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A retired senior British diplomat who has just published an important new study of the Cold War (The Great Cold War – A Journey Through the Hall of Mirrors – see our review in the Bookshelf section below) discusses a successful American approach that contributed to victory over the Soviet Union – “getting inside their mind” – and how it could be applied to contemporary foreign policy and national security challenges. – Ed.

by Gordon S. Barrass

President Obama has not lacked advice on how to deal with the many threats and problems America faces abroad. One critical subject has, however, received less attention than it deserves – and that is the ability of the United States to “get inside the mind” of its adversaries, as well as those of the countries whose support Washington will need. 

In recent years, this has not been America’s strong suit. But back in the 1970s, this was a subject in which America began to excel – and that, in turn, helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end. As President Obama’s team wrestles with the task of converting attitudes and approaches into sustainable policies, this is a good time to look into how that earlier achievement came about.

Some may wonder whether America’s Cold War experience really is relevant today. True, the world is no longer dominated by two superpowers and the military threats are different, but important similarities persist: The Cold War was a fraught confrontation that lasted for decades; during that period the United States learned the need to develop long-term policies and invested heavily in learning about the issues it faced.

Just as importantly, some of America’s adversaries now have far more complex and unnerving agendas than the Soviets ever did. Today, there is already one unstable state with nuclear weapons (which is Pakistan) and there are likely to be more in the years ahead.  Not surprisingly, last December a Congressionally-appointed committee warned that within five years terrorists could be using biological or nuclear weapons.  And that raises the question of what can be done to deter Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other groups, whose members are willing to undertake suicide missions for their cause.

The “getting inside their mind” approach could also throw much light on Iranian policy, currently a complex mix of insecurity, nuclear ambitions, and support for terrorist groups across the Middle East.  Washington certainly needs to know much more about the fears of the mullahs in Tehran, including the gravity of the economic problems Iran – already an importer of refined petroleum products – will face in just a few years.  And there is so much still to be learnt about a host of other states including Afghanistan,  North Korea (which still baffles the Chinese, who have had close contact with  it for over 60 years), and China, as well as Pakistan and Russia, that are considered towards the end of this article.       

What follows, I hasten to emphasize, is not a lecture from a Brit trying to teach grandmother how to suck eggs.  On the contrary, it is the distillation of what a number of influential Americans told me while I was researching my book on The Great Cold War – A Journey Through the Hall of Mirrors. When I asked them about the lessons they had learned from that era, they kept returning to three key ones – the importance of understanding one’s adversary, developing a long-term strategy, and how to get the most out of intelligence.

Strategy and Rationality

As the Soviet Union emerged as a much stronger and more assertive power during the late sixties/early seventies, a small number of Americans came to believe that the Cold War would only end when the Soviet Union had been persuaded to change its ways or abandon its competition with the United States. To achieve either of these objectives the United States would, they insisted, have to wear down the Soviet Union through intense competition. And that would require a carefully thought-out, long-term strategy – and the will to implement it.

These people might best be described as “revivalists,” the term used by James Schlesinger, the first leading figure to advocate such a course of action.  The “revivalists” were kindred spirits rather than a group, though several of them later worked together in the Carter and Reagan administrations. Their broad analysis fitted well with Reagan’s determination to end the Cold War on American terms, a policy he pursued vigorously after becoming president in 1981.

One of the first things that Schlesinger did on becoming secretary of defense in 1973 was to establish the rather secretive Office of Net Assessment (ONA) at the Pentagon.  He appointed Andy Marshall, one of RAND’s wisest and most creative thinkers, as the director. Marshall still holds that post 35 years later.

Marshall was responsible for advising the secretary of defense on what could be done to strengthen Western strategy and undermine Soviet confidence. Marshall and his staff began by exploring in depth the “correlation of forces” between the two sides.

This was not a simple study of the military balance at that time. Marshall wanted to look more broadly at the strengths and weaknesses of each side, as well the long-term trends that would shape the balance of power.  The ultimate question was “What are the Soviet vulnerabilities and what strengths does America have that than can be used to exploit them?”

Once the vulnerabilities had been identified, it was necessary to consider how they could be exploited to best effect and, hopefully, in a cost-effective way.  Schlesinger and Marshall were agreed that the next step was to “get inside the mind” of their Soviet adversary.

During the 1960s American thinking about the Soviet Union was dominated by people who assumed that the two sides were rational and reasonable. “They were not inclined to ask,” Marshall lamented, “whether there were two kinds of rationality – one Soviet and the other American, with each having its own ideology, values and preoccupations.  That worried me.”

