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An Icelandic Saga

The passage of time has been kind to the reputation of Ronald Reagan, less so to that of Mikhail Gorbachev. The reappraisals of Reagan provoked by his death in June were so handsome as to undermine the proposition that the only unwelcome publicity for a politician is an obituary notice. Reagan’s supposed naiveté became his sincerity; his laziness, an inner calm; his impatience with detail, a magisterial overview; his good humor, the most presidential of all attributes. Gorbachev, meanwhile, has descended far into the small print of post-Soviet politics since his resignation as Soviet leader in 1991 and his futile bid for the Russian presidency in 1996. He continues to be honored outside his own country, but as a man who did the right thing for the wrong reason. He undermined Soviet communism as the unintended consequence of his efforts to reform it.

The posthumous elevating of Reagan flowed in some measure from a desire to diminish George W. Bush by comparison. But it reflected also the course of history since Reagan’s presidency ended. The years since 1989 have shown that Reagan, together with his British contemporary Margaret Thatcher, changed the way that Western governments think about economic policy. The balance of conventional wisdom has tilted away from government planning and the desirability of the welfare state toward individualism, competition, and lower taxation.1 Reagan’s triumph in foreign affairs, to confront the Soviet Union and to speed the collapse of Soviet communism, has so thoroughly acquired the aspect of historical inevitability that it is hard now to remember how widely Reagan was derided for his overt anticommunism in the early 1980s, when the priority of most Western governments was to get along with the Soviet Union as amiably as they could. Reagan was mocked as much for the simplicity of his views as for the substance of them. He wanted to reverse Soviet expansionism abroad, and to encourage more personal and economic freedom within the country and its satellites. But his essential job as a president was to be right, and, in the case of his Soviet policy, he was. The complications could always be added by his advisers.

1.

Jack Matlock’s role as a diplomat and a Soviet expert was, if not always to add complications to Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union, then at least to spot the times when a few nuances might be useful, and to unpick the complications which arrived daily from the Soviet side. His previous book, Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union,2 recounted the turmoil between 1987 and 1991 when Matlock was ambassador to Moscow with a ringside view of Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Soviet economy and the Soviet Communist Party. His new book turns back the clock to the years between 1981 and 1988, and examines relations between the US and the Soviet Union during the two terms of the Reagan presidency. The core of it lies in the chapters dealing with the period between 1983 and 1986, when Matlock was senior expert on Soviet policy in Reagan’s National Security Council, under three national security advisers in quick succession—William Clark, Bud McFarlane, and John Poindexter.

The great events of this period, and of this book, are the meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev at Geneva in 1985 and at Reykjavik in Iceland in 1986. These were the meetings at which the two men discovered that they could talk productively to one another, probably more so than any US and Soviet leaders before them, and range far beyond their prepared briefs. At Reykjavik they reached the very brink of an agreement to abolish all their countries’ nuclear weapons, before stumbling back. Reagan charmed Gorbachev into thinking that relations of trust with the United States were possible and desirable. As Matlock tells the story, Gorbachev came to see that the fear and hostility which had long prevailed between the two countries were not only, or even mainly, the product of American “aggression,” but of Soviet aggression and Soviet militarism too.

Matlock contends that this evolution in Gorbachev’s thinking, and the fundamental change in the Soviet position to which it led, greatly reducing Soviet hostility toward the West, meant that “psychologically and ideologically, the Cold War was over before Ronald Reagan moved out of the White House.” He cites Soviet sources to show that Gorbachev had abandoned key tenets of cold war reasoning by the end of 1988, even when speaking within the Soviet Politburo. References to American “imperialism” were gone from his vocabulary. Gorbachev knew that the Soviet Union had already overbuilt and overstretched its military might, and that its struggling economy, hard hit by falling oil revenues, could ill afford another arms race. He was ready, in Matlock’s view,

to act as a partner [of the US], not because the United States demanded it, but because he could see that the Soviet attempt to compete with the United States had led to disaster. He had no choice but to end the Cold War and find ways to cooperate.3

Matlock insists that the breakup of the Soviet Union into fifteen independent countries, which followed in 1991, did not form part of Reagan’s policy. If anything, Matlock claims, the ending of the cold war could have worked to the benefit of the Soviet regime by giving leaders there “an opportunity to reform [the] system of governance without pressures from outside.” Perhaps. It was indeed never the stated policy of the Reagan administration to challenge the Soviet Union’s right to exist, or to deny the legitimacy of the Soviet government (save in its occupation of the Baltic states). But to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and to call its Communist regime a “sad, bizarre chapter in history whose last pages are even now being written,” as Reagan did in 1983, were hardly a way of wishing either of them well for the future.4

