were working for the same

police chief. In this case, the bad cop was not

trying to help Reagan, Shultz, and me; he was

trying to discredit, undermine, or replace us;

and he sought to redefine U.S. policy.(4)

But it was precisely because the bad cop was not working for the same police chief that the “threat” posed by a potentially volatile U.S. policy to the South African government was credible. Had it come from an administration committed to engagement and driven by Cold War imperatives, it would not have been nearly as convincing.

The “crazy man” strategy used by Nixon and Kissinger at various times — in which the adversaries of the United States were confidentially warned against opposing President Nixon, because he was liable to go berserk and lash out in an incalculable way — is, of course, an imaginative variation of the bad cop strategy, exploiting the president’s reputation as a strange man and as a loner. At times it even allowed Nixon himself to be simultaneously both good cop and bad cop. It was particularly useful in negotiations that conceded advantages to the Soviets, as a means of warning them against trying to take liberties with Nixon’s flexibility.

All this is not to depreciate Crocker’s remarkable contribution in bringing change to South Africa. Indeed, the influence of the good cop was essential in bringing about constructive change in both South Africa and the Soviet Union; and those changes weakened both regimes, and contributed to their fall when the bad cop took over. But the presence of the bad cop — sometimes in power, sometimes hovering in the background — made the blandishments of the good cop more appealing. Constructive engagement worked because destructive engagement was not merely possible but seriously proposed, and, in the case of South Africa, eventually implemented.

This is also an element that Fukuyama neglects in “The End of History?” Even while he brilliantly analyzes the philosophical and economic shortcomings of communist states, he is less clear as to why the United States was able to prevail in its struggle with the Soviet Union but not, say, against Cuba. Fukuyama points out that what made continued contact so necessary to the Soviet Union and South Africa, and what made isolation impossible as a policy option, was not just an awareness of American power but the realization that their own systems were failing. A communist system capable of mobilizing the industrial capacity of the 1950s proved incapable of mastering the technological innovations of the information age. It was clear by the late 1970s that the Soviet Union was not only falling behind the United States, it was not even keeping up with Singapore.

In a smaller way, but at more or less the same time, the effort of the South African government to run a modem economy while maintaining the fiction that 70 percent of its population would soon be going back to their own “homelands” became ever more absurd.

True, Fukuyama warns that we should not “underestimate the ability of totalitarian or authoritarian states to resist the imperatives of economic rationality for a considerable length of time,”(5) but that leaves unexamined the question of why some are able to do so while others are not. Why was there, in the case of the Soviet Union and South Africa, a voluntary decision by the old regime to cede power to a democratically-elected government, while such a decision has not been taken by Cuba or North Korea?

The answer lies in the relationship of each country to the United States. Divergent pressures from within the United States faced South Africa and the Soviet Union with a critical choice as to how to conduct their affairs. If each country continued to alienate powerful sections of American opinion, it would be denied important elements of the revolutionary new technologies. The good cop (the Right in the case of South Africa, the Left in that of the Soviets) wanted trade, contact and communication; the bad cop (the Left with South Africa, the Right with the Soviet Union) wanted sanctions, boycott, and breach. The cops were different in each case, but the effect was the same. The very existence of the bad cop made it necessary for despots to embrace the good. But in the cases of Cuba and North Korea, the absence of divergence has been the key. No good cop has been available to offset the bad; and they have thus been left without an option to engage.

Sir Richard Evans, Britain’s ambassador to China from 1984 to 1988, well describes the identical choices now facing that country. The Sino-American Agreement 7f 1982, he writes:

left China with two balances to strike: the

balance between political independence at the

cost of slow economic progress and rapid

economic progress at the cost of at least some

degree of political dependence on the United

States; and the balance between an open door

to Western ideas at the risk of generating

political discontent and a door shut to such

ideas at the risk of excluding industrial

know — how. Much in China since 1982 has turned on

the management of these balances.(6)

Those choices for China arise from the same contending forces in American democracy that dominated the debate on relations with the Soviet Union and South Africa: between a U.S. national interest narrowly construed and one that incorporated the traditional American commitment to liberty; between a stress on the limits to U.S. power and more expansive ideas; between traditonal concepts of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, and an equally traditional moral urge to interfere; between the United States as exemplar and as trader. And finally on a less elevated level, between periods when media and public attention are focused on a country, and times when they are not. In short, China, like the Soviet Union and South Africa before it, is now being subjected to the happy — and messy — unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy.