Marshall was in no doubt that “We would really have to start from scratch. It was not just a question of understanding how a country’s history and culture make them different from us.  We needed to know the ways in which the structure of the Soviet regime affected the way they viewed the outside world and responded to developments.”  “It’s not enough to ask what they have done,” Marshall pointed out, “you need to know why they have done it – and done it in that particular way. It may not seem reasonable to you, but it probably does to them.”

Sorting out how the Soviets thought about a whole host of issues was a mammoth undertaking.  Marshall invested heavily in research by scholars, consultants, and the military themselves.  It was clear that America’s strategy for dealing with the Soviet military threat would have to take account of many other factors – including fears of economic weakness and political instability. 

American cultural historians made an important contribution to strategy by being among the first to find evidence that the Soviet elite was rapidly losing faith in Marxist-Leninist ideology and corruption was on the rise.  One of these was James Billington, a top Russian scholar who currently is the Librarian of Congress. His insights gave added weight to intelligence reports indicating that the malaise of the Soviet Union was indeed profound.

The Strategic Renaissance

Within the Office of Net Assessment and the U.S. military pioneering work was done on how the Soviet General Staff thought about war, how they measured the strength of their opponents, and the preferences and instinctive reactions to new challenges of the various powerful players within the Soviet leadership.

Faced with the rapid growth of the Soviet strategic missile forces and lamentable weaknesses in NATO, Schlesinger felt that the United States had to deter the Soviets from becoming over-confident and risking war in Europe. He did so in March 1974 through a declaratory policy of what he called “limited nuclear options.” He warned the Soviet leadership that if they attacked Europe, the United States would not only respond by using tactical nuclear weapons against Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe, but would also use a few strategic missiles to strike remote targets on Soviet territory.

“The ‘beauty’ of this strategy,” as Schlesinger likes to put it, “was that it played to Soviet gut reactions.  Soviet leaders had said time and time again that they did not believe nuclear war could be restrained once it had started. ‘Limited Nuclear Options’ would, therefore, make them very cautious and so reinforce deterrence.”

At the same time Schlesinger embarked on a new strategy that was intended to build up pressure on the Soviets.  “From Schlesinger through to the end of the Cold War,” Andy Marshall pointed out, “American secretaries of defense acted to encourage the Soviet Union to change its strategic missile forces in ways that would make them less worrying to the United States.” To this end, the Americans exploited their great technological lead to improve the accuracy of their own missiles. This made the Soviets’ ten-war-headed SS-18s increasingly vulnerable to an American attack and thus more likely to be negotiated away in arms control agreements.

Then, in 1983, President Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, which highlighted America’s expanding lead over the Soviet Union in new technology, especially micro-electronics and computers. Although many of Reagan’s advisers doubted the feasibility of “Star Wars,” they recognized that it was a masterful way of playing on the fears of the Soviet leadership. Even before Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet leadership had reluctantly accepted that it would have to negotiate with the Americans on strategic nuclear arms cuts.

The United States was confronted with a very different challenge at the start of the eighties, when CIA obtained details of Moscow’s new top secret war plans.  These were designed to give the Soviets the ability to defeat NATO so quickly that the alliance would not be able to use its nuclear weapons.  The new Soviet strategy was based on “shock and awe” before those words entered common parlance – a surprise attack by conventional forces that involved 2,000 aircraft and two million men along a front extending from northern Norway to eastern Turkey! 

Having studied this intelligence with great care, two of DIA’s top analysts were flown on a special plane to Belgium to give General Bernard Rogers, the commander of NATO forces, a personal top secret briefing on the new Soviet plans.  “For the first time in my career,” Rogers reportedly told them, “I feel I am seeing the battle from inside the mind of my adversary.”

The Pentagon and the U.S. military now embarked on what became the greatest renaissance in American strategic thinking in the twentieth century.  One of the innovations that gave it that quality was the idea that the effectiveness of any new conventional weapons would be greatly leveraged by “being combined with a new doctrine, based on a careful study of how Soviet forces would fight,” as Marshall put it.

Having obtained the complex mathematical formulas used by the Soviet General Staff to calculate what forces and weapons a commander would need in order to break through particular lines of defense, the Americans set out to turn them to their advantage.  NATO, for example, increased the number of anti-tank weapons on its central front to the point where the Soviets, according to their own calculations, could no longer expect to break through rapidly. This was one of many changes that would make them more cautious.

