The Soviet Crisis and Foreign Policy Toward East Asia

The Soviet Crisis and Foreign Policy Toward East Asia

by James H. Billington and Herbert J. Ellison
July 1, 1991

This issue of NBR Analysis offers reflections on the current crisis in the Soviet Union by renowned Soviet experts James Billington and Herbert Ellison. The recent visit to Japan by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev took place as the Soviet leader faced mounting opposition at home. The inability of the Soviets and Japanese to achieve a significant breakthrough on the dispute over the Kurile Islands stands as a recent example of how events in the Soviet Union touch upon its foreign policy.

In the first essay, Dr. Billington views the transformation in the Soviet Union from a cultural perspective — as an ongoing search for a uniquely Russian identity compatible with democratic impulses of glasnost and perestroika. As Dr. Billington puts the question, “Can Russians find a post-totalitarian identity that can enable them to live at peace with themselves and thus with the outside world?” The course of this search and its outcome inevitably bear upon the conduct of Soviet foreign policy, the focus of Professor Ellison’s essay.

In a detailed examination of recent Soviet foreign policy in East Asia, Professor Ellison traces the achievements under ex-Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, such as the reconciliation with China and the opening of diplomatic relations with South Korea. Professor Ellison argues that despite the conservative retrenchment in the Soviet Union in the latter half of 1990, resolution of the Kurile Islands dispute continues to be in long term Soviet interests and remains the key to a restructuring of the U.S.-Soviet security relationship in the Asia-Pacific.

Dr. Billington’s essay grew out of an address he delivered at a recent NBR conference on great power relations in the Pacific cosponsored by NBR and the Congressional Research Service of The Library of Congress. Professor Ellison, director of Soviet-Asian Studies at NBR, is co-principal investigator with Professor Donald Hellmann for an NBR project that explores the changing balance of power in the Pacific through a case-study of Soviet-Japanese relations.