Did Reagan End the Cold War?

Edmund Levin, in the Weekly Standard (11-15-04):

Re: Ending the Cold War: Interpretations, Causation and the Study of International Relations
edited by Richard K. Herrmann and Richard Ned Lebow
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pp., $24.95

IT CAN'T BE SAID that Ronald Reagan ever had many fans in American academia. After he declared the Soviet Union an "evil empire," Henry Steele Commager sneered: "The worst presidential speech in American history, and I've read them all." Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in full wise-man mode, decried the president's "crusading anti-communism," his "messianic conviction," and his view of the Soviet Union "as unchanged, unchanging, and unchangeable."

More than a decade has passed since the Cold War ended, with America's rival of a half century, to the astonishment of even the most optimistic Cold Warriors, slipping into oblivion with barely a struggle, melting to the floor like some Wicked Witch of the East. The archives of the nonexistent Soviet Union are yielding some of their secrets. Though much remains under lock and key, scholars can now thumb through once top-secret documents, including records of Gorbachev-era Politburo meetings.

So what conclusions do the professors now come to? How much credit do they give Ronald Reagan? Few academics of prominence buy the theory (popularized by Peter Schweizer in his book Victory) that Reagan ran the Soviet economy into the ground with his massive defense budget increases and other pressure tactics. Reagan's hard line may have pushed the Soviet Union toward reform. But the consensus is that it was Gorbachev's hare-brained way of going about it that destroyed the Soviet system.

But that doesn't mean Reagan gets no credit for ending the Cold War. He receives some surprisingly high marks for his overall strategy and flexibility in dealing with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And research by scholars who don't praise Reagan directly lends support to his case.

Over the past decade, the study of the end of the Cold War has divided into two warring schools. "Realists" see Gorbachev's decision to retrench and accommodate the United States as the result of an inexorable power dynamic: The Soviet Union, with its planned economy in crisis, with declining growth rates, and a staggering defense burden, just could not keep up. "Constructivists," on the other hand, see the Cold War's end as the product of Gorbachev's vision, fine-tuned by Westernized advisers: "The decisive turn," as leading constructivist Robert English puts it in Cold War Endgame, "was propelled as much by the force of ideas as the imperatives of power."

Both schools are more favorable to Reagan than you might expect. Recent research based on declassified Soviet documents supports Reagan's central judgment that the Soviet Union was economically vulnerable to U.S. pressure. "I believe we live now at a turning point," President Reagan declared in an historic speech to the British Parliament in June 1982. "We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis in . . . the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union," which "is in deep economic difficulty."

WELL INTO THE 1990s, the academics' conventional wisdom still maintained that Soviet economic troubles had "little causal weight" in the end of the Cold War. Realists Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, in their chapter in Cold War Endgame and in a series of important articles in prestigious scholarly journals, make a powerful case that Gorbachev's overwhelming motivation for ending the Cold War on American terms was economic: his country's "systemic decline" and "the rapidly escalating costs of maintaining the Soviet Union's international position."

Transcripts of Politburo meetings from 1980 to 1984, they say, show Soviet leaders to be extremely apprehensive about their country's decline. When Gorbachev became top leader in 1985, the anxiety intensified. Documents show a more "alarmist" Gorbachev than was seen in public, "making ever more insistent arguments for the necessity of international retrenchment." Brooks and Wohlforth write in the journal International Security that the possibility of an increasing defense burden "was truly a frightening prospect for Gorbachev."

They quote a striking statement by Gorbachev, sounding the alarm at a Politburo session on October 4, 1986: "Our goal is to prevent the next round of the arms race. If we do not accomplish it, the threat to us will only grow. We will be pulled into another round of the arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it, because we are already at the limit of our capabilities. Moreover, Japan and the FRG (West Germany) could very soon join the American potential. . . . If the new round begins, the pressure on our economy will be unbelievable."

Wohlforth and Brooks argue that Gorbachev's "new thinking"--with compromises on arms control, and unilateral concessions, such as his historic December 1988 decision to cut the Soviet military by half a million troops--were a byproduct of necessity. "The mounting material costs of the old Soviet foreign policy" were just too high. Wohlforth and Brooks also see the effectiveness of export controls on trade with the Soviets, much maligned at the time by Reagan's opponents as counterproductive. "The Soviets had to readjust their security strategy due to the West's policy of 'economic containment.'" The documents show "there was a clear recognition . . . that the only way to reduce these Western restrictions was by moderating foreign policy."

