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Changing Course

Changing Course: Ideas, Politics, and the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Sarah E. Mendelson
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 158
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  • Book Info
    Changing Course
    Book Description:

    Soviet foreign policy changed dramatically in the 1980s. The shift, bitterly resisted by the country's foreign policy traditionalists, ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. InChanging Course, Sarah Mendelson demonstrates that interpretations that stress the impact of the international system, and particularly of U.S. foreign policy, or that focus on the role of ideas or politics alone, fail to explain the contingent process of change. Mendelson tells a story of internal battles where "misfit" ideas--ones that severely challenged the status quo--were turned into policies. She draws on firsthand interviews with those who ran Soviet foreign policy and the war in Afghanistan and on recently declassified material from Soviet archives to show that both ideasandpolitical strategies were needed to make reform happen.

    Focusing on the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, Mendelson details the strategies used by the Gorbachev coalition to shift the internal balance of power in favor of constituencies pushing new ideas--mutual security, for example--while undermining the power of old constituencies resistant to change. The interactive dynamic between ideas and politics that she identifies in the case of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is fundamental to understanding other shifts in Soviet foreign policy and the end of the Cold War. Her exclusive interviews with the foreign policy elite also offer a unique glimpse of the inner workings of the former Soviet power structure.

    Originally published in 1998.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6482-9
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface: Encounters with a Declining Power
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-2)
  6. CHAPTER ONE Introduction: How the New Thinkers Beat the Old Thinkers
    (pp. 3-17)

    The roar of the collapsing empire caught most who studied international relations and the Soviet Union by surprise. Scholars in these fields had focused for several decades on stability, both in the international system and in the Soviet Union. Many Western critics of Soviet foreign policy considered any retreat impossible. The continuation of the war in Afghanistan, for example, was viewed by most observers as fundamental to Soviet national interests.¹

    While many fault scholars for their failure to predict such changes, this obscures the main puzzle.² Observers were not necessarily wrong in their perceptions. Change in Soviet foreign policy and...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Explaining Change in Soviet Foreign Policy: Three Competing Arguments
    (pp. 18-38)

    Several competing approaches drawn from international relations theory attempt to describe and explain to varying degrees the changes in Soviet policy in the late 1980s. Most explanations stress the role of the international system—either the specific nature of the system, or the influence of lessons learned from the behavior of specific states or from transnational groups of experts.¹ These explanations do not match the evidence drawn from Soviet sources; it shows that the role of the international system was indeterminant, and highlights the importance of political struggles between old thinkers and reformists inside the state. Explanations that do point...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Escalation in Afghanistan, 1979–1980: A Case of Old Thinking
    (pp. 39-64)

    As one policy maker in Moscow put it, “you have to understand the intervention if you are going to understand the withdrawal.”¹ One could add, one needs to understand “old thinking” in order to appreciate the boldness of new thinking. The decision making process surrounding the intervention displays the conceptions of competitive security and the highly centralized policy process that characterized the old thinking against which the Gorbachev coalition would later fight. The Gorbachev cohort’s emphasis on domestic restructuring, international reintegration, and consultations with experts were direct responses to Brezhnev’s policies that resulted in corruption at home and imperial overreach...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Groundwork for Change, 1982–1984: Old Thinkers Rule but New Thinkers Are Mobilized
    (pp. 65-91)

    The centralized decision making process and the traditional conceptions of national security that led to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan were not unique to that case. Soviet decision making in the late 1970s and early 1980s regarding all policy issues, foreign and domestic, was highly centralized and driven by old thinking. It was also corrupt. Under Brezhnev, the leadership attempted to satisfy different constituencies’ competing demands. As Thane Gustafson noted, “to the Party apparatus, [Brezhnev] offered privileges and stability; to the military-industrial elite, growing budgets and professional autonomy; to the non-Russian politicians, affirmative action and a blind eye to corruption;...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Changing the Political Agenda, 1985–1989: New Thinkers Gain Control of Political Resources
    (pp. 92-123)

    In the early 1980s, Gorbachev and other like-minded members of the Soviet leadership tapped into the reformist ideas proposed by various domestic and foreign policy specialists. By the mid-1980s, reformers in the leadership used these ideas to influence the development of traditional and nontraditional institutions. The restructuring and evolution of old and new institutions—perestroika,in its essence—proved an important central strategy in shifting the internal balance of power in favor of new thinkers. Mikhail Gorbachev and his cohort implemented personnel changes in the central institutions of power such as the Politburo and the Central Committee. But just as...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Conclusion: The Importance of Ideas and Politics in Explaining Change
    (pp. 124-132)

    In this book, I have argued that internal political battles between old and new thinkers concerning the direction of domestic and foreign policy are central to understanding the long, withdrawing roar of the Soviet empire in the 1980s. Three periods—1979–80, 1982–84, and 1985–89—of the war in Afghanistan function as case studies that highlight the conditions necessary for change in policy: the articulation of reformist ideas by a wide range of experts, and a responsive leadership that turned the ideas into policy following a shift in the internal balance of power.

    What was different about the...

  12. Index
    (pp. 133-140)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 141-141)