A Propensity to Bewilder

Americans rarely appreciate how unpredictable their foreign policy can be. As citizens of the most powerful country in the world, they have less reason to brood over long-term influences and consequences; they are involved in the here and now in a way that no other nation can afford to be. Geographical isolation, too, has allowed America to escape the ancient disputes and fractures that still haunt less fortunate countries. During the time that I had dealings with them as director of the South Africa Foundation in Washington, I found that State Department desk officers usually had superb command of the events of the last six months, but had sometimes never heard of the Great Trek, an event not much less significant in South African history than the shots fired on Fort Sumter are in American history.

One can count at least five sharp alternations in U.S. policy toward South Africa over the past three decades — changes which, to a smaller country confronted by the power of the leader of the free world, were both confusing and alarming.

Up to the end of the Eisenhower administration, the United States followed the policy of friendship and non-intervention that had prevailed since the Second World War. The United States abstained on UN resolutions critical of South Africa’s race policies on the grounds that it was a matter that fell within South Africa’s domestic jurisdiction. The first departure was to vote to condemn South Africa for the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations broke with Eisenhower’s policy of benign neglect, instituting a voluntary arms embargo and voting to terminate South Africa’s mandate over South West Africa, now Namibia. The Nixon administration changed policy again, though without fanfare, by adopting National Security Council Study Memorandum 39 (NSSM 39) of August 15, 1969, which proposed encouraging reform by broadening contact, on the assumption that “the Whites are here to stay, and the only way that constructive change can come about is through them.”(7)

The Carter administration reverted to the tone of the Kennedy/Johnson period, supporting a mandatory arms embargo and calling for a one-man, one-vote system of government, at a time when few white South Africans could even contemplate such a change. The Reagan administration shifted back to a policy of “constructive engagement,” which recognized South Africa’s preeminence in Southern Africa, and sought to get its cooperation in solving other regional questions before turning to South Africa itself. The policy’s central premise was that hostile external pressures were counterproductive, and served only to reinforce South Africa’s intransigence. But much of that policy was in turn cut short by an impatient Congress, which forced a reluctant administration to introduce limited sanctions in 1985, and more comprehensive ones the following year.

Ironically, it was television pictures of police brutality against black demonstrators that caused Congress to act — and the South African government permitted such pictures to be taken because it wanted to impress upon the United States that, racial differences aside, it was a democratic state with a free press. In permitting wider revelations of

John H. Chettle, a former Rhodes Scholar, was for nearly two decades director of the South Africa Foundation for North and South America. He is now an American citizen and partner in the law firm of Freedman, Levy, Kroll & Simonds in Washington, DC. the Stalin period as part of glasnost, Gorbachev made precisely the same miscalculation, and destroyed any remaining moral legitimacy for the continued rule of the Communist Party. Each regime adopted elements of democratic ideas partly because it thought it was the right thing to do, partly to avoid trouble, but also partly to make itself more acceptable to the United States; and each succeeded only in destroying itself. The most dangerous moment for a bad government, de Tocqueville famously argued, is when it starts on the path to reform. In effect, the United States acted as both the source of the ideas that began the process of reform and the instigator of a Tocquevillian revolution.

The Soviet case differed from the South African mainly in that U.S. policies toward it were much more reactive. The United States sometimes acted in response to Soviet adventurism or aggression, sometimes as a result of its own weakness, and sometimes because domestic opponents of U.S. policy forced changes upon an administration.

The Nixon/Kissinger detente is an example of a policy framework that arose largely from U.S. weakness — the result of the war in Vietnam, Watergate, and the need to prevent the Soviets using West Germany’s Ostpolitik to destroy NATO. And yet it was a policy of profound importance that did as much to undermine the defenses of communism in the Soviet Union as any other American policy.

A different kind of detente was subsequently pursued by the Carter administration, which soon developed its own form of unpredictability in the form of basic differences in approach between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. More from the pressure of events than from the differences among his advisors, the president who began his administration by rejecting an “inordinate fear of communism” ended it by initiating a defense build-up in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But, again, this period of division and weakness in U.S. policy did much to undermine the Soviets. It lured them into over-confidence and complacency; Moscow over-extended itself abroad, let down its guard at home, and became dependent on trade and investment with the West. The full consequences of this did not become clear until the Carter administration was succeeded by an administration more openly and definitively anti-Soviet than any since Truman’s. The Reagan administration banned most trade with the Soviet Union, suspended Aeroflot’s landing rights, reduced cultural, scientific, and exchange programs, held no summit meeting for over four years, restricted the entry of Soviet visitors, and generally intensified its efforts to isolate the “evil empire.” Covertly, it sought to strike at the very sources of Soviet power, and, through the Reagan Doctrine, at its forays into the Third World.

