Courtesy Reuters

U.S.-Soviet Relations: The Threshold of a New Era

As the decade of the 1980s closed, the United States and the Soviet Union appeared finally to have mastered their forty-year-old conflict. At the Malta summit between Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, the convergence of American and Soviet positions on most agenda items was unprecedented. Their relationship seemed likely to develop with minimum tension, low risk and, prospectively, at greatly reduced cost.

But precisely at the moment when they seem to have perfected their methods for managing the conflicts of the cold war era, that era has abruptly ended. The finely honed instruments of conflict management face early obsolescence. Instead, policymakers in both capitals face a new international politics in which their bipolar competition will no longer provide the dominant framework for ordering the system and disciplining the behavior of states. For the United States the adjustment will surely be difficult, but incomparably less so than for the Soviet Union.

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By every measure of conventional postwar scorekeeping, 1989 was the year in which the West won the cold war. During the fall and winter, communist rule was toppled or irretrievably compromised in the three key northern-tier states of the Warsaw Pact-Poland, the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia. The Communist Party itself, not to speak of its "leading role," was extinguished in a fourth country, Hungary, and was on the slippery slope of multiparty reform even in Bulgaria. Only in Romania did the communist leader Ceausescu attempt to hold the line by force, but by year's end he had been executed and his entire Politburo placed under arrest.

Moscow, moreover, seemed helpless or unwilling to prevent the sudden deterioration of its most sensitive geopolitical position. The Soviet Union was immersed in a profound domestic crisis that threatened both the political stability and the territorial integrity of the state. The Soviet economy was in a shambles. Discontent and pessimism were endemic. In Moscow, supporters and critics competed in making estimates of how many months Gorbachev still had left in which to deliver

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