The immense upheaval in the Soviet Union represents history's most colossal shift from a repressive, authoritarian regime toward democracy. It also promises to result in the most prodigious attempt anywhere, anytime to leap from a tightly controlled economy to a more open, market-driven system. The failed coup seems sure to accelerate the achievement of what had been one of President Mikhail Gorbachev's main goals all along: to connect the closed Soviet system to the global economy. When newly independent republics pursue their own reforms, this seems likely to happen in a more piecemeal fashion, but no less surely. As the Moscow bureaucracy's monopoly of decision-making crumbles, emerging entrepreneurs are bound to look outward for suppliers, markets, knowhow, and investment partners. The eventual result is likely to be a vast opening for Europe's economic dynamo. What could be in store, over the decades ahead, is the emergence of a huge, increasingly interlinked market of 700 million people stretching halfway around the world.
For the West, there are both dangers and opportunities in the Soviet Union's transformation. Ancient ethnic and national rivalries, long bottled up under the repressive rule of czars and commissars, could erupt in violent conflicts and spill over to neighboring countries. The return to private initiative and competition, for peoples who have forgotten how markets work during 70 years of Marxist mismanagement, may produce instability as well as economic growth. But the economies that emerge from the crumbling Soviet system will have an enormous hunger for Western products, technology, management knowhow, and investment.
For Western Europeans, there will be little choice but to actively engage the new Soviet Union or its successor states, politically and economically, to help shape a peaceful transition to a new order. The new markets to the east can give yet another boost to Western European industry as it consolidates its gains from integration within the EC.
The U.S., less vulnerable than Western Europe to immediate political and economic shocks from the turmoil, could opt to stay more aloof as the Soviet republics remake themselves. But to do so would be to forgo the chance to influence an epochal development that could change the world. The exhilaration of this moment cost Americans dearly. They made great sacrifices over four decades to contain aggression by the Soviet system that is now disappearing. To reap the benefits, the U.S. must join its European allies in helping the Russians complete their transition to democracy and the market economy. That is the best way to ensure the continued security of the U.S.-and share in the opportunities in the vast market that promises to emerge.