On December 24, 1989, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Aboimov informed me on behalf of the Soviet government, ‘We have given the Brezhnev Doctrine to you with our compliments. Consider it a Christmas gift.”
Now, some thirty-four years later, I should explain what the Brezhnev Doctrine was, the circumstances under which the gift was conveyed, and why I believe that it was a gift that has infused US foreign policy to this very day.
The Brezhnev Doctrine
The Brezhnev Doctrine alleged that “socialist” (communist-dominated) countries had the right and duty to intervene in any country where a “socialist” government had been threatened. The term developed after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The underlying rationale was that “socialism” was an inevitable stage in human development and that, if it was threatened in a given country, it was the duty of other “socialist” states to intervene to preserve it. Karl Marx had predicted that the “proletariat” would rebel against the ruling “bourgeoisie” and by dictatorship would produce a socialist society that would evolve from socialism (to each according to his contribution) to communism (to each according to his need). Although the “socialist” states had not reached the goal of communism, they were led by the Soviet Union ruled by a party whose name evoked the ultimate goal: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In world politics, December 1989 began with the first summit meeting of George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, which took place on a Soviet passenger ship in the Malta harbor. (Stormy seas prevented planned meetings on an American destroyer anchored nearby.) The two knew each other since they had met several times when Bush was vice president, but this was their first meeting since Bush had taken office as president. For both, it meant the end of the Cold War. Their joint announcement stated that the Cold War was over, that the USSR would not intervene in Eastern Europe to prevent political change, and that the United States would not “take advantage” of Soviet restraint. President Bush reaffirmed these commitments in a letter to Gorbachev which I was instructed to deliver when I returned to Moscow from Malta.
On December 16, violence against the Ceausescu regime erupted in Romania. Up until then, the fall of Soviet-dominated governments in Eastern Europe had been remarkably peaceful. Gorbachev was true to his word that the Soviet Union would not intervene. In fact, his policies favored the transition of power since he insisted that the communist governments in Eastern Europe needed to reform and refused any help to keep them in power. He welcomed the ambassadors the new democratic governments sent to Moscow as they replaced the ones representing the communist-dominated satellites. By late December, Romania was in the throes of a bloody revolution.
Then, on December 20, the United States invaded Panama to remove its drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega, an invasion that lasted through the following January. According to Wikipedia, it caused 516 Panamanian casualties (314 military and 202 civilian) and 26 American (23 military and 3 civilian). A pretty steep price to arrest a drug lord who once worked for the CIA.
On December 23, I received a telegram from the State Department instructing me to seek an appointment with Deputy Minister Aboimov, who had responsibility for Eastern Europe, to get the Soviet assessment of the situation in Romania. The appointment was scheduled for 12:30 the following day. Meanwhile, I received on our recently installed secure telephone a call from the Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs instructing me to make clear to Aboimov that if the Soviet government found it necessary to use military force in Romania—for instance to extract its citizens—President Bush would not consider this a violation of their agreement during the Malta meeting. He added that I should be careful not to imply that we were encouraging intervention. I commented to him that I didn’t see how I could convey that message without it seeming that we were encouraging intervention, but of course I would follow instructions.
I wondered at the time why this request had not been in my written instructions, but assumed that was an afterthought by Secretary James Baker’s staff (or perhaps Baker himself) when they saw the cable to me, presumably drafted and cleared by EUR (the Bureau of European Affairs). It did not occur to me then—though it should have—that senior officials in the Bush administration actually hoped that there would be some Soviet intervention in Romania in order to “balance” perceptions about appropriate behavior in respective spheres of influence.
It was no surprise to me when Aboimov assured me that the Soviet Union would not intervene in Romania. It did surprise me that he would use the term “Brezhnev Doctrine” to refer to earlier Soviet practice since, though it was in common usage in the West, it was not normally used by Soviet officials to describe their policy toward Eastern Europe. Therefore, I accepted his statement as a clever quip and reported it as such to the State Department. The rebellion in Romania ended the day following our meeting with the capture and execution of the Ceausescus.
At the time I had no idea the invasion of Panama would last another month or take anything like the number of lives it did. I believed that the invasion of Panama was a one-off action, taken because so long as Noriega was in control of Panama it was unlikely that the US Senate would ratify the Panama Canal Treaty. Vote on ratification was imminent and ratification was considered of vital importance for our future relations with our neighbors in Latin America.