Knowing that the Soviet air defense forces had little confidence in their early-warning systems opened up other ways to reduce the resources for the new war plan. The Pentagon kept alive the project to build the B-1 nuclear bomber, which was billed as being supersonic, low-flying, and hard for radar to detect. The Soviets leapt to the bait.  They wasted billions of dollars on developing the Mig-25, new surface-to-air missiles, and radars to meet a threat from a bomber that would never materialize.

Gradually, the Americans and their NATO allies began to turn the tables on Soviets in Europe. Over the next six years, the Americans developed new precision-guided conventional weapons that could inflict up to a hundred times more damage on Soviet tank armies than existing weapons.  These and other innovations brought about what the Soviets called a “revolution in military affairs.”

By 1987 secret Soviet military journals were warning that the new American technology was threatening their massive tank armies with obsolescence.  That same year, the Soviet defense minister lamented to his colleagues that the United States had developed electronic warfare capabilities that the Soviet Union could not match.

America’s great lead in technology did play a vital part in this process, but the key to success was that the American military  had learned to think like Russians and had then gone on to beat them at their own game. The Russians soon came to realize that the Americans had “checkmated” them.

Another important component of strategy had been economic. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the president’s national security adviser, told me that at the beginning of the Carter Administration in 1977, “Jim Schlesinger and I headed a group that concluded that the Soviet Union could face a serious economic crisis in the mid-eighties – and that could be speeded and exacerbated by cutting off their access to certain types of Western technology and know-how.”

Before long, the Carter Administration began increasing its efforts to loosen the Soviet grip over Eastern Europe – diplomatically, through increasing broadcasts from Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and by infiltrating subversive literature into the region. President Reagan stepped up these pressures considerably, a subject that has been extensively covered in several books.

What needs to be kept in mind is that America’s success in ending the Cold War did not come about simply through the application of sharp and powerful pressures from outside, nor were the pressures only military in nature. Success
came about over many years as a whole range of pressures were built up and created real incentives for the Soviet Union to change – with the Americans willing to agree to deep cuts in defense expenditure and open up economic relations between the two countries in exchange for Soviet concessions on other contentious issues.

Rallying Support

When Eisenhower became president in 1953, he firmly believed that economic strength was a pre-requisite for the success of containment.  He also recognized that no strategy could be effective without political support at home and the backing of America’s allies abroad. How right he was on both counts!

Over the years, the Cold War morphed into a psychological battle that the Soviet Union had no hope of winning, but the disputatious West could well lose.  America kept the alliance together by investing heavily in conveying a sense of purpose, a clarity of vision, and an ability to sustain competition by paying most of the costs. 

Every president was in frequent personal contact with other Western leaders. The Americans not only led, they listened, something not always done in recent years but which Obama promises to resume. They valued the insights, experience, and judgments that their allies were able to contribute.

Today, the world is confronted by even greater dangers that are compounded by the unprecedented global financial crisis.  This places a far higher premium on creating a shared understanding of the threats that are faced and the ways in which they can be tackled. 

“Whenever there were disputes during the Cold War,” Brent Scowcroft told me, “the discussion would return to the question ‘What is the Alliance trying to achieve?’ The Allied leaders all acknowledged that their aim was “to hold this beast at bay until it changes its ways.” “Without such a consensus,” Scowcroft said, “attempts at joint action could not be effective.”

Sending Messages

When someone asks “Why did our adversary do that?” bureaucracies almost always reply, in a rather child-like way, “It wasn’t our fault. We didn’t do anything.” While no one likes to accept blame, it is often deserved. After all, in a world of enmity and fear, everything one does – political, economic, and military – sends a message.

One somewhat extreme example vividly demonstrates this point. In the sixties, the FBI and U.S. Army Intelligence, without White House approval, began feeding false information to Moscow in the hope of diverting scarce Soviet resources into unproductive research on chemical and biological weapons.

This ill-thought out deception led Soviet leaders to conclude later that the United States was not complying with the Biological Warfare Convention of 1972. The result was that the Soviets invested massively in developing biological weapons of almost unimaginable horror.  Concerns persist to this day in the West that Russia still retains at least some of them.

On a more positive note, no deception was involved when, after 1986, Warsaw Pact observers were invited to see major NATO exercises as part of the recently agreed “confidence building measures.” NATO did ensure, however, that these exercises would leave Soviet and East European generals in no doubt that NATO was now a reinvigorated alliance, with a strategy and conventional weapons that could thwart any Warsaw Pact offensive.

But even when no explicit attempt is being made to deceive – for instance, in announcing a new weapons program or a speech to one’s own supporters – one always has to ask, “How will an adversary interpret that?” There is much to be said for having specialists in the subject who track and analyze the responses, not just at the time, but over the years.


