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Review by John Coffey

Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Superpower Illusions:  How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray – And How to Return to Reality, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2010, ISBN-13: 9780300137613, 344 pp., $30.00

Ambassador Jack Matlock has written a book for “thinking Americans” (i.e., not neoconservatives) amidst the partisan cacophony of our time.  A life-long Democrat who served “two great Republicans,” Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, his disaffection with the Clinton Administration and Gingrich Republicans turned him into an independent.  A key aide to Reagan and Bush I, Matlock had spent three tours of duty at the Moscow embassy before serving as Ambassador from 1987-1991.  He proffers this book in a “nonpartisan” (if polemical) spirit to explain how to restore America’s lost post-Cold War leadership.  Matlock attributes that loss to a misconception of the end of the Cold War as a quasi-military victory rather than a negotiated settlement benefitting both sides.

President Reagan, Matlock maintains, wanted above all to end the arms race and drastically reduce nuclear weapons.  Reagan, therefore, set out to convince Soviet leaders that accommodation with the West was in their self-interest.  To achieve this he created a framework for negotiation from a position of strength based on accommodation rather than confrontation.  Reagan formed a personal relationship with Gorbachev built on mutual respect and genuine warmth; more importantly, he reassured Gorbachev that the U.S. did not seek to dismantle the Soviet Union or to exploit arms reduction to gain military advantage.  Reagan’s abhorrence of nuclear weapons drove his foreign policy, and the October 1986 Reykjavik summit marked a watershed, when he and Gorbachev forged a deep bond over nuclear abolition.  Matlock denounces “incorrect,” “misleading,” and “dangerous” neoconservative “distortions” that Reagan’s rhetoric “conquered” communism and that U.S. force and threats, not negotiation, ended the Cold War in a fashion akin to military victory.

Neither Reagan nor George H.W. Bush, Matlock argues, pursued a policy of “regime change” for the Soviet Union, nor did Gorbachev intend to weaken the Soviet state.  Rather, regime change happened as the unintended consequence of internal political forces unleashed by Gorbachev’s democratic reforms aimed at improving governance.  American pressure did not bring down the Soviet Union.  Similarly, Gorbachev created the conditions making possible the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of East Europe because he believed it served the interest of a reformed Soviet Union.  Matlock was present as note taker at a February 9, 1990 meeting, when Secretary of State Jim Baker persuaded Gorbachev to allow a reunited Germany to remain in NATO with “a promise that NATO jurisdiction and troops would not expand to the east.”1 Matlock confirms that Gorbachev’s belief  “coincides with my notes of the conversation except that mine indicate that Baker added ‘not one inch.’”2 Oddly, Gorbachev did not ask for a written confirmation of this pledge.   

Bush I flubbed a “soft landing” for the collapsed Soviet economy, but overall Matlock approves his administration’s policies, except for one grievous mistake.  Bush poisoned the well of future U.S.-Russian relations, when he boasted in his losing reelection campaign, “We won the Cold War!”  Ronald Reagan never said this, Matlock points out, and it led Russians to feel Gorbachev allowed himself to be duped.  Overweening hubris marred the rest of the decade.  Matlock faults the Clinton Administration for its domestic absorption and foreign policy inattention, particularly its mishandling of Russian relations as though Russia did not matter.  Most serious was the “profound mistake” of touting “victory” in the Cold War and the gratuitous eastward expansion of NATO, convincing Russians that the break up of the Soviet Union was a calamity.  Matlock believes the crass electoral gambit of capturing American East-European votes drove NATO expansion.  The U.S. instead should have pushed for a “new security arrangement” for Europe, including Russia and NATO, although Matlock does not elaborate on this concept.

Matlock levels his severest censure at the Bush/Cheney Administration whose gross negligence in ignoring warnings of an impending Al-Qaeda attack, he charges, was responsible for a preventable 9/11.  He considers the Afghanistan invasion a correct decision, but judges Bush’s war on terror a “remarkable power grab” and the “tar baby” Iraq war a self-inflicted wound contrived by neoconservatives in thrall to the “superpower delusion,” itching for a pretext to reshape the world by force.  Ideological imperviousness to reality made the years 2001-2009 a decade of lost opportunities to address pressing international issues.

