"The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten." --Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
JANUARY has been the Month of the Gulf. Intellectual debate, Congressional speeches, television news coverage and newspaper headlines have been dominated by images of missile launches, anti-aircraft fire, the steely glare of Saddam Hussein and the "New World Order" of George Bush.
But while the world's eyes have been riveted on the raging conflict in the Middle East, another chilling image has gone nearly unnoticed. It is the image of a mangled leg jutting out from the underside of a Soviet tank. It is the image of an iron fist discarding its velvet glove. It is an image we should not ignore.
This month, Mikhail Gorbachev has consolidated his control of the Soviet government. He has cracked down on nationalist movements in Lithuania and Latvia. He has proposed suspending a five-month-old law guaranteeing free speech, claiming that the ongoing crisis requires a renewed commitment to "objectivity."
And nobody has seemed to notice. The blaring front-page headlines that announced Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation have disappeared now that the Soviet foreign minister's dire predictions of imminent dictatorship have come true. Just as Kruschev's 1956 invasion of Hungary was overshadowed by the concurrent Suez crisis, the backlash in the Baltics has been buried on page nine, shunted to the background by Bush's moralistic pursuit of his New World Order.
In times of war, it is easy to forget about events on the periphery. But the result of the conflicts in the Soviet Union will have an even greater impact on Bush's New World Order than the result of the Gulf War. Where does the Evil Empire of yore fit into Bush's vision of "a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations"? Is "wanton aggression" acceptable when undertaken by a nuclear superpower? does the "sovereignty of nations" apply to the Soviet republics who clamor daily for independence?
IF BUSH is the herald of the New World Order, Gorbachev tolled the death knell for the old one. After 40 years of a rigidly controlled Soviet bloc, he stunned the world by permitting the impermissible: the democratization of Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany, the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact.
Gorbachev's dismantling of the Cold War sent a sigh of relief throughout the West. After all, the bipolar world was fraught with tension, ideological antagonism, arms escalations, Soviet human rights violations and American collaboration with vicious right-wing autocracies. It lacked any semblance of a moral foundation. It was pure power politics at its basest.
However, the crumbling of Communism has created anxiety as well. For all its faults, the bipolar world was remarkably stable. The superpowers' arsenals balanced each other out. Might checked might. Everybody knew where they stood. Nobody was tempted to start a cataclysmic nuclear war.
The old world order may have lacked the idealistic grounding of Bush's New World Order, but it provided order nonetheless. Today, that order has disappeared.
The Soviet Union is a superpower in military might only. Perestroika has failed to resurrect a moribund economy. The USSR has lost its "security buffer" of Communist puppets in Eastern Europe. And now the Soviet Union itself is threatened by internal collapse. Glasnost has unleashed a torrent of independence movements.
Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Gorbachev has bent to the hard-liners that have besieged him with demands for an authoritarian retrenchment. The big, bad bear is back, crushing unarmed demonstrators, establishing control, glutting the airwaves with propaganda--while 450,000 Soviet troops await orders from the Kremlin from posts throughout Eastern Europe. Suddenly, the regional power vacuum looms as a dangerous, unignorable challenge to international stability.
THUS FAR, Bush has done little more than express his concern at the recent developments in the Baltics. He has not, for instance, threatened to block Soviet entry into future GATT negotiations or the IMF.
While refusing to cede an inch of territory to Iraq, Bush appears willing to allow Soviet reactionaries to get their way in the Baltics. "Self-determination" is well and good, "appeasement" is nasty and bad, but there's a war on, a coalition to uphold and a newfound U.S.-Soviet quasi-alliance to protect.
A strong stand against injustice in the Soviet Union would be ideologically consistent. It would bolster Bush's call for a New World Order grounded in morality, sovereignty and respect for international law. But it would threaten the post-Cold War detente Bush deems necessary for post-Gulf War cooperation. He'd rather deal with a satisfied Soviet Empire than an angry, revisionist Russia--not to mention a slew of ethnically divided, nationalistic republics.