Reagan meets Gorbachev in Reykjavik

The man who tamed the Russian bear

Statesmen confronted a stupefying cacophony of crises in the 1980s


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The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink, William Inboden (Dutton, £31.99)

In October 1986, in a clapboard and possibly haunted house on the windswept Icelandic coast, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev came agonisingly close to promising the elimination of all nuclear weapons. The leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union dared each other to take the precipitous step and make the pledge, but ultimately neither party was willing to budge on his respective commitment and opposition to the American Strategic Defence Initiative, which Reagan had commissioned to counter incoming Soviet missiles.

The Reykjavik Summit represented an important moment in the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War. Yet Reagan and Gorbachev’s impassioned colloquy did not take place in the same Cold War as their predecessors’ summits had over the previous decades. By the 1980s, new spectres were haunting Europe as the forces of global politics superseded the contours of the US-Soviet confrontation set down in the post-war period.

The global economic order was shaken by the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates in 1973 and the Volcker Shock of 1979, in which the Federal Reserve raised rates to the highest level “since the birth of Jesus Christ”, as the German Chancellor complained.

The oil shocks of the 1970s further upended the global balance, shifting power to the Middle Eastern states and facilitating a vast proliferation of capital across nations to power the rise of neoliberalism. Beyond the ghostly rooms of Reykjavik, a post-Cold War world was being born.

As William Inboden reminds readers in his masterful new study of American foreign policy under Ronald Reagan, statesmen were confronted with a stupefying cacophony of crises in the 1980s — the frustrating “simultaneity of events”, as Secretary of State George Shultz noted. When one picks up Inboden’s book, one might expect it to be a story of nuclear weapons, Star Wars, summits and Soviet reformers. It is that, but, as Inboden reminds us, the 1980s were “also more than a Cold War story”.

Inboden’s book should be regarded as the definitive history of American foreign policy in the 1980s for years to come. He is a clear writer, never losing the reader in the fog of events as the book charts across democratisation in Asia, terrorism in the Middle East and civil war in Latin America. The book, furthermore, is commendably subtle. It does not fall into the temptation of loudly proclaiming the lessons of the period for the present, as if one should prop up a revivified Reagan in the Oval Office to impart his historical wisdom.

Conflict between Israel and Syria inspired profound eschatological fear in Reagan

The dilemmas of Russian pipelines providing fuel to Europe, American military support for Taiwan, and aggressive Middle Eastern dictators are all stories with evident contemporary echoes, but Inboden lets them speak for themselves. These are history’s lessons through causality, rather than analogy.

Ronald Reagan entered office in 1981 with an intention to wage the Cold War differently. If that meant upending generations worth of strategic doctrine, so be it. “My theory of the Cold War is we win and they lose,” he told an aide. The Reagan administration was committed to expanding and updating American military capabilities, shaking off the memories of Vietnam that had haunted them since the withdrawal.

Technological advancement in the form of a series of strategic bombers — the B-1, B-2 and F-117, which could evade Soviet radar — undermined the logic of mutually-assured destruction. The announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, a far-fetched and potentially impossible idea of using lasers to take down incoming missiles, further upset the consensus that world peace could only come through a guarantee of annihilation for all.

The state of eastern Europe also provided opportunity for imaginative strategy. In 1981, Poland was experiencing social and political upheaval exacerbated by the ordeals of the global economy. A burgeoning movement, in the form of Solidarity, threatened the Communist government. Reagan was deeply moved by the resistance, telling his officials: “This is the first time in 60 years we have had this kind of opportunity. There may not be another in our lifetime. Can we afford not to go all out?” In the sanctions and support that ensued, the Reagan administration broke with the accord drawn up at the Yalta conference in 1945, that Poland lay under Soviet dominion, explicitly challenging Communist legitimacy in the Eastern Bloc.