The reasons for those sharp alternations of policy toward both countries varied. The interesting question is: What was the impact, not of the discrete policies themselves, but of their propensity to displace one another with such bewildering frequency?

A Profoundly Subversive Force

Richard Nixon appeared to give the Soviets something they desperately desired: a recognition of and legitimacy to their claims over Eastern Europe. While Nixon dismissed “The Basic Principles of Relations,” the charter for detente, in two lines in his memoirs, to the Soviets it was the major achievement of the 1972 summit. But the fatal consequence of this achievement was the largest infusion of Western influence into Russia since Peter the Great.

The jamming of Western broadcasts was suspended. As a result, in any given week about 20 percent of the adult Soviet population was exposed to at least one of the four major Western broadcasters: the BBC, Deutsche Welle, the Voice of America, and Radio Liberty.(8) Vladimir Bukovsky tells the story of getting together with friends to sign a petition in support of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 Nobel Prize:

As usual, Yakir … called around Moscow to

collect the signatures of friends. Somebody

jokingly suggested that he should ring

Khrushchev — after all, it was on his orders that Solzhenitsyn had

first been published. No sooner said than done.

Nina Petrovna Khrushchev answered the telephone

and passed it to Nikita.

‘Have you heard the news?’ asked Yakir.

`They’ve given Solzhenitsyn the Nobel Prize!’ `Of

course, of course,’ said Nikita cheerfully, `I’ve

heard. I get all the news from the BBC.'(9)

Trade and investment, cultural and scientific exchanges, tourism and cooperative ventures burgeoned, and with them, the number of Soviets who were exposed to reality, as opposed to the lies fed them by their government. In the course of the 1970s, Soviet trade with the West tripled, and the American share of Western exports to the Soviet Union grew from 8 percent in 1974 to 20 percent in 1979. The Soviet economy became intertwined with that of the West to the extent that the country was no longer autarkic.

This, in turn, made the Soviet Union vulnerable to economic pressure and global dislocations. Overall Soviet trade, for example, grew to $52 billion in 1982, before declining to $41.2 billion in 1986, a reflection above all of the collapse in the price of oil. This necessitated a sharp reduction in imports, particularly of food. Grain purchases fell 52 percent in value, even more in tonnage.(10) A 20 percent drop in overall trade is drastic enough, but in the light of what we subsequently learned about Western miscalculation of the size of the Soviet economy, the implications become even more devastating. As late as 1991/92, the CIA’s World Facthook estimated the 1990 Soviet GNP as $2,660 billion. But the World Bank Atlas of 1992 estimated only $479 billion for Russia and $121 billion for the Ukraine, and The Economist’s publication, The World in 1993, guessed $137 billion for Russia and $9.7 billion for the Ukraine. In light of this very steep downward revision, we have to revise sharply upward our appraisal of the Soviets’ dependence on Western trade to help transform their economy.

What made it doubly difficult for the Soviets was that the technology they were now acquiring itself undermined the very basis of internal Soviet power. In the early phase of computer development, large mainframe computers strengthened the capacity for centralized control. But as the emphasis shifted to decentralized systems, it came instead to threaten authoritarian control. Private possession of printing presses or copy machines was forbidden, but every computer or word processor connected to a printer became a potential source of subversion. To prevent that, to locate all computers in central institutions under official control, would sacrifice the technical efficiency of the new development. The impact of the computer revolution on the Soviet Union has been compared to the “creative destruction” that Joseph Schumpeter saw as characteristic of periods of major technological change. It was more than that. Schumpeter feared that capitalism might eventually destroy itself. Instead, one of the greatest ironies of the twentieth century is that capitalism, imported into the citadel of its greatest historical rival, ended up destroying communism.

The advance guard, peacefully storming the Kremlin walls, was business. Conservatives in the United States blanched when American business, as usual all but innocent of ideology, “cozied up” to the Communists; and liberals bent every effort to get American business out of South Africa. Both were wrong. Business was — and is — a profoundly subversive force. It is highly rational, which despotisms are not and cannot afford to be. It is focused on the consumers’ needs and wishes, which despotisms never are. It comes laden with dangerous tools: intelligence, information, computers, telephones, faxes, xerox machines. In retrospect, it is clear that Lenin was wrong when he said that businessmen would manufacture the rope with which communism would hang them. Business may have made the rope, but it was communism that was strangled by it.