Oddly, they never mention Reagan (or any other president). For them, systemic factors are key. But their analysis can be seen as lending strong support to the basic Reaganite doctrine that keeping up the pressure, including a military buildup, was the fastest way to end the Cold War. While they don't explicitly credit the tough U.S. stance, they point out Gorbachev's reaction to it was to make concession after concession.

In Cold War Endgame, Wohlforth gives space to Robert English to make the case that the conflict ended not because the U.S.S.R. ran out of gas, but because of "the singular influence of ideas and the singular leadership of Gorbachev." So, too, Vladislav Zubok, a leading light of the younger generation of Cold War historians, homes in on Gorbachev's complex personality as a critical factor in the Cold War's end. Zubok's elaborate taxonomy of Gorbachev's personal qualities and quirks--including immense self-confidence, a bizarrely exaggerated faith in the power of ideas, a certain naiveté, poor negotiating skills, a propensity for risk-taking, and a "congenital" inability to form a long-range plan--makes a strong case that, without Gorbachev, history would have been quite different. But he agrees Gorbachev's preeminent goal was stopping the arms race in the face of rising American power, and that by 1984 even the "old-thinking" Soviet leadership saw that as imperative. Elsewhere, Zubok has argued Gorbachev was concerned about the long-term threat of Star Wars and saw it as an incentive to pursue arms control. He's also noted the critical element of personal rapport--crediting Reagan and Gorbachev's "remarkable anti-nuclear synergy."

Meanwhile, in a volume called Ending the Cold War, some of the heavyweight academic contributors actually mention Reagan by name--and have positive things to say. Preeminent Gorbyologist Archie Brown of Oxford, for instance, considers Gorbachev the most important factor in the Cold War's end. But "Reagan was an interlocutor who made ending the Cold War easier than it might otherwise have been." He doesn't think much of Reagan's hardline policies, but concedes "The Reagan Factor" helped end the Cold War.

Some contributors dismiss Reagan's role. The most forceful Reagan debunker is Matthew Evangelista, a scholar of a constructivist bent, who's director of the Peace Studies Program at Cornell. He argues that SDI (Star Wars), far from forcing the Soviets to accommodate, was a hindrance at the bargaining table: "Soviet reformers pursued (arms control) despite Star Wars," not because of it. He gives Reagan no credit whatever for the INF arms control agreement of 1987, which for the first time eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons. "At first blush," Evangelista says, there seems to be a strong case for the INF Treaty as a "negotiation-from-strength" success story. But he argues that it was the change in Soviet leadership--with Gorbachev and his foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze taking over--that was wholly responsible for this historic event.

But other contributors concede Gorbachev would not have had to make the concessions he did if Reagan hadn't stood firm. There would have been no INF "zero option" for Gorbachev to accede to if Reagan hadn't pushed for it in 1981 (over the objections of some of his own advisers). In the abstrusely titled "Understanding the End of the Cold War as a Non-Linear Confluence," Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein make a clear point: The Reagan administration's initial hard line ensured that "dramatic, irreversible, and even unilateral actions on the Soviet side were probably necessary to jump start the process of accommodation."

Lebow, the volume's coeditor, and venerable Sovietologist George Breslauer expand on that point in "Leadership and the End of the Cold War: A Counterfactual Thought Experiment." They ask the intriguing question: What would have happened if Reagan had never been president? What if John Hinckley's bullet had not missed Reagan's heart by an inch and George H.W. Bush had been sworn into office? Or what if Walter Mondale had won the 1984 election?

They find that Reagan's hard-line negotiating strategy was critical to ending the Cold War. Reagan saw initial Soviet gestures as "driven by weakness." Against all obstacles, "President Reagan dug in his heels . . . and held out for maximal Soviet concessions"--a good thing, as it turned out. A President Bush or Mondale "would have been more inclined to temporize," they surmise, which would have given Gorbachev more political room internally. That, they think, would have been a bad thing. "The perception that a Bush or Mondale would have settled for less" would have made it more difficult for Gorbachev to justify his concessions.

