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A Crisis of Legitimacy Grips Emerging Commonwealth : Diplomacy: The former Soviet Union is undergoing a massive transformation, and how the United States responds is a big part of it.

December 22, 1991|John D. Steinbruner | John D. Steinbruner is the director of foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution

WASHINGTON — The dissolution of the Soviet Union should be the occasion for careful reflection. Whatever sense of triumph the United States may feel, whatever relief from traditional fears or enthusiasm for the political accommodation already accomplished, the dominant fact is that no one has yet mastered the implications of this event.

It may be many years before we do. Nonetheless, it is urgent that we begin what promises to be a major adventure in comprehension.

Throughout the entire area of what we once knew as the Soviet Bloc, a massive and rapid transformation is under way. The mechanisms of central economic planning have collapsed before any replacement design or organized transition could be created. Spontaneous, unbuffered adjustments to market operations are being imposed with essentially no preparation. At the same time, authoritarian methods of political control have also collapsed before any broad consensus could form as a viable replacement.

This simultaneous regeneration of political and economic systems is compelling the critical elements of civil society--its institutions, legal structures and public attitudes--to evolve in a small fraction of the time that market economies and political democracies developed in Western societies.

Moreover, all this must be accomplished in the midst of severe economic austerity and surging ethnic emotions. It must also be accomplished in the context of an international economy caught up in a technical revolution. Radical changes in the processing and transmission of information are restructuring economic and political patterns throughout the world.

For the successor states of the Soviet Union, and the commonwealth they are committed to forming, these circumstances have produced an immediate crisis of legitimacy--perhaps the most vital property of any political system. Like gravity, legitimacy in politics is a fundamental force shaping all interactions. Its ultimate determination is as mysterious as is the determination of gravity. Its practical meaning, however, is apparent in daily events. Legitimacy refers to the willingness of people to accept authority and, without a fair amount of that acceptance, no political system can possibly operate.

The collapse of the Soviet government reveals that political legitimacy among its citizens has fallen below a critical threshold. The new states must restore it to viable levels. It is a great deal to expect them to accomplish under these conditions, and it is still uncertain that they will succeed.

The crisis is reflected in the fact that the emerging republic governments are unable to collect taxes at rates commensurate with the responsibilities they inherit. Neither can they enforce decrees or uphold even longstanding laws. Power has diffused to local levels. Individuals are acting largely as they please.

There is a great deal of initiative emerging at ground levels of the economy. Some is promisingly productive, some clearly criminal, much of it falls in between. The net result makes economic circumstances less catastrophic than official macroeconomic figures would imply. It is often said, for example, that the gross national product in the dissolving Soviet Union has declined by 20% in the past year. Fortunately, the abject misery that would accompany such figures has not appeared--as yet. It is difficult to believe, however, that the unregulated market economic arrangements spontaneously emerging can service a society of that size indefinitely.

This means that all the new states of the former Soviet Bloc will need far greater international engagement in their task of reconstruction than has yet been conceived or provided. They need more international market access, more private investment capital, more public infrastructure investment and more direct support for their political and legal structures. The consequences of that not being done soon are far more serious than the international community prefers to believe. Barriers that once isolated these people are down. The West is profoundly exposed to their fate and we will eventually be compelled to do something about it--for the most selfish of reasons if no others suffice.

It is, of course, difficult in the U.S. political system to undertake large conceptual departures of policy or major acts of what can be construed as unbalanced generosity. The perception of economic austerity at home does not help either. Realistically, we are thus likely to be coaxed in stages into a broader comprehension and more assertive involvement.

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