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Scholars, analysts, and politicians care deeply about how and why the cold war ended - not because of its innate historical interest, but because of its profound implications for current American policy. Did the Soviet empire collapse in part because of the Reagan administration's policies, thereby validating a "tough" conservative approach to foreign policy? Or did it collapse in spite of Ronald Reagan's policies, for reasons that justify the dovish cold war posture defined by negotiation, coexistence, and detente?
As one might expect, the interpreters tend to divide into two camps depending on their own prior status as hawk or dove. What is more surprising, however, is that six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cold war doves have been doing the more credible job of presenting their case surprising because, according to most estimates, the West won the cold war. After all, the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany reunited within NATO, and NATO and the European Union are now free to debate whether to allow Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to become members. Weren't those the goals that cold war hawks had pursued for forty years?
Well, yes. But other things have happened as well, and the cold war doves' success in presenting their version of history owes much to the new problems that have followed the breakup of the Soviet Union: ethnic conflict in Central Europe, political instability in the Third World, and the threat that Soviet nuclear weapons might fall into the wrong hands. All this has given cold war doves an opening to argue that the hawks' policies resulted in a messy ending that more enlightened policies might have averted.
Currently, the cold war doves are best represented by Raymond Garthoff's book, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Garthoff, a former State Department official and CIA analyst, is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His tome articulating the dove position is weighty, solidly researched, heavily footnoted, and just plain big.
Garthoff's argument can be summarized as follows: Mikhail Gorbachev was a true reformer who realized the Soviet Union needed to democratize, reduce military spending, and introduce market structures in order to survive. Alas, the United States failed to appreciate Gorbachev's motives, good intentions, and daring. Consequently, U.S. leaders continued to pressure the Soviets in international affairs, refusing especially to make concessions in arms control (read: "give up Star Wars"). As a result, Gorbachev had to placate his own right wing and was unable to carry out the needed reforms. That in turn accelerated Soviet economic decline and stoked internal unrest, the attempted coup of August 1991, and, ultimately, the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Garthoff's argument rests heavily on "what could have been." If only we had been more enlightened, he suggests, we would today have a stable Soviet Union that was more or less democratic, and certainly one that exercised greater control over all of those nuclear weapons. Garthoff's argument also attempts to vindicate many of the Democratic Party's positions of the 1980s, such as the Nuclear Freeze and Walter Mondale's promise to "draw the line in the skies" by terminating the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Unfortunately, there are at least two problems with Garthoff's argument. First, we cannot replay history, so there is simply no way to prove …