Friday, February 14, 2014

Sergey Radchenko's Unwanted Visionaries

Sergey Radchenko's new book, Unwanted Visionaries:  The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War, closely scrutinizes Gorbachev foreign policy in Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Far East.  Radchenko's deep familiarity with Russian, Chinese, American, and Indian diplomatic history, to say nothing of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese foreign policy traditions, is impossible to gainsay:  the polyglot Radchenko is a master of his diverse sources and he is therefore remarkably comfortable with the decision-making processes of each of the region's key players, never hesitating to explore the diplomatic overtures of even some of Asia's lesser powers, such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. 

Radchenko's analysis of this period in diplomatic history transcends the confines of Soviet history, revealing a complex and evolving international system with few or no fixed diplomatic certainties.  Its lessons should be equally applicable to historians of American, Japanese, and Chinese foreign policy.  Nevertheless, certain key themes in Soviet "national" history emerge from this chaos of shifting diplomatic rivalries.  Most importantly, Unwanted Visionaries suggests that the Soviet Union was seriously taxed by its efforts to maintain, or even improve, its status in Asia during this period.  First, the Soviet Union was engaged in a losing war in Afghanistan.  Second, its allies, North Korea and Vietnam, were isolated and impoverished.  Third, its economic decline prevented it from offering its longtime ally, India, much in the way of international trade or economic aid.  Fourth, Japan remained unwilling to improve relations with the Soviet Union so long as Gorbachev remained unwilling to part with at least two of the disputed Kurile Islands.  Fifth, and most importantly, China continued to resist the Kremlin's longstanding claim to leadership within the socialist community of nations, and worried about (and sometimes resisted) the Soviet Union's diplomatic and military activities in Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia.

Unwanted Visionaries is a meticulously researched book.  Its detailed chronology of events is also impressive.  One couldn't hope for a more elaborate and careful description of key moments in Asian diplomatic history. Radchenko's one mistake may be that he sometimes favors chronology at the expense of sustained analysis.  While Radchenko explains the context for the individual decisions of Russian statesmen, he seldom gives readers a broad for evaluating the nation's broad diplomatic goals.  Radchenko's strength as a diplomatic historian is that he is remarkably free of ideological bias, but without ideology it may be difficult to evaluate the overall basis for Soviet decision-making.  Radchenko doesn't entirely neglect the biases of the Soviet foreign policy elite, either before or after Gorbachev's ascent to power.  Nor does he ignore some of the democratic and economic imperatives of Glasnost and Perestroika.  But notwithstanding the book's title, Radchenko doesn't really give us a handle on any Soviet foreign policy expert's vision for either Asia or the Far East, whether that vision be wanted or unwanted.  Perhaps that's the point.  Gorbachev never really had such a vision, but to the extent he did, it was incompatible with the realism required of a Soviet statesman.  For if Gorbachev had articulated a clearer Asian policy, and indeed even if he had pursued that vision more aggressively, surely that policy would have been overcome by the deteriorating political situation at home.  When one a nation considers selling islands to Japan, or asks for loans from China (beware, America), what chance does it have?

Unwanted Visionaries is perhaps less than the sum of its parts but the book offers readers wonderfully illuminating insights into a number of intriguing chapters in Asian diplomacy. The sections dealing with the Soviet Union's rapprochement with China in the wake of Tienanmen Square are particularly enlightening.  At this point, the roles of the two great powers were reversed:   The Soviet Union lent Russia a degree of diplomatic support, while China hoped that Russia would somehow remain under its wing in the socialist camp.

The conclusion of the book is suggestive as well, and one only wishes its themes were examined in more detail.  As the Russian Federation replaced the Soviet Union, the influence of Moscow in Asia declined precipitously.  In the past, Russia had used Asia as an area of influence whenever its ambitions were checked in Europe.  When Russia was checked in the Crimean War, it attempted to expand in Central Asia.  If Revolutionary Russia was blocked in Europe, why not stoke the fires of revolution in China?  Even Stalin turned toward Korea when further European expansion seemed too costly.  As Radchenko points out, Russia has never had any qualms about exploiting its proximity to Asia, and indeed its own claims to be "part Asian," when Europe seemed too formidable to her.   But if this formula was already out of date when Japan defeated Russian in 1905, how much more out of date was it when Gorbachev took power?  Today, comparatively few Russian citizens actually live in the Asian portion of the country, and Russian economic activity in the region is largely limited to the exploitation of natural resources.  This stands in stark contrast to the economic vitality of Japan, South Korea, China, and other emerging economic giants.  Radchenko's final thought is that this isn't such a bad thing.  If Russia is no longer competing for the title of regional hegemon, it might at least attempt to benefit from low-key participation in the Asian economic miracle.  The key, Radchenko argues, is to avoid grandiose diplomatic gestures and militaristic sloganeering in favor of the quiet, sustained diplomacy of cooperation. 


  1. So, 'failure' to do what? Keep Communism alive in Asia? Was that even a plausible scenario in the 80s? Or is he suggesting that Asian diplomacy, above and beyond the Afghanistan fiasco, somehow contributed to the collapse of the Soviet system?

  2. I think the author believes that Gorbachev should have taken the Chinese reform model more seriously and moved more aggressively to engage with Japan, South Korea, etc.

  3. As clever as Putin is, somehow he does not strike me as one for quiet diplomatic cooperation.

  4. I find the title of the book intriguing - the notion of an unwanted visionary. Within the context of a millenarian movement such as international socialism, once the roadmap to the new society has been established, the only problems of governing are technical ones of managing the bumps in the road. The visionary, like the prophet, appears as a problem to be addressed. It would be interesting to know whether the makers of Soviet foreign policy in the 70's and 80's saw themselves in this managerial role. I would expect that by then perceptive observers could have seen that the roadmap did not lead to the new milennium, leaving policy makers the unwelcome task of simply holding things together for some undefined stretch of time. Those still devoted to the coming milennium, the Old Believers of the Brezhnev era, could only present an annoyance.