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Expert Revisits Era When 'Principles...Made a Difference'

(Washington, D.C.--July 27, 2004) For two decades, from 1979 to 2001, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by the "defense of principles rather than pragmatism" according to a foreign policy expert who spoke last week to an RFE/RL audience.

Paul A. Goble, Senior Advisor to the Director at the International Broadcasting Bureau and a well known expert on Soviet nationality policy and the Soviet Union, said this "unique" period in U.S. foreign policy became possible because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979. That invasion initiated a policy discussion in Washington about whether the Soviets were overextended, and asking whether the U.S.S.R. was "not legitimate," but rather an empire whose "demise" could be assisted.

Until the late President Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, delivered in June 1982, U.S. policy makers had "ignored the imperial dimension of the U.S.S.R.," according to Goble. "It's the words we use that define what we did and how we did it," he said, "it was critically important that he call it the "Evil Empire.'" Goble said that these principles had begun to weaken by "February 1992," when U.S. government policy once again began "obsessing on border stability," and encouraging central governments to do "whatever needed" to prevent the further dissolution of states. Since the 9/11 attacks against the U.S., Goble asserted, the country has maintained a pragmatic approach in its foreign policy -- "stabilizing governments."

Goble stressed that three significant actors "which made a difference" drove foreign policy on the U.S.S.R. during this period: government officials, experts, and American ethnic activists. In political eras of pragmatism, Goble said, government officials dominate foreign policy development. However, in a political era characterized by principles, mass movements and the expert community (outside the government) have an opportunity to influence the development of innovative foreign policy.

RFE/RL, Goble said, was a pivotal member of the expert community because it broke the monopoly government officials had on information. Its experts gathered and disseminated accurate and up-to-date information from open sources available from within the Soviet region. Goble explained, "[RFE/RL] prevented government officials from saying, 'If you knew what we do, you would think like us,'" opening up debate over foreign policy to a wider audience.

Goble offered "three lessons" that could be learned from the way policy concerning the now-defunct Soviet Union was formulated during this era. The first lesson, Goble said, is that "culture matters...If you really want to understand a place you have to look at [its] culture." He cautioned, however, that culture cannot explain everything and is most important when assessing an area's long-term situation. Second, "politics matter, especially in short-term evaluation," he said. And finally, Goble emphasized that "no trend lasts forever -- trends change."

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