Bureaucrats at the Brink

If we accept the description of war that emerged from the trenches of World War I—“boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”—then the Cold War, despite appearances, really was a war. It was the most destructive thing the human race had ever contemplated. The Soviet Union had forty-three thousand nuclear warheads, the United States roughly the same. These weapons were many times more powerful than the bombs with which the US leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

And yet the Cold War was boring, too. World War I rhetoric was elegiac, about the lamps going out across Europe. World War II rhetoric was martial, about fighting on the beaches. Cold War rhetoric was lawyerly. It concerned the protocols, quotas, and ceilings to be found in intermediate-range-rocket treaties. When CNN and other networks showed retrospectives of the period in the ’90s, they got rock-bottom ratings. The Cold War repels study and is thus poorly understood. The free world, as it used to be called, won. Yet it is hard to specify what made victory possible, or how the victors are better off for having triumphed.

The Oxford historian Robert Service, a prolific biographer of Lenin and other Soviet leaders, has written an account of the last days of the Cold War that explains why we have been slow to make sense of it. The book is written for experts and lacks narrative momentum. Its chapters carry such off-putting titles as “17: The Stalled Interaction,” “19: The Lost Summer,” “25: Sticking Points,” “26: Grinding Out the Treaty”; those who want a more sprightly and opinionated account would do better to read Stephen Kotkin’s Armageddon Averted (2001). Yet whatever its deficiencies in readability, Service’s book is a great investigative achievement. It goes deep into American, English, Russian, German, and Polish archives to show that what happened was not so much a military or diplomatic victory for the American side as a civilizational collapse on the Russian one.

The driving force behind the Cold War’s end was Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Service sees as a committed Communist forced into change by an economic emergency. KGB spymaster Yuri Andropov was the first to diagnose this emergency. History remembers him as a sour gerontocrat who ruled the country for the last year of his life while hooked up to a dialysis machine, but Andropov was open-minded and astute. Gorbachev rose as his protégé and with the assent of foreign-policy dinosaur Andrei Gromyko. Among Communists, Gorbachev talked like a Communist. For him, Czechoslovak society in 1968 had “moved towards counterrevolution,” Reagan was a “caveman,” and the dissident Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky a “turd.” Gorbachev was the kind of person who, well into the ’80s, could tell the Politburo with a straight face that the FBI was quaking in fear of the impact of Soviet Life magazine on American readers. He fought the apparat, but he was the apparat’s man.

Andropov chose Gorbachev, an agriculture expert, to serve on a “confidential research unit” meant to measure the depths of the Soviet crisis. The crisis turned out to be bottomless. Those tens of thousands of warheads were more “security” than the country needed. Expenses on defense, foreign aid, and housing ended up wrecking the economy and, eventually, security along with it. In the early ’80s, the Soviets were still exporting revolution—to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers in Britain, to the African National Congress in South Africa, to Gus Hall’s American Communist Party. Between November 1985 and the spring of 1986, however, the price of oil fell from $32 a barrel to $10, and suddenly the Soviets had to bail out of the revolution business. They were capable of blowing up the world—but that was all they were capable of.

The main conditions we think of as marking our own “information age” were actually present before the Cold War ended, Service shows. In fact, they brought about its end. Socialist institutions could not match those of finance capitalism in spurring technological innovation. The Eastern Bloc fell far behind in economic achievement. Hungary, Poland, and East Germany borrowed heavily from Western banks. The Soviet Central Committee was right to worry that the Poles were being, in Service’s paraphrase, “drawn into the clutches of global capitalism,” but Soviet leaders felt too insecure to stop them. Those countries wound up, as big borrowers in soft currencies always do, in de facto bankruptcy. The two blocs were more connected than they appeared to be. For example, the United States bought much of the nickel for its five-cent coins from Canadian companies, which mined it in Cuba.

