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  • Perestroika and the End of the Cold War
  • Jack F. Matlock Jr. (bio)

The idea that the Cold War ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union is one of the most widespread—and disorienting—misperceptions that has plagued international relations over the past quarter century. Equally damaging to a peaceful world order have been the claim and the perception that the Soviet Union, or "Russia," lost the Cold War. In fact, the Cold War ended well before the Soviet Union shattered into independent countries in December 1991; until then, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was not an independent state.

The competing philosophies that underlay the Cold War came to an end in 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, discarded the Marxist concept of the "international class struggle" leading to a "dictatorship of the proletariat" as the guiding principle of Soviet foreign policy. Gorbachev replaced the goal of assisting world revolution with support for "the common interests of mankind." This was a concept in total contradiction to the philosophy espoused by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin, all of whom believed that only economic classes, not mankind as a whole, had common interests. A year later, as the East European countries asserted their independence, Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush declared that their countries were no longer enemies.

The Cold War was over, to the advantage of both sides and the world as a whole. It was not a victory of one side over the other, but an outcome that improved the security of both. The subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union occurred as a result of internal tensions, not the pressure of external enemies. The first President Bush strongly endorsed Gorbachev's proposal for a Union Treaty that would have united twelve of the Union republics in a voluntary federation. Since the United States had never recognized the legality of the forced absorption of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union, it supported their insistence on the restoration of their independence. In fact, one of the last acts of the Soviet parliament elected [End Page 275] as a result of perestroika recognized their independence.

Russians who today mourn the collapse of the Soviet state should be reminded that it was the elected leader of the RSFSR, Boris Yeltsin, who conspired with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine to reject Gorbachev's proposed Union Treaty and replace it with the ineffectual Commonwealth of Independent States. This was not an outcome forced by Western pressure or the machinations of foreign enemies. It was a by-product of the failed coup attempt in August 1991—an attempt by those directly responsible for the security of the Soviet Union to replace perestroika with repression. Their attempt was an utter failure but gravely undermined the authority of the Soviet government.

All of the statements above seem crystal clear to me, having observed developments in the Soviet Union as American ambassador from 1987 to early August 1991. Yet it is obvious that most contemporary observers assume illogically that "Russia" "lost" the Cold War, which ended when the Soviet Union disappeared from the world stage. I have often asked myself why and how this mistaken belief took hold and still persists. There doubtless are many contributing factors, but several important ones come immediately to mind.

First, few Western journalists, scholars, or, for that matter, intelligence agencies thought fundamental reform of the Soviet system was possible. They assumed that if Gorbachev pursued even limited reforms that threatened Communist Party control of the country, he would be removed, as indeed had happened to Nikita Khrushchev. Second, events moved so rapidly in the late 1980s through 1991 that even the best-informed observers had trouble keeping up. Third, almost everyone concentrated their attention primarily on geopolitical competition and the military balance or imbalance, rather than the underlying ideology. In my judgment, the arms race and geopolitical competition were artefacts of the Cold War, not its cause.

When Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, many American officials saw him as a greater threat than his predecessors. Arthur Hartman, then U...


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pp. 275-277
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