HARVARD PROFESSOR Mark Kramer, editor of the Journal of Cold War Studies, comes to the same conclusion in a recent special issue on "The Collapse of the Soviet Union." Reagan's hard line helped Gorbachev overcome Moscow's own hard-liners: "The inability of the hard-liners to produce better results (from 1981 to 1985) undoubtedly gave the new Soviet leader greater leeway to consider 'new thinking' in foreign policy."

"Paradoxically," Lebow and Breslauer conclude, "it is worth considering the proposition that it was Reagan's maximalism and resolve, coupled with his willingness to strike deals...and the personal rapport and vision he shared with Gorbachev, that ended the Cold War when and how it did." A fair statement of the case for Reagan--but why that "paradoxically"? Why is it a paradox that the other side, in a weaker position, would cave in to pressure? What comes through here, perhaps, is a discomfort with the conclusion that Reagan had it right.

In fact, direct praise of Reagan for wisdom or foresight is fairly hard to come by--even among academics who believe his policy toward the Soviet Union worked. Reagan is treated as some sort of black box who mysteriously came up with the right answers. In trying to explain Reagan, Lebow and Breslauer essentially argue that his supposed simple-mindedness was a virtue. People like Reagan, "with less developed schemas," are prone "to change them dramatically" when confronted with new information, they tell us. That accounts for why Reagan realized before some of his advisers, who had "more elaborate schemas," that Gorbachev was "for real."

Columbia University professor Barbara Farnham argues something stronger in "Perceiving the End of a Threat: Ronald Reagan and the Gorbachev Revolution," which appeared in the prestigious journal Political Science Quarterly. (It also appears as a chapter in a book notably entitled Good Judgment in Foreign Policy.) She praises Reagan's "openness and intuitive intelligence," his negotiating skill (his determination not to give up Star Wars "gave him unexpected strength at the bargaining table"), and his overall approach: "Reagan's initial beliefs about the (Soviet) threat and the nature and timing of his revisions of those beliefs were reasonably sound."

But she sees Reagan's transformation from an "essentialist" who believed the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" to an "interactionist" willing to negotiate, as "something of a puzzle." Reagan, she tells us, confounds all the theories. Cognitive psychology, "rational-choice theory," "learning theory," and "schema theory" all say people resist revising their beliefs.

She ascribes Reagan's flexibility in part to "a belief system that was somewhat more complex than has usually been attributed to him." Her shrewd judgment is that Reagan's "ideological" view of the world--so often derided--was a critical asset. Far from seeing the Soviet Union as "unchanging and unchangeable," as Schlesinger had it, Reagan's worldview "sensitized him" to the role of ideology in the United States-Soviet conflict and the significance of Gorbachev's ideological innovations. "Reagan," she writes, "was in some sense primed to accept the reality of change because he already believed it possible, even likely."

THE ROLE OF IDEOLOGY in the Cold War, long scanted, is back in vogue. Here, perhaps, is the nub of a unified theory that might join the hard-headed realists and wooly-minded constructivists. "The root of the conflict was . . . a clash of social systems," Columbia University's Robert Jervis, one of the nation's preeminent international relations scholars, and no Reagan fan, wrote some time ago in the Journal of Cold War Studies. The Soviets had no true idea of "mutual security," he finds: "The basic Soviet view of politics (both domestic and foreign) meant that 'socialism in one country' could never be sufficient."

For the conflict to end, then, Soviet ideology had to change. Both Reagan and Gorbachev understood this. In what was a struggle between two antithetical social systems, power mattered and ideas mattered. But we learn from Vladislav Zubok that Gorbachev was a man drunk on ideas and faith in his capacity to will a new world into being, and who was also strangely lacking in a coherent conception of his country's national interest or the role of power in the world arena. Gorbachev did great things but was "not a great statesman." Zubok's Gorbachev winds up a pathetic figure--an inept negotiator outmaneuvered by Reagan's successors after the Berlin Wall's fall, "a gambler" to the end who lived in a "world of illusions."

In terms of ideas, Reagan, on the other hand, was fine-tuned for the moment while having, in Patrick Glynn's words, "an instinctive grasp of power." His conception of the Cold War's end was, as he put it: "We win, they lose." At the intersection of power and ideas, Reagan was in his element. Gorbachev, it became clear by the end, was lost.

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