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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 141-143

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Martin Westlake, ed., Leaders of Transition. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xxi + 178 pp. $69.95.

The collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union spawned an outpouring of "transition" literature in the social sciences. This reviewer was bewildered more than once by transitological jargon. The greatest weakness of transition studies is the presumption that universally valid models exist that can be applied to any situation, be it in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Iberia, or Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. More often than not, efforts at generalization across geographical and historical contexts are banal at best, and the most accessible—and sensible—analyses of transition tend to resemble studies in contemporary history more than anything else. To cite but one example, the entry of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and their pending admission into the European Union (EU) surely render their transitions very different from those of, say, nearby Belarus and Moldova. The specificities of these cases can be adequately grasped only through a historical approach. Transition "theory" has virtually nothing to offer here.

Despite the title of this book, the biographical sketches it contains do a good job of avoiding the facile analysis one usually encounters in transition studies. All of the contributions are lucidly written, and they eschew overreaching generalizations for the sake of tightly argued analyses. The focus on the role of individual leaders at critical junctures creates a cogent point of comparison, which in turn facilitates broader arguments about the phenomenon of political leadership. The leaders covered in the book—Mikhail Gorbachev, F. W. de Klerk, Achille Ochetto, Wojciech Jaruzelski, Neil Kinnock, and Adolfo Suarez—appear, at first glance, to be a rather heterogeneous group. Almost all readers will have at least some familiarity with the men who introduced perestroika in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, who imposed martial law in Poland in 1981, and who helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa beginning in 1990. The same cannot be said about Kinnock, the British Labour Party leader who, starting in 1987, began to move his party away from its obstreperous, union-dominated left toward the center, thus paving the way for the success a decade later of Tony Blair's "New Labour." Nor is Suarez a widely known figure, even though he initiated one of the first transitions, in 1976, when he began to navigate Spain out of the Francoist morass and toward a constitutional monarchy anchored in pluralism and a firm commitment [End Page 141] to Europe. As for Ochetto, the most obscure member of the group, he began a process in 1989 that culminated two years later in the Italian Communist Party's formal disavowal of Marxism-Leninism, a development that was instrumental in altering the entire Italian political landscape.

With the exception of Spain, which, in a comparative context, is far more interesting today because of its successful post-Francoist integration into NATO and the EU, and notbecause of the details surrounding Francoism's collapse, all of the cases discussed in this volume are linked by a common historical framework. They would be unimaginable (at least in the same way) without the implosion of Communism in Soviet Union and the resulting transformation of the international environment. Seen in this light, Gorbachev belongs in a category all his own, with Jaruzelski playing a complementary but secondary role. Kinnock and Ochetto are, by comparison, bit players, and the consequences of their actions remain largely confined to the United Kingdom and Italy. De Klerk occupies the most autonomous position, although the impact of international events on his thinking and actions provides a useful illustration of the far-reaching consequences of the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

All of the contributions in this volume are based on the assumption that, to a large degree, human beings, not impersonal forces, make history. The authors show why it mattered that a given individual was in a position...