U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in New York, December 1988.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in New York, December 1988
National Archives and Records Administration

Karl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of policy by other means. By extension the Cold War can be defined as warfare by other (non-lethal) means. Nonetheless, warfare it was. And the stakes were monumental. Geopolitically the struggle, in the first instance, was for control over the Eurasian landmass and, eventually, even for global preponderance. Each side understood that either the successful ejection of the one from the western and eastern fringes of Eurasia or the effective containment of the other would ultimately determine the geostrategic outcome of the contest.

Also fueling the conflict were sharply conflicting, ideologically motivated conceptions of social organization and even of the human being itself. Not only geopolitics but philosophy—in the deepest sense of the self-definition of mankind—were very much at issue.

After some forty-five years of political combat, including some secondary military skirmishes, the Cold War did indeed come to a final end. And, given its designation as a form of war, it is appropriate to begin with an assessment deliberately expressed in terminology derived from the usual outcomes of wars, that is, in terms of victory and defeat, capitulation and postwar settlement. The Cold War did end in the victory of one side and in the defeat of the other. This reality cannot be denied, despite the understandable sensitivities that such a conclusion provokes among the tenderhearted in the West and some of the former leaders of the defeated side.

A simple test reinforces the above assertion. Suppose at some stage of the Cold War—say, ten years ago or even earlier—one were to have asked: What might be a reasonable but also substantive definition of a Western or American victory? Or, alternatively, what might a communist or Soviet victory look like? The answers are revealing, for they indicate that the final outcome was even more one-sided than most dared to expect.

Until 1956 some in the West might have defined victory as the liberation of central Europe from Soviet domination. Western passivity during the Hungarian uprising, however, indicated that the Western, and especially the American, commitment to a policy of liberation was largely rhetorical. Thereafter most serious Westerners probably would have defined victory as involving primarily a combination of the following arrangements: German reunification by mutual agreement, with at least the former East Germany neutralized and with many in the West (and especially in Germany itself) even willing to accept German neutrality in exchange for unity; a mutual NATO-Warsaw Pact treaty, providing for significant troop reductions on both sides but also for the retention of some political-military links between Moscow and the central European states; genuine liberalization of the Soviet-imposed regimes, but with many liberal Westerners quite happy to settle for Kadar-type versions; a comprehensive strategic and conventional arms reduction agreement; and the termination of ideological hostility.

In brief, victory would have been defined largely as an accommodation in some respects consistent with the Western understanding of the Yalta agreement: de facto acceptance of a somewhat benign Soviet sphere of influence in central Europe, in return for Soviet acceptance of America’s ties to Western Europe (and also to Japan and South Korea). To be sure, a more militant Western minority would have viewed the above as inadequate, while liberal progressives were in general inclined to accept the status quo as the basis for terminating the Cold War.

A Soviet definition of victory is somewhat more difficult to delineate, given the universalist aspirations of communist ideology and the more limited scope of actual Soviet power. Moreover one can also differentiate in the Soviet case between the radicals and the conservatives. The former favored the energetic pursuit of world revolution, exploiting what they perceived to be the general postwar crisis of capitalism. Others warned that caution dictated first consolidating the postwar Soviet gains. One can also deduce to some extent the basic geostrategic assumptions of the Soviet leadership from the top-level and confidential Soviet-Nazi exchanges in late 1940 regarding the postwar division of spoils in the event of the then anticipated Nazi victory. Both Hitler and Stalin agreed that America should be excluded from any role whatsoever in Eurasia, and that appears to have been the continuing Soviet goal during the Cold War.

Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that a working definition of a Soviet strategic victory in the Cold War would have entailed the submissive neutralization of both Western Europe (through the dismantling of NATO) and Japan, and the withdrawal of U.S. political and military presence across the oceans. Moreover, following adoption of the 1962 program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), victory was also defined as attaining the worldwide economic supremacy of communism over capitalism, said to be inevitable by 1980. In the meantime anti-Western "national liberation" struggles would isolate "the imperialist camp," with the rest being only a global mop-up operation.

It is a useful exercise to ponder these two alternative notions of victory. Not only did the Soviet victory not come to pass (whether it could have ever been attained is discussed later), but the most likely conventional Western scenario of victory has been exceeded to a degree that is truly staggering. Germany is reunited and already wholly in NATO, with Soviet forces to be withdrawn altogether by 1994; the Warsaw Pact has been abolished, and Soviet forces have been evicted from Hungary and Czechoslovakia and are in process of their final departure from Poland; the Soviet-imposed regimes in central Europe have not only been overthrown but Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are moving toward joining the European Community (EC) and even knocking at the doors of NATO.

