The Demise of the USSR: A Failure to Evolve Administrative Doctrine?

On December 25, 1991, the U.S.S.R. was officially dissolved as a state entity after roughly six years of the most ambitious attempt at reinvention of government in modern history.  Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, openness and restructuring, sought to reform the existing political and economic systems, given the failure of the U.S.S.R’s centrally planned economy (Moss & Thomas, 2010).  The inefficiency of the U.S.S.R.’s command economy resulted in the country’s inability to compete as a world power on the global stage with the United States (Shafritz, Russell, & Borick, 2011).  The subsequent dissolution of the U.S.S.R serves as a reminder of the important link between a state’s administrative doctrine and the well being of its citizens.  Indeed, effective administrative doctrine is essential for the successful public administration of state, given it is a key driver of the effectiveness of state institutions that can positively or negatively affect the well-being of constituents and the survival of the state on the global stage.

Early Soviet administrative doctrine was heavily influenced by Western schools of thought in pubic administration (Cocks, 1978).  In particular, the Soviet administrative rationality movement of the 1920s and 1930s, adopted many of Taylor and Fayol’s principles of scientific management (Cocks, 1978).  However, the USSR focused on the technical production aspects of scientific management and appeared unable to adopt Fayol’s managerial principles as they dealt with “coordination, control, organization, planning, and command of people” (Shafritz, et al., 2011, p. 231); issues that would affect the landscape of Soviet political power (Cocks, 1978).  Rather, “the rationalizers were to deal only with administrative methods; they were not to decide issues of policy and power” (Cocks, 1978, p. 46).  The limits placed on rational administrative doctrine by the Soviet party apparatus all but assured the rational movement would be unable to evolve to address the failures of the centrally planned economy.

In truth, while administrative doctrine in the U.S.S.R appeared to be unable to evolve, the history of western organizational theory demonstrates a consistent evolution and adoption of new scientific thought.  Shafritz, et al. (2011) note that paradigms in administrative doctrine “overlap both in time and content because they are constantly evolving” (p. 245), in response to scientific advances, technological changes, and changing environments, describing doctrinal development as “inherently cyclical”.  Furthermore, Shafritz, et al. (2011) attribute the cyclical nature of administrative doctrine to a competence/incompetence cycle whereby new innovations increase effectiveness until “advancing technologies and changing environments allow the innovation to deteriorate relative to other arrangements” (p. 246), noting striking similarity to the boom and bust cycles of the business world.

Indeed, both the boom and bust cycle of the business world and the competence and incompetence cycle of large organizations share similar roots in human biological and social processes.  Raafat, Chater, and Frith (2009) describe herding behavior in humans as “as the alignment of the thoughts or behaviours of individuals in a group (herd) through local interaction and without centralized coordination” and use the herding metaphor to explore the very human proclivity to follow the behavior of others preceding them, particularly should they appear successful.  Herding behavior, in this sense, can be used to describe why best practices and even benchmarking are commonplace.  Of course, the downside to herding is that individual or groups are unlikely to wander far from the herd, either, resulting in maintenance of the status quo until such time as there is an internal or external shock that creates a need for change to begin the innovation cycle anew.

Of course, the USSR administrative doctrine did not follow the competence and incompetence cycle and as a result, appeared unable to innovate or evolve their approach to public administration.  The lack of an evolved Soviet public administration doctrine left the state unable to deal with the changing global landscape, nor able to compete with U.S. economic and administrative power, despite the considerable political power of the U.S.S.R.  As the fall of the U.S.S.R demonstrates, effective administrative doctrine is essential for successful public administration of a state, can either positively or negatively affect the well being of constituents, and have implications for the long-term survival of the state.


Cocks, P. (1978). Administrative rationality, political change, and the role of the party. In K. W. Ryavec (Ed.), Soviet society and the Communist Party (pp. xviii, 220 p.). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Moss, G., & Thomas, E. P. (2010). Moving on : the American people since 1945 (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Raafat, R. M., Chater, N., & Frith, C. (2009). Herding in humans. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(10), 420-428.

Shafritz, J. M., Russell, E. W., & Borick, C. P. (2011). Introducing public administration (7th ed.). Boston: Longman.



