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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 117-129

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Lost and Found:
Gorbachev's 'New Thinking'

Celeste A. Wallander

Some 15 years ago, the new Soviet power elite led by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev launched a three-pronged effort to change the Soviet system. On the economic front, he initiated perestroika (restructuring), a series of reforms meant to eliminate inefficiencies and break up sclerotic administrative structures without fundamentally transforming the state-run economy. As half-measures at best, the reforms not only failed but also contributed to economic decline. On the political front, Gorbachev introduced glasnost (openness) in order to erode the influence of the state and Communist Party interests that were powerful obstacles to economic reform. Political reform was more successful, but unleashed sources of opposition that ultimately broke Gorbachev's grip on power.

The third component proved ultimately to be the most far-reaching and enduring of the Communist reformers' attempts to save the Soviet Union by changing it. "New thinking," conceived and deployed in a secondary role to support the urgent need for domestic political and economic reform, would play a role in ending the Cold War, uniting Germany, and earning Gorbachev a place in history and greater popularity in the world than at home.

Ten years after the demise of the Soviet Union, assessing the role of new thinking--and new thinkers--in Russian foreign policy and international affairs is worthwhile. How have their transformative concepts fared, and how have 10 years of post-Soviet experience led them to reevaluate ideas such as mutual security based on global common interests?

What has happened to the new thinkers themselves? Few were powerful members of the political elite. Most were researchers at various levels of seniority--including [End Page 117] newly minted Ph.D.'s--in the Soviet Union's Institutes of the Academy of Sciences or in the parallel policy arm in the Communist Party, the International Department. Yet the work of these academics played a powerful historical role of which U.S. think tank and university denizens can only imagine. Today, new thinkers are not as influential, nor influential in the same way, as they were under Gorbachev's patronage. Their voices are just several among many political, economic, and social interests competing for influence in Russia's rough-and-tumble political world.

New Thinking:
Origins, Substance, and Effects

New thinking emerged in the 1980s, but its roots are deeply embedded in the Soviet past. Disclosure by former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev of Joseph Stalin's crimes in 1956 exposed the Communist Party's younger cohort to alternative ideas about socialism. Following the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev moved toward a conception of common interests to avoid global nuclear war, ideas that official circles abandoned after his removal from office in 1964. As Gorbachev recounts in his memoirs, however, the legacy of rethinking Soviet socialism at home and abroad remained in the minds of the young leadership cohort moving up through party ranks, a legacy that the Soviet repression of change in Czechoslovakia in 1968 reinforced. 1 In the 1970s, younger Soviet scholars advancing through the ranks began to link up with transnational networks of scientists in the United States and Europe who supported arms control and confrontation reduction. 2

The existence of this cohort and its exposure to ideas about arms control and security cooperation were a necessary condition for new thinking. When high-ranking Soviet leaders began to confront the limitations of the Soviet economy and the utter failure of supporting radical regimes in developing countries, the Communist Party system itself could then produce an alternative set of concepts to justify change. Ideas were important in this mix, but they were not enough. As one leading new thinker recently told me, he and his colleagues engaged in an ideological campaign to change the existing Soviet Leninist doctrine of international relations, a campaign that the Communist Party launched itself. The new thinkers had their ideas, but they also had the powerful backing of political leaders. 3 The nature of the Soviet system itself made new ideas and new thinkers...


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