The Foreign Service Journal, November 2019

28 NOVEMBER 2019 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL I have never seen a piece of paper move as fast as that memo did. We got it cleared and sent it to Secretary Baker within 90 minutes. In my 34-year career, I have never seen a piece of paper move as fast as that memo did. We got it cleared and sent it to Secretary Baker within 90 minutes. A courier drove it to his home, got his signature and then drove it to the White House. (We didn't use email in those days.) We stayed in the office until mid-afternoon the next day, monitoring news reports and speaking to U.S. Embassy Moscow as the first reporting cables came in. It took three days for the coup to fail, but when it was over and Gorbachev returned to Moscow with his wife, Raisa, it was clear that nothing was going to be the same. Boris Yeltsin had taken full advantage of Gor- bachev’s absence and perceived weakness, establishing himself as the up-and-coming new leader. I went back to my new job a few days later and spent the next two years working on the breakup of Yugoslavia, the tragic war in Bosnia, the breakup of Czechoslovakia and the establish- ment of our first security relationships with former Warsaw Pact enemies. The USSR Is Gone Washington’s reluctance to accept the loss of the USSR was understandable. Since U.S. recognition of the Soviet regime in 1933, through the years of World War II and, most importantly, during the 44 years of the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet relation- ship was the cornerstone of our foreign policy. It was the central foundation on which the postwar world was built. It defined our defense posture and our aspirations for a more peaceful world. Starting in the 1960s, the United States and our NATO allies determined to try to achieve peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. This went by many names, from the period of the first arms control agreements in the 1960s through Kissinger’s détente in the 1970s, and then the rapid de-escalation of con- frontation once Gorbachev came to power. There was a fundamental problem with key assumptions dur- ing this period. While it was clearly right to pursue arms control and reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, and while the expansion of people-to-people ties and exchange programs can only be described as positive, the fundamental assumptions we oper- ated on during those years were wrong. One was that the Soviet Union was immutable: its existence was an unchangeable reality that we had to accept and come to terms with. Only a few “cap- tive nations” organizations and hard-core Cold Warriors rejected this consensus. The second was that most Soviet citizens accepted the USSR and their place in it despite horrific living standards and ongoing repression. How wrong this assumption was quickly became apparent as soon as the opportunity to leave or transform the USSR presented itself. The vast majority of the country headed for the exits—seemingly without regret at the time, although that assumption proved not quite correct in coming years. The legitimacy of the Soviet Union rested on several shaky pillars. One was the fact that from the beginning, it was the prod- uct of a conspiracy by a minority to seize power from the major- ity. Not just in Russia, where the main goal was to overcome the peasant majority, but in the non-Russian republics, as well, where Soviet power focused on denying national aspirations and continuing tsarist colonial policies. The sheer brutality of the Soviet experience left very little room for legitimacy when things got shaky in the late 1980s. Nearly everyone had a grandparent or great uncle or aunt who had been shot or sent to a labor camp. Few were untouched by the horrific nature of the Soviet regime, and memories were long. In Washington, however, there remained great reluctance to give up the stability and predictability of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry. When it finally did collapse, it was replaced by a brief period of euphoria and triumphalism that also caused problems further down the road. This was the period of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History,” of President George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order” and of the triumph of democracy and the Western way of life. Looking back, it seems hard to imagine that we expected all the republics of the former USSR to immediately become full- fledged liberal democracies, but we really did. Our recognition of the new states of the former USSR was preconditioned on a set of commitments, in writing, to free elections, freedom of speech and the full panoply of liberal freedoms. Great Expectations That’s not how it turned out in much of the former Soviet space. And the United States under several administrations quickly came to accept that some of the former Soviet republics were not going to be democratic anytime soon, and that our