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14 March 2022

From the NS archive: Britain, Russia and the Cold War

2 May 1959: There is reason to believe that Mr Macmillan himself shares the general pessimism about Soviet intentions.

By Denis Healey

The approximate balance of power between the communist states and the West has led many people to accept the Cold War as a fact of life, but nothing could be more dangerous, wrote the MP and future cabinet minister Denis Healey in 1959. The world exists in a state of precarity, because so long as one side believes that the other is vowed to its destruction, it is bound to trust its security with arms rather than to agreements with the enemy. At the core of this precarity lies the Soviet Union, Healey wrote. Post Stalin, the changes made to Russia and the communist bloc justified a “modest optimism”, but still the West ought to make changes to its diplomacy to safeguard international security. Military disengagement and the halting of the arms race is to be a critical factor, Healey wrote, “not an end in itself, but a means to general cooperation between Russia and the West for political settlement in central Europe”.


For six difficult postwar years, the foreign policy of the last Labour government was dominated by two overriding needs – to organise American help for a ruined western Europe in resisting Soviet encroachment, and to transform the subject empire into a “free Commonwealth”. Ironically enough, the next time it is in office the Labour Party will be mainly concerned with the problems created by its success in meeting both these needs ten years ago.

For some time now there has been a rough balance of military and economic power between the communist and Western camps. This has led many people to accept the Cold War as an unpleasant fact of international life which we must simply learn to live with. Nothing could be more dangerous. For the existing balance is threatened from several directions. Foreseeable developments in military technology, besides imposing unbearable economic burdens on all sides if the arms race continues, may at any moment wreck the precarious stability of the thermo-nuclear stalemate and create acute temptations for surprise attack at the level of total war. And if the ultimate weapons become available to many more sovereign governments, each of the existing alliances will disintegrate and the problems of power politics may well become finally unmanageable.

There is no escape from this appalling prospect if the Cold War continues. For so long as one side believes that the other is vowed to its destruction, it is bound to trust its security to arms rather than to agreements with the enemy. And in the long run the leaders of an alliance cannot deny their partners weapons which they believe necessary for their own defence. At present neither side has fully faced the political implications of these sombre facts. For it is impossible to liquidate the Cold War without a degree of positive cooperation between the negative relation of “peaceful co-existence”.

When Labour was last in power, the nature of the Stalinist regime made it futile to hope for such cooperation – it was excluded by both the theory and practice of Soviet diplomacy. Fortunately, the situation is different today. Changes have taken place both in Russia itself and in the rest of the communist bloc which already justify a modest optimism. These new trends can be considerably strengthened if the West is prepared to make the necessary adjustments in its own diplomacy.

[see also: Why Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

Because they have dismantled the police machinery by which Stalin kept control of the communist world, the new Soviet leaders are likely to continue relying on persuasion rather than on terror to achieve their ends. And because they have denounced the doctrine of Kremlin infallibility ex cathedra, their persuasiveness will depend in future on practical results rather than on appeals to dogma. Apart from the profound consequences for Russia’s domestic policy, these changes are certain to influence her foreign policy. The Soviet Union now has to face in its relations with other communist states the sort of problems familiar to Western imperial powers or to the leaders of Western alliances. Without surrendering to dreams of Chinese-Russian conflict, one can predict that the emergence of diplomatic problems inside the Soviet bloc is bound to blur that sharp ideological division of the world into two hostile camps which is the root of the Cold War. Once the Russian government starts applying the same criteria of diplomatic judgment to communist and non-communist states, as it cannot now avoid doing, it is reasonable to hope for the end of the Cold War in its most intractable aspect as a conflict of incompatible social systems.

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At the present moment these hopeful factors are considerably reinforced by some personal characteristics of Mr Khrushchev, of which we now have extensive evidence. He is highly pragmatic in his approach to foreign policy. Not only does he like to find out the facts for himself, but he has often shown a shrewder judgment than Western statesmen in interpreting situations outside the communist bloc. For example, almost his first act on taking power was to visit south-east Asia to find out whether the new governments there were really free to choose between the blocs, or were simply puppets of imperialism as Stalin had maintained. He discovered that they were free but did not want to choose – an insight still denied to many Western governments – and shifted Soviet policy accordingly.

Allied to this pragmatism is a confidence in himself and in the Soviet system, which is based not on dogmatic faith but on actual achievements. There is no sign in him of the persecution mania and inferiority complex which have made other Soviet leaders so difficult to deal with in the past. Though such self-confidence may have its dangers, particularly in periods of crisis, it opens quite new prospects for negotiations. Whatever we may feel about his earlier history, a glance at any of his possible successors makes it very clear that Mr Khrushchev is at least the best Soviet prime minister we have.

