The Soviet Union was a failure, and the United States is great, and capitalism is great. Nevertheless, there are problems with this presentation.
First, this kind of American triumphalism is a decade or two out of date. When the Soviet Union disintegrated around 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously speculated that “the end of history” had been reached: it was now permanently settled that liberal democracy was the ideal form of government. Under the banner of the “Washington Consensus,” the US-led International Monetary Fund pushed reforms on developing countries, pressuring them to be just like us.
Today there is much more modesty. Populist, illiberal governments are growing in popularity in the western world. Our poorly-regulated financial system had a devastating crash in 2008. We’ve had disastrous attempts at nation-building. And China, which is Communist in name, has had spectacular economic growth:
- two hundred million citizens have been lifted out of poverty
- China’s total GDP is surpassing the US
- in some technological areas, Chinese companies are out-innovating the US
It is widely understood that, similar to China, the Soviet Union was communist in name only. The best descriptor for the Soviet Union is “totalitarian.” Stalin was a brutal dictator who subjugated his country with fear and violence. (An occasional counterargument heard is that communism and totalitarianism are the same by definition. But that bears no resemblance to the traditional idea of communism.)
This is not to suggest that the US and the Soviet Union weren’t in competition ideologically. However, the larger underlying battle was for global hegemony: which country would control more of the world. The US’s base of control was Western Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America, and the Pacific. Russia’s was Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe. Most of the conflicts occurred on the frontiers of these two respective strongholds.
This highlights an issue with Andrew Roberts’ comment about our moral superiority, about Good defeating Evil. If you’ve read any history books, you know that this kind of language is not used: though language like this is useful for inspiring patriotism, it is not useful in understanding what is actually going on. It also can have the perverse side effect of breeding anti-Americanism around the world.
It is certainly right to say that the dictator Josef Stalin was evil, that his actions caused immense suffering, and that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a great relief. It is also accurate to say that capitalism is a superior tool for maximizing economic growth.
Ironically, Russia’s embrace of democracy and capitalism after 1989 has not led to a respectable standard of living there. Any ideas why?