When peace got its chance

The world owes the policymakers of 1989 a debt of gratitude–their decisions averted catastrophic conflict


Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire

By Victor Sebestyen
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2009

The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War
By James Mann
Viking, 2009

Reviewed by Coral Bell

Late 1989 was the "hinge of fate" for contemporary world politics: a few weeks of diplomatic and strategic drama that saw the end of the Cold War and determined the shape of the contemporary international power-balance, including the one we are in today. This is a world where power is widely distributed. During those weeks, the formidable edifice that Stalin built in 1945, and which his successors preserved so ferociously and oppressively, collapsed, looking more like a house of cards.

A minor point first. Did it fall, or was it pushed? Many Americans hold that it was indeed pushed, and that the mightiest shove came from their favourite president, Ronald Reagan. That much-cherished legend arises mostly from a sentence he famously uttered, during a speech in Berlin in mid-1987: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

According to James Mann's excellent book, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War, his "true believers" still hold that "the president spoke, the Soviets quaked, the wall came down". But as Mann also points out, that interpretation is fiction.

Reagan's catchcry was not new: the Western powers had been demanding the demolition of the wall ever since its construction in the early sixties. But no-one by that time really expected it to happen, and even Reagan's own aides, including his secretary of state, did not like the reference in mid-1987. They were getting on rather well with the real diplomatic business with Moscow, especially arms control and did not want any distractions. But Reagan had an actor's relish for a good line, and the capacity to deliver it well.

His strong point was his refusal to accept the conventional wisdom of the times, which tended to see the Cold War as just the permanent, almost inevitable, outcome of the bipolar balance of power between Moscow and Washington after the Second World War. That is why the realists of the time in Washington, headed by Henry Kissinger, were as sceptical about the chance of real change from Gorbachev as the conservatives and neoconservatives.

Reagan's determination in the subsequent drama–the "rebellion" which gives Mann the title of his book–was a firm refusal to accept that view. Margaret Thatcher, who much earlier at their first meeting had made an optimistic assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev when he was very new to office, shared this view.

She famously declared, "We can do business with this man," and took that opinion to the point of trying to persuade him to oppose German reunification. Many people in France and Britain, remembering the war, were nervous about what a reunited Germany might do.

But Gorbachev was not to be persuaded, and he remained very much the deus ex machina of the entire drama in Eastern and Central Europe. The true mystery, therefore, was how it happened that the creaking machinery of mid-1980s Soviet politics could have produced a decision-maker who made such decisions. From the point of view of a Russian nationalist like Vladimir Putin, these decisions were catastrophic, since they reduced to ruins the whole structure, which had been the Soviet Union's strategic bastion for 40-plus years. It eventually was gathered into NATO's sphere.

There have been few equally complete strategic revolutions in diplomatic history. Paradoxically, it may have been because the Soviet political machinery was such a creaking and dysfunctional structure that it produced Gorbachev, and permitted him to act.

The Soviet oligarchy was by that point an advanced gerontocracy. The past three decision-makers–Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko–had been aged and ailing. "They keep dying on us," the American negotiators were complaining. Gorbachev, by contrast, was relatively young, in his fifties, and quite persuasive. According to Victor Sebestyen in his book, Revolution 1989: the Fall of the Soviet Empire, the Politburo may have seen these attributes as his major assets.

Sebestyen's book is a valuable Moscow counterpart to Mann's "Washington insider" view of the overall process. His material seems to have been gleaned from those close to the Moscow security services and he might equally have talked about Gorbachev's rebellion against the "conventional wisdom" of his own society. Actually, Gorbachev's dissent was much greater and more surprising than Reagan's, and took far more courage. Based on those two books, he seems far more a hero than Reagan does.

Ironically, though Reagan became the focus of an illusion, at least in the US, Gorbachev himself was the victim of an illusion all of his own. He really believed he was reforming the Soviet system, not destroying it. That was what glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were meant to do. He even believed, apparently, that the East Europeans would be willing to stay in the system after the reforms. But, of course, the Soviet sphere was a creature of darkness, and could not survive the amount of light and change he exposed it to.

As far as the Westerners were concerned, there should not have been as much surprise over the way the Cold War ended. After all, the original architect of "containment", George Kennan, had suggested in his original March 1946 cable that the conflict might end in the erosion or the mellowing of Soviet power. Kennan's diplomatic and strategic theory provided the rationale for Western policy throughout that whole 43 years. And in 1989, the world saw in Gorbachev's decisions both erosion and mellowing of the previous Soviet stance. Kennan was a true prophet, and a wise man.

It is time now, however, to look beyond the personal contributions of the policymakers of 1946 and 1989 to the longer-term results of their choices. And those results have transformed the world beyond the borders of Europe, where they were most visible. The "shrinkage" of Moscow's power, from the 1985 Soviet Union more or less back to historic Russia as it was about the time of Catherine the Great, meant that it was no longer a true rival of the United States, except in the sole matter of nuclear strike-power. For 10 years, that produced the "unipolar moment"–the world of unrivalled US power.

But now it has produced not another bipolar world, with the US and China as the new "G2" as some policymakers expected, but rather the multipolar world of the G20–a world of much more widely distributed power. This is greatly to the satisfaction of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who rightly perceives it to be the likeliest mode of avoiding what might otherwise be painful and dangerous dilemmas for Australia, should the US and China ever replicate the kind of power-rivalry in the Pacific that drove the Cold War in Europe.

The other truly fascinating and as yet largely unexplored aspect of the way the Cold War ended lies in what I would use as a case study in the life and death of radical revolutions. We now have two periods of sociological change to explore–the 70 years from Vladimir Lenin's triumph in 1917, to Russia's authoritarian-capitalist political and economic system of the present day. This is compared with the 60 years from Mao Zedong's triumph in 1949 to the authoritarian-capitalist system of present day China. What becomes most vividly apparent is how much better the Chinese have fared than have the Russians.

Gorbachev visited China about the time of those momentous decisions about Eastern Europe, and no doubt, the politburo there greeted him politely. However, they must have watched aghast as the consequences of his actions became visible. This would have confirmed their earlier decision in June to harshly suppress the Tiananmen uprising. But they would also have seen, in Russia's failures, that a Cold War with the US and its allies had been a very bad idea. So instead, they chose the policy they call "peaceable rise". And it has undoubtedly worked a treat, not only for China but for the world, speeding the progress of globalisation and industrialisation of the developing world.

We therefore owe the 1989 policymakers a debt of gratitude, especially Gorbachev. Their decisions ended a conflict, which had so often threatened war–nuclear war. And they contributed, along with globalisation and the communications revolution, to the world we have inherited.

Of course, this world has its own grave problems, like climate change, but it holds far less prospect of sudden catastrophe than the hair-trigger nuclear balance of the Cold War. Relations between the great powers, who could still destroy themselves and the rest of us, are currently remarkably comfortable and constructive. Obama is a great builder of international consensus, and the problems he inherits are going to need that.