Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Chernobyl Has Become a Comforting Fable

The disaster isn’t just an easy metaphor for authoritarian failures.

A man lights a candle at a monument to Chernobyl victims.
A man lights a candle at a monument to Chernobyl victims in Slavutych, Ukraine—the city where the power station’s personnel lived—on April 25. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Policymakers who face unfamiliar challenges often turn to the past. The problem is they don’t see the messy questions that historians do but, instead, a warehouse of analogies providing easy answers. That seductive simplicity can lead them badly astray.

For pundits and others searching for guidance about international relations, Chernobyl is a metaphor that has come unstuck in time. The actual events of the Chernobyl disaster that took place 35 years ago have been transmuted into a fable about how the revelation of a calamity can undermine an authoritarian regime. That story has led to a ceaseless search for how any disaster in an authoritarian system opposed to the United States presages the imminent defeat of U.S. adversaries from within. It’s an analogy that instructs U.S. policymakers of the fragility of other systems and the inherent superiority of their own. In doing so, it absolves them of any need to shore up the foundations of their own system or prepare for long-term coexistence with a resilient authoritarian rival.

Used well, analogies can illuminate unfamiliar situations. Overused, they can entrap analysis. International relations scholar Khong Yuen Foong demonstrates in his book Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 that U.S. policymakers’ deliberations during the Cold War rested on analogical foundations that offered clear, convincing, and ultimately misguided lessons about the options they faced. Policymakers became convinced the 1938 Munich agreement’s lesson was appeasement would only embolden an aggressor and the Korean conflict’s lesson was forceful intervention would spark a wider conflict. When they applied those analogies to Cold War scenarios, they reached firm, historically informed, and utterly inappropriate conclusions about how to act.

Policymakers who face unfamiliar challenges often turn to the past. The problem is they don’t see the messy questions that historians do but, instead, a warehouse of analogies providing easy answers. That seductive simplicity can lead them badly astray.

For pundits and others searching for guidance about international relations, Chernobyl is a metaphor that has come unstuck in time. The actual events of the Chernobyl disaster that took place 35 years ago have been transmuted into a fable about how the revelation of a calamity can undermine an authoritarian regime. That story has led to a ceaseless search for how any disaster in an authoritarian system opposed to the United States presages the imminent defeat of U.S. adversaries from within. It’s an analogy that instructs U.S. policymakers of the fragility of other systems and the inherent superiority of their own. In doing so, it absolves them of any need to shore up the foundations of their own system or prepare for long-term coexistence with a resilient authoritarian rival.

Used well, analogies can illuminate unfamiliar situations. Overused, they can entrap analysis. International relations scholar Khong Yuen Foong demonstrates in his book Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 that U.S. policymakers’ deliberations during the Cold War rested on analogical foundations that offered clear, convincing, and ultimately misguided lessons about the options they faced. Policymakers became convinced the 1938 Munich agreement’s lesson was appeasement would only embolden an aggressor and the Korean conflict’s lesson was forceful intervention would spark a wider conflict. When they applied those analogies to Cold War scenarios, they reached firm, historically informed, and utterly inappropriate conclusions about how to act.

The appeal of analogies is simple: Find a situation in the past whose characteristics seem to match those of the present, see what worked or failed, and then repeat successes and avoid errors in the present. In reality, analogies are never perfect, and relying on analogical reasoning clutters rather than clarifies thinking about international relations and foreign policy. That problem, as Khong writes, only becomes more acute the more dominant a single interpretation of some historical event becomes among policymakers and the public.

So it is with Chernobyl. The Chernobyl fable is an appealing narrative, practically made for television. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has endorsed it. And it resembles the history of the actual Chernobyl disaster, when a nuclear reactor test generated an explosion—a massive release of radiation—and a frantic effort to cope with (and cover up) the scale of the disaster eventually failed spectacularly.

The story takes those elements and turns them into a cautionary tale about a colossus whose quest for power pushed designers to approve reactor designs with a fatal flaw, revealed only by a cataclysm. When a secretive government conspired to suppress the truth, it was brought to light by outsiders and courageous insiders whose revelations undermined and eventually destroyed the Soviet government itself. In this telling, the disaster was the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star of the Soviet Union—or, for that matter, any B-movie plot where the villain’s master plan is undermined by a long-concealed weakness.

The Chernobyl analogy instructs U.S. policymakers of the fragility of other systems and the inherent superiority of their own.

Like any story, the Chernobyl fable distorts reality. It’s true, for instance, that the Soviet cover-up of the reactor’s design faults resulted from more than an ordinary official quest to avoid blame but involved the way Marxist-Leninist regimes turned scientific expertise into a quasi-religious belief system. Yet the claim that Chernobyl caused a legitimacy crisis for the Soviet Union rests on sweeping causal claims that underestimate authoritarian resilience and oversimplify how complex societies really work.

