Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev amuses himself with a Chinese fan while chatting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong during his August 1958 visit to China. Photo: APF / Xinhua

“Be careful when making a wish because it might be fulfilled.” Whatever the veracity of this dictum, it is one that governments would do well to ponder as they seek to address the current crisis in Ukraine.

In a speech delivered in Washington in June 1954, Winston Churchill lamented that had he been properly supported in 1919 he would have “strangled Bolshevism in its cradle.” It did not happen as Churchill wished, but it was not for want of trying.

Between 1918 and 1920, the Allies including among others France, the US, Canada, Austria, Italy, Japan and a Czech Legion dispatched several expeditionary forces to Russia to support the White forces in their war against the Bolsheviks. It proved of no avail, and after the Bolshevik victory, Lenin proclaimed the Soviet Union in 1922.

While the Soviet state was subsequently recognized by the majority of governments, it was only in 1933 that Washington established diplomatic relations with the rulers in Moscow.

The Second World War led to a marriage of convenience between the West and its Soviet counterparts, but the underlying tensions between the two blocs endured and developed into a Cold War that lasted 45 years.

At its heart, the Soviet Union was Russia that had extended its domination on to some 20 non-Russian-speaking “republics.” It was also the harbinger of a Marxist ideology that claimed to have a global appeal; as such it was the semblance of a multinational with its headquarters its Moscow and branch offices throughout the world in the shape of local communist parties subservient to its core authority.

Its power and global reach notwithstanding, the Soviet Union suffered from two major flaws. The first was a totalitarian one-party system that stifled not only any opposition but also any diversity of opinion. Innovation, creativity or even independent thinking were frowned upon to the point of generating a society grounded in mediocrity, conformity and subservience.

The second was inefficiency. Except for providing the simplest basic needs, the Soviet economic model was an example of systematic underperformance for which there was no remedy.

However brutal the regime might have ben in terms of domestic policy, its foreign policy was a model of caution. Except for interventions in Hungary or Czechoslovakia, which it considered within its sphere of interest and which the West tacitly recognized as such, its only two foreign forays were in Cuba and in Afghanistan. Both ended up in failure.

The end result was a global balance of power based on a bipolar world with on one side a massive, landlocked and underperforming Soviet Union and on the other side an open, dynamic West with at its core Washington’s cultural, military and economic hegemony.

Sidelined by the two superpowers stood China, barely recovering from the Cultural Revolution and the leftovers of an economic model that endured beyond reason.

Sole superpower

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the United States emerge as the only remaining superpower, with a global hegemony that proved militarily unchallenged, economically overriding and culturally pervasive.

Granted there were some pockets of resistance like Iran and North Korea, and in the likes of Afghanistan military supremacy did not translate into results, but ultimately these proved inconsequential. In terms of global impact, 350 million Americans reigned supreme. But it was a supremacy that was not to remain unchallenged. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union was perceived as a catastrophe by its Chinese Communist brothers, who were now confronted with the question as to whether  they would be the next to fall.

To pre-empt such an outcome, the Chinese Communists came to three conclusions. First, the Soviet economic model was deficient and should be discarded. Second, if the Communist Party of China was to retain the support of the people, it had to provide them with a minimum of material well-being. And third, the Party’s hold on political power should be, if anything, tightened.

While development became the key to the CPC’s hold on power, development could not be achieved by China’s relying only on its own resources. Indeed, whatever its internal economic reforms, the country did not have the spectrum of resources that an accelerated development required. Thus the fall of the Soviet Union proved to be the spur that led the Chinese Communists to reinvent themselves and become a component of the global economy.

The end result was that the combination of internal Chinese economic reforms with a major  foreign economic input led by the United States became the formula for turning China into a major power.

Seen from Washington, this was a development that broached few reservations. For the manufacturing industry, relocating to or buying from China entailed greater profits. As for high tech, it found in China an eager market.

Last but not least, the component of Washington’s establishment that had never reconciled itself with the fact that it had “lost” China saw in the country’s economic development a process that might bring down the regime.

Maintaining dominance

That the emergence of a developed economy with a population of some 1.4 billion inhabitants would, over an extended period of time, develop into a challenge to Washington’s global hegemony was overlooked in the United States, and for good reason.

By its very structure, the American system is oblivious to the long term and is geared to ignore any development that potentially ranges beyond the next electoral deadline. Expecting any American administration to plan for the next 50 years or more is asking for the impossible.

Thus when the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States was short of both the intellectual mindset and the institutional structures needed to address a new complex environment that had emerged unannounced.

While the Communist Party of China managed to retain its hold on power by reinventing itself, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did not survive the collapse of the state that it had engendered. As for the Russian state that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union, it has not in its 30 years of existence succeeded in carving for itself a stable niche in a post-Soviet environment. 

With Russia on its knees and China only at the inception of becoming a component of the global economy, the challenge for the United States was no longer how to contain the Soviet Union but how to manage its newfound position as the global No 1.

From the 1990s onward it was left to seven successive American administrations, each with its own agenda, mindset, visions and beliefs, operating in a new environment with no clearly identified enemy and few benchmarks, to ensure that Washington’s global  hegemony endured in a post-Soviet world.

With Europe politically absent and militarily deficient, dealing with post-Soviet Russia became an American monopoly that included little more than an eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and in Asia acquiescing to a slow but pervasive relocation to China of a large segment of America’s manufacturing capacity. That more was required is an understatement.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was for Washington a dream come true. Today, 30 years after the event, managing the aftermath of the dream looks increasingly like a nightmare.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.