The Third World Under Western Eyes

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

Gregory Elliott

From Kabul to Managua:
Soviet-American Relations in the 1980s
By Fred Halliday
New York, Pantheon, 1989, $12.95.

IN THESE NEW times scarcely a day passes without a proclamation heralding the end of the Cold War and the arrival of One World. On the right, the triumph of glasnost and perestroika in the second world signal an exhausted Soviet Union’s belated recognition of the bankruptcy of socialism and the superiority of capitalism. Combined with the first world’s vigorous rearmament, the result is an Evil Empire being inexorably rolled back and a constantly expanding Free World, as East and West set course for convergence rather than collision.

Elsewhere, the advent of Gorbachev and the ensuing structural reform of “actually existing socialism” are perceived as developments that have arrested the spiraling arms race, defused the virulent anti-communism that marked the early years of the decade and forced the United States to negotiate in good faith with its historic antagonist.

In this view, the Cold War is ending because two overextended and exhausted superpowers have been compelled by domestic imperatives to be at an imperial retreat. Consequently, the bipolarity of the postwar European order is being replaced by the prospect of popular self-determination from the Atlantic to the Urals.

One does not have to be a Jesse Helms or a Yegor Ligachev to find holes in both of these scenarios. As Fred Halliday demonstrates in this typically cogent and incisive essay on Soviet-American relations, the euphoria surrounding “international glasnost is premature, where it is not disingenuous (“One World, One Myth” is the title of his astringent introduction).

Whatever its partial truths, Halliday dissents from the emerging consensus on the grounds that its underlying analysis does not withstand inspection. Such an analysis, Halliday contends, focuses upon one component of the superpowers’ global contest, nuclear arsenals, to the virtual exclusion of a second, less tractable area — conflicts in the Third World; and when it does address the latter, assumes them to be wholly derivative of East-West rivalry.

Cautioning that the causes of the Third World upheavals are primarily indigenous, Halliday argues that they are therefore liable to endure irrespective of Soviet-American rapprochement Additionally, he questions the nonchalance with which sections of the Western left inflate a laudable anti-Stalinism into an injudicious anti-Sovietism, fallaciously equating the Soviet Union and the United States as two contending superpowers similarly hostile to an independent, socialist Europe and deliverance of the Third World from imperialism. As Halliday has consistently maintained, such a position is utterly misconceived.

Abroad no less than at home, the Soviet record has been a contradictory, but on balance progressive one; there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by reducing it to a replica of the United States.

Such anti-Soviet hysteria contributed to the success with which the American Empire, buffeted by a decade of numerous revolutions in the South and the “post-Vietnam” syndrome at home, struck back. Galvanized by the toppling of the Shah from the Peacock Throne and the expulsion of Somoza from its backyard in 1979, alarmed by the Soviet Union’s attainment of nuclear parity in the age of detente, the United States had already mobilized for the second Cold War prior to the accession of a president of the radical right.

Assiduously massaged by the media, public opinion in the West had shifted significantly since the mid-1970s. By the turn of the decade, anti-imperialist solidarity had, with notable exceptions (over Nicaragua and South Africa, for example) been eroded by the direction many of these newly “liberated” countries followed. In part this erosion was an understandable reaction to the numerous instances of red terror and fratricidal strife — let alone sheer mass murder in the case of Democratic Kampuchea — that so tarnished the image of socialism.

An additional factor, however, lay in previous reveries — excessive expectations of the revolutionary potential in the South amidst a pervasive scarcity that inevitably circumscribed the possibilities of social transformation. Disabused of the revolutionary romance they had naively projected onto these regions, some erstwhile Third Woridists now recoiled from the reality, either into inaction or renunciation. They thereby played their part in the diffusion of an amnesia about, or mere indifference to, the calamitous plight of the majority of humanity.

Indeed, as Halliday remarks in some of his finest, most indignant pages, at a time when reduced aid, declining terms of trade, crippling debt burden, and the ministrations of the International Monetary Fund were intensifying the permanent emergency that was the lot of “the wretched of the earth,’ a solipsistic and narcissistic culture of conspicuous consumption flourished in the West.

