Home Globalisation & Geopolitics Looking back to the end of the Cold War: 1985-1991

Looking back to the end of the Cold War: 1985-1991

John West
It took four wise leaders—Reagan and Shultz, and Gorbachev and Shevardnadze—to bring the previous Cold War to a peaceful end. Regrettably, the world is suffering from a dearth of such leadership today
Executive Director of the Asian Century Institute

It is very difficult today to be optimistic about the state of global geopolitics, as the West (led by the US) drives Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion, and China and the US are locked in great power rivalry.

And yet, some 40 years ago, in the midst of the first Cold War between the USSR and the West, the prospects for peace also looked fairly grim. Then, all of a sudden, the world was turned upside down from 1985-1991, as the Cold War was brought to an abrupt end.

Central Europe was freed from the grasp of the Soviet Union; divided Germany was unified following the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Russian Federation emerged as a new nation. Important nuclear arms reduction agreements were negotiated. And the world communist movement practically fell apart.

In a recent book, drawing on new US and USSR archive material, Robert Service argues that these momentous changes were led by the “big four” of Ronald Reagan and George Shultz on the US side, and Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze on the Soviet side, who laid the foundations for the peace that followed. George HW Bush would complete the geopolitical transformation that Reagan had started.

Reagan believed the Soviet Union was not all it was cracked up to be. Intuitively, he knew that he could make peace with Gorbachev. And Shultz and Shevardnadze developed a close relationship. But all along, Reagan and Schulz had to battle the Defense Department and CIA who believed that Gorbachev and the Soviets could not be trusted, and who wanted Reagan to be tougher.

As Service argues, the Cold War was potentially the most dangerous period in world history, with two nuclear superpowers facing off, with the capacity to destroy each other and the whole world. This almost happened with the Cuban missile crisis, and again in 1983 when Moscow misread the Able Archer NATO military exercise as a cover for an American assault on Moscow. While there were no shots directly fired between the two superpowers, there was much indirect conflict through proxy wars.

The USSR’s shift towards reconciliation

The Soviets had been under immense pressure from the Americans for decades. Why then, during the 1980s, did the USSR jump towards reconciliation with the US?

Even before Gorbachev’s ascent to Soviet leadership in 1985, the Politburo realised that the Soviet economy was deteriorating, that it had an economic crisis on its hands. The costly arms race was a drag on the Soviet economy – resources were draining away, especially due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet economic system was broken, it could not meet the basic needs of its people, or continue to fund its enormous military establishment or maintain its vast empire.

Although the Politburo was well aware of the economic crisis, it never had the courage to tackle it. Thus, after half a decade of crisis in the 1980s, the Politburo made Gorbachev its leader (General Secretary), and he began to implement dramatic changes.

Gorbachev encountered very little resistance because everyone in the Politburo knew that something had to be done. Indeed, Gorbachev had a relatively free hand in foreign and security policy until as late as 1989. There was no dispute about a rapprochement with the US.

The Politburo also went along with Gorbachev as he was a true believer in communism. He said that he would conserve communist rule, although in the end, he ultimately destroyed the USSR. In addition, all the main institutions in the USSR believed in the need for political, economic and social reform. In particular, the Soviet military could see that if the USSR was going to remain a world military power, there had to be big changes in the Soviet economy.

American pressure on the USSR

The Reagan administration also rattled the USSR through its Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars programme”), a proposed missile defense system intended to protect the US from attack by ballistic strategic nuclear weapons. Many Soviet officials thought it was a sham, as did many Americans. But the Soviets dared not take a risk, because there was always a possibility it would work. Thus, it did scare the Soviets, and placed additional crucial pressure on them. Indeed, the Soviet elite saw Reagan as a warmonger.

The Americans made disarmament conditional on Soviet disengagement from military intervention in Africa and Cuba, and internal reform of the USSR. America wanted a reliable partner, and a totalitarian country could never be acceptable. Thus, the Americans were very crucial in moving this process forward. They also insisted on economic reform, before offering financial assistance.

Over several administrations, another important American initiative was the technological transfer embargo which cut the Soviet economy off new technological innovations, especially the IT revolution, that were then spreading through the Western economies. Reagan would sell the Russians grain, but not Apple or Microsoft computers. The only way that the USSR could acquire this new technology was to steal it through industrial espionage. Lack of access to these technologies left the Soviet economy gasping.

But there were other things that undermined the Soviet system. Secretary of State George Schulz went to great pains to provide the Soviets with economic analysis in vivid charts which highlighted how the Soviet economy was being left behind, while Reagan’s jokes about Soviet backwardness also highlighted the yawning gap between American and Soviet lifestyles. And also as Soviet leaders visited Western countries, they could see the backwardness of the Soviet economy for themselves.

Soviet dissidents did not represent a practical threat to the regime, but their ideas did influence thinking among elites and the general public. Indeed, dissidents were important in making the USSR rot from the inside, important in the process of social modernisation.

In retrospect

The end of the Cold War was brought about by a Soviet side that was seeking reconciliation with the US in order to solve its internal economic crisis, and an American side piling on the pressure, but making friendly enough gestures for reconciliation to take place. Reagan was consumed by the potential horror of thermonuclear holocaust. In other words, it was a two-sided, bilateral process. But the Cold War did not end with a peace treaty because there was in fact no hot war.

All things considered, the extraordinary resolution to the Cold War was as much dependent on the personalities involved—the Big 4 of Reagan and George Shultz, and Gorbachev and Shevardnadze—as on long term fundamentals that pushed towards reconciliation. Somehow, random chance assembled exactly the right quartet at exactly the right time. If Gorbachev did not seek reconciliation, the Cold War could have ended violently.

Nevertheless, while Gorbachev must be admired for his management of Soviet security and political interests, his management of the economy was catastrophic, with his economic plans frequently changing.

The more recent deterioration of the West’s relations with Putin’s Russia highlights the reality that there is never an “end of history”, and that a new dynamic can emerge. Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, stabilised the economy, during a period where new oil revenues have been pouring into the Kremlin’s coffers. Russia has become more and more assertive and dangerous, especially towards its near neighbours, and the world has arguably descended into a new Cold War.

Today’s world is crying out for fresh leadership, especially from Russia, to forge a new reconciliation with the US and the West. It is very much in Russia’s interests to forge such an alliance, rather than spending decades in the mould of North Korea or Iran, or as a tributary of China. But there is no sign of such leadership on the horizon.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
John West
Executive Director of the Asian Century Institute

John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).

You may also like