Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of chatting with Simon Miles, professor at Duke University School of Public Policy, with a fascinating new Cold War history published a few months ago on engaging the evil empire with some interesting and maybe even provocative new findings on how the Cold War ended relatively successfully. So, Simon, thank you for joining us.
Miles: Mark, thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to talk about the book with you.
Tooley: Now, if you’re an American conservative, you would declare that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. If you’re not a conservative, you might simply say that it was the wisdom and prudence of Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War, but what is the real story, according to your book?
Miles: Well, according to my book, both parties deserve a lot of credit. But in this story that I tell, which is primarily actually about what I refer to in the subtitle of the book as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, this is in many, many ways a story of American strategy shaping Soviet behavior, working in concert with broader structural forces that were unfolding in the worldduring the 1980s, which further precipitated Soviet decline. So,in my book, which is really balanced I think in terms of dealing with both the US and Soviet policymaking spheres, and that certainly comes through if any of your readers are brave enough to wade into the footnotes of the book, I hope they’ll see a lot of evidence from east of the Iron Curtain from all the archival work I’ve done there. And in my story, I advanced an argument about the importance of the early 1980s that understanding the speed and the scope of the later 1980s, the end of the Cold War, which you’re referencing really relies on us understanding what happens at the beginning of that decade. How the perceived balance of power between East and West, between the United States and the Soviet Union shifted. At the beginning of the ‘80s, one perceived to favor the Soviet Union. You talked a little bit about the lionization, Mark, of Ronald Reagan, and I would think that Reagan has kind of become the avatar of American exceptionalism, right, for better or for worse, but he is kind of the can-do president. This is really at odds with the Reagan 1980campaign, which is an extremely pessimistic campaign. Reagan and his team are out there saying, “Hey, we’re losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union. Look at what’s happening in Latin America. Look at what’s happening in Africa. Look at even the military and nuclear balance on the European continent.” It’s a scary situation for American policymakers in ’80. By 1985,which is when my mind book leaves off, that perceived balance of power has totally flipped. And is much more accurate. The other argument that I make was that the pessimism in the US camp was, I don’t want to say overinflated in the sense that there was a degree of mendacity about it, but rather it didn’t really accurately reflect the big picture. And that I attribute in large part to an American grand strategy implemented by and conceived by Reagan, along with some of his key partners. And here I have in mind in particular the Secretary of State George Schultz, who balanced very effectively carrots and sticks in dealing with the Soviet Union. So, not just about so-called maximum pressure, but rather both putting pressure on Moscowand also creating diplomatic and other escape valves which not only kept tensions between the superpowers under control, but later on, when the US is looking to actually use diplomacy to cement its gains, gave the Soviet Union a sense that okay, we can actually negotiate with him. This is actually someone with whom we can do business.
Tooley: Now, I recall Reagan in 1970s would tell people privately that he was looking forward to meeting with the Soviet leader so he could be the first American president who said, “No.” Did that in fact actually happen in his first meeting withGorbachev?
Miles: Strikingly, the opposite. The first Reagan-Gorbachev Summit, which is in November 1985 in Geneva, was a really important episode. Not because the two actually made major breakthroughs and did big deals. In this case, both Reagan and Gorbachev said “No” a great deal. And so did their staffs, whoat points were a little worried that the principals were getting out ahead of their skis. But what that first Geneva meeting mattered for wasn’t for kind of taking a stand or sticking it to the Soviets, but I find, and my evidence for this is actually not only the American record but also, I have access to the full Soviet record of the Geneva Summit, was the humanizing impact of getting the two in the room together. And their first meeting, their first private one-on-one was supposed to be very, very brief and ended up passing hours, because even though they didn’t agree on everything, the president and the general secretary did find that they certainly had a lot to talk about. And the image of the other in in both cases didn’t really mesh with the man whom they found on the other side of the table or in the opposite arm chair for their private meeting. So, Reagan’s fight against détente, basically the mainstream American policy towards the Soviet Union in the late ‘60s and most of the ‘70s was certainly politically very useful for him, but I think he found that once he was actually in office, again, the use of both positive and negative incentives was really important for how he managed to work with the Soviet Union. And nothing should be construed here, Mark, to mean that Reagan wasn’t competitive about this so that he didn’t want to get an edge over the Kremlin, but rather that he recognized that he needed to say no. But also, that saying no for the sake of saying no wouldn’t get him anywhere. And that oftentimes giving a little ground, even just small symbolic acts that created an aura of good faith around the negotiations, that mattered for achieving American foreign policy goals.
Tooley: In terms of the underlying worldviews of both men, Reagan obviously was politically conservative. He also was sincerely and devoutly religious, and that shaped his politics and his outlook towards the Cold War. He seemed to have almost a providential coveted competence that the right side was going to prevail in the end. Gorbachev seems to sort of move away from his orthodox Marxism, but he certainly lacked confidence in Marxist doctrine that the Soviet Union had an inevitable future ahead. Is that not correct?