It did not occur to me then that military intervention would be adopted by the American government as a favored instrument to promote “democracy” in other countries. After all, if democracy is, as Lincoln stated, government of, by, and for the people, how can an outsider create it? Overt intervention in another country’s politics is likely to boomerang, strengthening the autocratic forces who can claim that the democratic forces are agents of a foreign adversary—or worse—an enemy.
From the Brezhnev Doctrine to the “Liberal World Order”
Marx had predicted that communism was the inevitable future of mankind, therefore attempts to assist it were simply acting in accord with the flow of history. In the mid 1980s, Soviet leaders still held to that belief. When President Ronald Reagan, during their first meeting, asked Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko if he believed in a world-wide communist state, Gromyko replied that he did, but it was like his belief that tomorrow the sun would rise in the east. It did not require Soviet help. (He didn’t add, “But there is nothing wrong with helping,” which he probably thought.)
Later, when Reagan first met Gorbachev, he complained about Soviet support for revolutionary movements in Africa and Latin America. Gorbachev explained that the Soviet Union was acting in harmony with the inevitable decolonization of these areas and the United States should understand that this was the future. In effect, he advised Reagan to get used to it; it’s going to happen so stop complaining.
By the end of 1988, Gorbachev had changed his mind on that question. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in December, he declared that Soviet policy would be based on the “common interests of mankind.” This was an implicit but clear rejection of the Marxist “class struggle” which had earlier been the foundation of Soviet foreign policy, including the Brezhnev Doctrine. Gorbachev then showed that the change of ideology was genuine by not attempting in 1989 to thwart the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. Therefore, the Brezhnev doctrine was available for transfer when Aboimov conveyed the gift.
The Soviet Union passed into history on December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev announced, “I am ceasing my activity in the post of president of the USSR,” the Soviet red flag was lowered from the Kremlin flagpole, and the Russian tricolor raised. This event engendered widespread belief in three questionable assumptions: (1) that the United States, or the West “won” the Cold War; (2) that Western pressure caused the break-up of the Soviet Union; (3) that Russia was a defeated party.
Close attention to all the facts would have suggested: (1) that the Cold War ended by negotiation when the Soviet leader abandoned the policies that caused it in the first place and was as much in the interest of the USSR as it was in the interest of the United States and NATO; (2) the Soviet Union broke up because of internal pressures, not external ones from the United States and NATO, and (3) Boris Yeltsin, the elected president of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, declared Russia’s independence and engineered the break-up of the USSR.
This happened over the period of a few months in 1991. During that time, the Bush administration hoped Gorbachev could preserve a voluntary union minus the three Baltic countries. In a speech delivered to the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada on August 1, 1991, Bush advised the Ukrainians (and implicitly the other non-Baltic Soviet republics) to join a voluntary union as Gorbachev proposed and to avoid “suicidal nationalism.”
Therefore, the total break-up of the USSR in December 1991 was a defeat for American policy at the time, not a victory as would subsequently be claimed and believed by most people, in both the United States and Europe.
* * *
After the Soviet collapse, America’s Neocons—who had argued that negotiation with the USSR would be fruitless—suddenly proclaimed that the United States was the sole surviving “superpower,” which meant that while world politics had been “bipolar,” controlled by the US and the USSR, it was now “unipolar,” controlled by the US alone. The only debate in those circles was whether “unipolarity” would be a permanent condition or only temporary, a “unipolar moment” as some dubbed it.
The problem with this interpretation was at least twofold: military power could destroy but was hardly useful in building something new, and military threats to another country were much more likely to encourage authoritarianism than democracy.
In 1993, Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist who worked for a time on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, provided another foundation element for what came to be called the “Liberal World Order” in a widely cited book entitled The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1993.
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
The prediction that any present system could be “the final form of human government” was a breathtaking allegation totally void of any supporting historical fact. It was just as fanciful as Karl Marx’s prediction that a proletarian revolution would result in a world free of competing classes, government compulsion and strife. Yet it led to a presumption that the United States could use its military and economic power to transform other societies into democracies with capitalist economies that would live in peace with one another.
The goal came to be called the Liberal World Order. Note the following correspondences:
Ability and duty of USSR and its allies to spread and defend “socialism” from internal or external threats.
LIBERAL WORLD ORDER
Ability and duty of US and its allies to spread and defend “democracy” from internal or external threats.
Note also that in neither case did the sponsors of the Brezhnev Doctrine and the Liberal World Order define precisely what they meant by socialism or democracy. In practice, only nation-states they dominated were considered to meet the necessary criteria.
End of Cold War to Hot War?
