A Soviet Foreign Policy: A Revisionist Perspective

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This excerpt
from For
a New Liberty
was first printed in the Libertarian Review,

Since World
War II, American military and foreign policy, at least rhetorically,
has been based upon the assumption of a looming threat of Russian
attack – an assumption that has managed to gain public approval
for global American intervention and for scores of billions in military
expenditures. But how realistic, how well grounded, is this assumption?

First, there
is no doubt that the Soviets, along with all other Marxist-Leninists,
would like to replace all existing social systems by Communist
regimes. But such a sentiment, of course, scarcely implies any sort
of realistic threat of attack – just as an ill wish in private
life can hardly be grounds for realistic expectation of imminent

On the contrary,
Marxism-Leninism itself believes that victory of Communism is inevitable
– not on the wings of outside force, but rather from accumulating
tensions and "contradictions" within each society. So
that Marxism-Leninism considers internal revolution (or, in the
current "Eurocommunist" version, democratic change) for
installing Communism to be inevitable. At the same time, it holds
any coercive external imposition of Communism to be at best suspect,
and at worst disruptive and counterproductive of genuine organic
social change. Any idea of "exporting" Communism to other
countries on the back of the Soviet military is totally contradictory
to Marxist-Leninist theory.

We are not
saying, of course, that Soviet leaders will never do anything contrary
to Marxist-Leninist theory. But to the extent that they act as ordinary
rulers of a strong Russian nation-state, the case for an imminent
Soviet threat to the United States is gravely weakened. For the
sole alleged basis of such a threat, as conjured up by our Cold
Warriors, is the Soviet Union’s alleged devotion to Marxist-Leninist
theory and to its ultimate goal of world Communist triumph. If the
Soviet rulers were simply to act as Russian dictators consulting
only their own nation-state interests, then the entire basis for
treating the Soviets as a uniquely diabolic source of imminent military
assault crumbles to the ground.

When the Bolsheviks
took power in Russia in 1917, they had given little thought to a
future Soviet foreign policy, for they were convinced that Communist
revolution would soon follow in the advanced industrial countries
of Western Europe. When such hopes were dashed after the end of
World War I, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks adopted the theory
of "peaceful coexistence" as the basic foreign policy
for a Communist state.

The idea was
this: As the first successful Communist movement, Soviet Russia
would serve as a beacon light and supporter of other Communist parties
throughout the world. But the Soviet state qua state would
devote itself to peaceful relations with all other countries, and
would not attempt to export Communism through interstate warfare.
The idea here was not just to follow Marxist-Leninist theory, but
also the highly practical course of holding the survival of the
existing Communist state as the foremost goal of foreign policy:
that is, never to endanger the Soviet State by courting interstate
warfare. Other countries would be expected to become Communist by
their own internal processes.

Thus, fortuitously,
from a mixture of theoretical and practical grounds of their own,
the Soviets arrived early at what libertarians consider to be the
only proper and principled foreign policy. As time went on, furthermore,
this policy was reinforced by a "conservatism" that comes
upon all movements after they have acquired and retained power for
a length of time, in which the interests of keeping power over one’s
nation-state begins to take more and more precedence over the initial
ideal of world revolution. This increasing conservatism under Stalin
and his successors strengthened and reinforced the nonaggressive,
"peaceful-coexistence" policy.

The Bolsheviks,
indeed, began their success story by being literally the only political
party in Russia to clamor, from the beginning of World War I, for
an immediate Russian pullout from the war. Indeed, they went further
and courted enormous unpopularity by calling for the defeat of "their
own" government ("revolutionary defeatism").

When Russia
began to suffer enormous losses, accompanied by massive military
desertions from the front, the Bolsheviks, guided by Lenin, continued
to be the only party to call for an immediate end to the war, the
other parties still vowing to fight the Germans to the end. When
the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin, over the hysterical opposition
of even the majority of the Bolshevik central committee itself,
insisted on concluding the "appeasement" peace of Brest-Litovsk
in March 1918.

Here Lenin
succeeded in taking Russia out of the war, even at the price of
granting to the victorious German army all the parts of the Russian
Empire it then occupied (including White Russia and the Ukraine).
Thus, Lenin and the Bolsheviks began their reign by being not simply
a peace party, but virtually a "peace-at-any-price" party.

After World
War I and Germany’s defeat, the new Polish state attacked Russia
and succeeded in grabbing for itself a large chunk of White Russia
and the Ukraine. Taking advantage of the turmoil and civil war within
Russia at the end of the world war, various other national groups
– Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – decided to
break away from the pre–World War I Russian Empire and declare
national independence.

