Thursday , April 18 2024
New book traces the end of the Cold War through the efforts of four key men.

Book Review: ‘The Triumph of Improvisation’ by James Graham Wilson

How did the Cold War end? There are four major veins of literature that comprehend the end of the era of tension and conflict. But Wilson’s new book stakes out a new direction, focusing on the role of four key individuals. Rather than working from a master plan, these key individuals—Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, George Shultz and George H. W. Bush—through improvisation, adaptation and engagement brought about the costly and dangerous ideological conflict to an end. It was George H. W. Bush who negotiated a new post Cold War order.

Wilson presents a behind the scenes look at the Reagan administration’s grand strategy process revealing it to be not so much an enterprise informed by order and master plans but one that involved a surprising level of conflict, improvisation and adaptation. Indeed, the first year of the Reagan presidency was marked by confusion as Haig struggled to develop a working relationship with a president, who, despite his apparently hawkish rhetoric, nevertheless was also capable of imagining dialogue and engagement with the Soviets. In fact, Reagan was ambivalent about what course to take in regard to the Soviet Union. On one hand, he wanted to undermine the Soviets; on the other hand, Reagan also wanted to end the nuclear stalemate, a goal which would require negotiation with the Soviets, indeed, a recognition of their legitimacy,even if momentarily, however troubling to Reagan that would be. Reagan’s conflicted stance meant that individuals in his administration and the policy factions they represented would battle to define the grand strategy, each side vying to formulate a policy they believed reflected the “real” Reagan.

The man who felt destined to define US policy during the Reagan administration was Alexander Haig. The retired four star general was a realist in the Kissinger tradition, contemplating the continuation of linkage policies in the Reagan administration. But Haig immediately ran into opposition from men like Edwin Meese, Reagan’s top domestic policy adviser. Haig also conflicted with Weiberger and Clark and was generally seen by hardliners as holding Reagan back from taking a tougher stance. This conflict and the lack of Reagan’s trust lead Haig to be eventually forced out when Clark became the national security adviser. The new balance of power in the policy circle around Reagan resulted in a new national security document outlining America’s strategy, one that men like Clark and Weinberger felt reflected the real Reagan. A triumph for the hardliners, NSDD-32 caused alarm in Moscow, where it was interpreted as a scheme to destroy the Soviet system.

Reagan’s hardliners were no doubt basing their approach of stressing the Soviet system on Reagan’s own insights beliefs: despite the Soviet Union’s apparently impressive gains occasioned by the detente, Soviet power was in reality hollow, Reagan thought, debilitated by its bizarre system that stifled enterprise and the human spirit. The Soviet economy was, consequently, in shambles, and the entire system ready to collapse if pressured in enough places. This vision of the Soviet Union informed the hardline choice of a confrontational strategy—the Soviets could be maneuvered into ending the Cold War and the nuclear threat on America’s terms if they faced three pressure vectors: militarily, (through the arms buildup), and through challenges to their gains in the Third world and in Eastern Europe. This was a risky but potentially highly profitable path: the arms buildup was meant to frighten the Soviets into negotiation by making them realize that they could not compete or win in the long run and thus to make them accept accommodation of an American global order. Just how risky it was to pursue such coercive diplomacy seemed evident when the Soviet Union initiated a nuclear alert in response to Able Archer, the culmination of growing Soviet panic that began with the arms buildup two years earlier. Though the hardliners could scarcely imagine it, the Soviets actually thought that America was going to attack. However brilliant it seemed, the strategy of pushing the Soviets to a breaking point had a serious flaw: it could make the Soviets launch a preemptive defensive war. The Soviet reaction sobered up those who thought they could threaten and intimidate Soviets into change. This and other events made hardliners an increasing liability in policy debate, creating an opening for those who would advocate engagement.

