"[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
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...