While Leninism
pays lip service to national self-determination, it was clear to
Soviet rulers from the very beginning that the boundaries of the
old Russian state were supposed to remain intact. The Red Army reconquered
the Ukraine, not only from the Whites, but also from the Ukrainian
nationalists and from the indigenously Ukrainian anarchist army
of Nestor Makhno.

For the rest,
it was clear that Russia, like Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, was
a "revisionist" country vis-à-vis the postwar settlement
at Versailles: i.e., Lenin, the lodestar of both Russian and German
foreign policy was to recapture their pre–World War I borders
– what they both considered the "true" borders of
their respective states. It should be noted that every political
party or tendency in Russia and Germany, whether ruling the state
or in opposition, agreed with this aim of full restoration of national

But, it should
be emphasized, while Germany under Hitler took strong measures to
recapture the lost lands, the cautious and conservative Soviet rulers
did absolutely nothing. Only after the Stalin-Hitler pact and the
German conquest of Poland did the Soviets, now facing no danger
in doing so, recapture their lost territories. Specifically, the
Russians repossessed Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as
the old Russian lands of White Russia and the Ukraine that had been
Eastern Poland.

And they were
able to do so without a fight. The old, pre–World War I Russia
had now been restored with the exception of Finland. But Finland
was prepared to fight. Here, the Russians demanded, not the reincorporation
of Finland as a whole, but only of parts of the Karelian Isthmus
that were ethnically Russian. When the Finns refused this demand,
the "Winter War" (1939–1940) between Russia and Finland
ensued, which ended with the Finns victorious and conceding nothing.

On June 22,
1941, Germany, triumphant over everyone but England in the west,
launched a sudden massive and unprovoked assault on Soviet Russia,
an act of aggression aided and abetted by the other pro-German states
in Eastern Europe – Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and
Finland. This German and allied invasion of Russia soon became one
of the pivotal facts in the history of Europe since that date.

So unprepared
was Stalin for the assault, so trusting was he in the rationality
of the German-Russian accord for peace in Eastern Europe, that he
had allowed the Russian army to fall into disrepair. So unwarlike
was Stalin, in fact, that Germany was almost able to conquer Russia
in the face of enormous odds. Since Germany otherwise would have
been able to retain control of Europe indefinitely, it was Hitler
who was led by the siren call of anti-Communist ideology to throw
away a rational and prudent course and launch what was to be the
beginning of his ultimate defeat.

World War
II and the Soviets

The mythology
of the Cold Warriors often concedes that the Soviets were not internationally
aggressive until World War II – indeed, they are compelled
to assert this point, since most Cold Warriors heartily approve
the World War II alliance of the United States with Russia against
Germany. It was during and immediately after the war, they assert,
that Russia became expansionist and drove its way into Eastern Europe.

this charge overlooks is the central fact of the German and associated
assault upon Russia in June 1941. There is no doubt about the fact
that Germany and her allies launched this war. Hence, in order to
defeat the invaders, it was obviously necessary for the Russians
to roll back the invading armies and conquer Germany and the other
warring countries of Eastern Europe. It is easier to make out a
case for the United States being expansionist for conquering and
occupying Italy and part of Germany than it is for Russia doing
so – after all, the United States was never directly attacked
by the Germans.

During World
War II, the United States, Britain, and Russia – the three
major Allies – had agreed on joint three-power military occupation
of all the conquered territories. The United States was the first
to break the agreement during the war by allowing Russia no role
whatever in the military occupation of Italy. Despite this serious
breach of agreement, Stalin displayed his consistent preference
for the conservative interests of the Russian nation-state over
cleaving to revolutionary ideology – by repeatedly betraying
indigenous Communist movements.

In order to
preserve peaceful relations between Russia and the West, Stalin
consistently tried to hold back the success of various Communist
movements. He was successful in France and Italy, where Communist
partisan groups might easily have seized power in the wake of the
German military retreat; but Stalin ordered them not to do so, and
instead persuaded them to join coalition regimes headed by anti-Communist
parties. In both countries, the Communists were soon ousted from
the coalition. In Greece, where the Communist partisans almost did
seize power, Stalin irretrievably weakened them by abandoning them
and urging them to turn over power to newly invading British troops.

In other countries,
particularly ones where Communist partisan groups were strong, the
Communists flatly refused Stalin’s requests. In Yugoslavia, the
victorious Tito
refused Stalin’s demand that Tito subordinate himself to the anti-Communist
in a governing coalition; and Mao refused a similar Stalin demand
that he subordinate himself to Chiang
. There is no doubt that these rejections were the beginning
of the later, extraordinarily important schisms within the world
Communist movement.

Russia, therefore,
governed Eastern Europe as military occupier after winning a war
launched against her. Russia’s initial goal was not to Communize
Eastern Europe on the backs of the Soviet Army. Her goal was to
gain assurances that Eastern Europe would not be the broad highway
for an assault on Russia, as it had been three times in half a century
– the last time in a war in which over 20 million Russians
had been slaughtered.

