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The Soviet gift of freedom

[redacted by Lynn C. Rees]

Many Rhodes

The Modern Traveller

Blood thought he knew the native mind;
He said you must be firm, but kind.
A mutiny resulted.
I shall never forget the way
That Blood stood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
‘Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.’

Hilaire Belloc (1898)

One hundred years ago, the West had carved up the world. The carving had been done in a fit of absent mindedness by obscure men under obscure orders in obscure places. Better weaponry let small numbers of Europeans easily and cheaply massacre large numbers of spear wielding savages or traditional infantry levies. Because conquest was so easy and so cheap, more empire could be won with one twitch of miserly inertia than with all of the energy lavished on conquest in prior ages combined.

The world was freed from this New Imperialism after World War II. The West, impressed by the impact of its weapons on the non-West, turned those weapons on each other. Frustrated by the unprofitable impact of their first try, the West tried again twenty years later. Take two left them unable to pay the price of lordship so they abandoned their conquests, one by one. The United States of America, used to an anti-imperialist imperialism of indirect rule in its own half of the world, also discouraged its own clients from holding on to their empires. But the crucial contributor was the Soviet gift of freedom.

That this Soviet gift became a gift of freedom was an accident, an unforeseen consequence of the USSR’s own imperialism. The USSR mass produced cheap weapons. To further the Great Proletarian Revolution (and expand their own imperial sphere of influence), they pumped millions of these weapons to the colonial world. This incentivized casualty-averse Western colonial powers to hasten their exit and let the Soviet-backed rebels outgun the local non-communists.

Unfortunately for the USSR, greased palms undermined the inevitability of revolution. Weapons found their way out of the hands of reliable cadres and into the hands of the anything but reliable, strengthening non-communist resistance. The spread of its own weapons and the local resistance it enabled undermined Soviet imperial efforts, impaled the USSR on its own petard, and helped crumble it into the dustbin of history. The remnants of the USSR were left with a weapons surplus of weapons and little else except the capacity to manufacture more weapons. So weapons were flooded the world and further armed the peoples of the Earth.

The AK-47 assault rifle and its variants were based on a stolen Hun design. Kalashnikov reduced the complex Hun gun to a simple rugged weapon that could be repaired by the village blacksmith and convert any peasant into an instant praying and spraying Rambo. The RPG-7 was also based on a Hun design and provided simple and reliable firepower. Both weapons are well-adapted to simple tactics and simple training regimes.

Western weapons are more mechanically complex and assume greater tactical proficiency from their users than most Third World peasants can readily acquire. My youngest brother spent a lot of time in remote Nicaraguan villages. One local he met told him how the Sandinistas used to wait for the US to airdrop supplies to the contras. Then they’d pick off waiting contras and seize the supplies. They’d always discard the flaky M-16s, which they’d found unreliable for their needs. The beloved AK-47s, on the other hand, could fire until the barrel started to glow red and melt.

Add in a RPG for firepower, throw in an occasional PK machine gun, and you have the Soviet gift of freedom. This is the gift the Spartans sought to bestow in Peloponnesian War II : to “free the Greeks”. This wasn’t a gift of freedom to each individual Greek man, woman, or goat. It was a gift of freedom to each Greek polis: each polis would be freed of interference from other poleis who wanted to intervene in its affairs. This is the freedom local elites sought after World War II: the freedom to oppress their own people without fear of meddling from far off European colonial masters.

The Soviet gift of freedom ensures local oligarchic freedom by denying the option of easy intervention to the West. It allows enough resistance from local gunmen to cause serious political headaches back home. Western militaries have more military power and proficiency but operate under a more restrictive cultural, political, and strategic regime. They have less incentive to keep killing recalcitrant locals than local gunmen.

Spoilers don’t have enough power for hegemonic domination. But they may have enough power to frustrate and attrit a hegemonic power’s freedom to intervene or expand. To do this, gratuitous weapon exports can be a sensible stratagem for spoilers. Ubiquitous modern weaponry helps create heavily armed hedgehogs, turning each individual state into a potential case of hegemonic indigestion and each clump of states int a potential case of hegemonic diarrhea. If, like the USSR, a spoiler’s weapon designs are easily duplicated, others will copy them and spread them further, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of hegemonic frustration and attrition.

Hedgehogs may not directly further the spoiler’s power. Indeed, a spoiler may eventually have to deal with the hedgehogs it created. However, the proliferating effort can deny easy victories to the incumbent hegemons. A heavily armed world requires an expansive and interventionist hegemonic power to expensively and bloodily clear each corner of the globe and then expensively and bloodily patrolled to keep weapons from leaking back in. This Whack-A-Mole can accelerate hegemonic decline by bleeding them of lives, treasure, and, even more precious, attention, since they are constantly putting out fires in distant corners of their domain. While they are dispersed, the spoiler is focused. While their effort is fatally divided, the spoiler gets concentration of force. This creates opportunities for the spoiler.

2 Responses to “The Soviet gift of freedom”

  1. morgan Says:

    Insightful, Lynn–insightful. As they say in many parts of the Angelosphere: “good on ya, mate!”

  2. joey Says:

    “The Soviet gift of freedom ensures local oligarchic freedom by denying the option of easy intervention to the West.”

    I can come up with a list of western interventions as long as your arm to prove your argument wrong.


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