Without good intelligence, policy is all too easily shaped by fear, ignorance or – just as bad – optimism.

“One of the things that kept the Cold War scary,” Robert Gates recalled in an interview in 2006, shortly before he became Secretary of Defense, “was the lack of understanding on each side of the mentality of the other.” Milt Bearden, a key figure in the CIA’s Soviet operations, responded more pithily: “We didn’t realize just how f***ing scared Soviet leaders were of us!”

Bearden was in no doubt that the Soviet threat was real, but he felt that “we made the problem worse for ourselves because we went too far in demonizing the Soviets.” That, he said, “eroded common sense, reduced our chances of understanding the human foibles of our enemies, the way they think and what motivates them.” 

A key lesson from the Cold War is that regardless of how good the intelligence is from other sources, one should never to lose sight of the special quality of intelligence that only people can provide.  Sometimes these are the things that are so well-known to your opponent that they never need to be spelled out – for example, their view of the world, their preoccupations, their assumptions, why they always react in certain ways.

The Americans were short of such intelligence. Fortunately, in the mid eighties, which was one of the tensest periods of the Cold War, the British did have such a source – Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, who became head of the KGB in London during that time.  According to Gates, who was then in charge of analyzing intelligence at the CIA, Gordievsky “was giving us information about the thinking of the leadership, and that kind of information was, for us, scarce as hen’s teeth.”

Similarly, Bud McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser, noted that the president was “very moved” when he saw the summaries of Gordievsky’s reports, which reflected a disturbing state of mind within the Soviet leadership. Gordievsky’s reports reinforced Reagan’s conviction that a greater effort had to be made not just to reduce tension, but to end the Cold War.

Dissenting Voices

One of the biggest risks any committee faces in assessing developments stems from becoming stuck in the rut of conventional thinking or, just as bad, becoming bogged down in a debate where departments and agencies are more interested in protecting their own political interests (and their budgets) than they are in knowing what is really happening.

Such problems can never be eliminated, but they can be significantly reduced if the “intelligence community” keeps asking the big questions – What is happening? Is it different from what we have seen before? Why are our rivals doing what they are doing, and why in that way? What are the implications?  Had these types of questions been posed at the beginning of this decade we might have come to realize that Saddam Hussein had very little in the way of weapons of mass destruction – but he wanted his own people and his enemies to believe that he had a lot.

While expertise is always to be highly valued, innocence is at times worth its weight in gold. Few things can more quickly open up a discussion than a non-expert saying “I don’t understand why . . .” But unless the asking of such questions is institutionalized and accepted as part of the culture, dissent can all too easily be treated as disloyalty.

The Joint Intelligence Committee of the Cabinet in London had a praiseworthy track record for its hard-headed assessments of the Soviet Union and Soviet policy. I recollect, however, that on one occasion it responded very negatively to an assessment highlighting the major and positive changes in Gorbachev’s policies.

In exasperation, the member of my staff who had drafted the paper waved a finger at the assembled grandees and said, “The trouble with you lot is that you don’t like the message.” There was nervous laughter around the table. Had I spoken in such terms I would have been in serious trouble. Fortunately, the speaker was an attractive woman with a winning smile. Some discussion did ensue.

Focusing on New Issues

The threats America faces now and will face in the decades ahead are, as I said earlier, fundamentally different from those of the Cold War.  Nevertheless, I hope this glimpse of how the United States went about getting “inside the mind” of the other side at that time, shows the immense value of that approach.  It is worth looking briefly at what this might involve in developing policy towards two very different countries – Pakistan and Russia.

Few countries call for such an approach as much as the politically unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan. The recent appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan augurs well for a fresh American approach to both countries, but the challenges are prodigious.

Having fought two wars over the disputed territory of Kashmir, Pakistan has long been obsessed with the threat that India poses to its security. During the chaos following the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan felt the Taliban offered them stability in Afghanistan and a friendly government in Kabul.  Since the Taliban were ousted relations between Kabul and Delhi have warmed considerably.  This left Pakistan with a strong sense of being squeezed by India on both its eastern and northern borders.

The “with us or against us” attitude of the Bush Administration ignored the complexity of Pakistan’s concerns or its domestic political pressures. As a result, Pakistan walked a tight-rope – complying where it felt it must with American demands, while at the same time attempting to minimize the possibility of India exploiting the situation, as well as hedging against the Americans giving up on Afghanistan.

These considerations do much to explain the habit of various Pakistani groups – including some within the government and the military – of fueling anti-Indian terrorists in Kashmir and Afghanistan and backing the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Such actions  strikes many foreigners as being as sensible as poking a tiger with a stick, but to their backers  there is logic behind it – both in terms of foreign policy and domestic politics.