Most important of all, the Soviet Union itself has crumbled and central Eurasia is now a geopolitical vacuum. The former Soviet army is being demobilized and is already demoralized. The Baltic states are free, Ukraine is consolidating its independent statehood and so are the Central Asian republics. Russia’s own unity may soon also be at stake, with perhaps the Far Eastern provinces tempted before too long to set up a separate Siberian-Far Eastern republic of their own. Indeed the economic and even the political destiny of what was not long ago a threatening superpower is now increasingly passing into de facto Western receivership. Instead of the once acclaimed theory of "convergence" of the two competing systems, the reality is that of one-sided conversion.

This is an outcome historically no less decisive and no less one-sided than the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, or of Imperial Germany in 1918, or of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945. Unlike the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War in a grand religious compromise, cuius regio, cuius religio does not apply here. Rather, from a doctrinal point of view, the outcome is more similar to 1815 or 1945: the ideology of the losing side has itself been repudiated. Geopolitically the outcome is also suggestive of 1918: the defeated empire is in the process of dismantlement.

As in previous terminations of war there was a discernible moment of capitulation, followed by postwar political upheavals in the losing state. That moment came most probably in Paris on November 19, 1990. At a conclave marked by ostentatious displays of amity designed to mask the underlying reality, the erstwhile Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had led the Soviet Union during the final stages of the Cold War, accepted the conditions of the victors by describing in veiled and elegant language the unification of Germany that had taken place entirely on Western terms as "a major event." This was the functional equivalent of the act of capitulation in the railroad car in Compiègne in 1918 or on the U.S.S. Missouri in August 1945, even though the key message was subtly couched in "friendship."

Defeats tend to be politically unsettling. Not only do war-losing regimes tend to be overthrown, but the leaders who accept the necessity of capitulation also tend to pay the political price. The kaiser’s regime collapsed within days after November 11, 1918—Armistice Day. Within a year the Soviet leader who had accepted the thinly disguised defeat of the Soviet Union was himself overthrown. More than that: the doctrinal past was also formally condemned, the red flag was officially lowered, the ideology and systemic features of the victorious side were henceforth to be formally imitated. The Cold War was, indeed, over.

The critical question on history’s agenda now is this: What kind of peace? To what end? On what models of previous postwar settlements? But before those issues are addressed, a second set of major, as well as some subordinate, questions still need to be examined:

—How was the Cold War actually played? More specifically, were there discernible phases to it? Which side was on the offensive and which on the defensive, and when?

—Was the outcome foreordained? Was an earlier Western victory possible? Could there have been a compromise outcome? And, finally, could the Soviet Union have won and, if so, when?

Both sets of questions are not only of historical interest. There are lessons to be learned for the kind of relations that should now be fostered in the new postwar settlement era, both from the mistakes as well as the accomplishments of the past, and from the very nature of the grand contest itself.


It now seems clear that in the Cold War’s initial phase, which lasted until after Stalin’s death in March 1953, both sides were motivated more by fear than by aggressive designs, but each also perceived the other as, indeed, intent on aggression. In fact both significantly demobilized their forces, though the traditional Stalinist secrecy that masked the Soviet demobilization fed Western fears of a possible Soviet conventional sweep westward by a huge Soviet land army that actually no longer existed.

It is now evident that for Stalin the central concern then was to keep and to digest his principal war gain—control over central Europe—while avoiding a premature collision with the ascending Western power, America. He was no doubt motivated also by the hope that America would eventually disengage from Europe. He thus counseled caution and restraint to his more radical and impatient revolutionary allies, notably Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito and China’s Mao Zedong.

Stalin was also convinced that the West would seek to contest his primacy in central Europe. He interpreted the Western demands for democratic elections as an effort to inject Trojan horses into his domain. He saw in the introduction of the new West German currency a deliberate effort to undermine his own occupation of East Germany. As the Cold War heated up, he became increasingly paranoid, prompting massive purges of his own satellite communist elites and witch-hunts against any and all manifestations of independent political thinking.

