Should the West Negotiate with Communist Regimes?

US-China Rivalry and Digital Connectivity in the Indo-Pacific


Arms control or human rights? Which cause demands priority? The Russian novelist and political commentator Aleksander I. Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) believed it naïve for the West to pursue détente and arms control with the Kremlin; Andrei D. Sakharov (1921-1989) deemed it necessary to do so. Both men received Nobel prizes — Solzhenitsyn for literature; Sakharov for peace. Each became deeply critical of the Soviet system, but they disagreed about the utility of seeking to negotiate East-West differences.


Solzhenitsyn warned the West that there was no reason to expect Soviet leaders to be more honest or co-operative with those whom they despise than with their own people.1 The grounds for skepticism about Soviet motives were bolstered when the Nikita Khrushchev regime, responding to Chinese charges of “revisionism,” published Vladimir Lenin’s directives to Soviet diplomats in 1922 that they should campaign for disarmament in order to promote proletarian revolution by showing that capitalists will never disarm.2


Sakharov led the Soviet program to develop and test an H-bomb, but later became the leading Soviet campaigner for peace and human rights. For his contributions to weaponry, Sakharov received some of the highest honors awarded to Soviet citizens. For his humanitarian efforts, he lost his security clearance and was exiled to the city of Gorki in 1980, where the Leonid Brezhnev regime hoped to limit the reach of his voice. Six years later, however, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin permitted him to return to Moscow. In 1989 he was elected to serve as a member of the newly created parliament, the All-Union Congress of People’s Deputies.


This essay updates Solzhenitsyn’s concerns, asking whether the West should try to negotiate life-and-death issues with any Communist regime, including a post-Soviet Russia still ruled by ex-Communists relying on Soviet-type controls. Taking into account the big picture, this essay agrees with Sakharov: limitations on weapons of mass destruction are probably essential to human survival. Still, Joe Biden at his Geneva summit last summer with Vladimir Putin oversimplified the issue by saying that US diplomacy would be based not on trust but on “interests.” Interests are not a sufficient basis for far-reaching security agreements. Nor are verification methods always reliable. An element of trust is also needed to go forward on accords meant to enhance stability and mutual well-being. But how can the US and its partners trust actors who see themselves in a zero-sum competition?


Without mutual trust, neither verification machinery nor state interests suffice to assure the signing and implementation of security agreements. To rely on “interests” is myopic and inadequate to the tasks before us. It encourages short-term thinking about one country’s national interests. To preserve the planet, however, the key actors need to address the very long-term needs of planet Earth and all its peoples and other living things.3


Communist Morality and Communist Power


Nearly every day, we learn of some new outrage in the seven states where the ruling party boasts its lineage to Lenin and Josef Stalin — Belarus, Russia, China, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam and Cuba. Belarus compelled a Lithuanian airliner to land in Minsk and discharge a critic of the Alexander Lukashenko regime whom it then pressured to confess to his ostensible crimes. Having failed to kill opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russian President Putin, a product of the former Communist system, keeps Navalny in a strict-discipline labor camp without proper food or medical care. China jails more dissidents as it shreds its 1997 pledge to honor “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong. North Korea shows images of teenage orphans, “with wisdom and courage in the prime of their youth,” volunteering to work in state-run mines and farms. Like South Korean prisoners from the 1950s war, these young people will perform slave labor to generate funds for weapons programs. Vietnam, Laos and Cuba also remain one-party states.


The ruling Communist elites claim, like Karl Marx, to understand the world’s past, present and future. While Karl Marx expected the growing contradictions within capitalism to explode into socialism, Vladimir Lenin and other Communists have believed they must give history a push. Indeed, Lenin told the Russian League of Young Communists in October 1920 that morality does not come from the heavens. “Morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the working people around the proletariat, which is building up a new, communist society.” This end justifies any means. Other political leaders across the ages have held similar views, but usually did so for some parochial aim. Lenin claimed a cosmic objective — world revolution to rescue the downtrodden. For this noble objective, normal morals could be jettisoned.


The results of this outlook can be measured by the toll of unnatural deaths suffered by denizens of Communist-led countries. The Soviet Union experienced at least 60 million — perhaps as many as 100 million — needless deaths from 1917 to Stalin’s death in 1953. The sources were diverse — civil war, forced collectivization, starvation in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, purges and death in the gulag, and Stalin’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler and failure to prepare for war, followed by mass executions and deportation of Balts, Tatars, Chechens and other ethnic groups suspected of treason. For these peoples, as in Russia itself, Communism destroyed many of the best and brightest.