Of course, these favourable changes since Stalin died are not the whole story. A great deal in the Soviet system remains unaltered and it is difficult to judge the degree to which the changes influence policy at present. But it is quite safe to say that the forces behind Soviet foreign policy are no longer monolithic. There are many signs of continuing argument throughout the communist bloc, although it is often difficult to identify the main trends in the debate, and more difficult still to attach them to individual leaders.

To the extent that the current rigidity of Western policy is not due to a pathological fear of change as such – and this should not be underestimated – its rational basis is the conviction that the springs of Soviet policy have not changed since the death of Stalin and that therefore Russia will use negotiations with the West exclusively to confuse and divide her enemies, without any real intention of reaching settlements. That is why Mr Acheson argues that the West should avoid negotiations wherever possible, and, if it is forced to the conference table by public opinion, should stick to positions which rule out serious bargaining. This is still the dominant view in the foreign offices of all the major Western powers. Indeed, there is reason to believe that Mr Macmillan himself shares the general pessimism about Soviet intentions, and differs from his allies only on the need to offer Western proposals which seem sufficiently reasonable to involve Russia in propaganda losses when she rejects them.

The most appalling consequence of this assumption is that, by acting on it, the West may well make it come true. Though Mr Khrushchev himself probably wants genuine negotiations, there are conservative sceptics in his own camp no less than in the West who, though so far defeated in the party discussions, are waiting to exploit any diplomatic setbacks he may incur. There is, in fact, a new international alliance of obstruction which has its representatives on both sides of the Iron Curtain: the Adenauer-Ulbricht partnership is a typical example.

Conversely, the strength of the liberal group in each camp is closely dependent on its strength in the other. Serious Western initiatives for compromise settlements will maximise support in Russia for a response in kind. An essential task of the next Labour government will be to conduct its diplomacy in such a way as to multiply those pressures deriving both from public opinion and from an intelligent analysis of national interest which are most likely to persuade the ruling groups both in Russia and the West to reach agreement on halting the present drift into disaster.

The megaton missile and its terrifying progeny have already compelled both sides to admit certain overriding common interests: it will be Britain’s role to translate these interests into a common policy. On one hand the arms race between the great powers must be halted before it upsets the temporary stability which now exists at the level of all-out war. On the other hand, some means must be found of preventing local conflicts in areas where the balance between the great powers may be affected. The two tasks are interdependent. For if the arms race between America and Russia goes on much longer, it will be impossible to prevent the diffusion of nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and this will greatly increase the danger of a local conflict which may lead to global war. And so long as the danger of such a local conflict exists, the great powers will prefer to trust their security to their own military strength rather than to the cooperation of their political enemies.

At first sight the easiest way out is the policy which Khrushchev (and perhaps Macmillan) seems to favour at the present time – to stabilise the political status quo, at least in western Europe, by controlling armaments in the most dangerous areas on both sides of the dividing line. But apart from the moral and diplomatic arguments against a new Yalta Agreement along these lines, there is no chance of getting the peoples in the area to accept it. West Germany now has the full degree of diplomatic influence to which her population and resources entitle her, and none of her leaders could commit himself to abandon hope of national reunification. Moreover, we have recently discovered that Russia no longer has the absolute power to enforce her will on the peoples of eastern Europe – even when their governments support her.

[see also: How the Stasi poets tried to win the Cold War]

It will be impossible to establish arms control in this area unless the local populations can be convinced that this offers the prospect of improvements in their present situation by peaceful means. It is in a pilot project for regional arms control to create the conditions for peaceful political change that the Labour Party’s proposals for “disengagement” have their greatest significance. Military disengagement is not an end in itself, but a means to general cooperation between Russia and the West for political settlement in central Europe. For it is impossible to imagine a stable or lasting agreement on arms limitation in any area if the main function of the forces permitted either side is to repress popular resistance to an intolerable status quo.

If, on the other hand, a serious approach is made towards a European settlement along the lines the Labour Party has proposed, it will be much easier to apply similar techniques to the settlement of other regional problems – notably in the Middle East and perhaps also the western Pacific. Cooperation between Russia and the West on the basis of their common interest in stopping the arms race may then create the essential foundations of great power unity on which the United Nations was originally intended to build a new world order. There will remain the tremendous problem of adapting this framework to the unforeseen strains imposed by the revolutionary economic and political changes under way in Africa and Asia now that imperialism is finished. This will be the theme of another article.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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