This does not mean that Stalin’s intentions were altogether defensive. Rather one can argue that Stalin had a realistic appreciation of the correlation of forces, that he knew how to bide his time and that he wanted first to consolidate his gains before moving forward. Eventually he did expect that with the hoped-for American disengagement from Europe continental domination (and thus ideological victory) would be his. In a revealing exchange at Potsdam Stalin responded to Churchill’s congratulations on the Russian capture of Berlin by noting wistfully that in 1815 Alexander I had triumphantly marched into Paris.

During this first phase the West also maintained a defensive posture. The West condemned the Soviet subjugation of central Europe but did not contest it. Then the Berlin blockade in 1947 was perceived as the beginning of a Soviet westward push, meant to force the West not only out of Berlin itself but also out of Germany. The Korean War was viewed at a minimum as a diversionary offensive tactic, preliminary to the central showdown in Europe, but also as a part of the effort to complete the expulsion of America from the mainland of Asia and an effort to intimidate Japan.

The Western, and especially the American, response remained cautious throughout. Preventive war against the Soviet Union was not seriously contemplated, despite the U.S. nuclear monopoly. "Massive retaliation," based on U.S. strategic superiority, was in effect a defensive doctrine. The Berlin blockade was contested only indirectly. China was not attacked, despite its massive intervention in the Korean War. The West, instead, placed increased emphasis on the political integration of its slowly recovering former enemies, Germany and Japan, and America undertook explicit commitments to remain militarily present both in the western and eastern extremities of Eurasia. The Korean War demonstrated the American resolve to remain in shattered Korea and Japan, while the creation of NATO in 1949 represented a binding security marriage between America and the still weak Western Europe. The lines were thus clearly drawn. They endured for some forty years.

Stalin’s death brought this first phase of the Cold War to an end. Not only were both sides ready for a respite, but the West seemed poised for an offensive. American self-restraint in the Korean War was becoming increasingly strained, and the new Republican administration was broadly hinting that nuclear weapons might be employed. More important, the new U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had publicly committed the United States to a policy of "liberation" of central Europe from Soviet domination. With NATO in existence, with German rearmament under active consideration and with the United States assertively proclaiming a forward strategy of its own, the proclamation of the policy of liberation appeared to foreshadow a comprehensive Western offensive on the central front, boldly directed at the enemy’s weakest sector.

The offensive never materialized. The reasons were basically twofold. The first is that the American side never fully meant it. The policy of liberation was a strategic sham, designed to a significant degree for domestic political reasons. To the extent that it was taken seriously by U.S. policymakers, it prompted more intensified Radio Free Europe broadcasts to the satellite nations, more financial support for émigré political activities and larger-scale efforts to support anti-Soviet undergrounds behind the Iron Curtain. The policy was basically rhetorical, at most tactical.

America’s European allies, in any case, not only had never embraced the concept but in fact had been basically against it. The strategic hollowness of the liberation policy was fully exposed during the dramatic months of October and November 1956, when the communist regimes in Hungary and Poland were teetering and when the post-Stalin regime in Moscow was torn by fear and uncertainty. America did nothing to deter the eventual Soviet intervention in Hungary, while the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt signaled that America’s principal allies had other priorities.

The other reason the offensive never emerged was that the post-Stalin Soviet leadership was so fearful that the West might actually attempt to exploit the consequences of the tyrant’s death that it promptly moved in the direction of diffusing the more dangerous facets of the ongoing Cold War. One of the principal contenders for Stalin’s mantle, the secret police boss Lavrenti Beria, even explored the notion of German reunification (in exchange for neutrality). If implemented it would have meant an unprecedented pullback of Soviet power. The other Soviet leaders were not prepared to go quite that far, but they did strive to facilitate the end of the Korean War and, lead by the comical duo of Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin, they eagerly embraced "the spirit of Geneva" that the British and French (fearful of the new American rhetoric) were promoting.

The interlude did not last long. The American-led Western offensive that the post-Stalin leadership so feared never materialized, while before long the spirit of Geneva fizzled out as well. In the meantime the new Soviet leadership, increasingly consolidated under Khrushchev, gradually regained self-confidence and began to craft a new and comprehensive strategy, designed to break out of the Eurasian containment that the West had fashioned. That strategy was to be based on three elements: growing Soviet strategic power, which was beginning to neutralize the U.S. deterrent; Soviet economic vitality, which Moscow hoped would before long match the industrial might of the United States and become an ideological magnet for the developing countries; and the promotion of "national liberation" struggles around the world, thereby forging a de facto alliance between the newly emancipated Third World and the Soviet-led bloc.


