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

Eight of Eight:
What would you wish a reader to take away from your book?

I would hope that people would see that Western triumphalist accounts of the Cold War’s ending, in which American military and economic strength forced the Soviet Union, in effect, to run up the white flag, are wrong. That interpretation is not only highly misleading, it’s very dangerous. The idea that superior armed force can secure the desired political change has underpinned several military interventions in the post-Cold War era which have made a bad situation worse. It has also led to the abandonment of important arms control and arms reduction agreements signed by Gorbachev, along with Presidents Reagan and Bush.

There was one sense in which the end of the Cold War was a victory for the West. Not only in Eastern Europe but crucially in the Soviet Union as well, there was support for freedom and democracy and an end to one-party dictatorship.

That policy was not forced on the Soviet leadership. Behind the monolithic façade that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union presented to their own people and the outside world, there was actually a wide diversity of views. Gorbachev himself evolved within a few short years from Communist reformer to democratizing transformer. The fact that he embraced ideas of freedom and democracy, very much in the way these notions were understood in the West, made possible their implementation in the Soviet Union and, with still greater alacrity, in Eastern Europe.

There was nothing inevitable about that, as the backsliding from democracy in the years since then makes clear. But ideas mattered, individual leaders mattered, dialogue and engagement mattered.

Reagan’s arms build-up came close to making the Cold War’s ending less rather than more likely. Until Gorbachev became Soviet leader, the Politburo response was to continue to build up its own military capacity and to strengthen political discipline at home and throughout the Warsaw Pact. The former long-serving Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, was just one of many senior officials to point out that Reagan’s first-term policies, including his Strategic Defense Initiative, and his rhetoric of those years, strengthened Soviet hard-liners in the internal Communist Party struggle. In March 1983, he launched SDI, a programme of research and development of anti-missile defence and, in the same month, described the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’.

During Reagan’s eight years as president, four different leaders were his Soviet counterparts—Leonid Brezhnev (whose last two years coincided with Reagan’s first two), Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev. As Reagan understandably complained, “These guys keep dying on me”. Of the four, only Gorbachev survived Reagan. (His ninetieth birthday fell on March 2nd this year.) And it was only after Gorbachev came to power that East-West relations began to improve—within a few years dramatically so. Reagan, during his second term, played an essential part in this, and Margaret Thatcher was an active intermediary, but I think a fair-minded reader of my book would reach the conclusion that Gorbachev was the most crucially important leader of the three.

I hope, too, that such a reader would realize the importance of dialogue and engagement with countries of different systems and ideologies. This has relevance for contemporary politics. There should be a distinction between principled criticism of other countries and demonizing them.

It is worth remembering that the end of the Cold War was a victory for both sides, and the only sense in which the West ‘won’ was in the realm of ideas. The principles and practice of democracy proved more attractive than Leninism, censorship, and one-party Communist rule. The power of political example was more important than the example of military power. The Soviet Union found it much easier to keep up militarily than to match the attraction of Western freedoms and democratic elections. In the end, a substantial section of the ruling party, including a leader unlike any previous Soviet leader, themselves embraced ideas which held sway in democracies worldwide.

But today we have moved far from the too easy assumptions at the end of the 1980s that there was something both preordained and lasting about democracy’s triumph. It is not only that Russia is substantially more authoritarian at present than it was in the last years of the Soviet Union (though less authoritarian than was the Soviet system pre-Gorbachev). It is also that we are living in a time when an American president has just refused to recognize the result of a democratic election which he comprehensively lost.

“Understanding what went right during the years in which Soviet domestic and foreign policy were transformed—and how and why it went right—may provide”, I wrote in the conclusion to my book, “useful insight into what has gone wrong since”. I would hope that the book’s readers will find themselves drawing lessons for the here-and-now as well as learning more about an exceptionally important period in the recent past.