CIA Director Bill Casey

Inboden, the author of a previous book on the religious dimension to American strategy in the early Cold War, places a particular emphasis on Reagan’s evangelicalism. The USA was, he declared, the “shining city on a hill, and he never doubted its divinely-sanctioned mission. Religion was not just a personal lodestar, but a historicist and strategic tool for geopolitics.

Conflict between Israel and Syria inspired profound eschatological fear in Reagan, who confided to his diary: “Armageddon in the prophecies begins with the gates of Damascus being assailed.” He was confident in the course predicted by the dialectics of scripture: that the Cold War would end with the final liberation of Europe from idolatrous Communism. Perhaps most revealingly, Reagan even tried to personally convert Gorbachev to Christianity.

Reagan’s advisors and officials reflected his unconventional worldview. The administration was populated with a cast of flamboyant characters with a mandate from the President to break orthodoxy. His first Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, looked the part but suffered from an inability to get along with anyone in the administration, from the president down. CIA Director Bill Casey — “the last of the great buccaneers” in the words of his deputy — had last served in intelligence with the OSS in the Second World War.

The geriatric spy chief, who mumbled so much that Reagan could often not understand him, went about finding all manner of extravagant ways to confront the Soviet Union, from lethal aid and the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, to mining a harbour in Nicaragua that had to be stopped when Congress realised it was technically an act of war against the Soviet ships entering the port.

A combination of difficult egos and a prevaricating President fostered debilitating infighting and, in turn, often contradictory policy. Reagan joked, “In my administration, sometimes our right hand doesn’t know what our far-right hand is doing.” When Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, one faction, led by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, sent state-of-the-art weaponry and intelligence to the British, whilst Jeane Kirkpatrick, as UN ambassador, actively supported the Argentinians.

Reagan had fostered an environment that permitted rogue behaviour

In the same year, in the debate over whether to send peacekeepers to Lebanon, the internecine battles resulted in a “dangerous muddle” of a policy that provided US troops but gave them little leeway to engage in action. Inboden is damning: “This was no way to run a superpower.”

A fanciful scheme to sell weapons to the Iranian regime in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, conjoined with an ambition to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, delivered the most severe crisis for Reagan’s administration. From the outset the Iran-Contra affair was scandalous malpractice.

Bud McFarlane, Reagan’s third National Security Advisor of five, was desperate to emulate Kissinger’s opening to China by reworking the US-Iran relationship. He trusted the enigmatic Iranian Manucher Ghorbanifar, who strung McFarlane along for years, telling him a breakthrough could be just around the corner if only a few more weapons could be delivered.

At one point, Ghorbanifar took a CIA polygraph test in which he lied on 13 of 15 questions; the other two, his name and birthplace, registered “inconclusive”. Yet the engagement continued. McFarlane, Oliver North and others have been rightly excoriated for their role in Iran-Contra, but, ultimately, Reagan had fostered an environment that permitted such rogue behaviour.

Despite scandals and infighting, Reagan achieved significant foreign policy victories. The engagement with Gorbachev was essential for improving the Cold War, and Inboden details Reagan’s focus on East Asia, further cementing the importance of the book. Under the competent hand of George Shultz, the United States was able to deftly navigate a complicated dynamic of strategic interests and trade pressures amidst a shift of global economic power towards Asia.

The administration recognised the importance of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan as “forming a security shield in the western Pacific”. For all of the personal bond between Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the American President made clear that Japan was “the most important ally that the US has”.

The Soviet Pacific fleet constituted 720 ships, outstripping the entire US navy and menacing America’s regional allies. One official described America’s strategic interests in Japan as “location, location, location” for air and naval bases to project power against the Soviets — a strategic infrastructure that has remained in place ever since.

The origins of America’s present clash with China runs through its confrontation with the Soviet Union in the Pacific, as well as the deeper transformations of the 1980s. For all his contribution to ending the Cold War, Reagan’s most enduring legacy may well have been his preparation for a world beyond it.

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