The Soviet Union now moved to the offensive. Eurasia was still the central stake but no longer the central front. Containment was to be defeated by encirclement. Since it could not be pierced without a central war, it would be enveloped. Victory would come somewhere around 1980. This target date was postulated with extraordinary optimism—and supported by massive statistics—in the new CPSU platform proclaimed by Khrushchev in 1962. By that date not only was the Soviet Union to surpass the United States economically but the communist world as a whole was to become economically stronger than the capitalist world. At that point the scales of history would tip.

This second major phase, with its various ups and downs, including some temporary Soviet setbacks, lasted almost twenty years, from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Although there were brief periods of Western tactical assertiveness as well as occasional "ceasefires," the Cold War on the geostrategic level during this phase was characterized by an offensive Soviet posture. It was marked by boastful assertions of Soviet rocket superiority, by the expansion of Soviet political-military influence into the Middle East and by the successful acquisition of the highly symbolic but potentially geostrategically important base in Cuba. It even involved two brief but dangerous U.S.-Soviet confrontations, one in Berlin and the other in Cuba, both precipitated by Soviet assertiveness.

Despite the prevailing view of the time that these two dangerous clashes ended as American victories, the U.S. successes were largely tactical while the Soviet gains were more strategic. The uncontested Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall consolidated Soviet control over East Germany—thereby terminating Soviet fears of Western subversion of its domination over central Europe—while the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba was purchased by the Kennedy administration through a blanket guarantee of the continued existence of a pro-Soviet regime. In effect, immunity was successfully extorted for a geopolitically important Soviet forward base in defiance of the line drawn by the once inviolable Monroe Doctrine.

Despite the fall of Khrushchev in 1964 the basic thrust of the Soviet strategy was sustained under the less colorful and more bureaucratic Brezhnev regime. The strategic buildup continued for the next two decades, imposing such enormous strains on the Soviet economy that, in the end, they vitiated the (in any case, unrealistic) goal of surpassing the United States in the economic domain. The efforts to expand the Soviet role in the Third World, thereby piercing Western containment within Eurasia, were likewise sustained, despite tactical accommodations with the Johnson and Nixon administrations, both of them burdened by the Vietnam War and eager for some respite in the Cold War.

The resulting U.S.-Soviet accommodations were, however, confined to only two areas: some modest progress in arms control negotiations and some relaxation of tensions in Europe. But though the Soviet expansion into the Third World and the Soviet strategic buildup continued, even that limited progress on several occasions led the West to proclaim the premature end of the Cold War. In the late 1960s and early 1970s "détente" became a fashionable concept, "beyond the Cold War" a frequent title for op-ed pieces, and a U.S. president even announced in the early 1970s that "a generation of peace" had been attained.

During this phase of the contest America’s European allies, fully recovered and protected by containment based on American power, tended to act as if they were increasingly neutral in the global Cold War and ready to negotiate separate ceasefires in Europe itself. While this posture was not formally opposed by the United States, it did tend to create tensions in the alliance as well as openings for Soviet diplomacy. To many people the slogan "Europe to the Urals" or the term "Ostpolitik" were code words for a separate European posture on the critical East-West issues. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War tended to contribute to a sense of American isolation, and that in turn fed into U.S. slogans advocating "Come home, America."

The Soviet offensive thrust reached its apogee in the 1970s. Soviet momentum interacted with America’s post-Vietnam fatigue and with the widespread Western eagerness for détente to a degree that America seemed ready to settle the Cold War even on the basis of accepting strategic inferiority. President Nixon’s brilliant coup in opening the U.S.-Chinese relationship altered the geostrategic context, but it could not compensate for internal American dissension and demoralization. That condition prompted Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—himself inclined toward historical pessimism—to diligently seek an accommodation modeled on the Peace of Westphalia: each side was to retain its geopolitical and ideological realms. It would be stabilized by a new emphasis on arms control, thereby slowing down the massive Soviet buildup but at the price even of accepting (in SALT I) Soviet strategic superiority.

The Soviet global offensive continued unabated into the second half of the 1970s. No longer politically deterred by American strategic power, Soviet troops were deployed in Vietnam, Ethiopia, Yemen, Cuba, not to mention the geopolitically vital Middle East, while Soviet military surrogates were active in Mozambique, Angola and elsewhere. The Soviet military buildup reached unprecedented and truly threatening proportions. The SS-20 deployments aimed at Western Europe and Japan were specifically designed for intimidation. For the first time during the entire Cold War the Soviet Union seemed to be genuinely preparing to dictate the outcome, both by encirclement and perhaps even on the central front.

