'The End of the Cold War' tells an illuminating story of able leadership

Oxford historian Robert Service delivers a detailed and authoritative account of the end of the competition that defined world politics for more than four decades.

The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991 by Robert Service PublicAffairs 688 pp.

It once seemed so simple. Before the United States had to contend with the likes of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, or the al-Nusra Front, there was the Soviet Union.

Policy makers in Washington saw Moscow as the center of world communism and the Russians were America’s implacable foe. US leaders knew who was in charge, and they designed policies to counter an enemy whose borders were clear, even if Russia’s motives were occasionally ambiguous. And most importantly, though the Soviets possessed thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the United States, America had a similar number aimed at the Soviet Union, which fostered a degree of stability between the two superpowers. As long as the men in the Kremlin behaved rationally – and US officials were confident that they would – Americans felt reasonably safe. After all, a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States or its allies would be followed by a devastating American response. The concept was known as MAD (mutual assured destruction), which it surely was, and both sides accepted its logic.

Today, that all seems like ancient history. Even the conflict’s stunning conclusion, which occurred some 25 years ago when Soviet and American leaders worked together to end the East-West struggle, seems a distant memory. That remarkable story is the subject of Robert Service’s latest book, The End of the Cold War, 1985-1991, a detailed, authoritative, and illuminating account of the end of the competition that defined world politics for more than four decades. Over some 500 pages, Service traces the critical decisions made in Moscow and Washington in these momentous years, as well as unfolding political developments across the European continent.

According to Service, a British historian who teaches Russian history at Oxford and is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, by the mid-1980s, most Soviet leaders recognized that they could not continue to play the game as they always had. Their system was broken and there were no simple fixes. With the command economy unable to meet the basic needs of its people, Moscow could not continue to fund its enormous military establishment. Nor could it continue to maintain its vast empire, which strained the country’s resources. The Soviet people wanted a reasonable standard of living: decent and affordable food, sufficient housing, and a steady supply of consumer goods. You can’t eat intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Using a vast array of archival sources, many mined for the first time, Service tells the fascinating story of the emergence of a new generation of Soviet leaders – especially Mikhail Gorbachev – who recognized the need for fundamental change. And Gorbachev is surely the crucial figure in this epochal drama, for without his vision and remarkable political skill, the East-West competition might not have ended when it did, nor as peacefully. 

While today it is the task of Barack Obama – and, in a year’s time, his successor – to understand Vladimir Putin’s crafty pugnacity, in the late 1980s the job of deciphering what the Russians were up to fell on Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz. Reagan, who had famously referred to the Soviet Union as an “empire of evil” in a 1983 speech, was surprisingly determined to reach an understanding with Gorbachev. As Service shows in incisive and often memorable detail, the American president wanted to end the nuclear stalemate, which he believed was immoral and risked a catastrophic nuclear exchange. That commitment, along with Gorbachev’s urgent need to reform the Soviet system (“perestroika” was the term on everyone’s lips in those days), meant real change was possible.

Because Gorbachev refused to pretend that all was well with the Soviet system, and because Reagan, the hardliner, was receptive to the Russian leader’s determination to effect change, it became possible to imagine an end to the Cold War, which for decades had seemed an immutable reality of world politics.

What is altogether clear in Service’s telling of this story is the extent to which political leaders, if they are determined and skillful, can spearhead transformative change. Time and again, one is struck by the way Gorbachev, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and several of their more capable aides worked hard to shepherd the world into a new era. It was enormously difficult to manage the dissolution of the Soviet empire, and to make sure that in dismantling it, the entire international system did not come crashing down.

But that is what happened, and by the end of this compelling story, Germany was reunited, Eastern Europe was liberated, and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. It took able leadership to accomplish all of that. It was rather like a “dream unfolding,” Service writes, “with unexpected twists in the plot before everyone woke up to what had occurred.”

In presenting that dream with considerable vividness, Service reminds us of a moment not so long ago when world politics was transformed with breathtaking speed. Given the undeniable challenges presidents and policy makers face today, it is tempting to reflect almost wistfully on that earlier time, when American and Soviet leaders sat down together to reconfigure the world.

Jonathan Rosenberg teaches US history at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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