Russian History


New Thinking: Foreign Policy under Gorbachev

"New Thinking" was Gorbachev's slogan for a foreign policy based on shared moral and ethical principles to solve global problems rather than on Marxist-Leninist concepts of irreconcilable conflict between capitalism and communism. Rather than flaunt Soviet military power, Gorbachev chose to exercise political influence, ranging from the enhancement of diplomatic relations and economic cooperation to personally greeting the public in spur-of-the-moment encounters at home and abroad. Gorbachev used the world media skillfully and made previously unimaginable concessions in the resolution of regional conflicts and arms negotiations. In addition to helping the Soviet Union gain wider acceptance among the family of nations, the New Thinking's conciliatory policies toward the West and the loosening of Soviet control over Eastern Europe ultimately led to the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War.

United States-Soviet relations began to improve soon after Gorbachev became general secretary. The first summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev took place in Geneva in November 1985. The following October, the two presidents discussed strategic arms reduction in Reykjavik, without making significant progress. In the late summer of 1987, the Soviet Union yielded on the long-standing issue of intermediate-range nuclear arms in Europe; at the Washington summit that December, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty--see Glossary), eliminating all intermediate- and shorter-range missiles from Europe. In April 1988, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an accord, with the United States and Soviet Union as guarantors, calling for withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan by February 1989. The Soviet Union subsequently met the accord's deadline for withdrawal.

Gorbachev also assiduously pursued closer relations with China. Improved Sino-Soviet relations had long depended on the resolution of several issues, including Soviet support for the Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the large numbers of Soviet troops and weapons deployed along China's northern border. Soviet moves to resolve these issues led the Chinese government to agree to a summit meeting with Gorbachev in Beijing in May 1989, the first since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s.

Soviet relations with Europe improved markedly during the Gorbachev period, mainly because of the INF Treaty and Soviet acquiescence to the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe during 1989-90. Since the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union had adhered to the Brezhnev Doctrine upholding the existing order in socialist states. Throughout the first half of Gorbachev's rule, the Soviet Union continued this policy, but in July 1989, in a speech to the Council of Europe (see Glossary), Gorbachev insisted on "the sovereign right of each people to choose their own social system," a formulation that fell just short of repudiating the Brezhnev Doctrine. By then, however, the Soviet Union's control over its outer empire already was showing signs of disintegration.

That June the communist regime in Poland had held relatively free parliamentary elections, and the communists had lost every contested seat. In Hungary the communist regime had steadily accelerated its reforms, rehabilitating Imre Nagy, the reform communist leader of the 1956 uprising, and dismantling fortifications along Hungary's border with Austria. At the end of the summer, East German vacationers began escaping to the West through this hole in the Iron Curtain. They also poured into the West German embassy in Prague. The East German state began to hemorrhage as thousands of its citizens sought a better and freer life in the West.

With the East German government under increasing pressure to stem the outflow, East Germans who stayed behind demonstrated on the streets for reform. When the ouster of East German communist party leader Honecker failed to restore order, the authorities haphazardly opened the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The same night the Berlin Wall fell, the Bulgarian Communist Party deposed its longtime leader, Todor Zhivkov. Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia embarked on its "Velvet Revolution," quietly deposing the country's communist leaders. At an impromptu summit meeting in Malta in December 1989, Gorbachev and United States president George H.W. Bush declared an end to the Cold War.

Throughout 1990 and 1991, Soviet-controlled institutions in Eastern Europe were dismantled. At the January 1990 Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon--see Glossary) summit, several East European states called for disbanding that fundamental economic organization of the Soviet empire, and the summit participants agreed to recast their multilateral ties. At the next summit, in January 1991, Comecon dissolved itself. In March 1990, Gorbachev called for converting the Warsaw Pact to a political organization, but instead the body officially disbanded in July 1991. Soviet troops were withdrawn from Central Europe over the next four years--from Czechoslovakia and Hungary by mid-1991 and from Poland in 1993. By midsummer 1990, Gorbachev and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl had worked out an agreement by which the Soviet Union acceded to a unified Germany within NATO.

By the June 1990 Washington summit, the United States-Soviet relationship had improved to such an extent that Gorbachev characterized it as almost a "partnership" between the two countries, and President Bush noted that the relationship had "moved a long, long way from the depths of the Cold War." In August 1990, the Soviet Union joined the United States in condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and supported United Nations resolutions to restore Kuwait's sovereignty. In November 1990, the United States, the Soviet Union, and most of the European states signed the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE Treaty--see Glossary), making reductions in battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, and fighter aircraft "from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains."

During the Gorbachev years, improvements in United States-Soviet relations were not without complications. For example, in 1991 Soviet envoy Yevgeniy Primakov's attempted mediation of the Kuwait conflict threatened to undercut the allied coalition's demand that Iraq withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait. After the signing of the CFE Treaty, disputes arose over Soviet compliance with the treaty and the Soviet military's efforts to redesignate weapons or move them so that they would not be subject to the treaty's terms. United States pressure led to the resolution of these issues, and the CFE Treaty entered into force in 1992. The Soviet crackdown on Baltic independence movements in January 1991 also slowed the improvement of relations with the United States.

By the summer of 1991, the United States-Soviet relationship showed renewed signs of momentum, when Bush and Gorbachev met in Moscow to sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I--see Glossary). Under START, for the first time large numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles were slated for elimination. The treaty foresaw a reduction of approximately 35 percent in United States ballistic missile warheads and about 50 percent in Soviet ballistic missile warheads within seven years of treaty ratification. Gorbachev recently had attended the Group of Seven (G-7; see Glossary) summit to discuss his proposals for Western aid. Gorbachev also established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and, in the waning days of the Soviet Union's existence, Israel.

Gorbachev's foreign policy won him much praise and admiration. For his efforts to reduce superpower tensions around the world, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990. Ironically, as a result of frequent rumors of a conservative coup, the leader of the Soviet empire, whose previous rulers had kept opposition figures Lech Walesa and Andrey Sakharov from collecting their Nobel prizes, was unable to collect his own until June 1991.