Yet self-delusion lingered in the Western capitals and in Washington. French and German leaders competed in courting Brezhnev and in extolling his virtues. President Carter was counseled by some of his own top associates that he and Brezhnev "shared the same aspirations" and they urged the elevation of arms control into a Holy Grail, the solution to the overall ideological and geopolitical struggle. Indeed, in that view, not only was any linkage between arms control negotiations and Soviet misconduct dogmatically excluded, but the Soviets were even seen as entitled to exercise "negative" linkage, that is, they had the right to view as an obstruction to arms control those American policies they did not like (such as any strategic enhancement of the U.S.-Chinese relationship). Détente came to be viewed as an end in itself.

The moment seemed ripe for a historical turning point, but it did not occur. Instead the dramatic reversal only gradually took shape, mushroomed and eventually produced an outcome beyond the wildest expectations even of the few historical optimists who persisted in the conviction that the Soviet drive, if confronted, could be stopped; and once stopped, that it could be reversed. As often in history, this happened for a variety of reasons, ranging from human folly to fortune. Most important perhaps were the errors and miscalculations of the Soviets themselves. Misjudging the historical situation, they pushed their forward thrust beyond the limits of toleration of even the most accommodationist elements in the West, while at the same time they strained Soviet internal resources to a point that the inherent weaknesses and corruption of the Soviet system assumed dynamic dimensions. Their conduct, in brief, fitted well Paul Kennedy’s concept of "imperial overstretch."


The result was the final phase of the Cold War, roughly from 1979 until 1991. It was marked by the West’s gradual recapture of the ideological initiative, by the eruption of a philosophical and political crisis in the adversary’s camp and by the final and decisive push by the United States in the arms race. This phase lasted slightly more than a decade. Its outcome was victory.

The historically dramatic turnabout was precipitated by three critical cases of Soviet overstretch. Geopolitically the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979—apparently taken on the assumption that the United States would not react—propelled the United States to adopt, for the first time ever during the entire Cold War, a policy of directly supporting actions aimed at killing Soviet troops. The Carter administration not only undertook immediately to support the Mujahedeen, but it also quietly put together a coalition embracing Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Britain on behalf of the Afghan resistance. Equally important was the American public guarantee of Pakistan’s security against any major Soviet military attack, thereby creating a sanctuary for the guerillas. The scale and quality of U.S. support steadily expanded during the 1980s under the subsequent Reagan administration. America—along with Pakistan, which played a courageous and decisive role in the effort—thus succeeded in bogging down the Soviet Union in its own equivalent of Vietnam.

Moreover, with the influence of the accommodationist school of thought undercut by Soviet assertiveness, the United States qualitatively expanded its relationship with China. As early as 1980 U.S.-Chinese cooperation assumed a more direct strategic dimension, with sensitive undertakings not only toward Afghanistan but also on other matters. Thus the Soviet Union faced the growing geopolitical menace of a counter encirclement.

In addition, the Carter administration initiated the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force, and, most important, the decision was made together with key NATO allies to match the Soviet SS-20 deployments with new and highly accurate American intermediate-range missiles positioned on European soil. The latter prompted a vigorous Soviet campaign of intimidation directed at Europe, with Europe explicitly warned (in the words of Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko) that it might suffer the fate of Pompeii unless the Atlantic security link was significantly loosened. However, America’s European allies held firm—encouraged by the increasingly assertive tones emanating from Washington and by the acceleration of the U.S. defense buildup adopted by the Reagan administration.

The massive U.S. defense buildup of the early 1980s—including the decision to proceed with the Strategic Defense Initiative—both shocked the Soviets and then strained their resources. Its scale, momentum and technological daring had been totally unexpected in Moscow. By 1983 a genuine war scare began to develop in the Kremlin, with the United States seen as bent perhaps even on a military solution. And then by the middle of the decade it dawned on Soviet leaders that they could neither match nor even keep up with the American efforts.

This realization interacted dynamically with the third reversal, on the ideological and social planes. In the second half of the 1970s President Carter launched his human rights campaign. Within Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe and then within the Soviet Union itself, it first encouraged a few individuals, then larger groups, to pick up the standard of human rights, counting on Western moral and even political support. The struggle for human rights mushroomed, especially in Poland, galvanized by the election of the first Polish pope in Rome. By the late 1970s Solidarity’s mass movement was beginning to threaten the communist regime of the Soviet Union’s most important European satellite.

