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PERSPECTIVE ON FOREIGN POLICY : The Next Debate: Who Lost Russia? : A major debacle looms abroad while American policy-makers ponder their domestic navels.

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When the history of American-Russian relations in the years 1989-1993 comes to be written, one message will become crystal clear: The U.S. government, at the highest levels, interpreted every major turning incorrectly.

Given President Clinton’s alleged inexperience in foreign affairs, the most recent U-turn in American foreign policy, with its abandonment of “shock therapy"--pushing Russia toward rapid and instant economic reform--may be ascribed, charitably, to insufficient knowledge at the top. If this is so, one may hope that it will be remedied soon. Still, there is little reason to be sanguine when one considers that comparable errors were consistently made by President Bush and his foreign-policy team for four years.

Why did the earlier Administration miscalculate Mikhail Gorbachev’s survival possibilities? Why was it so churlish about Boris N. Yeltsin until his supremacy was obvious to all? Why did it not understand the trauma created by the sudden demise of communism and anticipate that the ensuing turmoil would continue for decades? Why, since the arrival of the new team, dominated by men and women whose experience was very largely in the Cold War service of Jimmy Carter, with a few journalists sprinkled in, has the situation not improved? For three reasons, principally.

First, with the West mired in economic recession, our allies, like ourselves, have not made Russian affairs a priority. Second, the so-called Russian experts, trained for decades in the arcane mysteries of Kremlinology, are not always the best persons to understand the political and social conditions that now prevail; many are biased and committed in ways that inhibit fresh thought. Finally, wrong analyses are being advanced by some historians, looking always at the 1920s and 1930s, discovering dubious analogies with the tragic events of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism.

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It is the economists, however, who have been in the saddle recently, vastly exaggerating the possibilities of an easy move to a market economy. Unaware of the turmoil that attended earlier transitions to capitalism, they rarely consider the major institutional changes that need to be made to achieve a modicum of social justice. Their relative unconcern with social discontent--among the many unemployed in Russia, but also among its aged and impoverished pensioners, and all the others displaced by the new system, including the military--is evidence of a failure to conceive what the destruction of a political system can mean when the outside world is otherwise engaged.

What is desperately required today is not a new and more ambitious Marshall Plan--inconceivable at a time when even the rich nations claim to be poor--but a new foreign policy suited to post-Cold War conditions, calculated to win consent at home, to make major industrial and commercial adjustment here and elsewhere possible.

We live too much in the recent past, too preoccupied with ourselves, led by men and women who have neither the energy nor the wit to rethink what they learned (or failed to learn) from the days of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Hitler. Lacking the historical knowledge that would allow them to consider why democracy and free markets failed to be successfully instituted at other times in this century--in the Balkans, for example, only 70 years ago, following the disintegration of the Hapsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires--they trade in mythic folk tales that explain much less than they pretend. The times are indeed dangerous, and not only because of the sudden awakening of a somnolent beast carrying a deadly poison called nationalism.

The new respect for a revised concept of the “national interest,” defined largely in domestic terms, preoccupied primarily with economic productivity and unemployment, conceals a deep aversion to accepting the proposition that domestic policy cannot be divorced from foreign policy. If 1989 is an even more significant date than 1945, the year of Hitler’s defeat and the atomic explosion over Hiroshima, that simple lesson has yet to be learned. Yeltsin--a mortal like all the other bipeds who sit in high places--is someone to reckon with, but more important is the need to become more engaged with the Russian people.

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What, then, is most urgently needed? A willingness to make foreign policy the central concern of an Administration that lives with the illusion that health-care reform is its most pressing political problem. To believe this is to evade a complex geopolitical and social reality that cannot be safely set aside for another day. Russia abroad, like race relations at home, cries out for immediate attention and intelligent action. In all of this, the United States has a role to play that the tired leaders of yesterday’s Cold War world cannot even begin to conceptualize, let alone articulate.

In this intellectual vacuum, the dangers are real; if the situation continues, the next debate in this country may well be on who lost Russia.


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