Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Soviet-like demise on the horizon?

Mikhail Gorbachev, 1987

Tom Engelhardt is one of the best at providing badly-needed critical perspective on United States foreign and military policy. But his Call the Politburo, We’re in Trouble: Entering the Soviet Era in America TomDispatch 06/15/2010 doesn't quite measure up to his usual standard.

The USSR had been heading for the exits for quite a while, not that official Washington had a clue. At the moment it happened, Soviet "experts" like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (then director of the CIA) still expected the Cold War to go on and on. In Washington, eyes were trained on the might of the Soviet military, which the Soviet leadership had never stopped feeding, even as its sclerotic bureaucracy was rotting, its economy (which had ceased to grow in the late 1970s) was tanking, budget deficits were soaring, indebtedness to other countries was growing, and social welfare payments were eating into what funds remained. Not even a vigorous, reformist leader like Mikhail Gorbachev could staunch the rot, especially when, in the late 1980s, the price of Russian oil fell drastically.

Looking back, the most distinctive feature of the last years of the Soviet Union may have been the way it continued to pour money into its military -- and its military adventure in Afghanistan -- when it was already going bankrupt and the society it had built was beginning to collapse around it. In the end, its aging leaders made a devastating miscalculation. They mistook military power for power on this planet. Armed to the teeth and possessing a nuclear force capable of destroying the Earth many times over, the Soviets nonetheless remained the vastly poorer, weaker, and (except when it came to the arms race) far less technologically innovative of the two superpowers. [my emphasis]
As a comparison to the US in 2010, this has some problems.

Whatever he means in saying that the Soviets' "sclerotic bureaucracy was rotting", I don't know what meaningful application such a description would have to our current governmental and political institutions. Their vision and imaginations may be severely impaired. But they did manage to pull the national and world economy back from the precipice of a second Great Depression in 2008-9. The fact that they are more focused on comforting the comfortable, especially the already very comfortable, shows they have bad priorities, but not hardening of the arteries.

The US economy isn't tanking, though it's seriously ailing at the moment. I don't see any reason to assume that it faces problems comparable to those of the Soviet bloc in the 1980s.

Our budget deficits are soaring, but that's a good thing in the current economic situation.

Our foreign indebtedness is growing, but so what? It presents no danger to the US economy in itself.

And the problem of "social welfare payments ... eating into what funds remained," well, I wish we had a lot more of that problem.

He does provide some provocative observations about the course of Obama's foreign and military policies. but Engelhardt's Soviet comparison in this article is more of a literary device than actual analysis. This, for instance, isn't bad in that context:

Drunk on war as Washington may be, the U.S. is still not the Soviet Union in 1991 -- not yet. But it’s not the triumphant “sole superpower” anymore either. Its global power is visibly waning, its ability to win wars distinctly in question, its economic viability open to doubt. It has been transformed from a can-do into a can’t-do nation, a fact only highlighted by the ongoing BP catastrophe and “rescue” in the Gulf of Mexico. Its airports are less shiny and more Third World-like every year. Unlike France or China, it has not a mile of high-speed rail. And when it comes to the future, especially the creation and support of innovative industries in alternative energy, it’s chasing the pack. It is increasingly a low-end service economy, losing good jobs that will never return.
But then he follows it up directly with:

And if its armies come home in defeat... watch out.
Watch out for what? For angry veterans to storm the Winter Palace? For investment bankers and corporate lobbyists to lay down their checkbooks and all go to work for the Peace Corps?

Past experiences both in the US and in other parts of the world certainly show that rapid and widely-unexpected changes in the political landscape are possible. But they are also rare. And I just don't see the signs of the kind of "revolution by implosion" that took down the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc states in 1989-91.


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