In the early 1990s, it appeared that the world was headed for a period—maybe even a future– of peace between and among the larger nations. There were conflicts here and there, some involving serious atrocities, but they were local and, it would seem, possible to mitigate or even resolve without the direct participation of the United States on one side or the other. The United States, itself virtually invulnerable to attack by other countries, had an opportunity to develop a security system based on cooperation among the larger countries. Instead, the US too often chose hegemony over cooperation, just as the Soviet Union had done in its heyday in Eastern Europe.
Let me suggest just a few examples which illustrate why Aboimov’s gift has kept giving. They are extracted from highly complex situations which require much more detailed examination and discussion to understand in full. But, in all, there is a constant thread of American attempts to use military force or economic power to favor one side or the other in disputes that can only be solved by diplomacy and compromise.
Following the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Europe needed a security system that bridged the earlier East-West division and guaranteed the security of all. Following World War II, the United States had wisely insisted that France and Germany bury the hatchet and start uniting rather than dividing Western Europe. This was an implicit but real condition for the economic aid the Marshall Plan provided.
In the 1990s, the task in Europe was to bring Russia and the successor states of the Soviet Union into a system of mutual security so that they could undertake the difficult task of converting their state-controlled command economies into market economies. As they did so, they could negotiate economic relations with the European Union as a group, planning the gradual development of a common market. Instead of supporting this process, the US tried to split the former Soviet republics from Russian influence.
In the security sphere, from the late 1990s each succeeding American administration added new members to NATO and then began to station military bases on the territory of the new members. The Clinton administration and its successor failed to continue efforts to reduce nuclear weapons and by the second Bush administration the US started withdrawing from the arms control agreements that had halted the nuclear arms race and permitted an end to the Cold War. This process continued until the one remaining nuclear arms control agreement (New Start) was suspended by Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
In Europe, we are approaching the third year of war in Ukraine, a war that could have been prevented if the US had been willing to guarantee that Ukraine would not be granted NATO membership. Instead, the US and its NATO allies are trying to strangle Russia economically with sanctions of a severity that normally would be permissible only during a formal declaration of war. In the process, Ukraine’s very existence as an independent, sovereign nation is under threat and there are few impediments to the use of nuclear weapons if this war continues.
War is also underway in what we traditionally have called the Middle East: Israel continues to attack Gaza, where for decades it has kept Palestinians, many of them refugees from Israel proper, in an open-air prison. A war of this intensity bears the earmarks of genocide since the avowed Israeli purpose is to eliminate or expel Palestinians from their traditional home. It is not a war initiated by the United States, but it is one that might well have been prevented by a different diplomacy. In the 1990s, quiet diplomacy by Norway brought the Israeli government and leading Palestinians to the brink of a settlement that would have provided two states in the Palestinian area, one Jewish and one Palestinian. Ultimately this failed and, despite US opposition and warnings, Israel continued to increase the Jewish presence in the occupied “West Bank,” to maintain a blockade of the two million plus Palestinians in the tiny Gaza strip, and when it perceived threats (often inaccurately) to attack its neighbors in violation of international law.
Elsewhere in the Middle East and contiguous areas, the US has initiated or participated in at least three full-scale wars and numerous other military interventions. Since 2000, the US has invaded and occupied Afghanistan (for a time), Iraq (where we destroyed an entire government and gave impetus to the terrorist forces we were ostensibly fighting), and Syria, where we intervened without the request of the government we recognized and, in part, in an effort to remove it. For decades we have maintained extensive economic sanctions against Iran. After the Obama administration participated in a multilateral agreement to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, President Trump withdrew. As a candidate for the presidency, Joseph Biden promised to re-enter the agreement but failed to do so after he took office.
Now, in mid-January 2024, the entire Middle East and adjacent areas (note the recent military exchanges between Iran and nuclear-armed Pakistan) seem to comprise a giant powder keg on the brink of explosion. Attacks from Aden threaten shipping in the Red Sea. Most Arab and many non-Arab Muslim countries are seething over what they consider ongoing genocide in Gaza and violent ethnic cleansing in the Palestinian West Bank. Missile exchanges continue between Lebanon and Syria on the one hand and Israel on the other.
The point is not that the US created all this violence. In some cases (the invasion of Iraq) it did, but in others it was not the main offender. Nevertheless, Israel could not continue pounding the entrapped population of Gaza to extinction if the US refused to supply the ordnance. As for the other conflicts, they may well have been contained or avoided if the US, rather than jumping in with military force, had used its influence to calm or keep local the area’s many territorial and doctrinal disputes.