Miles: I think it’s certainly fair to say that Gorbachev is very, very alive to the real problems that the Soviet Union is facing at this time, which are numerous, ranging from of course the domestic economy, which by the 1980s was in pretty dire shape,the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan, which was not bearing any sort of fruit, and also, the increasing and unwelcome foreign policy and independence of some of Moscow’s Eastern Bloc allies. Though I think it’s important to stress that Gorbachev is not the first to do this. So, my book actually begins during the final two years of Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure as general secretary,spans the entirety of Yuri Andropov’s tenure, and also Constantine Chernenko’s very, very brief tenure. And I want to focus in particular on Andropov here, who I think is a really critical figure. He and Chernenko are often sort of dismissed as just being old and infirm and not having really done anything,and I hope that readers of this book come away with a sense of just how wrong that caricature really is. So, Andropov before becoming general secretary was chairman of the KGB, the head of the Soviet foreign and domestic intelligence service, which gave him some of the best insight into the real state of the Soviet Union. He was reading the raw intelligence that was then polished up before being passed on to the rest of the Politburo.So, Andropov has a sense of just how dire the situation has become and, in particular, the extent to which Soviet kind of ideology, quality of life, etc. just aren’t doing it for their public anymore. And his evidence for this is defections, which as chairman of the KGB he gets pretty reliable reporting on this. His evidence for this is defections, not the high profile stuff, not the major people like Oleg Gordievsky, who figures in my book, but rather just kind of frontline young KGB officers on their first posting abroad in the West. These are vetted, reliable,presumably committed to the Soviet cause, and he’s discovering that in huge numbers they are almost immediately defecting. Not with treasure troves of secrets, they’re just saying there’s nothing I can see for me back home. That tells him okay, if this is our best and brightest and they’re checking out en masse, we’ve got a real problem. His protege at this time is Mikhail Gorbachev. Andropov plays a major role in Gorbachev’s political formulation. So, while I certainly agree with you that Gorbachev gets very seriously how problematic the Soviet Union situation is, he really is the culmination of a rising trend. And when Gorbachev very famously says on becoming General Secretary, “We just can’t go on like this anymore,” He is echoing some earlier leaders. The difference, and I’ll wrap up with this because I’ve probably gone on for too long already, the difference is that he’s willing to go much further than any of his predecessors were. And in that, he is less hamstrung, as you say, by a more rigid adherence to not just Soviet ideology, but also norms and what is thought of in earlier years as appropriate steps. He’s willing to go further, for example in diplomacy with the United States. He’s willing to go further in drawing back Soviet commitments, whether it’s to Eastern Bloc allies or to kind of internationalism, right, to the international communist movement.
Tooley: Now, I’m just old enough to remember the early 1980s and the upsurge in concern about the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. The demonstrations, especially large in Western Europe, and resistance to the placement of new US intermediate range nuclear missiles. A TV series called I believe The Morning After, The Day After?
Miles: Day After, yeah.
Tooley: What a nuclear Armageddon would look like in the United States. So, Reagan was operating in that atmosphere and had his own personal convictions and religious sensibility, and he had a special calling to ensure that there would not be a nuclear exchange which led him, of course, to his 1983 speech unveiling SDI.
Miles: Reagan took the idea of nuclear abolitionism very seriously. And I think as you say very right, very correctly, Mark, this was really rooted in his faith. He talked a lot about it in Biblical terms. In particular, with his focus on Armageddon, right. And in the book, eagle-eyed readers will notice that I actually, when I referred Armageddon in this context, I leave it capitalized as a proper noun, as opposed to lowercase as more of a concept. Because I think that really speaks to exactly what Reagan had in mind, right, when he thought about what a nuclear war meant. He really had in mind Armageddon in the Biblical sense, right, and not in a more abstract kind of massive destruction sense. So, this I think really shapes how Reagan formulates his views on nuclear weapons. And also, he’s totally unpersuaded of the wisdom of mutually assured destruction because of the enormous human costs that that would cost. And I think if we look at Reagan’s views on this, if we look at Reagan’s views, for example on human rights issues and dissident issues in the Soviet Union, the sanctity of human life,and the individual really matters to him. And I think that thus, he takes the nuclear issue on almost immediately. But he doesn’t get a lot of credit for that, as you know, in part because of his sense that in order to build down, the United States first needed to build up. And so, of course, you say that you want to get rid of nuclear weapons, but you’re fielding new nuclear weapons in Western Europe, for example, with the Pershing II ground launch and Griffin ground launch cruise missiles that the US did start installing in late 1983. Also, in the form of new intercontinental ballistic missiles, the MX that’s being fielded,new submarine launched ballistic missiles, Trident II or Trident D5. So, all of this, if you’re the Soviet Union, and I’ve worked a lot in Soviet records on exactly this issue, this doesn’t look like a nuclear abolition, you know, let’s make them irrelevant ploy. This is a warfighting strategy to build up first strike capability. And then in the form of, as you said, Strategic defense Initiative, that’s going to mop up what little bit of a retaliatory capabilitythe Soviet Union has, and this is not the first time in history, and it’s probably not going to be the last that things with a defensive intention take on an extremely offensive character in the eye of the rival, the beholder against whom they’re meant to defend.So, Reagan was in tough space that way. And he had it coming from all sides, as you said. Many people were very quick to associate his kind of cowboy image with a real sort of nuclear cowboy sensibility and that he didn’t take seriously the threat of nuclear war. And indeed, there are a few regrettable hot mic incidences during the Reagan presidency of perhaps ill-advised quips that that are fuel on that fire.
