Review by James L. Abrahamson
The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War by James Graham Wilson, Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 2014, ISBN 978-0-8014-5229-1, xvi, 264 pp. $29.95 (hardcover)
Between 1978 and 1991, the United States revived its economy and strengthened its armed forces, boosting both international capitalism and Western self-confidence. Meanwhile the Soviet empire continued to stagnate and lose cohesion. The hardliners within the incoming Reagan administration consequently believed they could overawe a relatively weakened Soviet Union and end the Cold War on American terms by devising and implementing a confrontational grand strategy built on the growth of American power relative to the Soviet Union and on President Reagan’s conservatism and hostility to communism.
Despite two Reagan-era National Security Decision Directives prepared by the administration’s hardliners, the president never truly tried to implement their master plans. Despite his many harshly negative public statements about communism and the Soviet Union, the president never consistently embraced the hardline view of the USSR or its eventual leader. Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union and the Cold War most often derived, instead, from reliance on a flexible four-part negotiating framework focused on “bilateral relations, regional matters, arms control, and human rights.” (p. 75) Devised by two administration moderates, Jack Matlock and George Shultz, the framework did not bind the president and permitted diplomacy to move forward on some points even when stuck on others.
Shultz also satisfied Reagan’s desire to meet and learn about the USSR from more open and cosmopolitan Soviets, beginning in 1983 with ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin. The president soon built on that experience and on face-to-face summit meetings with his Soviet counterpart in Geneva (1985), Reykjavik (1986), Washington (1987), and Moscow (1988). The many personal exchanges convinced Reagan that he could not make progress, as the hardliners argued, by stressing the Soviet system, but instead by creating feelings of personal trust and seeking to build on what the two leaders shared in common.
Nor did strategic planning by hardliners constrain the thinking and behavior of Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet Union’s General Secretary in November 1984. Though attracted by the nature of America’s politics and its economy, he was very much his own man and sought to reform his country in ways few of his Politburo predecessors would have approved. He advocated both nationalism and a restructuring of Soviet political and economic policy. Though rejecting Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as a means to eliminate nuclear weapons and shaken by the Chernobyl disaster, Gorbachev shared the American president’s opposition to the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction and its reliance on nuclear weapons.
Even after Bush replaced Reagan, the two nation’s leaders and their principal advisors continued to trust each other, improvise, and demonstrate that they had no desire to destroy the other’s society. Gorbachev, for example, supported the American-led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and he accepted the freedom and independence of the peoples of Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany, and the expansion of NATO.
The relationship created by two very special and flexible national leaders—both patriots—enabled them to trust one another, improvise, and sometimes send their advisors to another room to work out the details while the principals talked. Fearing nuclear weapons and desiring to reduce or even eliminate them, Gorbachev and Reagan made the world a safer place and permitted Gorbachev and Bush to end the Cold War and create a new and better world order—at least for a time.
The author, who seems to have assumed his readers have a great familiarity with the events 1978-1991, focused his book on the importance of personalities and their improvisation. He could, however, have improved his short text (just over two hundred pages) with more attention to the details of the era’s principal agreements and near successes. What exactly, for example, was in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the ABM Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction (START) talks, or the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)? Giving more attention to the era’s principal negotiations and their outcome would have reduced a reader’s need to consult a not-always-helpful index.