Telephone interview with Richard Falk, 1994
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Metta: Hello, may I speak with Richard Falk?
Richard Falk: Yes, speaking.
Metta: Hi, it’s Metta Spencer in Toronto. I have the idea in effect of two different interviews. I guess you can choose which one you want to do first. I may have told you I am working on a book on the way the peace movement influenced Soviet policy, especially during the Gorbachev period. So I have interviewed about 170 people on that question up to date, including many of your friends. For example, Gennady Gerasimov and a number of other people, Randy Forsberg and Victor Sumsky and a number of people that you probably know. I want to talk to you about that. The other thing is that I have been reading your book, or your article and this book on global visions. This is an issue that concerns me a lot. I’m editor of Peace Magazine and I think we ought to have a discussion of how we can work toward democratizing the international order that’s emerging. So, I don’t know what you want to talk about first, but I think of it as two different interviews back to back.
Richard Falk: Okay, we can begin wherever you wish.
Metta: Lets talk about the first one first then, since maybe you can share with me the kinds of experiences that you have had, that give any reason to—. You see, my original feeling was that it was important to document the extent to which the international peace movement played into new political thinking and the attitudes on arms control and disarmament and so on, that this needs to be shown by talking about a network of people who know each other. It’s very difficult, I noticed, to say, “I had this conversation and afterward the person I talked to went out and did this and I can see that it was my suggestion that did it.” That’s hard to show.
Richard Falk: I think it’s probably impossible.
Metta: But there are lots of good stories around of contacts and discussions and debates and so on and I know you were in the thick of it, so perhaps you can give me your feelings about how that may have made a difference.
Richard Falk: Well, I think it was the sense on the part of people around Gorbachev, that they were trying to find a new way of shaping the Soviet relationship to the world and that their own internal ideological climate had been so inhospitable to free thinking that they were inclined to reach out to people whom they felt to be congenial. To some extent they have had personal contact with several people including myself, over the years, as a consequence of various sorts of interaction that were, in my case, either arising out of my opposition to the Vietnam war and went back to the 60s which was the first time I’d been in the Soviet Union. War arose out of the effort of the World Order Model Project [WOMP] over the years to involve Soviet participation with more less success. Gerasimov was one of those who did remain involved over the years, though he was not the only one who was a serious Soviet intellectual who had been approached. And I think that pre-Gorbachev contacts created a sense that now there was really the opportunity of the levels of official policy to move in some of these progressive directions.
Metta: Did you have contacts then before WOMP was created? Is that what I’m understanding?
Richard Falk: Yes, late 60’s I had, well, WOMP was sort of created in the late 60’s, but they are quite into these early contacts of mine, which were associated primarily with my Vietnam opposition. Didn’t really have much to do with WOMP.
Metta: Who were some of the people? Did those people get involved? Would I recognize anybody’s name?
Richard Falk: On the American side?
Metta: No, on the Soviet side.
Richard Falk: George Mirsky, he was involved. Part of my own way of having contact was through taking part in the delegation organized by the American Friends Service Committee on the war, that I think went to the Soviet Union for a couple of weeks in 1966 0r 67.
Metta: How did you hope that would make a difference at that point?
Richard Falk: I had the sense that it was important for academic people, intellectuals, anti – war people in American society, to have some contact with the people in Soviet Union just to see what the degree of similarity of the dialogue was. It was done without a great deal of free thinking as to what would come out of it actually, but it was part of the feeling that it was important to encourage human contact as a way of softening some of the hard edges of the cold war. And I think it was true. I think it was more valuable than I expected it to be, actually.
Metta: Really. How so?
Richard Falk: Though there were difficulties, severe difficulties in the sense that the American delegation felt a strong resistance to being manipulated for purposes of Soviet propaganda, so, that creates a certain tension in the process because the Soviet group, even though it’s individuals, they may have been somewhat ambivalent about that role. As a group they had a kind of strong mandate to come out with some sort of collective denunciation of U.S. policy in Vietnam, and that wasn’t our intention to do that. We felt that it would be misunderstood if it was done in that context. But despite that difficulty, the sense of communication and personal friendship made the experience of this contact valuable in my view — though then again, very difficult to translate into any tangible result.