Tooley: Reagan’s key Cold War international partnerspresumably include Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Japan’s Nakasone, perhaps the Pope. His personal counselors, the most important ones would have been Schultz and who else?
Miles: On this issue, in particular the Soviet issue, I would say Jack Matlock, who we’re privileged to have as a colleague here at Duke. And also, George H.W. Bush. In the diplomatic bureaucratic infighting in the White House, Bush was a great friend to Schultz, particularly because the national security advisor for part of this, William Clark, was pretty actively undermining Schultz in his efforts to steer US policy. I think, this is my conclusion based on my research, that Shultz and Reagan were really the most closely in step in how they perceived US-Soviet relations and how they perceived, as I said, the useful balance between carrot and stick when it came to dealing with the Soviet Union. And that certainly generated a lot of pushback within the White House. Harder line figures, like for example, Richard Pipes, earlier on quickly found themselves muscled out of a lot of the most important conversations and grew quite resentful about that very quickly. But in this issue, Ireally find a key role for Reagan, which is tough, because Reagan is not friendly to historians of grand strategy like myselfin the sense that he has a nasty habit of not pronouncing grand strategic opinions in grand strategic venues. So, you go and look at the National Security Council records, meeting records, I should say, and he frequently is silent or he says very, very little. With whereas with earlier presidents, I mean, this is where you went, right. This is where LBJ laid out why Vietnam mattered and why Linebacker was the right way, why Rolling Thunder was the right way, sorry. Reagan doesn’t do that. He requires a lot more hunting, and to a certain degree, parsing in order to really lay out how he thinks. Because he really personalizes the Soviet policy issue, didn’t make it something that was at the center of a lot of his conversations that were recorded, he’s a more challenging subject. And perhaps that’s part of why a lot of our impressions of what the Reagan foreign policy was are really clouded by I would say misunderstandings.
Tooley: And then finally, this is outside the purview of your book, but for a reader of your book, what lessons would they draw in terms of current US foreign policy and perhaps our strategic competition with China?
Miles: With China or Russia, I think which are different, the nature of the competition is different, I think to be sure, I think that what I would advise an American policymaker to do is not just buying into the conventional wisdom about what Reagan did and didn’t do right. And there’s been a lot of reporting over the last few years, and I’ve published a few pieces on this in a few outlets like Foreign Policy and We’re on the Rocks, there have been a lot of kind of misconstrued of what Reagan did, that it was just about so-called maximum pressure, right. That Reagan just kept pushing and pushing and pushing the Soviets until eventually they snapped. And that simply isn’t true. What I try to show in this book is the extent to which he balanced going on the offensive with also maintaining a quieter, often secret, back channel dialogue. And so, what I would say to an American leader who needs to deal with Russian or Chinese or Iranian or whatever counterpart is that simply just force has not actually been what’s benefited the United States in the past in this case. And that the story of the peaceful end of the Cold War, which is really historically totally unprecedented. I mean, if you think about a fundamental transformation of the international system of that scale before the events of ‘89 to ’91, this was only brought about by major power war, right, Great Power war and huge calamitous costs. And while the end of the Cold War is not entirely without violence, it pales in comparison to the precipitating events of 1945 or 1919, right. And that matters. And I would hope that American policymakers dealing with Russia or China also want that kind of outcome where that kind of outcome is not inevitable. And the opposite is really dangerous. And so, I would encourage anyone to take the real lessons from Reagan and use carrot and stick with an eye to competition, and also to remember, I think this was something that Reagan understood and I think that this is not untrue today, that the United States has to a certain degree time on its side. And thus, adopting a bit more of what I guess if we kind of look back at the classics and more of a Fabian strategy sometimes can pay off much better. It did for Reagan. And I think it’s not implausible that it would, looking ahead to the future as well.
Tooley: Do you have a copy of your book within reach?
Miles: I do.
Tooley: Simon Miles, author of Engaging the Evil Empire, thank you for a fascinating conversation.
Miles: Mark, thanks so much for having me. It was great talking with you.