At all events, a striking feature of the 1980s was the comparative ease with which the resurgent United States could portray the woes of Third World countries that had the effrontery to decline the Pax Americana as self-induced by base bureaucrats, mad mullahs, or Soviet stooges; could, undercover of an artificial distinction between authoritarian (free market; good) and totalitarian (anti-capitalist; bad) regimes, enlist substantial support for the ensuing Reaganite jihad; and could, by fanning hysteria over terrorism, engage in a far more bloody state version of the same.

Undaunted by the expanding budget deficit, Congress sanctioned an unprecedented arms build-up and overcame its short-lived scruples about intervention in the Third World. Reluctance to risk commitment of “our boys” produced the Reagan doctrine, dissected by Halliday in an excellent chapter, whereby counter-insurgency largely ceded to low-intensity conflict, pm-insurgency and covert action.

There were direct interventions, of course, the proud traditions of American militarism being preserved by the raining of destruction on Beirut and Panama City, the bombing of soft targets in Tripoli the downing of an Iranian airliner over the Gulf – all in the name of anti-terrorism and peace-keeping. Otherwise, arms and advisers were copiously furnished to sustain sympathetic states menaced by revolution, while the furies of imperialism, in the shape of motley “freedom fighters” and their CIA familiars, descended to ravage those states that had experienced revolution.

The cumulative toll taken by the reassertion of U.S. power — in Central America, Southern Africa, and South-East Asia —was, as Halliday reminds us, quite simply appalling. Nicaragua, bled white by the tenth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, was only the most visible of its victims. If the Empire’s onslaught did not succeed in the eradication of revolutions, it did achieve its secand goal: their containment.

Furthermore, relentless American pressure —combined with the economic retardation of the USSR and the COMECON states, fissures within Eastern Europe, and the seeming military impasse reached in various regional conflicts — stimulated the Soviet leadership’s “new thinking” on international relations, which is now bearing its first, ambiguous fruits. With socialism on the defensive in the second as well as the Third World, Moscow became increasingly willing to reach accommodations on regional issues beyond its borders so that it might more fully address the growing problems within them.

But the scale of the Soviet retreat should not be exaggerated. The Soviet Union’s readiness to engage its allies along the path of “national reconciliation” has not as yet placed any of them in an untenable position and is not necessarily the prelude to their abandonment Nor does it concede the permanence of the rapacious exploitation and oppression in the South that prompted indigenous revolutions there in the first place — and will, as Joaquin Villabos of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has contended recently, continue to do so, regardless of East-West detente, until the “structural problems of the region find a solution” (Universidad, April 1989).

Nevertheless, the compromises involved are real ones. Thus the Red Army, in compliance with the Geneva accords, withdrew punctually from Afghanistan, even as the forces of Islamic fundamentalism, fueled by the United States and Pakistan’s systematic violations of the same accords, gathered at the gates of Jalalabad Vietnam proceeded to pull its troops out of Kampuchea, even as its enemies continued to indulge the Khmer Rouge; the Southwest Africa Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO), although imperiled by the operations of South Africa’s counterinsurgency unit, the Koevot, adhered to the terms of a U.N. agreement occasioned by South Africa’s humiliating military defeat at Cuito Cuanvale. It is, then, by no means clear that the Soviet willingness to compromise is going to be reciprocated.

In this context, what does the future hold for the Cold War and the Third World? Insofar as the Gorbachev phenomenon represents the attempted renewal of socialism – and not some restoration of capitalism — the underlying rivalry (economic, political and ideological) between the Soviet Union and the United States is not about to end. As Halliday persuasively argues, Moscow’s partial disengagement from some of its regional conflicts should not obscure its systemic persistence.

Were an adroit Gorbachev and his colleagues to prosper, were the post-capitalist state over which they preside to advance beyond actually existing socialism, the “red menace” might, paradoxically enough, be enhanced, even if it is inconceivable that the USSR will ever again be regarded as a desirable model for socialism in the West Currently the reform program is uncertain of success and may well go the way of Khrushchev’s, courtesy of Soviet party and peoples. But whatever the outcome, it will have a decisive influence on strategic orientations in the Third World.

In conclusion to what is far and away the best guide to Soviet-American relations that we possess, Halliday considers eventualities for the 1990s: the chimera of a peaceful joint dominion, the exaggerated benefits of harmonious interdependence; the liberal pieties of non-intervention, American interventionism untrammeled by Soviet counter-moves. Should the last named prevail, then the Western rhetoric of One World would be seen for what it is — honey on a sharp knife, as they say in Tibet.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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