In the case of apartheid the process was slightly different, but the result was the same. In South Africa, U.S. businesses sought to demonstrate their principles and protect their position by applying non-racial standards throughout their operations — the so-called Sullivan Principles. Their individual actions may have been small, but when followed by other foreign and South African businesses, the cumulative result was revolutionary. It created a dynamic sector of the economy based on integration and racial equality. Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, recognized the danger to the regime when he said that he preferred a South Africa that was poor and separate to one that was rich and integrated.

The Vulnerability of Elites

Engagement works for reasons that are so obvious that they are usually overlooked. Contact with other human beings makes an impact. It elicits information. It provokes comparison. It induces change. It subverts. It is ignorance that gives isolated and tightly-controlled states whatever coherence they possess.

This obvious point was resisted by both Left and Right in the United States for two reasons. Both Left and Right argued — with a fine disregard for consistency where it did not suit their ideological stance — that contact conferred moral legitimacy on the pariah state. And both feared that the United States would be taken for a ride. They feared that the controls in the Soviet Union and South Africa (and China, Nicaragua, Chile, Cuba, and North Korea, for that matter) were so pervasive and state power so great that the only contact would be with trusted officials who were somehow thought to be immune from the effects of interaction.

But they were not. Just as Gorbachev’s long trips to France and Italy in the mid-1960s enabled him to see how starkly the imperialist camp differed from the portrait of it drawn in Soviet propaganda; and just as Alexander Yakovlev was influenced by his time as an exchange student at Columbia University and then his ten-year stint as ambassador to Canada, so were tens of thousands of others changed by exposure to the West. A new “yuppie” professional class emerged, in politics, in the KGB, in the military, the think-tanks, the scientific institutions, and among the intelligentsia. This class became progressively aware of the vast discrepancy between the truth and what they had been told; between states that were afraid to allow their own citizens to travel and those that were not; between states that worked, and those that did not.

And, of course, where communist societies were gray, dull, cautious, regimented, and conformist, capitalism was chic, stylish, noisy, irreverent. Tasteless often, no doubt, but American music — brash, appallingly loud, vulgar, with lyrics very properly condemned by Tipper Gore — captured the youth. Bukovsky has written vividly of the impact of the early Western contact:

There was the World Youth Festival in

Moscow in 1957, then the American exhibition

in 1958 — the first swallows from the West in

our entire Soviet history. All this talk about

“putrefying capitalism” became ridiculous. The

importance of these events was comparable to

the exposure of Stalin. Moscow was

transformed before our very eyes …. The music

drifting through the windows on summer

evenings was no longer Utyosov’s ersatz pop,

but jazz and rock `n’ roll, bought secretly on

the black market. It was recorded from radio

onto X-ray films, and these “records” were

then sold by the millions by enterprising

individuals. If you held them up to the light you

could see people’s rib cages on them …. Young

men started fitting themselves out with narrow

trousers in the Western style — so narrow that

it took a heroic struggle to get into them at all.

And although the Komsomol vigilantes used

to catch them at first… nonetheless the

fashion caught on and soon the entire

Komsomolarchy was going around in them


A generation later, these new forms of influence began to make their impact on the other communist leviathan. David Shambaugh has sketched the “complex web of relationships” which has grown up since 1979 between American states and Chinese provinces, municipalities, universities, and professionals in many different areas of interest. Several million American tourists have visited China and, more important, around eighty thousand Chinese students and scholars, the cream of the Chinese intelligentsia and future leadership, are at any one time in American universities.

These relationships all develop their own dynamics, their own vested interests, their own subtle forms of influence. They bring to isolated and historically xenophobic societies a consciousness of their own backwardness, not only technological but political. Equally important, they also serve to mobilize U.S. groups with interests in specific aspects of policy toward the particular country in question — apart from businesses there are human rights groups, trade unions, churches, anti-abortion groups, arms control interests, media interests, and many more. Each brings with it some form of pressure, constraint, and control analogous to those imposed on policy by the democratic process itself. In a very real sense, the U.S. relationship invariably introduces aspects of a plural society into states dominated by a single party.

The very fact that the Soviet Union was a society in transition made it vulnerable when its supreme challenge came during the Reagan administration. It was a similar transition that made the South African government vulnerable at exactly the same time. While the challenge to the Soviet government came from the Reagan administration, and the challenge to the South African government came from Congress over the objections of the Reagan administration, the results were identical.

