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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.3 (2001) 97-100

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Book Review

From the Cold War to a New Era:
The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983-1991

Don Oberdorfer, From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983-1991 . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 552 pp. $19.95.

"The Cold War didn't 'end'; it was won." So said George Bush in January 1992 in what turned out to be his last State of the Union address. The remark was dismissed as [End Page 97] a crude attempt to take personal credit in an election year, rather than an appeal to Americans to reflect on the role their country had played and needed to continue playing. One of the virtues of Don Oberdorfer's gripping account of U.S.-Soviet relations at the end of the Cold War is that it helps debunk the myth that the Soviet empire collapsed of its own internal contradictions. The United States, according to the myth, was merely a bystander as the Cold War ended, needing only to pick up the ripe fruit as it fell from the tree. Oberdorfer's detailed, balanced account describes the policies and personalities that actually changed history.

There was nothing inevitable about the dramatic events that began in 1989. The Berlin Wall would not have fallen in November 1989 if there had not been a successful challenge to Communist rule in Poland earlier that year. On numerous occasions Poland's peaceful revolution might have broken down. There was nothing foreordained about the successful unification of Germany in the face of Soviet opposition and the misgivings felt by most of Germany's neighbors. Nor was the disintegration of the Soviet Union the inevitable consequence of the conflicts that raged in that country for most of 1991. There were several possible outcomes to the crisis of Soviet Communism, not just one. While acknowledging that deep historical forces were at work, Oberdorfer concurs with former Soviet foreign minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh in characterizing this period as "a rare case in history when a major change didn't just develop--it was willed to happen" (p. 478).

A second myth that Oberdorfer helps debunk is that George Bush merely carried on the foreign policy initiated by Ronald Reagan. As anyone engaged in foreign policy making under the two presidents knows, there was no such thing as a "Reagan-Bush foreign policy." The differences between Bush and Reagan were stark--more stark than between Bush and Bill Clinton, and as stark in substance (though not in rhetoric) as between Jimmy Carter and Reagan. Bush made sharp departures in strategy and policy: away from concentration on arms negotiations, especially regarding nuclear weapons, toward addressing the underlying political conflicts; away from an approach that opposed European unity to one that actively embraced it (Bush's shift of priority from Britain to Germany being a case in point); away from the "Reagan doctrine" in the Third World (a doctrine aimed against the Soviet Union and its Marxist clients) toward an approach that sought to enlist Soviet cooperation in solving Third World conflicts. Conceptually, there was a profound shift from Reagan's bipolar world- view--manifested in his reliance on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a naval buildup, and other unilateral military measures--toward Bush's pragmatic multi- lateralism, which saw the world in terms of friends as well as enemies--friends whose partnership was vital to ending the Cold War. Above all, rather than seeking a strategic partnership with the Soviet Union, Bush held U.S.-Soviet relations hostage to the end of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. Arguably, this was the most important single contribution the United States made to ending the Cold War. Oberdorfer argues that Bush showed "remarkable prescience" during the election campaign in 1988 when he referred to the possibility of major change in this region (p. 330).

Ronald Reagan also gets deserved credit for exposing the vulnerability of the Soviet...