'Post-Cold War' Era 1988-1991
The architects of "new thinking" have stated that their new policy was adopted under duress in the mid-1980s when it became unmistakably clear to the most farsighted Soviet thinkers that their decades-long Cold War policies of trying to extend Soviet power through a massive military buildup, coercive diplomacy, and confrontation had failed. The Soviet leaders knew that the Soviet economy would have collapsed if they had tried to respond militarily to the U.S. defense buildup and particularly the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). As Sergei Rogov of the USSR's Institute on the United States and Canada explained in his 1989 monograph Is a New Model of Soviet-American Relations Possible?:
In this dire situation, a fundamentally new, non-military method of seeking to achieve Soviet goals had to be found. "New thinking" was the bold, creative, ingenious, and, ultimately, disastrous result.
The Soviet rationale for adopting the policy of "new thinking" was amply explained in numerous Soviet publications from 1987 to 1989. The basic concepts were very simple:
In the minds of the Soviet "new thinkers," ending the Cold War did not mean that the systemic struggle between the "two social systems" would stop. Instead, it would shift from the Cold War arenas of the arms race, confrontation, and coercive diplomacy to new, primarily political areas of struggle. The Soviets needed to end the Cold War because their weak economy put them at an impossible disadvantage vis-a-vis an awakened West in an arms race which, if it continued, would mean their inevitable defeat. In order to avoid this and best preserve their power, the Soviet leaders needed to induce the West to abandon the arms race, while at the same time positioning themselves to wage a new form of political warfare against the West: one that sought to achieve power by conciliation rather than confrontation, the appeal of "all-human" values as opposed to "class" values, assigned a key role to the manipulation of international organizations, particularly the United Nations, and sought to use international law as a subterfuge for Soviet attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries rather than the heavy hand of military power and coercive diplomacy.
As part of the shift to "new thinking," the Soviets did the unthinkable. They deliberately jettisoned the outmoded ideology of communism and embraced a new ideology based on "all-human" values and concerns. They did not do this because they had become converts to the democratic cause. Instead, the Soviet "new thinkers" came to the conclusion that governments, countries, and peoples could be more effectively manipulated by universalist, non-Marxist concepts than by Marxist ones, and set about trying to devise ways to use non-Marxist concepts to achieve traditional Soviet goals. "New thinking" was consciously designed as a communist foreign policy for the post-communist era. It was as if the "chameleons," not the "doves," had triumphed over the "hawks" in the Soviet foreign policy debate.
"New thinking" was conceived by the boldest, most creative and cosmopolitan communist propagandists and ideologists. It was adopted in desperation, as the reality of looming Soviet defeat in the Cold War became unavoidably clear. Nevertheless, it was not a defeatist policy. Its goal was to devise a technique that would eventually enable a restructured USSR to establish preeminence globally.
The Soviets adopted "new thinking" in the mid 1980s when it became clear to them that their policy of force in the international arena, which ultimately relied on the threat posed by Soviet nuclear missiles, was not succeeding because of the resistance of the United States, NATO, and other countries to Soviet expansionism and hegemony.
In his 1987 book Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World, Mikhail Gorbachev stated bluntly that the "fundamental principle of the new political outlook is very simple: nuclear war cannot be a means of achieving political, economic, ideological or other goals." (p. 140) Gorbachev explained, "Nuclear war is senseless; it is irrational. There would be neither winners nor losers in a global nuclear conflict: world civilization would inevitably perish." (p. 141)
Although such observations may seem to be belaboring the obvious to Westerners, the idea that a nuclear war could not be fought and won was, as Gorbachev put it, a "truly revolutionary" conclusion for Soviet leaders. (Perestroika, p. 140) Senior Gorbachev adviser Vadim Zagladin reiterated this point in his 1989 book To Restructure and Humanize International Relations, stating unambiguously that, "Even comparatively recently, we believed it was possible to survive and even win a nuclear war." (p. 68) Zagladin explained that, under "new thinking," "the first change in our foreign-policy doctrine is the total rejection of the idea of a nuclear war and affirmation of the absolute necessity to prevent it." (p. 68)
It is shocking to realize that until the mid 1980s Soviet policy accepted the idea that it was possible to fight and win a nuclear war. Yet that was precisely the case. This explains the reason for the enormous, decades-long Soviet military buildup, which was consuming approximately one-third of Soviet gross national product by the late 1980s.
In addition to discarding the policy option of nuclear war, the Soviet "new thinkers" also discarded other, less apocalyptic variants of their policy of force. As Gorbachev observed in Perestroika:
Serious reservations about the utility of force in the modern world had been brewing in the Soviet leadership for several years prior to the advent of "new thinking," according to former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. In his book The Future Belongs to Freedom, Shevardnadze stated that as early as 1980 the Soviets recognized that military force had not been effective in Afghanistan and, in light of this, were extremely reluctant to use force in Poland. Shevardnadze wrote:
In short, between 1980 and 1985, the combination of Afghan, Polish, Western, and other resistance to the Soviet use of force convinced the Soviets to dramatically de-emphasize nuclear war, conventional war with the West, the arms race, and the use of force in international relations as viable instruments of "class warfare," a breathtaking departure from previous Soviet policies. The policy of force and all that flowed from it, including the Cold War and the panoply of Soviet confrontational policies, were abandoned, not because the Soviets believed it was wrong to try to impose their will on others, but because they now believed military force was not an effective way to do so. This was an extremely radical, fundamental shift in Soviet thinking.
Something had to substitute for military force as the prime mover in international affairs. In adopting "new thinking," the Soviets attempted to make political campaigns against what Shevardnadze has called "the real enemies of humanity: thermonuclear war, environmental catastrophe, and the collapse of the world economy" the new levers with which they would try to achieve their goals. (The Future Belongs to Freedom, p. 48) Whereas Marxism was, in many ways, the politics of confrontation and envy, with its central paradigm the struggle of the economically oppressed versus their oppressors, "new thinking" relied much more heavily on the politics of conciliation and alarmism as its motive forces. The old Soviet ideology had spoken powerfully to the "have-nots" of the world; the new ideology sought, in addition, to play on both the highest hopes and the most worrisome concerns of the "haves." As Gorbachev stated in Perestroika, "For the first time in history, basing international politics on moral and ethical norms that are common to all humankind ... has become a vital requirement." (p. 141)