How effective was the United States in achieving their goals through the use of Cold War policies?

The Cold War set the tone for American foreign policy for forty-five years. How effective was the United States in achieving their goals through the use of Cold War policies?

Photo from stoixeia (Creative Commons)

In 1947, George Kennan helped shape the course of the United States cold war policies in his article, The Sources of Soviet Conduct.  Kennan’s policy of containment became the cornerstone of U.S. cold war policy and as such is an appropriate framework to understand the original goals of American foreign policy during the cold war and craft a perspective on policy effectiveness.

Kennan summarized that capitalism and communism are inherently at odds given communism’s basic tenets; that “the capitalist system of production is a nefarious one (X, 1947, p. 566)” and is incapable of fair distribution of resources; capitalism in its final phase leads to imperialism and war; and finally, revolutionary transfer of power to the working class is inescapable (X, 1947).

Kennan believed that communism was a system that could, and would eventually fail of its own accord, based on his belief that, “If, consequently, anything were ever to occur to disrupt the unity and efficacy of the Party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies” (X, 1947, p. 580).  He also argued that no state of affairs supports indefinite frustration without eventually righting itself (X, 1947).

As a result, Kennan argued for, “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon he interests of a peaceful and stable world” (X, 1947, p. 581)  In addition, Kennan believed that the United States needed to create an impression that its system had a, “spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time” (X, 1947, p. 581).  Three decades later, Reagan upheld Kennan’s view in his presidential candidacy announcement when he said, “A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and—above all—responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill” (Reagan, 1979).

Therefore, our measure of policy effectiveness must examine two things; the degree to which communism has been contained and the role the successful example of the United States played in communist containment.

Moss and Thomas, document the fall of communism suggesting, “In rapid succession, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated, and Communism as an ideological alternative to Western liberal capitalism disappeared into the ash heap of history” (Moss & Thomas, 2010, p. 266).  It is worth noting, that Cuba, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam and most importantly China are still communist; that both Nepal and Cyprus have ruling communist parties; and that a number of nations have active communist parties, including both South Africa and Brazil; and so while communism can be considered contained, it has hardly disappeared.

What role did the successful example of the United States play in the eventual demise of the Soviet Union?  It is my hypothesis that people who had a desire for liberty were responsible for the fall of communism and that the United States provided the contrast needed to create a desire for change.  In his speech dissolving the Soviet Union, Gorbachev told his countrymen, “A breakthrough has been achieved on the way to democratic changes. Free elections, freedom of the press, religious freedoms, representative organs of power, a multiparty system became a reality; human rights are recognized as the supreme principle” (Gorbachev, 1991).  The principles Gorbachev spoke of are clearly a of model of the principles of western governments and the United States in particular.

While our cold war policies have had a tremendous cost, that perhaps even yet have not been fully understood, it is clear that our policies were highly effective at containing communism.  It is equally clear that the principles upon which our government is based serves as an example to the people of more repressive governments; of the possibility of a future where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be obtained.  Time and again, people around the world, whether discussing our own revolution, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa or the more recent demonstrations in the Middle East, clearly desire freedom as their natural and desired state; and are willing to risk life and limb to obtain it.   The human desires for self-direction, mastery and purpose are at the heart of the fall of communism and Kennan knew this in 1947, as did Reagan in 1979.  Kennan demonstrated a fundamental understanding of both of the Russian people and more importantly human nature and shaped a policy designed to politically and economically contain communism until it changed from within, which appears to the observer, to be exactly what happened.  I do wonder whether there was an approach that was less costly in both economic terms and in the human cost.


Gorbachev, M. (1991). Gorbachev Speech Dissolving the Soviet Union (USSR): Christmas 1991, 2011, from

Moss, G., & Thomas, E. P. (2010). Moving on : the American people since 1945 (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Reagan, R. (1979). Ronald Reagan’s Announcement for Presidential Candidacy  Retrieved 4/7/2011, 2011, from

X. (1947). THE SOURCES OF SOVIET CONDUCT. [Article]. Foreign Affairs, 25(4), 566-582.