Metta: It would have been hard to think of policies that could have emerged at that point that would have made a difference for Moscow.
Richard Falk: Well, only the sense that it was important for the, I think the Soviet intellectuals to understand, that there were American intellectuals who were opposed to the war but were not necessarily sympathetic with the goals of the Soviet Union or communism in the world. And I think that point did get across pretty strongly.
Metta: And you think they didn’t know that?
Richard Falk: I think they didn’t. In a way, they found it, I know this over the years, particularly with this man Mirsky, we’ve stayed friends, I just saw him a few weeks ago actually. He was very intelligent. An important person on the Soviet scene.
Metta: How so?
Richard Falk: He was their main Middle East advisor expert. He actually wrote the Middle East policy statement for the leaders, even though he was somewhat restricted personally and couldn’t travel outside the country. They treated people very differently there than here. Here they would let you travel but if they, you, had any doubts about your degree of loyalty, you would never be able to participate in any policy forming process. But in the Soviet Union, even when you were under some degree of suspicion you could continue to play a rather important policy making role.
Metta: Why was he suspected?
Richard Falk: He says that it was partly because he had a Jewish mother, partly because he had some money in the West, and partly because he’d participated in some sort of discussion group as a student that had some informers in it and he had been somewhat independent minded.
Metta: So, did your relationship with him led you into other acquaintances that proved to be important?
Richard Falk: I wouldn’t say it quite as causally as that but there were other things that I did that put me in contact with people who then emerged as quite significant in the Gorbachev era. For example, Shakhnazarov, whom I met initially in Tokyo at the United Nations University, where we were both speakers. And he was the person who became Gorbachev’s main international policy advisor. He was the person I was impressed by during the later stages of the Brezhnev period when he was, I think, president of the Soviet Academy of Political Scientists, and was talking in a kind of world order way even then.
Metta: So you knew him before he….Mendlovich said that Shakhnazarov sort of knocked on his door one day and said I know about WOMP, let me talk to you and so on…. but you knew him before?
Richard Falk: Yes, I knew him before and that may be, at least in part, how he knew about WOMP. Because as I recall, it was a sort of discussion and perspective on the future of international society. I think I gave a kind of WOMP presentation and we found that our views were quite congenial. He and Petrovsky were both people that Saul Mendlovich and I had known. I am not sure the sequence of who knew each of them first or how. I think we met them separately actually. But they were the two people in addition to Gerasimov who was a more… he wasn’t in the same sense a creative thinker and he was more of an operator within the system.
Metta: But these people — the same names come up over and over again. It as if there was a really narrow conveyor belt. Out of these 170 interviews I have lots of people who think that policy ideas of theirs went someplace and almost all of them think it was either through Arbatov or Shakhnazarov or Petrovsky. You know I can count them on one hand the number of people who.
Richard Falk: Well, off course. Those were the three people who were interested in these international policy issues. Who welcomed, even during the Soviet era, contact with Western intellectuals and possibly had a mandate to seek out such contact. And seemed receptive to ideas of this sort that people like ourselves were interested in promoting. Now, I don’t know myself where you draw the line between their recent receptivity that comes out of a desire for the contact and a real impact on their thinking. I think it’s extremely difficult. Of course, all of us like to think that our ideas are so irresistible that all who hear them can be influenced by them. But, I’m not so sure that was the case. So there was some wishful thinking, I think. That it goes into feeling that one exerted a great influence.
Metta: Well, I don’t hear anyone claiming more than they can document. Most people just say, well, I don’t know. I don’t know how much influence I had. I know somebody talked to me but where it went from that, I don’t know.
Richard Falk: Yes, that’s the way I feel.
Metta: Which issues do you feel may have been most likely to, you could have made a difference in?
