Archie Brown


On his book The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (The first four questions)

Cover Interview of March 31, 2021

Two of Eight:
There are different explanations of why the Cold War ended. What is distinctive about your interpretation of it?

The two most popular explanations are that the Cold War ended when it did because: (1) the Soviet Union could not keep up militarily; and (2) it could not keep up economically. So, for one or the other of these reasons, or a mixture of both, the Soviet leadership had to give up trying to compete with the West.

I argue that the first of these explanations is wrong and that the second is a great oversimplification. Neither contention is helpful in explaining the policies that were actually pursued in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s leadership.

Let’s take the military argument. In the earliest years of the Cold War, the USA had nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union did not, but those were the years in which the USSR proceeded to take over Eastern Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s the West—and the US in the first instance—still had clear military superiority, but the Soviet leadership continued to keep Eastern Europe under tight control and to expand Communist influence elsewhere.

It was only from the early 1970s that the Soviet Union acquired a rough military parity with the US. Each side had the capacity utterly to destroy the other. That was still the case in the mid-1980s, notwithstanding Reagan’s large increase in military spending. It makes little sense to argue that the Soviet leadership was forced to end the Cold War at a time when it would be suicidal for either side to attack the other, yet it had not felt impelled to change its policy during the earlier period of undoubted American military supremacy.

As for the economic argument, it is true that Soviet economic growth had slowed to a trickle. Except in the privileged military-industrial complex, which attracted talented people and vast resources, the USSR lagged behind the West technologically. Indeed, it was not keeping up with the newly industrializing countries of Asia. That could be an argument for radical economic reform and for the Soviet Union to move from a centralized, planned economy to a market economy. But this is not what happened during perestroika (reconstruction), as the years in which Gorbachev led the country became known.

Gorbachev gave far higher priority to fundamental reform of the political system and the transformation of Soviet foreign policy than to embarking on radical economic reform. He was in power for less than seven years—from March 1985 to December 1991. And it was as late as 1990 that he accepted in principle the idea of a market economy. But in his last two years in office the economy remained in limbo. It was no longer a functioning command economy but not yet a market economy.

The freeing of prices, and the emergence of a ‘Wild East’ capitalism that produced extremes of inequality, occurred in Russia during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet Union had split up into fifteen separate states. Gorbachev, by that time out of power, was highly critical of the process, especially the way Russia’s rich natural resources were sold off to preselected buyers at knock-down prices.

So, it is all very well to argue that the Soviet economic system was inefficient and needed to change, but if the radical change Gorbachev did introduce was in areas other than the economy, the economic determinist explanation of the Cold War’s ending falls flat. The most that can justly be said is that the Soviet economic slowdown was for Gorbachev one of the stimuli to his reformism. But the existing economic system had strong supporters. Even in the last years of the USSR, the most powerful Soviet institutions presented formidable bureaucratic resistance to any move toward marketization.

In my book I argue that a combination of new ideas, bold political leadership and institutional power (by the last I mean the power to set a new course that Gorbachev’s position at the top of the Soviet political hierarchy gave him) was crucial for the transformation of Soviet domestic and foreign policy that made the end of the Cold War possible. But Gorbachev had to persuade Western anti-Soviet leaders—above all, the leader of the rival superpower, Ronald Reagan—that the changes were real, and that they could be partners in promoting peace and arms reductions rather than adversaries.

In that process Margaret Thatcher played a key role. Her foreign policy adviser, Sir Percy Cradock, thought she went too far. He said, “she acted as a conduit from Gorbachev to Reagan, selling him to Washington as a man to do business with, and operating as an agent of influence in both directions”.

In addition to her close relationship with Reagan and developing friendship with Gorbachev, Thatcher had excellent relations with two major figures in the Reagan administration, Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who were at loggerheads with each other. Her support for Shultz’s view that engagement with the Soviet Union was essential played a significant part in convincing Reagan that Shultz’s judgement on dealing with the Russians was correct. The Defense Department and the CIA were sceptical, to say the least, that any good could come from such dialogue.