The USSR needed what Service calls “breathing space for its necessary self-modernization.” Gorbachev diagnosed the situation as so desperate that it required fighting a few battles on capitalist turf, and he tried to maneuver the United States into matching the massive arms reductions that the USSR had no choice but to make. But the gambit failed, and Gorbachev paid heavily for it, with the extinction of his country and the international movement for which it stood.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square, 1988.
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square, 1988. Nara/Wikicommons

Service shows that Ronald Reagan was well suited to draw maximum advantage from Gorbachev’s willingness to negotiate. Reagan had a genuine horror of nuclear weapons, a revulsion that would have surprised his voters and did alarm his backers. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the hard men of Reagan’s entourage—Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, CIA director William Casey—thought him a naïf. On the other hand, having led the Hollywood actors’ union in the ’40s and ’50s, Reagan knew what to do at a negotiating table. When Gorbachev came to a summit in Reykjavik in 1986 with a bold-looking offer to cut in half both sides’ intercontinental missiles and eliminate the ones that were aimed between countries in Europe, it looked too good to refuse, and Reagan wanted to take it. But he also smelled weakness. Gorbachev’s freedom was just another word for having nothing left to lose. Russia’s gambit was born of desperation, not boldness, and Reagan could be confident it would not be taken off the table.

Reagan’s more enthusiastic biographers credit him with an ingenious scheme to bankrupt the Soviet Union by forcing it to compete with his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a planned missile-defense system. Service seconds this view, but only up to a point. The Soviets themselves saw SDI as the start of a new arms race, but they feared it would be an offensive weapon—and with good reason. Until the system was up and running, it was a collection of weapons experiments involving lasers, computer navigation, and spacecraft, backed by the full might of the US budget in boom times. SDI was a synecdoche for the shifting balance of Cold War power. It was a sign that the United States had the economic wherewithal to do things, such as militarize space, that the Soviet Union could not. Gorbachev at that point was telling his Politburo that the “world system of socialism” was uncompetitive in the sphere of technology. Alarmed at his country’s growing dependence on natural-resource extraction, he said: “We’ve been hitched to the work of slaves.” And so it happened that, as Service elegantly puts it, “the world of 1945, held in aspic by the chemistry of struggle between two superpowers, dissolved before everyone’s eyes.”

The book’s hero is George Shultz, secretary of state for most of Reagan’s presidency. Alone among American diplomats, Shultz understood that victory in the Cold War would come not from striking the right balance between firmness and conciliation but from America’s growing technological superiority. His approach was abandoned by George H.W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan in 1989 and purged Reagan loyalists as if they had come from a discredited regime. The Bush administration was intemperate in its promises. In early February 1990, Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, offered a “guarantee that Germany’s unification will not lead to the eastward spread of the NATO military organization.” Later that month, Bush proposed a special status for eastern Germany, implying it would have no NATO troops in it. While these promises were not written into treaties, Russians are not simply fantasizing when they claim to have been misled.

At the point when Russia was almost powerless, the Bush administration spent more time finding ways to humiliate it than ensuring that a sympathetic ruler remained at its helm. In the summer of 1990, at the Houston summit of the G7, German chancellor Helmut Kohl warned Americans they were treating Gorbachev’s desperate request for financial assistance “as if it came from the Congo.” Service plays his cards close to his chest here. But he implies that Bush’s cold shoulder, combined with Gorbachev’s own misjudgments, weakened the Russian leader’s position and precipitated his ouster. The result was that the Russian people never saw the windfall they had expected from the conversion of wasteful military industry to civilian ends. Under Boris Yeltsin, it was snatched from the public and handed to a collection of gangsters and oligarchs. The consequences are with us still.

A curious thing about the period Service describes is that its transitions were so quick. Almost as soon as the superpower rivalry ceased being a rivalry, today’s globalized system of elite-driven US hegemony came into sharp focus. As tensions eased, both countries’ leaders spontaneously took on, in private, a reckless, self-important, high-handed tone. Summits became collusive and directorial, like board meetings. Confronted by Shultz about Soviet spying, Gorbachev basically told him to be more cynical and grown-up. “You know about us, and we know about you,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.” After Reykjavik, Gorbachev’s Central Committee colleague Yegor Ligachëv congratulated him for “appealing over the heads of Western political leaders to entire peoples”—which is just the way today’s leaders euphemize appealing over the heads of democratic peoples to opinion-forming elites.

The Cold War created a kind of globalization, albeit one limited by a terrifying set of military checks and balances. Service has given us an account, unsurpassable in its detail, of the half decade when that globalism was replaced by a globalism that lacks any checks at all.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.