The fact the Soviet Union fell apart five years after Chernobyl is sometimes held up as sufficient evidence to support the claim that the disaster accelerated, or even caused, the unraveling of the world’s leading communist country. More than two decades after the end of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, it should be clear that authoritarian regimes can endure chronic and acute crises that rival, if not exceed, the severity of Chernobyl. After all, the Soviet Union itself had done so many times, from the famines of 1921 to 1922, 1932 to 1933, and 1946 to 1947.

From Cuba to North Korea to Iran to China, regimes at least as repressive as the Soviet Union have found ways to adapt to changing circumstances. Even in more sophisticated presentations of Chernobyl’s political lessons, the widespread duplicity of the authoritarian system that produces both the disaster and the cover-up fail to explain why similar systems have endured so long. Many systems endure a long time even as they produce a plenitude of lies.

Two decades after the Cold War, the Soviet collapse seems less like a harbinger of the fate of authoritarian regimes and more like the result of particular and contingent factors, from Gorbachev’s personality to shifting oil prices to the mismatch between a centralized political regime and a federal governmental structure. (It’s tempting to speculate one reason Gorbachev endorses the Chernobyl theory of collapse is a structural explanation renders him blameless—the structure would always have collapsed no matter what he did.)

If Soviet collapse was not inevitable or if we can attribute it to factors other than legitimacy or calamity, then the political importance of Chernobyl recedes. What becomes more important, then, is not the roots of instability in authoritarian countries per se but how political systems of any stripe grow brittle or susceptible to collapse—a lesson one would think Americans have learned from the past several years. Indeed, as nonprofit organization Freedom House notes, at the moment, it is contemporary democracies, not autocracies, that seem to be on the waning side as the world enters the 15th consecutive year of democratic recession.

If this were a dispute over the role of Chernobyl in Soviet decline, it would be of interest mostly to specialists and aficionados. But the metaphor has long since escaped the confines of Sovietology to become a catchall explanation for why a given disaster presages the collapse of some authoritarian systems

The National Endowment for Democracy’s blog pivoted effortlessly from calling the January 2020 shootdown of a Ukrainian airliner “Iran’s ‘Chernobyl’ moment” to labeling the COVID-19 infection as “China’s biological ‘Chernobyl.’” The Atlantic Council mused (as did others) whether the coronavirus could be a “Chernobyl moment” for Russian President Vladimir Putin. An independent review panel suggested the coronavirus could be a “Chernobyl moment” for the World Health Organization—the clearest evidence the Chernobyl metaphor has become untethered from any evidence-based moorings.

The assumption that the Chernobyl metaphor would hold in the age of COVID-19 made certain sectors of U.S. opinion leaders optimistic about the prospects for the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party. Princeton University professor Rory Truex catalogued how some Western observers have diagnosed China’s collapse as imminent after a series of crises revealed Chernobyl-scale problems with the communist regime there, from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and Chinese milk scandal to the 2011 Wenzhou train collision to, of course, the 2020 coronavirus crisis.

This spirit was best expressed in retrospect when the United States turned out to be more susceptible to societal disruption than China, the origin of the virus. “COVID-19 was supposed to be China’s Chernobyl,” wrote New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman. “It’s ended up looking more like the West’s Waterloo.”

Anyone who relied on the Chernobyl metaphor to predict the political effects of the coronavirus got reality precisely backward.

Anyone who relied on the Chernobyl metaphor to predict the political effects of the coronavirus got reality precisely backward. Where the logic of the fable emphasizes how closed authoritarian systems promote untruths and thus engender disaster, the relatively open societies of the United States, Canada, Europe, Brazil, and now India have proved vulnerable to COVID-19, a failing that crossed ideological complexions of ruling parties and varieties of democracy alike.

The availability of the Chernobyl disaster, thanks to a wave of new books and the HBO miniseries, helps explain why it proved so attractive to so many. On a deeper level though, the appeal of the fable is it reassures Western audiences that democratic institutions possess some natural immunity to the lies and bureaucratic dysfunction that poisoned the Pripyat marshes with radiation.

It may be true (indeed, it’s probably likely) that open systems prove more self-correcting in the long run than closed ones. Yet societies that pride themselves on being democratic are apt to overrate their own virtues—and their preparedness for disaster. From the Windscale accident in the United Kingdom to the Fukushima disaster in Japan to the near-miss accidental nuclear detonation in the United States, Western history furnishes a number of near-Chernobyl events that, had they taken place, would have supported their own set of fables about the vices of democratic systems. Indeed, COVID-19 failures are already creating a fable in China that democracies won’t take the tough measures needed to halt disasters despite the counterexamples of Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Probably the most important lesson is for U.S. policymakers and observers who find the Chernobyl analogy strangely comforting. The Chernobyl analogy’s misguided prognosis that other systems are fatally flawed and Western ones are uniquely robust leads to faulty prescriptions. Authoritarian systems are not fated to crumble because of one or another catastrophe, and democratic ones will not avert disaster out of their own innate virtues. It’s not enough to look at U.S. democracy and conclude “Not great, not terrible” if you’re using the wrong instruments to measure it in the first place.

Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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