The South African transition has received less attention than the Soviet one. The social change within society was less noticed because the same government remained in power and there was no analogue to Gorbachev to dramatize the process. But, almost unnoticed, the basis of its support changed. By 1970 the proportion of Afrikaners still living on the platteland (the countryside) was 12 percent — down from 90 percent at the beginning of the century. The consequences of this shift were profound. It led inevitably to a decline in the control and conformity characteristic of a rural society. There was greater freedom and emancipation among the young and contact with a more cosmopolitan population with different values. The National Party ceased to be mostly a party of farmers and blue-collar workers as its supporters moved into business and the professions. This was accompanied by an explosive growth in education. The number of Afrikaners at university grew sevenfold in the course of twenty-five years. One result was to produce a better educated, richer, more widely traveled, and more experienced group, at the very time when similar changes were taking place among the blacks. The latter, in turn, were inspired by the American Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., just as the American political tradition helped to fuel dissident activity in the Soviet Union.

It was precisely a group like the Afrikaner Nationalists, deeply and genuinely religious, that was most susceptible to the moral disapproval of the world. They harbored a love-hate relationship with the United States. The United States was the leader of an embattled Free World in whose ranks they sought to include themselves, and it was the most powerful economic force, which a new generation was beginning to see in genuinely global terms. Like the Soviets, they sought every opportunity to visit it, to attend joint conferences, to be thought well of.

At the same time, in more or less the way that these things work in an interrogation room, both the South Africans and the Soviets developed personal relationships with the interrogator. Gorbachev came to treasure his relationship with Reagan. Similarly, one knew immediately when Pik Botha, South Africa’s ambassador to Washington and then long-time foreign minister, had met with Henry Kissinger. For days afterwards his eyes would bulge and his moustache quiver as he described vast concepts of global balance and strategic macropolitics of which he had hitherto appeared to be innocent.

While still resentful, the Afrikaners believed that if they made some adjustments in apartheid, the United States would recognize their good faith. And either from calculation or ignorance, or just an amiable desire to please, the usual list of suspects — visitors, journalists, diplomats, and businessmen — were often prepared to suggest that that might be so.

“What Do You Want of Us?”

In these ways, the American influence was profound. Consider the impact of NSSM 39, the denounced, derided, and somewhat duplicitous “study” memorandum on South Africa leaked by the Nixon administration. Although nobody admitted paternity for this document, it was, in fact, a singular success. It sought to influence South Africa in the direction of certain specific improvements of policy in return for some quiet relaxation in U.S. strictures and prohibitions. Within ten years most of the objectives in this ambitious wish list had been achieved, and within fifteen almost all of them had been, including the abolition of the pass laws, perhaps the most cruel and indispensable part of apartheid.

To an extraordinary extent these reforms were implemented before sanctions were enacted, and were put in place during the tenure of the Reagan administration, the most well-disposed administration since that of Eisenhower. The South African government found in Reagan a leader who did not hesitate to call South Africa an “old ally,” and who shared its preoccupation with the threat posed by the Soviet Union. It was easier to concede to a friend what would have been strongly resisted if demanded by an enemy.

Easier, too, because Chester Crocker, the assistant secretary of state for Africa who had instituted the policy of constructive engagement, was himself coming under increasing pressure to change the policy as riots and police brutality in South Africa were translated into a congressional revolt against the policy. Of course, this was not the only pressure on the South African government: it was under siege at home and increasingly isolated abroad. But the American government was seen as the key to improving South Africa’s position: “Let’s get down to brass tacks,” said Pik Botha, by now foreign minister, to Chester Crocker in February 1985, “What do you want of us, and in what timeframe?”(12)

Crocker tells us that he finessed the question, but he is less than completely candid as to why. Crocker knew that the only solution that would be acceptable to the United States was the only solution that would be acceptable to the black majority in South Africa: black majority rule. Botha himself may or may not have known that, but it would not have been helpful to the process of reform for it to be said. And so the South African government was encouraged to change individual policies with the implicit hope that each change would make it more acceptable to international, and especially American, opinion.

The changes had dire consequences to the stability of the regime. Each one represented a further departure from the logic of apartheid (as each change in the Soviet Union was a retreat from the proposition that it was the true representative of its workers); each change made control more difficult, as indeed it did in the Soviet Union; each change represented a diminution in legitimacy and self-confidence; and each change was harbinger of the fall.

Eventually it became impossible for Nationalists to conceal the truth even from themselves. For who could believe that all was well after decades of pass law raids and a million arrests a year; after all the crude apparatus of racial division and classification, as officials passed pencils through hair to determine race; after parceling out millions of human beings into “separate” areas that could never remain separate; after all the efforts of a bloated bureaucracy to keep families apart and out of the cities, supposedly to create some native nirvana at home; after establishing those pitiful little “homelands,” while the great masses of blacks moved inexorably into the cities in search of opportunity and a livelihood? After an the mindless cruelty and oppression, who could believe that South Africa knew best how different races should five together?

