What the EU Can Learn From the Debate on Rollback, 1947-1954

March 17, 2014

Between the late 1940s and the early 1950s there was an acrimonious debate in Washington around the question of political warfare or psychological warfare against the Soviet Bloc which is documented in great detail in Gregory Mitrovich’s Undermining the Kremlin.  The key issue was how far can we push Stalin through support for anti-Communist guerillas, incitement of political resistance, support for dissidence in the Bloc before we create an unacceptable risk of a major war? The estimate of this distance was rapidly reduced by the development of Soviet nuclear forces.  By the end of the Truman Administration some of the hawks in this debate were jumping ship to join Eisenhower’s campaign for the presidency only for them to be disappointed when Ike reached even more cautious conclusions.  Whatever the public rhetoric of rollback or liberation these ideas were dead in the NSC by the end of 1953 or early 1954 at the latest.  Rollback was dead long before Hungary.  I’m not saying that we’re in the same situation as Truman and Eisenhower were but there’s something quite important that can be learned from this debate.

This debate was asking about how far can we pursue our political objectives before we get a forceful pushback from Moscow.  It’s was  strategy – weighing ends, means, risks and what the other side is likely to do.  In Ukraine and in East generally the EU has essentially set out to erode the Russian sphere of influence without thinking through these connections between ends, means or reactions.   Of course the EU line (and that of the West more broadly) ‘is this is the 21st century there’s no such thing as spheres of interest’.  This is basically the argument about harmony of interests that EH Carr or Bruno Latour have argued against: we pretend politics doesn’t exist and then get surprised when people get upset.

When we look to the East and talk about ‘modernization’, ‘civil society’ etc we are talking about the overthrow of the political systems as they exist.  Randomly pledging support for whoever waves an EU flag is not going to do the job.  As a starting point what is needed is a comprehensive political roadmap that either reached some understanding with Russia on the balance of interests or was backed up by sufficient power compel agreement.  Indeed even if there was such a comprehensive plan I would have grave doubts about the capacity of the EU or the West to implement it.  Given that states can’t coordinate themselves the EU isn’t going to be able to.

A final point. I’m pretty sure that in most Western capitals there is a hope that Putin and his cronies will disappear one day.  I suspect they will but whoever replaces them will still be a Russian leader and will not suddenly see the world through the lens of Brussels.



  1. Thank you for that! One little point, though. When you write (lengthy quote):

    “Of course the EU line is ‘this is the 21st century there’s no such thing as spheres of interest’. This is basically the argument about harmony of interests that EH Carr or Bruno Latour have argued against: we pretend politics doesn’t exist and then get surprised when people get upset.”

    The big problem here is that you hold EU institutions accountable to the same standard as its member-states. The EU as an institutional framework, Commission and the like, does not have anything else at its disposal than non-political, technical instruments at its disposal – because the member-states will not give it a political existence. To be very short, the Commission cannot think in terms of spheres of interest or political balance, because it is not part of its brief. The EU has been programmed by its member-states as a refined technical instrument, that should ABSOLUTELY NOT dabble in politics, this holy reservation where only the member-states, anointed with sovereignty and jealous of their prerogatives, can dwell. The EU’s institutions do not “get” politics because they are specifically forbidden to do so by the member-states.

    That is the EU’s dilemma: no single EU state is big enough to push this balance of power arrangement you mention; on the other hand governments and public opinions block the EU from becoming a political organization that could hatch such an arrangement.

    Sorry for being long-winded, and of course the point is not to lecture you on EU politics – something you know as well as I. But there is a point here that gets easily swept aside in discussions of the EU’s capacity to act.

  2. Thanks Louis. Absolutely take your point. But I also think that this is case that the EU perspective fits very much with the wider pathologies of Western (Anglo-Saxon?) statecraft with its ideological confidence and misplaced confidence in the effectiveness of modernization.

    I’m also wondering whether from the point of view of the member states the EU is new UN in the sense that you get rid of issues that are too difficult by handing them over to the UN. European states turn to the EU as a way of avoiding responsibility and what you get out is less than the sum of its parts.

  3. Robin,
    I absolutely agree with your second point – and deplore bitterly this state of affairs.
    On the first, though, it might be good to introduce a dichotomy between the diplomatic actions of Western leaders and their public stands. We are not bombing the Kremlin here, neither is the US leadership ready for even rollback against Putin’s Russia. But they need to talk tall, because this modernization ethos you talk about is what their societies are built on. We want them to be knights of social and political modernity.

  4. …Which, if one thinks about it, links to public diplomacy: like all elements of a state’s diplomacy, the image projected by this state should match at least partially domestic preferences.

  5. Absolutely. In thinking about the external relations of the USSR it’s normal to note the political duality between state and party but Western states have their own version of this in the tension between a foreign policy of modernization/democratization and a more conventional diplomacy.. I think that we have to work out how to manage this tension better.

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