by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
August 21, 2008
AMERICA PAYS DEARLY FOR PILING ON RUSSIA IN '89
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- For the part, history is filled with missed opportunities. Perhaps the biggest one for our country came two decades ago.
On Dec. 7, 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev went before the United Nations and gave a speech that changed history. In that speech, Gorbachev renounced violence and the threat of violence to hold the Soviet empire together.
"Necessity of the principle of freedom of choice is clear," Gorbachev said. "Denying that right of peoples, no matter what the pretext for doing so, no matter what words are used to conceal it, means infringing even that unstable balance that it has been possible to achieve. Freedom of choice is a universal principle, and there should be no exceptions."
That day, Gorbachev said the Soviet Union would cut its conventional forces by 500,000 men, which meant most of the Red Army's units would be leaving Eastern Europe. Within a year of his speech, the Berlin Wall came down, free elections were held in Poland and Czechoslovakia and a mostly nonviolent democratic revolution swept through Eastern Europe. Within three years of his speech, the Soviet Union itself was defunct.
It wasn't the massive military buildup by the United States during the 1980s that forced Gorbachev's hand. It was the growing demand for democracy by the captive nations of the Warsaw Pact, as well as the inherent failures of the Soviet social and economic system, that made Gorbachev's declaration inevitable.
In that historic moment when the Soviet empire crumbled, there was an opportunity for the United States. We could have reached out to Russia and Eastern Europe with a modern-day version of the Marshall Plan to rebuild their shattered economies as we did the nations of Western Europe after World War II.
Instead, Russia and other Eastern European nations were used as laboratories to try out the free market economic theories of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman - privatization of all public functions, drastic cutbacks in social welfare programs and removal of all rules and regulations that stood in the way of making a profit.
While Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Britain had approved bits and pieces of the Friedman model, no multi-party democracy in the world has ever willingly adopted the whole thing. As outlined in Naomi Klein's best-selling book, "The Shock Doctrine," the only way the full Friedman vision has been achieved has been by either exploiting the chaos of war or a natural disaster, or by creating the disaster through a coup or economic dislocation.
The imposition of the Friedman blueprint - what became known as "The Washington Consensus" - was a precondition for getting aid from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It managed to turn Russia from a superpower to an economic basket case in less than a decade.
Ironically, it was the collapse of communism that made Friedmanism possible. The Marshall Plan was conceived as an alternative to communism and the United States allowed the European welfare state that emerged after the war to emerge as a compromise between capitalism and communism.
Without a competing ideology, and with the prevailing feeling in the United States that it "won" the Cold War, capitalism no longer had to worry about compromise. It was now free to be as rapacious, anti-social and anti-democratic as it pleased.
But things can change quickly. When Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as Russia's president, he put an end to the fire sale of Russia's assets, particularly its oil and natural gas reserves. And when energy prices started to rise, Putin's Russia suddenly wasn't a basket case anymore. It now has lots of money and a bunch of grudges to settle.
Take the U.S. foreign policy decisions of the past few years by the Bush Administration - encouraging the former Soviet republics to buy American armaments and join NATO, unilaterally scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, signing deals to put an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, establishing military bases in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia - and you can see why Russia is angry.
This is not to justify Russia's invasion of Georgia and its increasing hostility toward the United States. But it does demonstrate what happens when a victor shabbily treats the vanquished after a war.
If our nation had treated Russia the way that Germany and Japan were treated after the end of World War II - with soft power, multilateral diplomacy, constructive engagement and encouraging democratic change - chances are that Russia would have been a friendly and cooperative ally instead of an enemy.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.