One of the first foreigners to understand what was going on was Conor Cruise O’Brien. In a prescient 1979 essay, he reported finding “an unexpected force among the political class who rules South Africa.” That force, simply, was guilt. He told of an impression “of good men who had inherited certainties, which no longer convinced them, and who were now groping their way, in considerable intellectual, and some moral discomfort.”(13)

Closer observers of South Africa knew that this unhappiness and moral ambivalence had existed for a long time. But while the system maintained its momentum, while belief in its ultimate success continued, and while fear of its retribution prevailed, it seemed impervious to the moral factor. When the Nationalists themselves began to doubt that the future would indeed be better, however, it called into question everything else. As was the case in the Soviet Union, when the core of belief rotted away, all that remained was inertia, careerism, the strength of the status quo, and plain fear.

The Role of the Bad Cop

Those, of course, were not inconsiderable obstacles; a state may last a long time even when sustained by nothing more. And this is where the bad cop was necessary, in the case of both countries. In retrospect, the economic issues look more important than they appeared at the time. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the proximate course of the fall of the Soviet Union was its over-extension, the systematic denial of resources to it, and the strains caused by its need to keep up with U.S. defense spending, particularly that related to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

And indeed, it is almost axiomatic that a country controlled by a clique, and under challenge from a bad cop, will spend too much on arms. Western analysts miscalculated not only the size of the Soviet economy but the sheer burden of defense spending on the country. Nor were they alone. Georgi Arbatov, director of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada and a member of the Central Committee, maintains that “the leadership did not fully realize how unbearable our military burden was.”(14)

We now know that the sustained economic pressure on the Soviet Union was part of a concerted strategy on the part of the Reagan administration to bankrupt that country.(15) The strategy encompassed the arms build-up, covert assistance to the Polish Solidarity movement and to the Afghan mujahidin, the denial of easy credits, and a campaign against Western support of the trans-Siberian pipeline. Most devastating of all, it sought to pressure the Saudis to increase oil production, thus bringing about a decline in its price. This had the double advantage of reducing U.S. expenditures while denying the Soviet Union foreign exchange. Indeed, it contributed to reducing Soviet oil revenues by a third.

Despite all this, it would be too great a leap to conclude that economic desperation alone caused the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, one might even conclude that the reform process was initiated in part because Gorbachev was influenced by the over-optimistic assessments of Western academics like John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Samuelson. The latter, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, held as recently as 1985 that, “What counts is results, and there can be no doubt that the Soviet planning system has been a powerful engine for economic growth.”(16) Gorbachev would not be the first political leader to have been misled by his own press reports, but he may have been the first to be misled by those of his adversaries.

Vladimir Bukovsky, no enemy of harsh measures against the Soviet Union, is surely right to conclude that while the Reagan strategy may have made perestroika inevitable, and shortened the existence of the Soviet Union by ten to fifteen years, it was not by itself responsible for its demise.(17) What is clear is that, its isolation breached by the need to respond to detente, its will sapped by a growing consciousness of its moral, political, and economic failure, the communist order was unable to parry the attack of the Reagan administration.

The South African economy was, if anything, in less obvious trouble, although the argument about sanctions has tended to direct scrutiny to the wrong places. In terms of their direct and measurable economic effects, sanctions were a failure. South African exports were higher when President de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from jail in 1990 than they had been when comprehensive U.S. sanctions were imposed in 1986. In 1984, South Africa had a deficit on the current account of its balance of payments, but from 1985 to 1989 it had a respectable surplus every year. Its real growth rate, which had averaged a meager 1.2 percent from 1980 to 1985, actually improved to 2.1 percent in 1987 and 3.7 percent in 1988 — not spectacular, but not a reflection of the effectiveness of sanctions either.

And yet, contrary to what many opponents of the South African government, including myself, believed at the time, sanctions were important, perhaps vital, in sapping the will of the government. Though short on economic impact, their long-term associated and psychological effects were very great. The most devastating blow, though almost never mentioned in the debate on sanctions, was the flight of domestic South African capital that occurred despite a seemingly rigid system of exchange controls. Depending on how one defines capital flight, South Africa may have lost as much as $32 billion between 1970 and 1988. In every year but one between 1972 and 1988 there was an outflow of capital, and on two occasions it may have been close to 10 percent of gross domestic fixed investment. This flight was above all a measure of the lack of confidence of South Africans themselves in die future of the country under apartheid. When we note that the capital flight between 1985 and 1988, the time during which sanctions were applied, is estimated at $10 billion, the connection with the imposition of sanctions is clear.

