Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist – installment one

These days of coronavirus related lock-down in Brussels have had the benefit of my finally closing my door to the great number of distractions outside the home that beckoned in normal times and instead to spend hour after hour transcribing my six linear meter archive of diaries, correspondence, newspaper clippings in preparation for writing two volumes of memoirs.

The first will be devoted to the expatriate community in Petersburg and Moscow when I was a card-carrying member of management for multinationals setting up in Russia during the period 1994 to 2002. The times were extraordinary, and the newcomers to Russia were among the most ambitious and talented young people of the age. Moreover, their numbers were significant: over 100,000 families in Moscow alone.

The second volume will follow the more traditional, less concentrated pattern of ‘my life and times’ from childhood to retirement.  Among the more interesting single documents from among the several meters of archive files that will be used in the second volume is the following letter I composed during theU.S. presidential race of 1984. With a sidewise glance at today’s candidacy of Joe Biden, I believe it fits the rule of folk wisdom that ‘what goes around comes around.’


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 A letter to Walter Mondale dated 27 August 1984

Subject: Managing Foreign Policy

Your selection of Ms. Geraldine Ferraro as your running mate in the November presidential election demonstrates your ability to rise above tradition, to take reasonable risks while pursuing what you believe is both right and politically timely. May we hope that you will also be open-minded and bold in dealing with the deadly serious questions of war and peace.

The Democratic Party electoral platform advances a foreign policy plank whose virtues are easily arguable. Nonintervention in foreign disputes that are peripheral to US interests, withdrawal from untenable positions now held abroad, great emphasis on reigning in the arms race. All of these notions are reasonable taken separately. But in the absence of an overarching policy which reckons with the central factor in world affairs of our times, these points cannot succeed.

This central issue is the USSR’s striving for US recognition as equal arbiter of the fate of the world. Only political accommodation with the Soviet Union can assure the peace. Arms control and constructive great power cooperation to resolve regional disputes will follow from and not lead to that political accommodation.

The Soviets cannot be dealt with at arm’s length. President Carter’s hope that we could go our own way, draw closer to our traditional allies and let the Soviets stew in their own juice only aroused their aggressivity and condemned to failure his Administration’s exciting arms reduction proposals. The Soviets cannot be bullied into reasonableness. President Reagan’s arms buildup has not brought our adversaries to us on their knees. There is no sensible alternative to accommodation.

A policy of political rapprochement with the USSR must be boldly conceived and well crafted. It must be shaped by persons whose frame of reference goes well beyond the lawyer’s daily problem-solving, in –basket/out-basket turn of mind. It must be founded upon an historical sense of the current of world events, of where things are headed and what can be turned to our advantage by the exercise of will and intelligence. It must avoid narrowly technical solutions born of aseptic minds. In the foundation of global strategy alone can one hope to deal with an adversary who himself responds to events from the perspective of global strategy. This is not cynicism but creative use of power.

Historically important foreign policy decisions are no more risk-free than your choice of running mate. And a policy of accommodation with the Soviet Union will surely require risk taking, all the more so that it has been tried in the recent past under the name of détente and was dropped amid catcalls from a multitude of detractors. However, it is our only hope if we are to escape from the increasingly dangerous confrontation  course with the Soviets that we are now following.

I am not advocating a simple return to the détente policy of the 1970’s. President Nixon’s détente was not born in a vacuum. The international events at the time of its inception, the status and popularity of its midwives necessarily determined its specific characteristics and chances of success. The policy served President Nixon’s aim of restraining Soviet support for Hanoi so that we might prosecute the Vietnamese war to an acceptable settlement. It was burdened with the intense animosity that a large portion of the population felt for its authors due to that war, a fact which is especially relevant since those reviling Nixon should otherwise have been disposed to the essence of détente. And it was burdened with the failings of implementation that were characteristic of Nixon and his close associates and which are also to be understood in the context of the times: namely the President acted conspiratorially in foreign affairs, failed to inform the public on the costs of accommodation with the USSR and on practical limits to possible success. There was exaggerated optimism in the press over the political and commercial benefits of détente, followed by exaggerated disillusionment.

Nixon failed in his leadership role and détente foundered. The President was unable to deliver on his pledges to the Soviets. Amid the need for quick and easy foreign policy successes, Messrs Nixon and Kissinger pursued a course in the Mid-East which ran counter to the thesis of détente and sought to exclude the Soviets from one of the main areas of contention in the world. In Congress, President Nixon’s trade liberalization bill ran aground with the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Thus the Soviets were denied favorable access to American trade, technology, and investments, all of which had been intended to coax them into responsible behavior abroad. Then confusion in American political affairs during the Watergate crisis tempted the Soviets into flagrant adventurism in the Third World and irresponsible military build-up.

Notwithstanding these harsh words, there was much to détente which should be salvaged and integrated into a new foreign policy of accommodation. First, the recognition of the political nature of the contest with the USSR, hence of the chance for solutions of tension at the political level. Second, the recognition of dynamic change in the distribution of power in the world, the welcoming of the Soviets into the great power club and acceptance of their legitimate national interests.  Third, the idea of weaving a fabric of relations with the USSR which make ‘good behavior’ pay well for them and ‘misbehavior’ costly.

There can be no illusions that implementation of a policy of accommodation will be easy. The Russian bear hug itself can be embarrassing. There is an odious aspect to the Soviets’ wished-for parity: a condominium in which we jointly police the world and keep all lesser powers in their place. Such hegemonism is patently unacceptable to us. There is also the delicate problem of maintaining friendly ties with allies even while the               objectives of our alliance are undergoing re-definition. Because serious efforts at reaching an understanding with the Russians must inevitably place in question the existing military blocs and the validity of the post-war division of Europe. Finally, there is the psychologically demanding task of upholding America’s sense of purpose while drawing close to a nation with political traditions that are antithetical to our democratic and open ways.

The challenges in conception and realization of a policy of accommodation with the USSR are formidable, but your success in this critically important area will mark a turning point in modern history from the insanity of nuclear rivalry towards mature statecraft befitting our civilization.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this material, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s