Since the end of the Cold War, China has made unprecedented progress in meeting the human needs of its population. Despite its apparent rejection of “democracy” when it quelled the uprising in Tienanmen Square in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party started promoting capitalist development in a big way. It did so without losing its ultimate grip on power, in contrast to the experience of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union when its leader, attempting to democratize, lost control. The result was spectacular: from the early 1990s to 2020 (the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic), China probably set a world record for achieving the greatest improvement in the lives of the most people in the shortest time. This happened without free, competitive elections or any pretense at “Western style” democracy.
Now, in the grip of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, some political dissidents have been arrested, some of the high-flying capitalists have been brought to heel, the electoral freedom of Hong Kong has been restricted, and members of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang have been herded into “re-education” camps. All of these are regrettable developments which will affect the quality of life for many Chinese, but they are developments that only the Chinese can reverse or modify. They are not going to be ameliorated by reprovals from the US government, particularly when accompanied by policies designed to “contain China” or hobble its economic development.
Nevertheless, US economic policy in itself is not likely to produce armed conflict with China. The danger comes from US policies and actions that the Chinese government perceives threaten China’s security, national dignity, or deserved status in the region. The US practice of patrolling the coast of China by air and sea and controlling adjacent waterways is seen as provocative. American support for Taiwanese independence is seen as an impermissible interference in a Chinese domestic struggle.
Senior American politicians and military commanders are urging preparations for a war with China if necessary to defend Taiwan. As much as one may admire the economic progress the people of Taiwan have made and sympathize with their desire not to be controlled by an autocratic government in Beijing, it would be reckless to the point of insanity for the United States to risk war with China in defense of Taiwan.
While overall the United States has a much stronger military establishment than China, China has developed a modern army, air force, and navy with a growing number of nuclear weapons. China is not able to compete with the United States as a global hegemon as some seem to fear. But China is acutely sensitive to foreign attempts to limit its sovereignty, having been carved up by Western imperialists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, then invaded by Japan in the twentieth. China can almost certainly prevail locally in a conflict near its border. If it chose to use nuclear weapons against the US fleet in the Taiwan Strait, how could the US retaliate without endangering its own homeland?
The Common Thread
I have cited just a few examples of American military intervention in faraway conflicts that did not threaten the American people’s security or well-being. Just as the USSR supported revolutions to create “socialism” and military intervention in other countries to preserve it (the Brezhnev Doctrine), so has the United States justified its military activity abroad as necessary to create, support, and defend what it calls “democracy.”
Numerous questions arise. Here are a few, chosen almost at random from some that are basic and at least one trivial:
If, in a Liberal World Order (sometimes called the “rules-based order”), one country does not invade or make war against another unless attacked or authorized by the United Nations Security Council, how is it that the US and its NATO allies unleashed an undeclared war by bombing Serbia in 1999? A more egregious offense occurred subsequently when the United States, along with Great Britain and a few others, invaded, occupied, and destroyed the entire government of Iraq, justifying the action by the false assertion that Iraq had illegally retained weapons of mass destruction.
How is it that the United States and NATO are conducting an all-but-declared war against Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine, but are providing the weapons and political cover to Israel to conduct a genocidal campaign against the people living in Gaza?
Does a “rules-based order” allow a country to invade another and attempt to remove its leader? (Note Syria.)
Is it proper for a powerful country that has more than once violated the rules of the Liberal World Order to assume the role of enforcer of rules it has violated, even to the point of conducting economic warfare against an alleged offender?
If the US goal is to create and defend democracies, how is it that it arms one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, Saudi Arabia?
If NATO is an alliance of democracies, how is it that Montenegro, an autocracy and one of the world’s most corrupt countries, qualified for membership?
The list could be extended much longer, but the overall conclusion must be that with all the complexity and uncertainty that marks today’s conflicts, there is one common thread: military intervention by the US to resolve conflicts between and within other countries. Just as Brezhnev invaded “socialist” countries to preserve socialism, our American government is attempting to use its military and economic power to impose its political system on the world. It is not working any better than it did for Brezhnev. It is time the United States discarded the poisoned chalice Deputy Minister Aboimov handed me that Christmas Eve of 1989.
Jack F. Matlock, Jr. is a career diplomat who served as US ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987-1991. Prior to that he was senior director for European and Soviet Affairs on President Reagan’s National Security Council staff and was US ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1981-1983. Following his retirement from the Foreign Service, he was Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. He has written numerous articles and three books about the negotiations that ended the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and U.S. foreign policy following the end of the Cold War.