The Soviets were poised to intervene militarily in Poland, once in December 1980 and then again in March 1981. In both cases two successive U.S. administrations made clear, through direct and indirect signals, that such intervention would produce grave consequences, a message in the meantime made more credible by U.S. support for the Afghan resistance. Under these circumstances the Kremlin leaders chose to rely on an only partially effective imposition of martial law by the Polish communists themselves. As a result the Polish crisis festered throughout the decade, progressively undermining not only the Polish communist regime but gradually infecting other East European states.

The human rights campaign and the arms buildup thus became the mutually reinforcing central prongs of a U.S. response that not only blunted the Soviet offensive but also intensified the crisis of the Soviet political and socioeconomic system itself. Power and principle combined to reverse the Soviet momentum. Neither one alone would have sufficed.

By the mid-1980s a new and younger Soviet leadership had come to power. Imbued with the realization that Soviet policies, both internal and external, were a failure, Moscow was determined to repair the communist system through energetic reforms and to place its satellite regimes on a more domestically acceptable basis. To do that it needed a period of respite. These Soviet leaders thus eagerly seized the olive branch extended by the Reagan administration in 1985—especially in connection with the December 1985 Geneva summit—in the hope of gaining relief from the arms race.

The recent past is still fresh in memory. The domestic reforms, conducted pell-mell, did not revitalize the Soviet system but merely brought to the surface its hypocrisies and weaknesses. The arms race had exhausted the Soviet economy, while refuting its ideological expectations. Failure to crush the Solidarity underground in Poland gradually forced the Polish communist regime into a compromise that rapidly turned into a progressive concession of power, with contagious effects in the neighboring satellites. Gorbachev’s willingness to tolerate what he thought would be limited change in east-central Europe—in order to gain a breathing spell for his own domestic reforms—precipitated not the emergence of more popularly endorsed and reformist communist leadership but eventually the collapse of the communist systems as a whole.

By 1989 the choice left to Moscow was either a last-gasp effort to reimpose its rule through massive bloodshed—which not only could have precipitated violent domestic or external explosions but in all probability an intensification of the arms race and hostility with America—or to acquiesce. The reformist Gorbachev leadership—flattered, courted, even bribed by the West, and in the final phases skillfully manipulated personally by President Bush and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl—chose the second course. The result was chaos in east-central Europe and then capitulation.


Could the outcome have been different? And what of the future, given the past?

The West perhaps might have won sooner, but at a higher cost and with a greater risk of war. The key opportunity for the West came in the period 1953—56. Greater Western elasticity in 1953 might have facilitated a Soviet pullback from Germany. But the Kremlin almost certainly would have used the Soviet army to maintain its grip on Warsaw and Prague, while in the West the neutralization of Germany might have precluded the establishment of binding NATO links between America and Europe. In contrast greater Western toughness in 1956—still a time of decisive U.S. strategic superiority—might have resulted in forcing the Soviet Union out of Hungary and Poland. The communist regimes in these countries were crumbling, and the Soviet leadership itself was in a state of panic.

The Cold War, however, would not have ended. Communism was not ripe for a collapse within Russia itself, and on the global scale the ideological momentum of communism was far from spent. Communist movements were strong even in Western Europe, and the communist wave in the Far East was still cresting. Thus any respite in the Cold War would have been just temporary. Moreover one cannot exclude the possibility that in these circumstances at least a conventional war might have broken out in central Europe.

The only other opportunity for ending the Cold War may have existed in the early 1970s, on the basis of what might be called "the Peace of Westphalia formula." But both sides would have had then to accept the status quo in Europe as fixed. The West seemed ready to do so. However, by the mid-1970s, the Soviets saw themselves as being on a historical roll. Hence Moscow wanted the status quo in Europe as well as American acquiescence to continued Soviet global expansion and to a gradual shift in "the correlation of forces." In effect any acceptance of the European status quo would have been for the Soviets merely a temporary expedient.

This is why it is historically important to reiterate here the fact that the Kremlin was in no mood to be propitiated either through arms control or an acceptance by the West of the existing division of Europe. The Cold War eventually ended because the West succeeded in combining firm containment with an active offensive on human rights and a strategic buildup of its own, while aiding the resistance in Afghanistan and Poland.