Almost as damaging was South Africa’s decision in 1985 to declare a moratorium on repayment of its short-term debts, following the decision of Chase Manhattan Bank in July 1985 to freeze unused credits to South African borrowers and not to renew short-term loans. While this decision was made before the United States voted for comprehensive sanctions, it was taken in an atmosphere in which such a decision seemed increasingly likely. The Chase Manhattan decision, triggering similar action by other banks, was based on a prudent evaluation of its interests, but as a result loans to and investment in South Africa virtually collapsed. South Africa became a developing country with no finds from abroad for development; it was a capital-hungry country that was obliged to export capital.

But again, while the consequences of these two long-term developments were profound, they served to reduce the lifespan of apartheid, not to deal it a deathblow. While the pain — mainly in the form of unemployment — fell on those least able to bear it, it showed the ruling class that the bad cop was in earnest. They could resist only by turning the country into a Sparta, perpetually mobilized for the single objective of keeping down the Helot population.

It was at this critical time that a number of circumstances combined to push South Africa toward negotiation. The collapse of Soviet power removed one of the greatest fears of the ruling party. Quietly, without even notifying his closest associates, Nelson Mandela, still a prisoner, had begun discussions with the government. A number of pro-sanctions institutions in South Africa, including major church and trade union groups, began to temper their demand for further sanctions. And the United States, confronted by these developments and by the sharp move to the right in the 1987 South African election, paused in its progress towards further sanctions, while keeping open the option of future progress along that road. If the original shock of sanctions, passed over the veto of, President Reagan, had been profound, this too was an interesting and effective use of American power. Merle Lipton, one of the shrewdest observers of sanctions, noted:

If comprehensive, or even fuller, sanctions

had been imposed on South Africa this would

have strengthened the hand of the siege

economy advocates in the internal debate. The fact

that sanctions were gradual and limited and that

their escalation was never inevitable, left open

the possibility of normalizing South Africa’s

relations with the international community.(18)

In short, once again the alternation of good cop and bad cop was helpful in producing just the right mix of change and uncertainty.

It may seem paradoxical, but for an authoritarian regime, the easiest attitude to deal with is one of total opposition. It enables the autocrat to tap nationalist resentment of interference. No argument for compromise need be made because no compromise is attainable. The divisions that exist within every party, no matter how seemingly monolithic, cannot manifest themselves because they have nowhere to go.

No Contact, No Success

It is precisely those states in which there has been little or no positive American involvement, only American hostility, that are most likely to maintain stable and despotic governments. In Cuba and North Korea, the United States has shown a gratifying unity of purpose — and uniform failure. One can lay down a general rule: Any despot inclined to maintain his position should avoid contact with the United States at all costs, even when — perhaps particularly when — the latter comes bearing gifts. Those rulers who have, for whatever reasons, lived by this injunction have enjoyed long and honored lives, and have been followed by crowds, weeping with apparent regret, at their funerals. Kim I1 Sung of North Korea, Enver Hoxha of Albania, and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran are testimony to this truth. Of course, these despots pay a price; nobody is going to spend an agreeable few days in downtown Pyongyang browsing through the antique shops — provided that leaders are prepared to preside over economic disaster areas, and don’t mind their populace cycling to work, all is well.

But the moment Americans get involved — with their endless soul-searching, their endemic ethnocentrism, their constant moralizing, their relentless desire to do good, and their well-placed faith in the ability of their own system to provide good governance — a despotic regime is in trouble. Fortunately, most despotic governments do not realize this, or, to the extent they do, they have an unbounded faith in their own ability to take the Americans for a ride, or to control the process of change. Such an assumption is not, on the face of it, illogical. Most despotic governments preside over peoples cowed by police power. Most have large armies. Most appear stable. But despite all this, once isolation has been breached, the result is well-nigh irreversible.

This analysis of the American role in the downfall of communism and apartheid will perhaps be viewed by many as an example of American egocentricity or an irritating triumphalism. But the simple fact is that, in promoting the wider aims of democracy, no country other than the United States has either the interest, the idealism, or the muscle to do the job. Even with a comparatively unimportant country like South Africa, the European powers were less able to escape their dependence on its resources titan the more autarkic United States. Most other democratic countries are too small or too peripheral to the despotic countries to be of concern to them. Some are too cynical or too polite to apply pressure.