To redress a foreign policy gone astray, Matlock urges a policy of cooperation, not domination.  His prescription boils down to – retrenchment and diplomacy.  America should reduce its foreign military presence, especially in the Muslim world,3 leave local disputes to regional neighbors; pursue multilateral diplomacy to build international cooperation on common problems; and strengthen our diplomatic and intelligence capabilities.  Further reducing nuclear weapons, eschewing “democracy promotion,” and exercising discretion in human rights advocacy rank prominently on the author’s agenda.

This book underscores the importance of individuals (Reagan and Gorbachev) in history and in statecraft as paramount.  Matlock is surely correct as well to criticize neoconservative illusions and lack of wisdom of gloating triumphalism (“we won”) in the conduct of foreign policy.  While Matlock’s case for U.S. Cold War success lays the battle flag at the feet of Ronald Reagan, who accomplished this guided principally by Matlock’s own counsel, the Ambassador does not explicitly so state.  Yet Reagan was no Bismarck.  “The Gipper” got some big things right, and that is sufficient praise for any president.4

Like the hedgehog, Matlock focuses on one thing – diplomacy.  Missing from this account of the end of the Cold War is the historical context for Reagan’s and Gorbachev’s statecraft.  They practiced their statecraft not in a diplomatic vacuum, but in the ripeness of circumstances created by forces and pressures transcending two individuals.  It does not detract from their achievement to recognize that the Cold War ended, due partly to forty years of American bipartisan steadfastness, together with pressures the Reagan Administration and other global actors brought to bear on a moribund Soviet system.  Those pressures included:  the 1983 INF deployment, in the teeth of fierce public protest, countering Moscow’s attempted “Finlandization” of Western Europe; SDI, in addition to a military buildup, which presented an impossible challenge to the rot of the Soviet command economy;5  the Reagan Doctrine of aiding anti-Communist resistance forces, including the Afghan mujahedin, demonstrating that Soviet subjugation was not irreversible; the heroic witness of Soviet and East European dissidents, including Solidarity and the leadership of the Polish patriot, Pope John Paul II; and, not least, human error and sheer blind luck as in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Furthermore, Matlock’s nuclear neuralgia and the primacy he attaches to further nuclear reductions are a Cold War anachronism.  With the Soviet threat long gone, it seems superfluous to warn that nuclear weapons in the hands of major powers pose “the only plausible threat to our national existence,” and it is a non-sequitur to view their further reduction as a prerequisite to non-proliferation efforts.  Tehran isn’t waiting for the U.S. to reach some magically low number of nuclear weapons before abandoning its quest for the bomb.  In any case, drastic reductions have already occurred.  The U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile has declined from 31,255 warheads in 1967 to 5,113 warheads today, roughly an 83% reduction.  The new draft START treaty limits U.S./Russian deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 for each side, down from 2,200 in a 2002 agreement.6 The crucial point, however, is that the danger of nuclear weapons lies in the intention of their holder.  We may confidently presume no one loses sleep over the existence of British and French nuclear weapons.  That is because no one harbors the faintest apprehension they would be used against us.  Nuclear weapons are like a gun.  The question is, who’s holding the gun?End.

1.  Matlock, p. 62.

2.  Matlock, p. 319.

3.  Matlock’s recommendation accommodates Al-Qaeda’s goal to drive the U.S. out of the Muslim world.  See Bruce Riedel, The Search for Al-Qaeda:  Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future (Washington, D.C.:  Brookings Institution Press, 2008).  Matlock’s proposal to use diplomacy to deny Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan is anemic.

4.  For a more balanced appraisal of Ronald Reagan, see Peter Rodman, Presidential Command:  Power, Leadership and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), chap. 6; and Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1994), chap. 30.

5.  Before the Reykjavik summit Gorbachev told the Politburo:  “If we don’t back down on some specific, maybe even important, issues, if we don’t budge from the positions we’ve held for a long time, we will lose in the end.  We will be drawn into an arms race that we cannot manage.  We will lose, because right now we are already at the end of our tether.”  Quoted in Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove:  Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War (New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 2009), p. 307.

6.  See Anne Gearan, “U.S. Says It Has 5,113 Nuclear Warheads,” Washington Post, 5/4/10.

7. Kissinger, p. 833.

John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.


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