Saturday, June 7, 2014

"We win, they lose"

Ten years ago on June 5th Ronald Reagan died. This review of a new book (Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War) about Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 is a reminder of a time when we had a President capable of dealing with the world as it is:
.... Gorbachev knew that the Soviet system had to change. And he believed that, to have the time and space to reform that system, he needed to curtail the Cold War competition. The Soviets were devoting obscene resources to that global contest — far more, relatively speaking, than the United States — while falling ever farther behind economically and technologically. Adelman usefully includes meeting notes taken by Gorbachev’s closest aides as the Soviet side prepared for Reykjavik. Gorbachev told his colleagues that should he fail to secure an agreement at Reykjavik, “we will be pulled into an arms race beyond our power, and we will lose,” because the USSR was “presently at the limit of our capabilities.” “The arms race overburdens our economy,” he said. “That is why we need a breakthrough.”

Long before he became president, and throughout his years in office, Reagan believed that the Soviet Union was vulnerable — economically, technologically, ideologically — to a sustained, reinvigorated competition from the West, including a military buildup. We know this because he said so, over and over. He also believed that if faced with that all-out competition, Soviet leaders could be forced to change, to moderate their foreign policy and also the internal Soviet system. The Reagan administration drew up classified strategy directives in his first term that combined a thoughtful analysis of the Soviet regime with a policy approach aimed at shaping the environment in which Soviet leaders made decisions, so as to encourage the mellowing of Soviet behavior and even changes in the nature of the regime. And, through its actions, notably its military buildup, it pressed hard.

.... Adelman does not actually argue that Reykjavik ended the Cold War. But he observes, quite properly, that after Reykjavik, Gorbachev saw much less hope of restraining the U.S.–Soviet competition through near-term agreements, and more urgency for making more thorough changes in Soviet foreign and domestic policy. Adelman also observes that while Reagan was relentless in pushing the Soviets and seeking advantage over them, he was nimble in working with Gorbachev when he perceived, much earlier than most, that Gorbachev could be the critical source of change he had sought for so long. ....

Here is something we forget, or overlook: Reagan was a strategist. He understood what our adversaries were up to, why, and what it meant for us, and how we could shape the environment in which they made decisions through peaceful competition. He was keenly attuned to the relative strengths and weaknesses of the United States and our adversaries, exploiting the Soviet Union’s comparative vulnerabilities while relentlessly pressing U.S. comparative advantages. .... [more, probably behind a subscriber wall ]
I think it was probably an advantage to have a President who had himself engaged in high-stakes negotiation — who had, in fact, been a successful labor negotiator.

Jay Winik's On the Brink: The Dramatic Behind the Scenes Saga of the Reagan Era and the Men and Women Who Won the Cold War is an exceptional narrative about the end of the Cold War.