Mao Zedong was not the first brutal Chinese leader. Chiang Kai-shek also dealt cruelly with rivals, as did many emperors before him. Having won supreme power in mainland China, however, Mao dictated national policies that harmed huge numbers of Chinese — not just through collectivization, exile and executions but also with his Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), which is believed to have killed 20 million to 40 million Chinese, and the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 into the 1970s, again killing millions and upending the lives of millions more. The several thousand killed at Tiananmen Square in 1989 add to the tolls of earlier catastrophes.


North Korea is small compared to China, but the Kim Il Sung dynasty also killed a vast number of its subjects. Kim recklessly invaded South Korea in 1950, soon needing Mao’s intervention, which led to countless Chinese deaths as well as Korean and American. Kim soon set up his own gulag, no less extensive or horrible than Stalin’s. Sparing no outlay for military modernization, Kim’s son in the 1990s presided over starvation that probably killed 10 percent of the population. His grandson Kim Jong Un, himself overly nourished, continues to import military technology but not food, even though his own soldiers are much shorter and less well-nourished than South Korea’s.


While Beijing claims to have improved the living standards of its subjects, the UN Human Development Report (based on life expectancy, schooling and income) ranks China 85th in the world — well below Russia (52nd), Belarus (53rd) and Cuba (70th), but well ahead of Vietnam (113th) and Laos (137th). As for North Korea, it is literally off the charts. The Human Development Index also shows a US decline — from 2nd in the world in 1990 to 17th in 2020. A similar US decline is traced by the Social Progress Index — from 16th in the world in 2014 to 28th in 2020.


The policies of Communist regimes are disastrous for their subjects but also present profound challenges for others. On Oct. 14 this year, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Russia, and China began joint naval maneuvers in the Sea of Japan: “In the course of their joint maneuvers, the crews of the warships will practice joint tactical maneuvering and mine countermeasures for naval groups, hold artillery firings against sea targets and hunt down and block a notional enemy’s submarine.”4


Putin has pleased many Russians by occupying Trans-Dniester Moldova, repressing Chechnya, invading Georgia, annexing and occupying parts of Ukraine, and keeping Syria’s dictator in power. Now he seeks to prevent Western navies from approaching Crimea. He sponsors the assassination of opponents within eyesight of the Kremlin as well as in the suburbs of London. His hackers penetrate US and other foreign political, security and power networks. He violates the intermediate-range missile and open skies treaties and then complains when the US withdraws from these pacts. Products of the Russian sports industry, notorious for doping, are unwelcome in some international competitions.


The Communist regimes of Belarus, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam have purged, jailed and killed a smaller percentage of their people than in Russia, China or North Korea. But they too preside over totalitarian dictatorships that allow no challenge to the ruling elite and its policies. From a possible total score of 100 for political rights and civil liberties (achieved by Norway), Freedom House scores North Korea 3, China 9, Belarus 11, Cuba and Laos 13, Vietnam 19, and Russia 20. (Having declined by several points in recent years, the US scores 83 — one place lower than formerly Communist Mongolia.)


Chinese President Xi Jinping intensifies China’s decade-long cultural genocide in Tibet and Inner Mongolia and now takes it to greater extremes in Xinjiang. He crushes any semblance of freedom in Hong Kong. He now pushes into Bhutan as well as India. Many ostensible beneficiaries of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, such as Sri Lanka, labor under heavy debts to China. Indifferent to an international court and protests from other littoral states, Xi’s China claims nearly all the South China Sea. Determined to steal others’ technology and penetrate their communications, Beijing may force Western countries to halt free trade in ideas as well as goods and services. Though aware of the risks, Xi’s planes and landing craft menace Taiwan (tied with Germany at 94 on the 100-point scale of Freedom House). China may be hiding the origins of Covid-19 and exaggerating the efficacy of its vaccine. In June 2021, China’s public-relations machine began to plaster over genocide with images of smiling Uighurs.


Why Sakharov’s Advice Is Superior to Solzhenitsyn’s


The words and deeds of Communist regimes violate the laws of nations and human rights, but who is entitled to throw the first stone? No individual and no group of people is beyond reproach. Darkness as well as light colors human behavior. Germans now recall that their ancestors committed genocide in South-West Africa in 1904-1908. Better late than never, many Americans acknowledge the genocidal policies of US governments toward indigenous peoples. Some Americans observe, and others ignore, the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921. Many, but not all, believe that Black Lives Matter. Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib remind us of other abuses. Many Americans accept that their recent president is guilty of multiple crimes — some bordering on democide (letting more than half a million die from Covid-19) as well as treason and tax evasion.


Every continent is burdened with dictators who exploit others to enrich themselves. But the track record and current policies of Communist regimes set them apart from all other violators of human rights. All seven Communist-legacy states are judged “not free” by Freedom House. The same is true for most former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.