The arrival of George Shultz in the administration signaled the beginning of a shift toward dialogue and rationalization of hard line foreign policy embodied in NSDD-32 and NSDD-74. Shultz believed that the Soviet Union should be encouraged to take China’s path, allowing for market-based reforms and the improvement of the Soviet economy, which, he believed, would integrate the Soviets into the world more closely, thus moderating their foreign policy. In fact, Shultz recognized that because the Soviet system was collapsing, an approach that emphasized coercion was more likely to backfire than bring the Soviets to negotiation table. Dialogue was more likely to elicit an opening rather than resistance. His would be a four-part framework based on dialogue and negotiation, an agenda focused on bilateral relations, regional issues, arms control and human rights that would turn linkage upside down: rather than to tie everything to any one item of dispute, and thus hobbling progress, Shultz wanted to enable movement forward by creating a framework that would allow problem issues to be set aside in order to maintain dialogue and keep moving forward. That, however, required the end of linkage and the moderation of hardline policy advisers. Shultz’s response to the NSDD-75 also played into Reagan’s desire for direct engagement with Soviet leaders. Things began to change. Reagan started to meet Soviet officials with Shultz arranging a meeting with the Soviet Ambassador in the US, Anatoly Dobrinin. This and Shultz’s subsequent efforts have met with ire and alarm of Clark and Pipes, both of whom felt that the Soviets should have to make changes before they were given the reward of negotiation. But Shultz’s ideas ultimately prevailed largely because Reagan had become dissatisfied with the hard line approach. And Gorbachev made engagement easy—here was a Soviet leader that broke the mold with his improbable reasonableness, cosmopolitanism and youthful vigor that stood in stark contrast to the lumbering Brezhnev—in comparative terms. Of course, Gorbachev was still devoted to preserving the Soviet Union. Indeed, his efforts to normalize relations were seen by contemporary analysts as nothing more than a scheme to manipulate the West into making dangerous concessions. If Gorbachev seemed like a man Reagan could do business with, to the hardliners in the administration, with his new narrative of peace and accommodation, he was even more dangerous than any Soviet leader, for his apparent desire for peace undermined the narratives that fanned the need for high defense spending. If Gorbachev wanted to affect an easing up of the American strategy of creating pressures on the Soviet system, playing a kinder, gentler Soviet leader was the way to do it. Of course, a minority of foreign policy analysts saw something other than a ruse. Stephen Sestanovich, for example, saw Gorbachev as pursuing the policy of appeasement driven by severe weakness at home. Gorbachev’s rhetoric was, in Sestanovich’s view, just a cover. Gorbachev was genuinely seeking change, but his goal was to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union and relieve the costs and burden of geopolitical competition. Like Reagan, he himself struggled against hardliners in the Kremlin who still believed that the US was bent on destroying the Soviets.

Regardless of fears on both sides, Reagan and Gorbachev have together created a new dynamic in the relationship between superpowers. Something was changing in the US-Soviet paradigm. As engagement progressed, the image of the Soviet man evolved in the Reagan administration from that of an almost inhuman creature capable of surviving nuclear war to a character struggling with inadequacies and seeking to be respected. The Soviet man, in fact, feared war, a legacy of the carnage of World War II. This change in interpretation of the nature of the Soviets meant that the idea that totalitarian states could not change was wrong after all. The soulless Soviets could become Russians again through a form of spiritual revival, something Reagan understood from his earlier evangelical days and to which he therefore felt instinctively attracted. Change was possible. Reagan wanted it, as did Gorbachev.

triumpofimprovisationWilson’s history offers also an important lesson for grand strategy making. Strategy is founded in the ability to see the competitive situation clearly so as to recognize its critical points to which national resources may be applied profitably. Grand strategy is a theory of how to generate power in a specific international situation a nation faces by using the resources available to it. Evolving this theory, however, is a contentious process, being a struggle to remove the ideological and other impediments to seeing clearly the true reality of the international situation. Wilson’s history of the end of the Cold War clearly illustrates this process of search for a more complete vision of the present. Indeed, without such conflict, learning and improvisation, grand strategy would be dangerous because it would rest on the vision of one man or group of experts all working from the same set of assumptions with all the attendant limitations to seeing the complete picture. 

About A. Jurek

A Jurek is a Blogcritics contributor.

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  1. Dr Joseph S Maresca

    President Reagan was under pressure to balance the budget through sustained economic growth. There was pressure to save social security for future generations. Mikhail Gorbachev envisioned a potential alternate route. He was impressed by the Canadian prosperity and believed that the Canadian style prosperity could happen in the USSR. He appreciated the commonality in the severe weather experienced in both Canada and the USSR.

    Both Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were highly educated. Mikhail had a tremendous legal background while Raisa had an advanced degree in Philosophy from the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. Together, their education helped them envision possibilities that other soviet leaders simply were unable to articulate or imagine.

  2. Reagans saber-rattling prolonged the cold war by giving the Soviet hawks powerful rhetorical material. The USSR was hollowed out by all the control-freak measures, like spying on citizens, monitoring communications, top-down control, state-controlled lies about societies, etc. A girl scout troop could have knocked it over.

    Good thing that Can’t Happen Here!

  3. Dr Joseph S Maresca

    You would have to look closely at Gosplan and the responsiveness of the bureaucracy to change and innovation. The old Soviet Union was interspersed in 11 time zones with a European component West of the Urals and widely dispersed peoples to the East like the Tatar peoples and others. The natural geography of the republics begs for a more decentralized apparati over centralization.

    Without meaningful incentives, it’s hard to move a bureaucratic organization forward. Corruption, lack of standardization, a paucity of accounting standards and an awkward distribution system make for a difficult situation to manage without significant entrepreneurialship and capital.