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The Gorbachev factor

IF THERE WAS ever an odd couple in world affairs, it was Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. When they first met in Geneva in November 1985, the world held its breath. Could they even be civil to each other?

There was President Reagan, one of the most unabashed proponents of capitalism and democracy and critic of the evil empire of the Soviet Union. As for General Secretary Gorbachev, he was one of the most dedicated believers in Communist Party ideology and an outspoken opponent of NATO and the capitalist world. Yet within five years, together they brought an end to the Cold War and became friends and welcome heroes in each other's capitals.

At the time, particularly during the first few years of Reagan's presidency, it was hard to believe that there could be any such result. Reagan made clear his contempt for the Soviet Union and all that it stood for.

To him, the Soviet Union was evil incarnate. There was no doubt in his mind that the Soviets were intent on dominating Western Europe just as they dominated Eastern Europe and as they were trying to do in Afghanistan. He announced early on that he would not stand by idly and allow the Soviet Union to continue its expansion. But to do this, the United States would have to take some important and costly steps.

In his view, the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in military terms. It was foolhardy, he declared, to negotiate with the Soviets until the United States could match them as equals. This meant a major arms buildup, the installation of Pershing II missiles in Germany, and the creation of a "Star Wars" missile defense system.

In Soviet eyes, this was a serious threat not only because the Soviet Union could not afford such a race but because if the "Star Wars" system could succeed in intercepting incoming Soviet missiles, the United States would feel free to attack the Soviets and they would be unable to retaliate. This would bring an end to the whole system of mutually assured destruction. Neither country would dare attack the other because it would be destroyed in retaliation. With a "Star Wars" system, the United States could do as it pleased without fear of such a Soviet response.

It may well have been the case that "Star Wars" would never have worked, but the Soviets could not be sure. What they did know is that Reagan had been heard off microphone saying that he was about to bomb the Kremlin. To them this was no joke. Yuri Andropov, the general secretary from 198384 and the former head of the KGB, decided to call Reagan's bluff and suspended all arms control discussions. My Soviet friends have confessed that they firmly anticipated a preemptive nuclear strike from the United States. In their minds, we were close to nuclear war.

To his credit, Gorbachev understood that the Soviet Union could not win a full-fledged arms race with the United States. So in a dramatic about-face in 1985, Gorbachev agreed to a resumption of US-Soviet Union arms talks. This suited Reagan, who now felt the United States was strong enough to negotiate. It also helped that Gorbachev had decided that Russia was in desperate need of domestic reform, e.g., his perestroika and glasnost. Before long, Reagan and Gorbachev were visiting each other's capitals and carrying on as newfound friends.

It was a remarkable transformation. On his visits to the United States, Gorbachev would leave his car and shake hands with cheering spectators, all of whom were shouting "Gorby, Gorby!" As for Reagan, Muscovites figured out his route from the airport and cheered him with equal fervor. Not to be outdone, he "strolled" through Red Square, something unthinkable even a few months earlier.

Just as it took a hard-line president like Richard Nixon to renew US relations with China, it took an outspoken critic of the Soviet "evil empire" to bring the Cold War to an end. But to do it, Reagan needed Gorbachev. Unlike his predecessors who sent in Soviet troops to prevent change and reform in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev held back. This allowed the Eastern Europeans to overthrow their communist parties, tear down the Berlin Wall, and bring an end to the Soviet empire -- and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Historians will have to applaud Reagan for anticipating weaknesses in the Soviet system that few at the time understood. But in fairness, they must also praise Gorbachev for responding to Reagan in such a constructive way -- certainly one of the most unlikely combinations of world leaders in modern times.

Marshall I. Goldman, Kathryn W. Davis Professor of Soviet Economics Emeritus at Wellesley College and associate director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, is the author of "The Piratization of Russia: Russian Reform Goes Awry."

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