Gorbachev and the third world

CONSPICUOUS in its absence from Mikhail Gorbachev's speech to the Soviet Union's 27th party congress held recently in Moscow was any serious attention to Soviet policy in the third world. When consideration was given to Soviet foreign policy, in an agenda otherwise dominated by domestic issues, it was focused primarily on the central areas of contention with the United States, such as arms control. This decision largely to ignore the USSR's activities in the third world contrasts with the experience of the last party congress in 1981, presided over by an ailing Leonid Brezhnev, when there was sigificant discussion about the USSR's ``internationalist'' duty to promote revolutionary trends in the developing world. Indeed, ever since Khrushchev's dramatic speech to the 1956 party congress, the twists and turns of Soviet policy in the third world have been prominent in the ritualized party proceedings. It is perhaps surprising that the USSR's current plight in the third world did not attract greater comment at this last party meeting, given recent developments. Last October, President Reagan outlined a forceful new doctrine to champion anti-Soviet insurrections in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Cam bodia, and Angola. In keeping with the administration's desire to challenge Soviet gains in the third world, Congress in the past year approved $250 million for covert military aid to the Afghan guerrillas and $27 million in ``nonlethal'' aid to the ``contra'' guerrillas, and it is now considering legislation that would provide military assistance to Jonas Savimbi's fighters in Angola. This trend in American policy reflects a dramatic shift in the Soviet fortunes in the third world. Traditionally, the USSR has gained influence through its sponsorship of national liberation movements intent on undermining the old colonial order. With several of its local allies besieged by domestic rivals and hostile powers, the Soviet Union now finds itself in the unusual and unenviable position of seeking to bolster, rather than topple, unpopular or ineffective regimes. This transition from an insurgency to counterinsurgency power represents a dramatic reorientation for the Kremlin.

Given these pressing concerns, what accounts for the lack of dialogue on the whole issue of Soviet involvement in third-world crisis areas? Since Mr. Gorba chev's rise to the party leadership in March of 1985, his overriding preoccupation has been with increasing the operational effectiveness of the internal Soviet system. In the past year, Gorbachev has spoken sparingly about possible new policy directions for Soviet policy in the third world, and in this respect the party conference was merely a continuation of high-level silence on the issue. It is reasonable to assume that the long-term future of Soviet involvement in the developing world has come under serious review. There are clearly thinly veiled differences among Soviet elites about what the ultimate responsibility of the USSR in the third world should be, with many arguing for a lower profile in the far-flung corners of the globe.

Yet, there is no suggestion that Gorbachev himself is about to abandon Soviet forays into the third world. While there have been no new Soviet initiatives during Gorbachev's short tenure, the USSR has concentrated its energies during the last 12 months on providing military assistance to faltering Marxist regimes in the third world. For instance, Nicaragua has received MI-24 ``Hind'' helicopters from the USSR. The Soviets have also provided Angola with a so-phisticated radar network, which includes advanced surface-to-air missiles. In the past year, the USSR has also launched major military offensives a-gainst mujahideen strongholds in the Afghan mountains; and Nicaragua, Angola, Vietnam, and Ethiopia have each undertaken large-scale military operations against rebel forces, often with Soviet military advisers involved in the planning and execution of the armed campaigns. In these countries, where Gorbachev has inherited commitments, the USSR has persevered and even stepped up its military support slightly.

It has been said of President Reagan that he will not give up one inch of soil to communism on his watch. Mikhail Gorbachev appears equally determined to help defend the outposts of socialism in the third world. While the limits of the USSR's ability and commitment to ensure the survival of Marxist regimes vary from country to country (relatively high in Afghanistan, apparently low in Nicaragua), Gorbachev has given no hint of backing down from the challenge posed by the Reagan Doctrine.

Kurt M. Campbell is a fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.