President Barack Obama in a recent interview corrected an assertion of a deputy national security advisor who said that his boss “subscribes less to a great-man theory of history and more to a great-movement theory of history.” “I’m not sure Ben is right about that,” Obama remarked. “I believe in both.”
President Obama’s statement calls to mind the great men and great movement of the end of the Cold War–a topic that is back in the news. The great men were Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, and George H.W. Bush; the great movement was the resurgence of capitalism amidst the continued stagnation of communist economies. This movement, however, did not determine how leaders acted. Individuals weighed options and made choices. In particular, Gorbachev presided over the peaceful retreat of an empire, an exceedingly rare phenomenon and not at all what the Politburo had in mind when they selected him to be General Secretary in 1985.
Why did Gorbachev proceed as he did? He grew up in a village near Stavropol about 500 kilometers from Sochi during World War II, encountering the remains of Red Army soldiers in the woods and believing for a year that his father had perished. Gorbachev became a star in the Komsomol, the communist youth group, and then rose through the ranks of the Communist Party after getting his law degree. In his worldview, communism was the antidote to fascism. But he was struck by the higher standards of living he encountered on visits to Western Europe in the 1970s and the hostility toward Moscow when he traveled to Eastern Europe. These experiences were embarrassing to him.
Gorbachev’s mission was to reform communism to utilize new technologies and adapt to changes in the international economy. This meant accepting strategic sufficiency and redirecting the Soviet economy away from the military. In public, Gorbachev espoused tremendous confidence about what the Soviet economy could achieve by the end of the century. Behind the scenes, however, the Soviet leader did not have a clear plan for how to proceed. He spoke about “acceleration,” “perestroika,” “glasnost,” and a “new world order.” These slogans led Gorbachev to make astonishing concessions to the West when it came to nuclear arms treaties and the question of Germany’s future after the wall came down in November 1989. More than anyone else, Gorbachev arrested the nuclear arms race that imperiled the future of humanity at the start of the 1980s.
His partner in seeking that objective, Ronald Reagan, was not at all the cowboy his critics alleged. The 40th president long dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons. By building up arms, Reagan was convinced, the United States would compel the Soviets to agree to build down. Beginning in March 1983, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) gradually became the essential component to this plan. Reagan’s burgeoning relationship with Gorbachev led him to think even grander: he was willing to share SDI with the Soviets to insure both sides stuck to its side of a nuclear grand bargain.
Reagan, by means of SDI and other initiatives, did not win the Cold War. Rather, he established the terms for the big debates between Washington and Moscow in the 1980s. He introduced the “zero option” when it came to medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe and transformed the framework of strategic arms limitations to strategic arms reductions. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the end of the Cold War was to stand in the middle of Red Square and say that the Soviet Union was no longer an evil empire. This delivery reduced substantially the Soviet perception of American threat one year before the revolutions of 1989.
Reagan acted without a script. He was also very human. When it came to foreign policy, he was fundamentally of two minds about whether to undermine the Soviet Union or to engage with its leaders. His champion of engagement was George Shultz, who became secretary of state in the summer of 1982. Shultz was not a typical diplomat; he did not pay much heed to how someone like Henry Kissinger might define statecraft. Shultz was a fierce champion for human rights and engaging adversaries–the most important thing, in his mind, was to keep talking with them.
Shultz was inclined to negotiate with the Soviets yet had to fight constantly with hawkish figures in the administration, such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who had known Reagan far longer and never abandoned their skepticism of Gorbachev. Shultz was able to deflect the blows of hardliners while approaching Gorbachev in the manner of a top-flight professor of management (which he was, at the University of Chicago) called in to help a CEO reform a broken organization.
Shultz empowered Reagan’s impulse to bargain with the Soviets. He supported the redoubling of efforts to achieve an INF treaty in the wake of a stalemate at Reykjavik in October 1986 and after the Iran-Contra scandal weakened the administration. In April 1987, following the KGB’s penetration of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, he brushed aside critics and the U.S. Congress to travel to Moscow, where Gorbachev made further concessions on nuclear arms control. That summer, Shultz prevented Weinberger from cutting off negotiations with Moscow.
When Reagan and Shultz left office in early 1989, they believed that the Cold War was basically over. George H.W. Bush, 41st president of the United States, understood the ways in which that was not fully the case. Gorbachev, Reagan, and Shultz may have halted the nuclear arms race, yet the division of Germany and Europe remained. While Reagan had famously challenged Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall,” these words did not translate into policies that achieved that objective.
Bush entered office in January 1989 facing domestic constraints. Democrats controlled the Senate and House of Representatives, and the chief political debate was how to cut the budget deficit. Notwithstanding these circumstances, Bush responded prudently to the revolutions of 1989 and then strove to craft his own version of a new world order during 1990-1991. Critics mocked this phrase during the 1992 presidential election, yet it had a clear meaning: democracy, capitalism, and an open world economy. Bush oversaw the construction of a new configuration of power that resolved the fundamental issues of the Cold War–nuclear weapons, the division of Germany and Europe, and the ideological contest between capitalism and communism–on U.S. terms. He did so not by formulating and implementing a particular grand strategy but through improvisation.
Indeed, rather than perform as was expected of them, Reagan, Shultz, Bush, and Gorbachev improvised. During the last years of the Cold War, improvisation mattered more than any master plan. To succeed, leaders must improvise because, as President Obama acknowledges in his New Yorker interview, there is no joystick to control geopolitics. Great men and women adapt to great movements and engage adversaries skillfully. As we commemorate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the most dramatic moments of the last century, let us take heart in the potential for individual leaders to achieve incredible things.
-James Graham Wilson (Miller Center Fellow ’11) is a historian at the Department of State and the author of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptation, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Cornell University Press, February 2014). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.