In short, Russia
wanted countries on her border that would not be anti-Communist
in a military sense, and that would not be used as a springboard
for another invasion. Political conditions in Eastern Europe were
such that only in more modernized Finland did non-Communist politicians
exist whom Russia could trust to pursue a peaceful line in foreign

And in Finland,
this situation was the work of one far-seeing statesman, the agrarian
leader Julio Paasikivi. It was because Finland, then and since,
has firmly followed the "Paasikivi line" that Russia was
willing to pull its troops out of Finland and not to insist on the
Communization of that country – even though it had fought two
wars with Finland in the previous six years.

Even in the
other Eastern European countries, Russia clung to coalition governments
for several years after the war, and only fully Communized them
in 1948 – after three years of unrelenting American Cold-War
pressure to try to oust Russia from these countries. In other areas,
Russia readily pulled its troops out of Austria and out of Azerbaijan.

The cold warriors
find it difficult to explain Russian actions in Finland. If Russia
is always hell-bent to impose Communist rule wherever it can, why
the "soft line" on Finland? The only plausible explanation
is that its motivation is security for the Russian nation-state
against attack, with the success of world Communism playing a very
minor role in its scale of priorities.

and World Communism

In fact, the
Cold Warriors have never been able either to explain or absorb the
fact of deep schisms in the world Communist movement. For if all
Communists are governed by a common ideology, then every Communist
everywhere should be part of one unified monolith, and one which,
given the early success of the Bolsheviks, would make them subordinates
or "agents" of Moscow.

If Communists
are mainly motivated by their bond of Marxism-Leninism, why do we
have the deep China-Russia split, in which Russia, for example,
keeps one million troops at the ready on the China-Russia frontier?
Why is there such enmity between the Yugoslav Communist and the
Albanian Communist states? How can there be an actual military conflict
between the Cambodian and Vietnamese Communists?

The answer,
of course, is that once a revolutionary movement seizes state power,
it very quickly begins to take on the attributes of a ruling class,
with a class interest in retaining state power. The world revolution
begins to pale, in their outlook, to insignificance. And since state
elites can and do have conflicting interests in power and wealth,
it is not surprising that inter-Communist conflicts have become

Since their
victory over German military aggression in World War II, the Soviets
have continued to be conservative in their military policy. Their
only use of troops has been to defend their territory in
the Communist bloc, rather than to extend it further. Thus, when
Hungary threatened to leave the Soviet block in 1956, or Czechoslovakia
in 1968, the Soviets intervened with troops – reprehensibly,
to be sure, but still acting in a conservative and defensive, rather
than expansionist, manner. (The Soviets apparently gave considerable
thought to invading Yugoslavia when Tito took that country out of
the Soviet bloc, but were deterred by the formidable qualities for
guerrilla fighting of the Yugoslav army.) In no case has Russia
used troops to extend its bloc or to conquer more territories.

Professor Stephen
F. Cohen, director of the program in Russian studies at Princeton,
has delineated the nature of Soviet conservatism in foreign affairs
in a recent issue of Inquiry:

That a system
born in revolution and still professing revolutionary ideas should
have become one of the most conservative in the world may seem
preposterous. But all those factors variously said to be most
important in Soviet politics have contributed to this conservatism:
the bureaucratic tradition of Russian government before the revolution;
the subsequent bureaucratization of Soviet life, which proliferated
conservative norms and created an entrenched class of zealous
defenders of bureaucratic privilege; the geriatric nature of the
present-day elite; and even the official ideology, whose thrust
turned many years ago from the creation of a new social order
to extolling the existing one. …

In other
words, the main thrust of Soviet conservatism today is to preserve
what it already has at home and abroad, not to jeopardize it.
A conservative government is, of course, capable of dangerous
militaristic actions, as we saw in Czechoslovakia … but these
are acts of imperial protectionism, a kind of defensive militarism,
not a revolutionary or aggrandizing one. It is certainly true
that for most Soviet leaders, as presumably for most American
leaders, detente is not an altruistic endeavor but the pursuit
of national interests. In one sense, this is sad. But it is probably
also true that mutual self-interest provides a more durable basis
for detente than lofty, and finally empty, altruism ("Why
Detente Can Work," December 19, 1977).

as impeccable an anti-Soviet source as former CIA Director William
Colby finds the overwhelming concern of the Soviets in the defensive
goal of avoiding another catastrophic invasion of their territory.
As Colby testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,

You will
find a concern, even a paranoia, over their [the Soviets’] own
security. You will find the determination that they shall never
again be invaded and put through the kinds of turmoil that they
have been under and many different invasions. … I think that
they … want to overprotect themselves to make certain that
that does not happen.

