Sarah E. Mendelson. Changing Course: Ideas, Politics and The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. xiii + 140 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-691-01677-1.
Reviewed by Stephanie Wilson McConnell (Department of History, Bowling Green State University)
Published on H-Russia (December, 1999)
Ideas First, Diplomacy Second: The Changes in Soviet Foreign Policy
Sarah Mendelson provides scholars of Soviet foreign policy with a wonderfully insightful work, offering an analysis not only of why Moscow changed its political course in the late 1980s, but also of how the leadership managed to initiate the changes. Mendelson uses the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, after a bloody ten-year war in that country, to illustrate the changes that occurred in the Kremlin between the late 1970s and the late 1980s. Her study focuses primarily on the role of ideas in the changing politics of the Soviet Union throughout the Afghan conflict, beginning with the period of escalation from 1979-1980, continuing with the changing perceptions on the war in Afghanistan from 1982-84, and finally concluding with the triumph of the Gorbachev coalition and his politics from 1985-89.
One of Mendelson's most important assertions holds that the domestic politics of the Soviet Union determined Moscow's decision to change its foreign policy from one of aggression to one of concession in the late 1980s. By tracing the increasing role of the expert (i.e., academic) communities in Soviet policymaking, Mendelson shows how the Gorbachev coalition was able to win influence in domestic policy over the "old thinkers," who continued to believe that the Soviet Union's greatest threat came from the United States and western capitalism. In fact, she argues, contrary to the writings of neo-realists in the United States, that the international pressures on Kremlin leaders by Western powers made it more difficult for Soviet leaders to reverse their aggressive policies.
Mendelson begins her examination of the Soviet change in foreign policy by explaining the decisions that led Kremlin leaders to intervene in Afghanistan in 1979. She contends that the "old thinkers" within Moscow politics won the domestic political debates that contributed to the decision to escalate. Although international and regional factors played a minor role, Mendelson holds that it was the "old thinkers'" maintenance of the ideal that revolutionary solidarity and internationalism should remain the driving force of Soviet foreign policy. Mendelson notes that the decision to intervene in Afghanistan followed a pattern of the old thinking, wherein there was no expert participation and wherein the leaders' access to information was limited. Ultimately, the domestic balance of power favored the old thinkers.
Next, Mendelson examines the ideas that changed the course of the war in Afghanistan, and Soviet foreign policy in general, from 1982-84. While the "old thinkers" continued to dominate policymaking during this period, the importance of the ideas of experts grew in their influence on policies. For example, she demonstrates how Mikhail S. Gorbachev became influenced by the permissive attitudes of Yuri Andropov. Under orders from Andropov, Gorbachev made important contacts with critical thinkers outside the Party apparatus. It was these thinkers whom Gorbachev would later bring into policymaking, and who encouraged the change in the political agenda of the late 1980s. Mendelson also asserts that during this period international pressure undermined the agenda and influence of the "new thinkers." Because the United States and its allies continued to take a militant Cold War stance toward the Soviet actions in Afghanistan, and continued to support the mujahideen, the "old thinkers" were able, with their control of the political arena, to encourage continued activity in Afghanistan.
Finally, Mendelson examines the victory of the "new thinkers" and the Gorbachev coalition. By building up traditional bases of power, such as within the Central Committee, and non-traditional bases of power, such as within the expert community, Gorbachev was able to increase the pressure on the "old thinkers" and establish withdrawal from Afghanistan as a political agenda item. Because the support for withdrawal was overwhelming, the "old thinkers" could ill-afford to continue the war. Once again, Mendelson argues that it was not international, but rather domestic pressure that forced Moscow's hand. Only after Gorbachev implemented domestic reforms that allowed public denunciation of government policies could he chart a new course in foreign policy. Mendelson, ultimately, argues that it was the increased role of experts, and their ideas on Soviet politics, that contributed to its new policies and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Mendelson provides an intelligent alternative to the neo-realist approach, assessing the changes in Soviet foreign policy at the end of the 1980s. She uses newly released Soviet documents and interviews with the individuals involved in the Afghan war, to argue that the domestic rivalries determined the course of the war and Soviet foreign policy. The importance of this work is that it places these internal power struggles as the primary factors in those decisions. Although Mendelson does not ignore the role of the international system in determining foreign policies, she places it farther back in the minds of policymakers. It is a good starting point for both historians and political scientist interested in the policies of the former Soviet Union, and the role of ideas in them.
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Stephanie Wilson McConnell. Review of Mendelson, Sarah E., Changing Course: Ideas, Politics and The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan.
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