During the 1970s the NATO analysts pointed, for the first time with such emphasis, to the Soviet Union’s structural deficiencies. Admittedly, their task was not easy, as they had been caught in an intellectual crossfire. They were engaging in analysis and projections about the defects of the adversary, at a time of severe difficulties for a West that was seeing its own comparative advantage—its economy—getting into trouble. This was a largely insecure West, fearing a repeat of the painful rise of the extremes as had happened during its most traumatic period, the Great Depression. Successive transatlantic differences manifested themselves on multiple levels:
monetary and financial affairs, trade, the handling of détente, and out-of-area crises. This meant that unity needed to be sought and cultivated, but the West’s foundations in the 1970s were solid enough to allow it to survive the test of that painful and transitory phase.
270 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 385.
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By the nature of things—mostly the alliance processes and limits, discussed above—
NATO analysis documents could not achieve an intellectual breakthrough, comparable to the functions of national analysis, where a clear thesis can take the upper hand, impose itself, and provide for simple and concise policy recommendations. This was almost impossible to achieve in NATO. Alliance analysis tended to describe the situation in terms of a 15-nation consensus, rather than offer options.
Operating within such limits, it should not be surprising that NATO studies of the opponent left much to be desired. The assessments of Soviet developments were not always clear or accurate, especially where figures were concerned, even taking into account the difficulty in measuring Soviet performances. The experts were assessing developments too close to the events, and thus sometimes were bound to lose sight of certain elements. For example, there is little reference in NATO (or US) analysis documents to the fear of the Soviet leadership about a popular reaction, perhaps violent, to the failure to raise the standard of living.271 On the contrary, NATO analysis did not doubt that the Soviet political system enjoyed a large degree of legitimization within the country, although (perhaps not surprisingly, in the Cold War context) they usually refrained from saying this in so many words. The NATO experts were thinking in terms of the traditional power structures of the international system, and admittedly failed to assess, as recent bibliography does, the crucial role of the transnational human rights networks or the ability of the EC in loosening Cold War constraints in Europe.272
However, on the whole, the NATO experts were able to point to medium-term economic trends, forming the background of the Soviet political and economic realities and of East-West relations. During the first half of the 1970s, the picture of the Soviet Union was that of an ascending superpower, with which the West had engaged in crucial negotiations. At that time, Soviet economic troubles were noted by the experts, but did not seem insurmountable—and anyway the West seemed to be in deeper trouble. Thus, the experts tended to use the picture of the “uneven” growth of Soviet power in order to offset the awe that this Soviet power caused to the West. But things changed drastically in the second half of the 1970s. The West was still in
271 Hanson, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy, 149-152.
272 Angela Romano, “Untying Cold War Knots: the EEC and Eastern Europe in the long 1970s,” Cold War History 14, no.2 (2014): 153-173.
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economic dire straits and the Kremlin was scoring impressive successes in the global south, but the Soviet Union’s structural deficiencies had come out into the open. It was not a single factor that created this picture. The Soviet Union suffered from a combination of interrelated problems:
the excessive centralization and rigidity of its one-party political system; the age of its leaders;
the conservatism of its ruling elite and the resulting conformism of its society (perhaps the most deleterious element of all, pointing to structural deficiencies “from below”); the absence of a realistic price system; the lack of incentives; the agricultural failures that precluded the raising of the standard of living and now tended to spill over to other sectors of the economy, even to heavy industry; excessive military spending which was eating away resources of civil society, and so on. The gigantism of the Soviet economic administration, and—mostly—the Kremlin’s dogged determination to ignore economic processes from below (in other words, its refusal to accept a market system of demand and supply) meant that a parallel, effectively a “black” market was called upon to redress the deficiencies of the system. The Soviet Union, as Huntington noted, was an “incomplete superpower.” But the most important aspect lay elsewhere: political stagnation and conservatism made it impossible to reform the system. This was the most ominous sign for the Soviet Union. And this was why the NATO analysts, even during the West’s years of stagflation and its “winters of discontent,” even at a time when the Soviets were galloping in the global south, retained a measure of self-confidence towards their adversary.
It is also important to note a difference of perspective between the NATO experts themselves. The economic experts (or the political experts when discussing the Soviet economic system) tended to point to Soviet medium- and long-term problems, and were always more optimistic regarding the superiority of the West than the political/military experts who had to monitor the Soviet political and military potential and its impressive successes of the 1970s on a global scale. This partial divergence of the positions of the two groups is telling: the Kremlin was a hugely powerful political and military actor, although its economy was in a less than satisfactory state. Essentially, this divergence was a direct result of the Soviet Union’s nature as an “incomplete superpower.” During the 1970s “this increasingly creaky economy, led by increasingly creaky old men, was enjoying its strategic golden age.”273 Thus, the experts could
273 Hanson, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy, 131.
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not but point to the realities of Soviet power, and caution their political masters about the Kremlin’s capabilities in the Cold War.
When all is said, the NATO experts managed to make the major point, which is stressed by recent literature: “one of the major lessons of the twentieth century” is that political freedom favors productivity and innovation.274 This is the main reason why the Soviet system proved unable to adjust to the post-industrial era; and while the NATO experts did not use this phraseology, they certainly were able to point to this crucial element.