Last July there was a suicide attack against the Indian consulate in Kabul and then in November the massive one against Mumbai (in which over 170 people were killed).  Both have been linked to Pakistan. Some observers believe that the latter attack was intended to destroy the chance of a peaceful settlement of the  Kashmir dispute, on which much progress had been made in secret talks during  2007/8 (see Steve Coll’s “The Back Channel” in The New Yorker, 2 March  2009, p. 38).

Reviving this peace process will be difficult, because for each country Kashmir is such a sensitive political issue, but it is a prerequisite for Pakistan to become a more reliable ally for the West. Even these efforts, however, will only produce the desired result if the West can convince Pakistan that it will remain committed to Afghanistan.

That is something European states in particular have been loath to do. Perhaps they will now accept the gravity of the situation they face.  Even if they do, agreeing on the goals of an Afghan policy and what is required to implement it will be a long and painful process.


Russia is a different story.  Russo-American relations were tense, but once Obama became president both sides were keen to press the “Reset” button.  Although attitudes have changed, issues remain.

While Russia is not the superpower the Soviet Union once was, it still sees itself as one of the world’s great powers and is determined not to be pushed about. Much more systematic work needs to be done to understand the thinking and actions of Russia’s leaders.  One has to start from scratch – and with an open mind. If the White House doesn’t like what the Kremlin is doing, it must consider what to do about it – and the likely costs and risks involved. 

Relations will be easier to manage if Washington first does a full ‘Net Assessment,’ as it did from time to time during the Cold War.  This is not simply a matter of looking at Russian strengths and weaknesses, but of America taking a particularly hard-headed look at its own.  That can be a salutary reminder of the limits of power.  One should never underestimate the power of the under-dog to bite the over-dog where it really hurts. Moscow gave a fine display of this technique when it recently persuaded Kyrgyzstan to call for the closure of Manas, a key air base through which America supplies and supports its forces in Afghanistan.

One of the thorniest issues is Ukraine, where there are a large number of ethnic Russians. This has the potential to generate much tension because Moscow would like Ukraine to pay much more deference to Russia and, preferably, be reunited with it. A sizeable majority of Ukrainians, however, wish the country to remain independent and have good relations with both Russia and the West, but with few being enthusiastic about NATO membership.  How can those wishes be realized in ways that are acceptable to both Russia and the West?

This winter the tensions between Moscow and Kiev once again resulted in disruption of gas supplies not only to Ukraine but also to Western Europe. The dispute cost Russia dear, both economically and politically, and that could make it easier to negotiate long-term arrangements for a stable flow of gas from Russia.  In parallel, the EU (and the United States)  would be prudent to think through what countervailing pressure they would be able bring to bear on Russia in the unlikely event that, under one guise or another, supplies were cut off for political reasons.

Inevitably, progress is likely to be piecemeal, but while it is Washington should explore more actively the areas on which the two sides do share common objectives – such as countering proliferation and terrorism, reviving the global economy, and a reduction of tension in Europe. 

This is also a good time to remember that America’s rapprochement with China owes much to Henry Kissinger’s getting Premier Zhou Enlai to agree that if they looked at the importance of all the points on which they were agreed, their differences were manageable.  And it will certainly be easier to make progress when oil is less than $40 a barrel than when demand eventually pushes it up to far higher levels.

Full Circle

Reflecting on the Cold War after it ended, a senior GRU officer said that “the Americans beat us not because they had more tanks, but because they had more think tanks.” There was more to it than that, but he was right to underline the power of careful thought. 

President Obama does the same.  He has an instinctive feel for the need to listen to one’s allies and identify shared goals. He also says that he intends to develop policies for the longer term.  It takes great commitment, however, to persist with the difficult tasks of “getting inside the mind” of one’s adversaries.

The benefits that flow from understanding what really drives others cannot be achieved just by a few good policy planning papers or spirited conferences involving both policy makers and academics.  It requires knowledgeable people who are willing to work long and hard.  They not only have to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the other side, but also one’s own. Only then can sound proposals be made on how threats can most effectively be attenuated and, hopefully, mutually beneficial relations can be developed.

There is one last lesson that America will ignore at its peril – the need to understand the culture of one’s adversaries. After Nikita Khrushchev shattered American self-confidence by putting Sputnik into space, Congress swiftly approved the National Defense Education Act.  Before long many young Americans were studying Soviet affairs at university.  They learned to look at what was really happening, rather than accept preconceived notions, especially the one about the Soviets being unfathomable.End.

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