By the end of his presidency, Reagan was a lot chummier toward the Soviet Union than he had been at the start of it: he was willing even to withdraw his “evil empire” tag. But though this friendlier relationship was a source of personal pride for Gorbachev, it did little to help his political position at home. The end of the cold war took some of the strain off the Soviet defense budget, but it left Gorbachev scrambling to find new justifications and new excuses for all the other irrationalities and misfortunes of his country, if it was no longer supposed to be on a war footing. Why were Russians so badly off—with their food lines, their censorship, their shoddy housing, their scarce and primitive consumer goods, their falling life expectancy—if not because of the machinations of the West? The answer could only be: because of the machinations of their own regime. And when the regime itself started to admit as much, it was doomed. As the historian Stephen Kotkin has argued:

From its inception, the Soviet Union had claimed to be an experiment in socialism, a superior alternative to capitalism, for the entire world. If socialism was not superior to capitalism, its existence could not be justified.5

And as socialism duly collapsed, in an empire of disparate nations held together by force, nationalism surged back to take its place. Like all empires in history, evil and otherwise, the Soviet Union eventually broke apart.

Matlock touches briefly in his closing pages on the problems which the Soviet collapse posed for the West, and the relative success with which Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, managed them. Germany emerged reunited, if a little wobbly economically. The countries of Central Europe were helped to rediscover themselves as market democracies. The Baltic states made a triumphant return to the map as independent countries. On the European side of the Communist block, only Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova were not brought securely into the Western camp. Central Asia retreated into despotism. Russia posed a separate set of problems which have yet to find their solution even now. Russia has moved through chaotic laissez-faire democracy toward mild authoritarianism, but without renouncing clearly its Communist past and without putting into place the autonomous political institutions or the impartial rule of law which would help secure its stability and prosperity in the future.

In sum, history has yet to pronounce its final verdict on the Soviet collapse. But if we follow Matlock to the point of drawing an imaginary line across Soviet–US relations in December 1988 and calling this the “end of the cold war,” on the grounds that the Soviet Union had ceased to be an aggressive and expansionist power, then we should have no trouble in declaring the victor, even if Matlock himself is too diplomatic to do so. America won. Reagan won. Gorbachev came his way.

2.

We have plenty of accounts of Soviet– American relations in the 1980s written by actors and experts, including the relevant sections of Reagan’s and of Gorbachev’s own memoirs. But there is room still for Matlock’s, because he gives us the definitive insider’s account from the American perspective—he occupied a point high enough in the pyramid of power to help a president make policy, and yet low enough to share the sleepless nights of the aides who write the speeches.

His book is valuable for the specific information it provides about the public and private diplomacy of the day, but also for the insights it gives into the conduct of modern diplomacy in general—reflecting the fact that diplomats do tend to be rather good at commenting on their trade, and Matlock has been one of the best. When he recounts the Reagan–Gorbachev summits in Geneva and in Reykjavik they take on the feeling of sports events in which the outcome depends on the preparation of the teams, the fitness of the players, the moves which have been scripted in advance, and even more on the surprises and mistakes which send the action in unforeseen directions. The more you know about the game, the more captivating the wobbles become. Here, for example, is Matlock’s plain note-taker’s summary of Gorbachev’s opening statement at one session of his first meeting with Reagan, in Geneva, in 1985:

Gorbachev led off with a strong pitch for increased trade and observed that the United States was losing an important market because of its restrictions on exports. He appealed to Reagan to join him in giving a new “impulse” to the nuclear arms negotiations so that resources could be released for both countries’ civilian economies. He also cautioned the president not to entertain “delusions” about the Soviet Union: the Soviet economy was not, he said, in a perilous state and thus subject to the leverage of an arms race; it was not lagging behind in high technology; the Soviet Union did not seek military superiority.

  1. 1

    Reagan’s rhetoric was more consistent than his policy. While professing to favor smaller government, he was better at cutting taxes than he was at cutting spending, leading to large budget deficits in his tenure which added to public debt and thus hampered private investment and future growth.

  2. 2

    Random House, 1995.

  3. 3

    Matlock draws on minutes of a Politburo meeting held on December 27– 28, 1988, to show that Gorbachev had abandoned talk of defending the “socialist commonwealth,” and of supporting “progressive” revolutions, and even of “American imperialism,” when discussing Soviet foreign policy. His source for the minutes is the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Bulletin: International Cold War History Project, Fall/Winter 2001.

  4. 4

    Speech, March 8, 1983, quoted in Ronald Reagan, An American Life (Pocket Books, 1992), pp. 568–569.

  5. 5

    Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000 (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 19.

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