Learning from the Cold War

Ned Lebow, Ohio State University

Wednesday, September 19th, 2001

Few scholars or political scientists, if any, predicted the end of the Cold War in 1989. One would expect that the end of the Cold War would have been much studied in the past decade in light of its surprising occurrence. However, there has not been a systematic attempt to determine what variables, events, and leaders helped bring the Cold War to an end. Meanwhile, many people have taken lessons from the end of the Cold War and applied them to current policy issues. One such lesson is that the United States can drive other countries into economic ruin by competing with them militarily. Does the evidence support this conclusion? Have decision-makers learned the right lessons? What lessons can we garner from this unprecedented event that may shed some light on current questions in international relations? These were the questions that Ned Lebow, Bill Wohlforth, and many others set out to answer. They searched archives and conducted numerous interviews in order to create a deeper conceptual and historical understanding of the actions that led to this remarkable event.

They identified five important turning points that were crucial to understanding how the end of the Cold War came about: 1) Gorbachev's accession to power, 2) The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, 3) The arms control breakthroughs, 4) The Soviet decision to let Eastern Europe go its own way, and 5) German reunification. They also studied four generic explanations, some of them rooted in theories: 1) The material capabilities of the opposing sides, 2) The influence of ideas, 3) The impact of domestic politics, and 4) The effects of individual leaders, for example, Gorbachev. The authors looked to see how capable these four competing explanations were in account for the five important turning points. How did they interact? Were they synergistic? Did they cut across each other? Did any one explanation have more to say about the events than the others?

The collaborative effort to learn lessons from the end of the Cold War operated under some basic rules. First, there was to be no leapfrogging. That is, scholars were not allowed to make claims to being prior; no assertions that their theory could subsume and explain other theories. Second, the four categories of explanations were to be separated in order to disentangle the different explanations for the end of the Cold War. The project included an entire section on counterfactuals, asking "Were other outcomes possible?" First, what would the outcomes have been with different leaders in charge of the respective countries? Second, assuming Gorbachev and Reagan as leaders (keeping that factor constant), what other factors would have had to change to lead to different outcomes?

Gorbachev's accession to power and subsequent actions were pivotal in bringing about the end of the Cold War. The role of leadership was extremely important. President Ronald Reagan's personal relationship with Gorbachev allowed the accommodation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Gorbachev made numerous unilateral concessions, but many American policy-makers interpreted these actions as meant to intentionally deceive the United States. Reagan, on the other hand, decided Gorbachev was being sincere. Reagan responded to people, not idea. A unique application of cognitive theory posits that Reagan had a very simple cognitive schema that ironically resulted in his trusting Gorbachev. Reagan was also deeply concerned about the threat of nuclear war, and this lead him to seek accommodation with the Soviet Union while pursuing a defense against nuclear weapons in the form of Star Wars.

Paradoxically, based on Soviet evidence, the U.S. buildup as well as Star Wars in the early 1980s made accommodation more difficult. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, the Soviets did not increase defense spending in response to the American military buildup under Reagan. Hence, the argument that the Americans spent the Soviets into the ground by Reagan's buildup does not seem to capture the reality of the situation. More generally, the Soviet decline was a catalyst in that it created space for political change to take place. However, it did not determine how Gorbachev acted. Learning and face-to-face contact between East and West also proved invaluable to prospects for accommodation. This confluence of factors—material, ideological, and personal—created a situation where accommodation could be reached and the Cold War could be brought to a close.

Lebow and his colleagues came to two primary conclusions regarding lessons to be learned from the end of the Cold War. First, and most importantly, the Cold War should be understood as a non-linear process. That is, the effect of the different explanatory variables is not additive, but multiplicative. A series of causal chains came into confluence, interacting and causing a synergism that resulted in the end of the Cold War. Second, it was amazing how badly leaders miscalculated during "the end of the end of the Cold War." Indeed, Lebow contends that Gorbachev probably would not have headed down the path towards glasnost and perestroika if he had known the outcomes. An important question asks: Why did Gorbachev and his advisors misjudge so badly? One hypothesis argues that Soviet leaders could not possibly understand the possible impact of the reforms because the Soviet Union had always been ruled by a repressive, authoritarian regime. Consequently, the possibility of the dissolution of the Soviet Union probably did not even enter the mind of Gorbachev when he made those fateful decisions during the mid-to-late 1980s.

Ned Lebow is a Professor of History, Psychology, and Political Science at Ohio State University.

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2001