Richard Falk: Well, I think the whole sense of trying to think of what was beneficial to the world as a whole as distinct from the realist national interest oriented perspective. I think that was very important to the articulation of Gorbachev’s new thinking. And from my contact with Gorbachev since he’s been out of power, I think it really was something that penetrated rather deeply into his political consciousness.
Metta: Did he ever tell you when he got it? You know.
Richard Falk: No, and I think that my impression, see I haven’t really attempted doing what you’re doing, and that is to systematically reconstruct how this process of thinking emerged. My sense was that it was initially a rather pragmatic way of creating a better international climate so that domestic reforms could succeed more easily. And that as a result of that early experience which sometimes, Shakhnazarov and others analogized to what Franklin Roosevelt had done here for capitalism, Gorbachev tried to do for socialism.
Metta: Shakhnazarov said that in those terms?
Richard Falk: Yes.
Metta: You know I was in Moscow about two months ago and interviewed a guy named Yegor Kouznetzov who has worked for Shakhnazarov for a long time. Do you know him?
Richard Falk: Yes, I think so. Not well though.
Metta: He told me something that I didn’t have a chance to get to the bottom of. He said that Gorbachev had the intention all along of destroying the CPSU. That was his fixed idea. And that he ran across, he didn’t seem ashamed to tell me this, he said he had seen a stenographic notebook with shorthand in it on minutes of meetings where Shakhnazarov was present and it was very clear that Gorbachev’s reluctance to change Article 6 of the constitution was a ruse because he didn’t think he could get away with it at that point. But his intention was to destroy the party all along. Is there anything in your experience that squares with or disconfirms that?
Richard Falk: Well, yeah, it surprises me because, to the extent that that kind of effect that the rouse, the people I’ve known and spoken to treated it as something that Gorbachev didn’t intend and, had he known that it would have happened, might not have embarked on the process of drastic reform to begin with. That was the general… One of the most interesting people that I haven’t mentioned is a slightly, as not as focused on these substantive concerns is Yakovlev, who I’ve also had some interesting conversations with over the years. And who I recall having talked to about this general issue and he certainly didn’t give anything approaching that kind of view.
Metta: I haven’t interviewed him, but I’ve heard an interview with him where it doesn’t sound like that at all.
Richard Falk: He’s very intelligent. He spent a lot of time in Canada, as ambassador to Canada and that was a very important period for Gorbachev supposedly. He had these long conversations with him and visited him several times.
Metta: That’s one of the things I’d like to do, get an interview with him. I haven’t been able to. That’s because he’s got this high post now.
Richard Falk: He’s not an easy person to talk to in the same way the others are. You have to get him in a sort of post-vodka state
Metta: Do you have any idea how the decision came to be made to accept the INF proposal with all the zero zero option and so on?
Richard Falk: No, not in any specific detail. I think it was part of the general strategy of adopting the Western positions as a way of forcing negotiations to be successful. I think they really came to the view that it didn’t make much difference, that the negotiations were rather meaningless because each side had such heavy arsenals of weapons. The important thing was to initiate successfully a process that would cool the tensions and reverse the arms race.
Metta: I know that Gerasimov had said that early on he had recommended at Reykjavik, he was trying to tell Gorbachev not to worry about Star Wars and he really didn’t make a dent in it at that point. But then it seems that at some point Gorbachev must have reversed his position on that and a number of other matters.
Richard Falk: Yes, or felt that it was, despite Star Wars, it was worth taking, doing these other things and that it might be a better way of going about undercutting Star Wars.
Metta: I’d love to get those stories but I haven’t been able to get anybody who can give me the sequence of events.
Richard Falk: I think there’s a lot of confusion around those kinds of issue. You know, Shakhnazarov, whom I saw a few weeks ago, said there is being published, not only Gorbachev memoirs, two volumes, but Shakhnazarov has a volume that includes an exchange of correspondence with Gorbachev throughout this period, on all these issues. And of course those would both be really invaluable sources.
