The Brezhnev Doctrine: Alive and Well
On August 21, 1968—40 years ago today—the Soviet army entered Czechoslovakia, followed by smaller contingents from four other Warsaw Pact countries. The occupation (“Operation Danube”) marked the end of the Prague Spring, a doomed attempt by Alexander Dubcek’s reformist faction of the Czechoslovak Communist Party to build “socialism with a human face.”
Ideological justification for the intervention was provided by the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was defined by its author as the obligation of the socialist countries to ensure that their “freedom for determining the ways of advance of their respective countries” should not “damage either socialism in their country or the fundamental interests of other socialist countries”:
The sovereignty of a socialist country cannot be opposed to the interests of the world of socialism … [T]he norms of law cannot be interpreted narrowly, formally, in isolation from the general context of class struggle in the modern world… Czechoslovakia’s detachment from the socialist community would have clashed with its own vital interests and would have been detrimental to the other socialist states… Discharging their internationalist duty toward the fraternal peoples of Czechoslovakia and defending their own socialist gains, the USSR and the other socialist states had to act decisively.
This doctrine was applied de facto by the Soviets in Berlin in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956, but only over Czechoslovakia in 1968 was it clearly defined: by entering the “socialist community of nations,” its members implicitly accepted that the USSR—the leader of the “socialist camp”— was not only the enforcer of the rules but also the judge of whether and when an intervention was warranted. No country would be allowed to leave the Warsaw Pact, or challenge its communist party’s monopoly on power.
Thirty years after Prague 1968 the USSR was gone and the Warsaw Pact dismantled, with NATO expanding into its former heartland. The principles of the Brezhnev Doctrine were not defunct, however. They were given a new life in the liberal guise. In 1991 the Maastricht Treaty accelerated the erosion of EU member countriess’ sovereignty by the Brussels regime of unelected bureaucrats. On this side of the ocean the passage of NAFTA was followed in 1995 the Uruguay round of GATT that gave us the WTO. The nineties laid the foundation for the new international order. By early 1999 the process was sufficiently far advanced for President Bill Clinton to claim that, had it not bombed Serbia, “NATO itself would have been discredited for failing to defend the very values that give it meaning.” This was but oner way of restating Brezhnev’s dictum that “the norms of law cannot be interpreted narrowly, formally, in isolation from the general context of the modern world.” The international system in existence ever since the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 was dead as far as the United States was concerned.
The old system based on state sovereignty was imperfect and often violated, but nevertheless it provided the basis for international discourse from which but few powers had openly deviated. The key difference between Brezhnev and Clinton was in the limited scope of the Soviet leader’s self-awarded outreach. His doctrine applied only to the “socialist community,” as opposed to the unlimited, potentially world-wide scope of “defending the values that give NATO meaning.” Like his Soviet predecessor, Clinton used an abstract and ideologically loaded notion as the pretext to act as he deemed fit, but no “interests of world socialism” could beat “universal human rights” when it came to determining where and when to intervene. The “socialist community” led by Moscow stopped on the Elbe. It was replaced by the “International Community” led by Washington, which stops nowhere. The credentials of a “democracy” are easy to establish in this scheme: democratic governments act in accordance with the will of the international community—like the late Franjo Tudjman, say. When they don’t, they are ipso facto undemocratic and liable to punishment. The less logic and predictability, the stronger the position of the Hegemon.
Today, forty years after Prague 1968, we have the Bush Doctrine, a mature synthesis of Brezhnev’s and Clinton’s legacy. Initially, when Afghanistan was invaded in 2001, Bush merely asserted the right of the U.S. to treat countries that harbor or help terrorist groups as terrorists themselves. Within a year his emerging doctrine included additional elements: preventive war asserted the right of the United States to depose foreign regimes deemed detrimental to its security even if that threat was not immediate (Iraq); while “promoting democracy,” by force if need be, came to be treated as a legitimate strategy for combating the spread of terrorism.
The formal codification came in The National Security Strategy unveiled in September 2002, which presented the specter of open-ended political, military, and economic domination of the world by the United States acting unilaterally. The strategy defined two main categories of enemies: “rogue states” and “potentially hostile powers.” Both warranted preemptive strikes “by direct and continuous action using all the elements of national and international power… We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.” The United States would not only will confront “evil and lawless regimes” but will put an end to “destructive national rivalries.” To that end, the administration pledged “to keep military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” As AEI’s Thomas Donnelly triumphantly asserted in early 2003, “Any comprehensive U.S. ‘threat assessment’ would conclude that the normal constraints of international politics—counterbalancing powers—no longer immediately inhibit the exercise of American might.”
This doctrine still stands as the ideological basis and fully developed self-referential framework for the policy of permanent global interventionism. Unlike Brezhnev and Clinton, however, Bush has added divine sanction to his doctrine: “History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom's fight,” he announced in his 2002 State of the Union address; “We’ve come to know truths that we will never question: Evil is real, and it must be opposed. Rarely has the world faced a choice more clear or consequential.” By postulating America as “the good,” and those who resist her will as the incarnation of evil, and by telling the rest of the world that the choice is clear and had to be be made, the President precluded any meaningful debate about the correlation between ends and means of American power: we are not only wise but virtuous; our policies are shaped by values, not by prejudices.
The two “American” doctrines suffer from the same problem, however, as the Brezhnev Doctrine that we are remembering today. Each act of resistance, however costly for the defender, undermines the hegemon’s credibility and self-confidence. After 1968, just beneath the drab surface of “Real Socialism,” anti-Sovietism was rampant. Back then, and for almost two decades thereafter, members of the Politburo were old, sluggish, devoid of fresh ideas, and oblivious to the long-term challenges to their hegemony. The neoconservative strategists who run the show under Bush and who will continue running it under McCain are, by contrast, hyperactive and still convinced that hegemony can be maintained as the divinely-ordained, morally mandated, open-ended and self-justifying mission for decades to come.
The Soviets were dull and dumb. Their heirs in Washington are insane; and quos deus vult perdere, dementat prius. There is hope.
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