U.S.News & World Report
Monday, January 25, 2010
Why Neither Reagan Nor the United States Won the Cold War
By Alex Kingsbury
Posted January 22, 2010
Ronald Reagan never claimed to have bested the Soviet Union and won the Cold War. Indeed, the very idea that there was a winner of the decades-long rivalry between the superpowers was a political formulation rather than one based on the historical facts. The notion that the United States forced the collapse of the Soviet Union and vanquished communism is not only a myth but a dangerous canard, Jack Matlock says in his new book, Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—and How to Return to Reality. Matlock, a U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, chatted with U.S. News about the end of the Soviet Union and why Barack Obama is the new Ronald Reagan. Excerpts:
Click here to find out more!
How did the Cold War end?
The Soviet Union didn't collapse because of external pressures. Nor did the Cold War end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It ended because of a negotiated settlement that was potentially to the benefit of both sides. Communist rule ended because Mikhail Gorbachev maneuvered it out of exclusive power. It was Gorbachev who ended Communist rule. He did it in the Soviet Union's own interest. The people who present it as a victory of one country over another are incorrect, but it was the victory of one idea over another. This idea that somehow the U.S. beat the Soviet Union has led to failed policies from Washington but also misunderstandings from other countries, particularly the Russians.
The Russians also believe they lost the war?
Because Americans are prone to repeating this line, that the Soviet Union lost, there is a widespread belief in Russia of the myth that Gorbachev was tricked by Reagan and Bush Sr. to give away the store and that ever since, the U.S. has been set on turning Russia into a colony fit only for supplying cheap energy and raw materials. In the U.S., the collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as a military victory, which led to a spirit of triumphalism and a feeling of omnipotence as the "sole superpower." If the U.S.S.R. has indeed been brought to its knees by military pressure, then this would mean that the U.S. has the means to take down any ideology or political system it finds dangerous or repugnant. Other countries drew this conclusion, too: If a country had a problem, then the U.S. was expected to set it right.
Is this myth a result of intellectual laziness or malice?
It's some of both. One thing to note is that modern histories of the Cold War start at the end of World War II, which gives a very short and simplified view of history. The histories of the Cold War published in the 1960s started back in 1917. But the modern incarnations of the U.S. victory myth are even more recent. Reagan, for example, never claimed that we won the Cold War. He wrote about it in his memoirs as a negotiated settlement between partners. In 1992, when George H. W. Bush was losing the [presidential] election, he began saying that "we won the Cold War" on the campaign trail. Since then, a lot of this triumphalist mythology has come from the neocons whose ideas were rejected by Reagan, who in the end was more interested in negotiating. Reagan warned early on that in our negotiations with the Soviets, we should never question their legitimacy. That it was important to deal with them with respect. He always did, which is why he was able to accomplish what he did.
Yet conservatives frequently trumpet the virtues of tough talk.
Neocons especially point to Reagan saying, "Tear down this wall," as if that kind of rhetoric is effective. That speech was made in 1987, but the wall didn't come down until years later after the first President Bush refused to make aggressive statements about Gorbachev, who was then able to quietly withdraw support from Eastern Europe that led to the end of the Berlin Wall. The neocons simply misrepresented what happened and claimed that Reagan had followed their approach in dealing with the Soviet Union. The only shreds of evidence to support it are snippets of political rhetoric taken out of context.
How has this view shaped the Russians' foreign policy?
The U.S. may not have won the Cold War, but U.S. leaders did start acting like they had. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. made promises to Moscow not to extend NATO to the borders of the former U.S.S.R. But NATO went ahead and expanded anyway. Then, in the early 1990s, NATO, which had always described itself as a defensive alliance, bombed Serbia without any authorization from the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. left the ABM [Antiballistic Missile] Treaty to develop a missile shield that Russia fears. And the U.S. began to act unilaterally on the world stage, in particular with the Iraq war. My argument is not that all would have been sweetness and light in Europe if only the U.S. had been kind to Russia. The U.S. should have made every effort to bring the European states, West and East and including Russia, into new security agreements. The Clinton administration's action in bombing Serbia without U.N. approval not only enraged Russia; it also sent a message to other countries with policies or practices that met American disapproval: Better get nuclear weapons as fast as you can or become a target of the Air Force. The idea that nuclear weapons are the only way for nonsuperpower states to defend against invasion or regime change is quite strong in places like North Korea and Iran.
What lessons can we learn from all this?
We need creative thinking and political leadership to deal with the agonizing problems of failed states, international criminal activity, and the crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Existing international structures are inadequate to meet these challenges. It's because of the Obama administration's ideas about talking with nations that don't agree with the U.S. that I say that the president whom Barack Obama most resembles is Reagan. Not all their policies are the same, but their leadership qualities are strikingly similar.