A more plausible case can be made for the proposition that the West could have spared itself a decade or so by adopting earlier an offensive ideological and strategic posture. But in real life democracies are not able to adopt a forward strategy that requires philosophical and military mobilization without overwhelming and truly threatening provocation from the other side. That provocation was apparent to some in the 1970s; to most Americans and Europeans it became evident only in the early 1980s, in the wake of the blatant Soviet SS-20 threats, the invasion of Afghanistan and the suppression of Poland’s Solidarity movement.

Throughout the Cold War it was America that bore most of the burden and displayed the strongest will to persist. America’s allies were generally steadfast in critical moments, but otherwise they were more tempted to settle for a compromise. It was America that sustained large scale efforts—especially by means of radio—to pierce the Iron Curtain, and it was America that in the later phases of the Cold War most directly supported the resistance in Afghanistan and the underground in Poland while intimidating Moscow through its crash strategic buildup. And it was America that throughout the Cold War deterred Soviet power with a posture and a leadership that was on the whole remarkably consistent.

In that regard the historical credit for fashioning the winning strategy and for forging the victorious coalition must go to one man above all: Harry Truman. He committed America because he understood the stakes. Eisenhower then built on Truman regarding NATO; Carter built on Nixon regarding China; Bush built on Reagan regarding the arms race. American policy may not have been brilliant and, at times, it was overly defensive, but it was steady. It also remained tactically focused on the weakest link in the Soviet "front": east-central Europe. From the 1960s onward the United States consistently sought, overtly and covertly, to soften Soviet control over the region by a policy of peaceful engagement, with the payoff coming finally in the 1980s.

In contrast Soviet policy lacked consistency. With the exception of Stalin himself the Soviet leadership proved to be less steady and operationally inferior to America’s. Stalin was the Great Calculator, carefully husbanding his resources, devouring his enemies, while cautiously bluffing in order to obscure his system’s weaknesses. But even he made a basic and historically decisive error: his brutal policies in east-central Europe united the West, and that unity precluded America’s disengagement from Europe. Once that became clear a conclusive Soviet victory was no longer possible.

Stalin’s successors were second rate. Khrushchev was the Master Bumbler, pressing and posturing, creating the illusion of historical momentum at a time of Western indecision. But he could not achieve a breakthrough, even though he brought both sides dangerously close to a military collision at a time of still relative Soviet strategic inferiority. Brezhnev, the Gray Plodder, posed more of a threat, with his steady buildup of Soviet strategic might, but he did not know when to exploit that might for political gain. Had Brezhnev proved more imaginative, he might have taken advantage of Nixon’s realism to reach an advantageous peace of Westphalia or the goodwill of the American president in the latter 1970s, and of the naïvete of some of his advisers, to conclude an even more beneficial accommodation. Instead, Brezhnev pursued the policy of global encirclement, with some peripheral successes but no breakthrough on the central front.

The last Soviet leader, Gorbachev, can be considered operationally the Grand Miscalculator and historically a tragic figure. He thought he could revitalize the Soviet economy that Brezhnev, through his military spending, had ruined, but he did not know how. He thought he could reach a broad détente with the West, but he underestimated the corrosive effects of the war in Afghanistan and of the survival of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Attempts at East-West accommodation, instead of stabilizing Soviet rule in east-central Europe, exploded in his face, especially once the fear of Soviet intervention had been dissipated by Gorbachev’s cultivation of the West and by the Soviet military’s failures in Afghanistan.

Could the Soviets have won the Cold War? The final outcome was the product of objective and subjective factors, and on both scores the Soviet side turned out to have been at a disadvantage. The Western socioeconomic system proved much stronger and its underlying ideas ultimately much more appealing. In effect, despite some illusions propagated by Khrushchev and entertained by Brezhnev, the Soviet Union was forced to play "catch-up ball" throughout the Cold War.

The bottom line thus has to be that a full-blown Soviet victory was never in the cards, except very briefly right after World War II. Had America disengaged, the outcome would have been quite different. But that alternative was foreclosed early on. Thereafter the Kremlin could have sought and perhaps obtained favorable settlements that could have served as launchpads for later offensives, but its leaders failed to exploit the occasional opportunities. These knocked on history’s doors early in the 1950s and even more so in the 1970s. Finally, the grand scale of the final defeat in the late 1980s could also have been minimized, if the Gorbachev leadership had been more skillful in handling its domestic reforms and had moved more rapidly in the mid-1980s to resolve the Afghan and Polish problems.


What should now be the West’s central strategic objective toward its former Cold War rival?

