Archie Brown


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

Cover Interview of April 01, 2021

Six of Eight:
Would you like to elaborate on any passages in your article that President Reagan highlighted?

I wouldn’t claim for a moment that Reagan remembered my article for long after he read it as part of his preparation for the summit meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik in October 1986. He was getting a lot of good advice in advance of his summit meetings, especially from Jack Matlock, the Soviet specialist on the National Security Council who became, from 1987 to 1991, US ambassador in Moscow.

But it was interesting for me to see which points in my 1986 Foreign Affairs article Reagan marked as of particular interest. They were, I would say, among the most salient points. I’ll give three examples. He put treble or double lines in the margin where I mentioned the scale of personnel change in Gorbachev’s first year as Soviet leader—when I wrote that no Soviet leader “in his first year of office has presided over such sweeping changes in the composition of the highest party and state organs as has Mikhail Gorbachev”, and a couple of pages later where I had observed that “Gorbachev’s appointments show imagination and indicate his desire to bring fresh minds to bear on problems and to break up cozy relationships in Moscow”.

The second example I’ll mention is his underlining my remark that “Gorbachev is sometimes described misleadingly as a technocrat” but, in reality, “he is a politician to his fingertips”. Those last words were marked by Reagan. The point I am making is of more substance than it may appear, because there was a tendency among Western officials, including diplomats, to think that, within the leadership group in a Communist system, technocrats always constituted the lesser evil. A contrast was made between them and ideologues. But it was people interested in ideas (who were neither technocrats nor rigid ideologues) who made the radical changes, whether in the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968 or the Soviet perestroika. The sad truth is that you can always find technocrats who will serve any regime, no matter how authoritarian or nasty. When Western leaders met Gorbachev, they soon realized they were talking with a high-calibre fellow-politician, not a technocrat or, for that matter, a bureaucrat. ‘Politician’ should not be a pejorative term. The alternative to politicians is dictatorship.

The third example worth mentioning is Reagan’s highlighting the final sentence of my article which read: “Though the fate of Gorbachev’s policy innovation will be determined essentially within the Soviet Union itself, it requires something more from the West than the stock response”. That was intended to be a warning that there were strict limits to Western influence on Russia, along with a call for some ‘New Thinking’ on the Western, as well as Soviet, side. Both parts of the sentence seem to have made sense to Reagan.