In retrospect, it may have been a great misfortune for the Cuban people that its refugees in Florida worked so hard and established so profound a political influence in a key state that they removed Cuba from active debate in the United States. There were no conferences at which Castro’s spokesmen could be publicly or privately challenged, no U.S. companies to erode the foundations of the regime, no tourists, no possible U.S. concessions held out at the price of a few of his own.

It is in this light, too, that one should judge the mission of former President Jimmy Carter to North Korea in June, 1994. Many believe he was naive to go there. Certainly his soliloquies on the reverence of North Koreans for Kim I1 Sung have unhappy echoes of the fellow travelers of the 1930s who expressed their admiration for Stalin, or of the British government’s recommendation to the queen that she give President Ceausescu a knighthood. But naivete, in a sense, is essential. Someone has to play the good cop, and it is better played sincerely.

The Moral Factor

I have used good cop/bad cop terminology for the sake of convenience. But it should not obscure the fact that the phenomenon I describe is serious indeed. The American foreign policy dialectic is a very potent force, a creative tension that the American system produces as a matter of course. And underlying it is the sheer power of the idea of freedom — an idea so powerful that not even those opposed to freedom condemn it, but are obliged to argue that their countries already have it, or that they are on the way to it, or that they are about to achieve a more perfect version of it, or that the freedom that the West enjoys is false.

In short, underlying the appeal of the United States — and of the West in general — is the moral factor, something easy to neglect, and often dangerous to rely upon. After all, the Soviet Union lasted for more than seventy years, and to have attempted to confront that power clad only in the armor of righteousness would have been folly. The realist school of international affairs looks with understandable skepticism at such woolly-mindedness, and rightly so. But for all that, the debate over whether realism or idealism should be the basis of U.S. foreign policy is misplaced — or, put differently, the very existence of the debate is a source of immense but unperceived power to the United States. Both realism and idealism are irrevocably a part of U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes the United States tilts to one side, sometimes to the other, but administrations can no more avoid the influence of both elements than they can avoid the next election.

In the end apartheid was brought down neither by sanctions nor by constructive engagement. The two were constructive allies. It was their coexistence that was so seductive. Similarly, peaceful coexistence combined with high defense budgets, we now realize, was the recipe for the peaceful extinction of the Soviet Union. In the end, the strategy of the United States, an unconscious reflection of its own complex nature, helped bring about the disintegration of these two hostile systems of government, making peaceful change possible.

(1) Seweryn Bialer, The Soviet Paradox (New York: Knopf, 1986), p. 354.

(2) Helen Kitchen and Michael Clough, The U.S. and South Africa: Realities and Red Herrings (Washington, DC: CSIS, 1984), p. 15.

(3) Quoted in Pauline Baker, South Africa: Time Running Out (New York: Foreign Policy Association and Ford Foundation, 1989), p. 10.

(4) Chester A. Crocker, High Noon in Southernn Africa (New York: Norton, 1993), p. 267.

(5) Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 95.

(6) Sir Richard Evans, Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China (New York: Viking, 1994) pp. 261-2.

(7) National Security Council Interdepartmental Group for Africa, Study in Response to National Security Study Memorandum 39: Southern Africa (AF/NSC 16) August 15, 1969, p. 27.

(8) Ellen Mickiewicz, “Policy Issues in the Soviet Media System,” in The Soviet Union in the 1980’s, edited by Erik P. Hoffmann (New York: Academy of Political Science, 1984), p. 115; in 1950 only 2 percent of Soviet citizens had shortwave sets, but by the 1980s some 50 percent had access. Walter Laqueur, The Dream that Failed (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 62.

(9) Vladimir Bukovsky, To Build a Castle — My Life as a Dissenter (New York: Viking, 1979), p. 138.

(10) Abraham S. Becker, “Main Features of United States-Soviet Trade,” in Soviet Foreign Policy, edited by Robbin F. Laird (New York: Academy of Political Science, 1987), p. 68.

(11) Bukovsky, p. 139.

(12) Crocker, p. 268.

(13) “The Guilt of Afrikanerdom,” Ohserver, July 29, 1979.

(14) Georgi Arbatov, The System: A Life in Soviet Politics (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 181.

(15) See Peter Schweizer, Victory (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1994).

(16) Quoted in Arnold Beichman, “Seeing Capitalistic Light?” Washington Times, October 15, 1991.

(17) Vladimir Bukovsky, “Inside the Assault That Ended the Cold War,” Wall Street Journal, August 8, 1994.

(18) Merle Lipton, The Challenge of Sanctions (London: London School of Economics, 1990), p. 29.

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