By 1985, the Soviet Union was in a manifold crisis. The Soviet’s had faced decades of economic stagnation that had become obviously systemic. State planning targets were regularly missed. Goods produced in the Soviet Union were never as desirable as those produced in Czechoslovakia or East Germany. Furthermore, the USSR was faced with the daunting prospect of a computerized revolution in just about every aspect of life; from manufacturing to retail to weapons. This deficiency was given political life in the debate over SDI. The cries from the Kremlin were that this was a dangerous step toward strategic superiority. The reality was that it was a development the Soviets could not match or steal. They had a single option left to them, and Gorbachev was willing and able to embrace it: abrogate some commitments.
Gorbachev and Shevardnadze’s much touted ‘new thinking’ did not evolve spontaneously. While Glasnost and Perestroika are celebrated domestic policies, in the West at least, little is known of the Gorbachev foreign policy doctrine: retrenchment. The fundamental tenant of retrenchment was to provide the political impetus to redefine the areas that the Soviet’s had previously been willing to commit military resources towards and thus reduce the military budget. The military was ‘cannibalizing’ the consumer economy and so it had to be scaled back. The easiest way to do this was to make friends of your enemies and, at the same time, tell your friends to make other arrangements for their own security. To this end Gorbachev shunned the CMEA (Comicon), told the embarrassing “the little Stalins” of Eastern Europe to embrace reforms or face abandonment and made many public overtures to the West. The writing on the wall was clear: the arms race is over, we lost.
This redefinition of foreign policy priorities provided the political basis to justify the retrenching of Soviet troops. The reduced threat from the US and NATO meant that Gorbachev could reduce Soviet troops abroad, withdraw from Afghanistan and engage in bilateral arms control treaties without inflaming his Red Army constituency. That Gorbachev’s generals did not go along quietly with this plan should not have come as a surprise, but it was Gorbachev’s lot that he had to make the attempt. The Soviet Union had an entitlement state to provide for; the largest in rhetorical commitments in all of history, and the military was consuming that budget and providing diminishing returns. While the General Secretary of the CPSU could not outright demand unilateral disarmament, it had not choice but to attempt it. This is the policy the U.S. is following today.
The United States is retrenching. The U.S. is actively alienating its allies and opening up to its traditional and self-declared adversaries. It is laying the ground work for the ultimate justification to scale back military commitments to the world at large. The United State’s military presence abroad provides the world a convenient way to avoid the historical compulsion to establish regional hegemony. Europe secretly loves our military providing their security against Russia and, some may even whisper, a large and powerful Germany, constrained now only by the untested principles of post-modernist Euro-ism. China is perfectly happy to have American troops holding South Korean and Japan in check. The Saudi’s don’t mind having a relaxed military budget so long as there is a reliable commitment from the U.S. for their defense. The Administration, no doubt, has domestic priorities that supersede foreign policy objectives. However, even this Administration realizes that it has to pay its way as it goes. Retrenchment will provide the justification to spend more at home than it does abroad.
There are constituencies in this country that will not be happy with retrenchment, and while this country does not have a tradition of military coups like Russia does, and a Seven Days in May scenario is hard to envision, some will react negatively to such a scaling back of our traditional military superiority. President Obama watched as the military was rebuilt under George W. Bush and Clinton’s justified efforts to reduce a monolithic military-industrial complex were undone overnight. He will not repeat what he views as Clinton’s mistake. He has embarked on a path that will give this country no choice: create an unfunded entitlement state that will force the government to make the hard choice to take a large part of the defense budget away forever.
Retrenchment did not end well for the Soviet Union. While the U.S. is in no immediate danger of collapse, the parallels between the America of today and the Soviet Union of yesterday are clear. Make your friends find other friends and make your enemies a bit friendlier, then ask your government if a military greater than the next seven world powers combined is really necessary. The answer will be no. The world, however, does not stop moving and, while all things must cease, when the Pax Americana ends it will be mourned.