Collaboration on arms control and other global concerns offers potential benefits to all parties but could be counterproductive if any side cheats. The West needs the co-operation of Communist regimes to deal with global problems, but how can any honorable government negotiate with persistent violators of law and human rights? Sakharov’s answer is irrefutable: Survival is the sine qua non for any human (or other planetary) value. Communist as well as Western governments share this interest. Each actor — governmental and non-governmental, Communist and non-Communist, affluent or impoverished — needs to co-operate with others to limit the danger of human extinction.


President Ronald Reagan said we must trust the other side but also verify arms accords. Biden says that interest is key. Without trust, however, neither verification nor interest may suffice. Take two examples — one from 1962 and another more current.


To defuse the Cuban missile crisis, the USSR had to remove its intermediate-range missiles and trust US pledges not to intervene militarily in Cuba and, in time, to withdraw its nuclear missiles from Turkey. Once the Soviet missiles were gone, the John F. Kennedy administration could have cheated, but it did not. Washington also had to trust Moscow’s word that it would not publicize the Turkish quid pro quo. Khrushchev and Kennedy had no positive relationship to buttress their deal, no reason for mutual trust. Given the risk of Armageddon, they gambled that each would honor the deal — and won.


What is needed for arms control in Northeast Asia? The Trump administration pledged to build up North Korea’s economy if Pyongyang moved toward nuclear disarmament. But if both sides seemed to agree, either could cheat. If Pyongyang promised to disarm and the US began to dismantle its own and UN sanctions, North Korea could go slow and then stop its demilitarization, counting that Washington could not easily rebuild its sanctions regime. On the other hand, if Pyongyang began to disarm, Washington could stall aiding North Korea and then — once it had lost some of its military assets — halt the aid process. This is approximately what happened between 1994 and 2002. Pyongyang stopped producing plutonium but never got the two light-water reactors it had been promised. Not to be outfoxed, North Korea clandestinely enriched uranium.5


Communist governments and other US adversaries have reason to distrust Washington. Starting with his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, Reagan wanted to nullify the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, and George W. Bush did so in 2002. The Barack Obama White House signed the Iran nuclear accord but the Trump administration withdrew from it. The American record is replete with many examples of bad faith as well as poor judgment. What the Biden administration says and does could be reversed by its successor in just four years. Caveat emptor — buyer beware.


Both Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov were correct. The history of Communist policies at home and abroad gives strong reason for other actors to approach any potential deal with profound caution. But with the fate of humankind at stake, non-Communist actors must strive for accords with Communist and other adversaries (Pakistan, Iran) to halt the arms race and stabilize peace.6 If agreements can be reached on non-military issues such as public health and the environment, perhaps grounds for mutual trust could be strengthened. At best, however, this would be a drawn-out process while the danger of Armageddon in 30 minutes persists. The responsibilities of each nuclear-armed actor are enormous, and the grounds for mutual trust are not becoming any firmer.


President Ronald Reagan said we must trust the other side but also verify arms accords. Biden says that interest is key. Without trust, however, neither verification nor interest may suffice. Take two examples — one from 1962 and another more current.


1 See Andrei D. Sakharov, “Peace, Progress, Human Rights,” Nobel Lecture [read by his wife, Elena Bonner Sakharova], Dec. 11, 1975,; and Aleksandrr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Mortal Danger: Misconceptions about Soviet Russia and the Threat to America (New York: Harper & Row, 1980). For the context, see Walter C. Clemens, Jr, “Sakharov: A Man for Our Times,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Vol. 27, No. 10 (December 1971), pp. 4-6, 51-56; “Sakharov: Why He Deserves the Peace Prize,” Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 26, 1973; and “Sakharov’s Legacy,” Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 19, 1990.

2 Negotiated disarmament (razoruzhenie) is impossible, Lenin argued. So the urgent task is to disarm — take arms away from (obezoruzhit) — the bourgeoisie. See Clemens, “Lenin on Disarmament,” Slavic Review Vol. 23, No. 3 (September 1964), pp. 504-525.

3 The risk of human extinction has risen from 1 in 100 in the 20th century to 1 in 6 — similar to Russian roulette, according to Toby Ord in The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), Table 6.

4 “Russia, China kick off joint naval maneuvers in Sea of Japan,” Tass News Agency, Oct 14, 2021.

5 Clemens,North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), pp. 212-213.

6 Should the United States negotiate with a regime whose president is noted not only as a tough guy but as an executioner of thousands? See Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, “In Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s clerics have groomed and promoted their ruthless enforcer,” Washington Post, June 25, 2021. The leader of nuclear-armed India, an ostensible partner of the US, seemed indifferent to the dangers of Covid. See Kunal Kamra, “Thanks to Modi, India Had a ‘State Orchestrated Covid Massacre,’ ” The New York Times, June 23, 2021, at Of course, charges of reckless indifference to the pandemic apply also to Donald J. Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and other top leaders.

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