Even the Chinese,
for all their bluster, have pursued a conservative and pacific foreign
policy. Not only have they failed to invade Taiwan, recognized internationally
as part of China, but they have even allowed the small offshore
islands of Quemoy and Matsu to remain in Chiang Kai-shek’s hands.
No moves have been made against the British and Portuguese-occupied
exclaves of Hong Kong and Macao. And China even took the unusual
step of declaring a unilateral cease-fire and withdrawal
of forces to its border after having triumphed easily over Indian
arms in their escalated border war. (See Neville Maxwell, India’s
China War
[New York: Pantheon Books, 1970].)

Neither is
China’s reconquest and suppression of national rebellion in Tibet
a valid point against our thesis. For Chiang Kai-shek as well as
all other Chinese have for many generations considered Tibet as
part of Greater China, and China was here acting in the same conservative,
nation-state manner as we have seen has guided the Soviets.

A Priori History

There is still
one thesis common to Americans and even to some libertarians that
may prevent them from absorbing the analysis of this chapter: the
myth propounded by Woodrow Wilson that democracies must inevitably
be peace-loving while dictatorships are inevitably warlike. This
thesis was of course highly convenient for covering Wilson’s own
culpability for dragging America into a needless and monstrous war.
But there is simply no evidence for this assumption.

Many dictatorships
have turned inward, cautiously confining themselves to preying on
their own people. Examples range from premodern Japan to Communist
Albania to innumerable dictatorships in the Third World today. Uganda’s
Idi Amin, perhaps the most brutal and repressive dictator in today’s
world, shows no signs whatever of jeopardizing his regime by invading
neighboring countries. On the other hand, such an indubitable democracy
as Great Britain spread its coercive imperialism across the globe
during the 19th and earlier centuries.

The theoretical
reason why focusing on democracy or dictatorship misses the point
is that states – all states – rule their
population and decide whether or not to make war. And all states,
whether formally a democracy or dictatorship or some other brand
of rule, are run by a ruling elite. Whether or not these elites,
in any particular case, will make war upon another state is a function
of a complex interweaving web of causes, including the temperament
of the rulers, the strength of their enemies, the inducements for
war, public opinion, etc.

While public
opinion has to be gauged in either case, the only real difference
between a democracy and a dictatorship on making war is that in
the former more propaganda must be beamed at one’s subjects
to engineer their approval. Intensive propaganda is necessary in
any case – as we can see by the zealous opinion-molding behavior
of all modern warring states.

But the democratic
state must work harder and faster. And also the democratic state
must be more hypocritical in using rhetoric designed to appeal to
the values of the masses: justice, freedom, national interest, patriotism,
world peace, etc. So that in democratic states the art of propaganda
the elite uses over its subjects must be a bit more sophisticated
and refined. But this, as we have seen, is true of all governmental
decisions, not just war or peace.

For all governments
– but especially democratic governments – must work hard
at persuading their subjects that all of their deeds of oppression
are really in their subjects’ best interests. What we have
said about democracy and dictatorship applies equally to the lack
of correlation between degrees of internal freedom in a country
and its external aggressiveness. Some states have proved themselves
perfectly capable of allowing a considerable degree of freedom internally
while making aggressive war abroad, while others have shown themselves
capable of totalitarian rule internally while pursuing a pacific
foreign policy. The examples of Idi Amin, Albania, China, Great
Britain, etc., apply equally well in this comparison.

In short, libertarians
and other Americans must guard against a priori history: in this
case, against the assumption that, in any conflict, that state which
is more democratic or allows more internal freedom is necessarily
or even presumptively the victim of aggression by the more dictatorial
or totalitarian state. There is simply no historical evidence whatever
for such a presumption.

deciding on relative rights and wrongs, on relative degrees of aggression,
in any dispute in foreign affairs, there is no substitute for a
detailed, empirical, historical investigation of the dispute itself.
It should occasion no great surprise, then, if such an investigation
concludes that a democratic and relatively far freer United States
has been more aggressive and imperialistic in foreign affairs than
a relatively totalitarian Russia or China. Conversely, hailing a
state for being less aggressive in foreign affairs in no way implies
that the observer is in any way sympathetic to that state’s internal

It is vital
– indeed, it is literally a life-and-death matter – that
Americans be able to look as coolly and clear-sightedly, as free
from myth, at their government’s record in foreign affairs as they
increasingly are able to do in domestic politics. For war and a
phony "external threat" have long been the chief means
by which the state wins back the loyalty of its subjects. War and
militarism were the gravediggers of classical liberalism; we must
not allow the state to get away with this ruse ever again.

from Mises.org.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic
officer of the Mises Institute.
He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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