The point of departure for a meaningful answer is to recognize that, from a historical point of view, the collapse of the Soviet Union, which endured for some seventy years, is more than overshadowed by the disintegration of the great Russian empire, which lasted for more than three hundred years. This is an event of truly historic magnitude, pregnant with geopolitical uncertainties. It will be many years before the dust finally settles, but it is already clear that the postcommunist transition in the former empire will be more difficult and much more prolonged than the democratic reconstruction of either Germany or Japan after 1945.

The West must support that transition with the same commitment and magnanimity with which America acted after the victory in 1945. That commitment, however, must be guided by a longer-range geopolitical vision that goes beyond the West’s currently one-sided concentration on facilitating Russia’s socioeconomic recovery. While that recovery is desirable, its attainment should be seen as part of a broader effort designed to accomplish two interrelated objectives: the emergence of a truly post-imperial Russia that can assume its proper place in the concert of the world’s leading democratic nations; and the stable consolidation of the newly independent non-Russian states, some of which are only in the early stages of their own nation building, in order to create an enduring geopolitical context that by itself reinforces Russia’s transformation into a post-imperial state. Each of the foregoing is dependent on the other, and hence both must be deliberately sought.

Any Western ambiguity on this matter could prove historically shortsighted. Just as it would have been a historic mistake to settle for less than the liberation of east-central Europe from Moscow’s domination, so now too a recovery program for the Russian economy that does not at the same time seek to transform Russia into a post-imperial state could prove to be ephemeral. Accordingly any Russian efforts to isolate and eventually again to subordinate Ukraine through the maintenance of a Moscow-controlled outpost in Crimea, for example, or to delay the evacuation of Russian troops from the Baltic republics should be unambiguously viewed as obstacles to effective financial and economic assistance.

However it is also essential to provide the Russians with a meaningful alternative to their longstanding imperial status, and that has to be the offer of partnership with the West. The West is correct in stressing that it sees Russia’s eventual destiny as a major player in the European concert of nations and as one of America’s partners in dealing with the world’s wider problems. But to become such a player the transformation of Russia requires—as earlier in the cases of Germany and Japan—the shedding of its imperial aspirations.

Since as a practical matter any formal association of Russia with Europe is still a long way off, some thought should now be given to the creation of intermediary forms of involvement with Europe. One such step might involve Western support for a Baltic Sea/Black Sea zone of enhanced cooperation. This would engage the central European states that are already becoming associated with the EC in a common effort with Russia, the Baltic states, Ukraine and Belarus to enhance their communications, transport and eventually free trade. Kaliningrad, while remaining Russian politically, could also become a European free-trade zone. The recent agreement between Belarus and Poland for Belarussian use of the Polish port of Gdynia is a sign that central European regional cooperation can extend eastward. Russia should not be made to feel that a new cordon sanitaire separates it from the West.

The above must be matched by sustained Western efforts to promote nation building in the former Soviet empire. Above all it is geopolitically essential that Ukraine succeed in stabilizing itself as a secure and independent state. That will automatically increase the chances of Russia’s evolution as a democratizing and increasingly European post-imperial state. Accordingly a critical component of Western strategy has to be the deliberate effort—not only economic but also political—to consolidate a stable and sovereign Ukraine. Elsewhere in the former empire the process of nation building is likely to be even more complex than in Ukraine, and yet it too will have to be supported simultaneously with the postcommunist socio-economic transformation itself.

That socioeconomic transformation will be long and painful. The West, in proffering aid and advice, must be careful not to replace old communist dogmas with new dogmas of its own regarding the application of capitalist practices. Any attempt to create simultaneously a free-market economy and a political democracy that does not carefully seek to minimize the social pains of the needed transition could precipitate a destructive collision between these two objectives. This collision could then discredit both goals in the eyes of the affected peoples and enhance the appeal of some new escapist doctrines.

The aftermath of the Cold War thus poses an agenda for the West that is truly daunting. Its essence is to make certain that the disintegration of the Soviet Union becomes the peaceful and enduring end of the Russian empire, and that the collapse of communism truly means the end of the utopian phase in modern political history. But these grand goals will come to pass only if the West again demonstrates strategic staying power, focused on clearheaded geopolitical—and not just on narrow socioeconomic or vaguely idealistic—aims.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI was National Security Adviser to President Carter, 1977-81. He is now Counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a professor of American foreign policy at The Johns Hopkins University.
  • More By Zbigniew Brzezinski