Metta: I’ve interviewed Shakhnazarov. Anyway, I’ll just have to wait for that to happen. When I was there last, I saw a document, in fact, Kouznetsov gave me a copy of something Jonathan Dean had written which was quite wonderful. You were cited a lot, you and some other people were cited in it as having contributed ideas on that. You’re working, I take it, still, with some sort of project, World Security Project.
Richard Falk: Yes. Global Security. There was a second meeting in Washington…you probably saw the results of the Moscow meeting.
Metta: I don’t know what it was, he just gave me a copy and it was a draft, sort of a rough draft. Anyway, I was impressed. So can you tell me what’s cooking on that? Is something going forward?
Richard Falk: As far as I know it is. It is coming out of the Gorbachev Foundation. And I’m not sure if it’s a sort of a confusing exercise because in part it’s providing Gorbachev with some suggestions as to a kind of major line of thinking that he might initiate on global security after the cold war.
Metta: Will it be a book or…
Richard Falk: Well the initial idea was to make a major speech. Either of the 50th anniversary of the U.N., or possibly even within the U.N. system, or do something in some prominent context and then to publish it in a prominent way. But a lot of people have been giving input as that I don’t know what will come out actually. And whether Gorbachev — he’s a strong willed person with his own sense of what he wants to say, so I am not at all clear that these things we have been working on will have much impact.
Metta: Oh really.
Richard Falk: Yeah, it is hard to say. Just hard to say. I mean I have a good human feeling about him — his robustness and a good sense of play. You know he is not a heavy-handed person in interaction, and I have enjoyed this experience, of having this contact.
Metta: Tell me more about your contact with him.
Richard Falk: Well it’s purely through this Gorbachev Foundation and through my friendship with (name?), who is very close with Gorbachev. And I’ve been part of the American delegation on this global security. There’s this Indian group, an American group, a Russian group and there’s supposed to be a third meeting in Delhi in the fall.
Metta: Victor Sumsky told me that he was working on something to do with the far east, security policy in the far east. Do you know who he is and what I am talking about?
Richard Falk: No.
Metta: I see okay, because it is connected with your project.
Richard Falk: Yes, there’s several wings to that project and it is not clear you know actually which parts of it are going to be influential.
Metta: (name?) also mentioned to me something about global civilization. Is that connected to it?
Richard Falk: No that’s the WOMP Project
Metta: Well he made a distinction between WOMP and that.
Richard Falk: No, it’s the latest phase of the WOMP Project, which initiated in Moscow with Shakhnazarov acting as the sort of host and initiator back in ’87 I think.
Metta: I see, okay where does that stand now?
Richard Falk: Well, I’m actually the reporter of that and I just finished the manuscript that is the report of that project. Which I’m trying to edit so it can be published.
Metta: As if that’s the end of it?
Richard Falk: Yes, it’s the end of this phase. Regard it as the end of it.
Metta: So, it will be published?
Richard Falk: Yes, definitely.
Metta: How much impact do you think it will have?
Richard Falk: Oh, it’s so hard to say. One hopes that it will have some and tries to address the larger questions of world order at this stage of history and has the backing of quite a diverse group of scholars from around the world.
Metta: So, the document I got from Kouznetsov wouldn’t have any bearing on that, is that right?
Richard Falk: As far as I know.
Metta: By the way, how can I reach Jonathan Dean because he’s the one who wrote this thing and I’d like to ask him about it.
Richard Falk: He’s in Washington. I think you can reach him through the Arms Control Association.
Metta: Okay. So, do you feel then that your influence has been channeled most through these meetings connected with Shakhnazarov than any other way?
Richard Falk: Well, it’s hard to say because we have exchanged things we’ve written, I’ve been interviewed over the years by Gerasimov when he was a journalist and by other people. It’s hard to know because people don’t tell you what it is that affects them. I think it’s more a pattern of relationship that may have some bearing but as you have been pointing out is almost impossible to pin down
Metta: Well, anyway it’s very useful to know something about your network. Do you want to go on and shift over to talking about the other topic? The global democracy notion.
Richard Falk: Okay.