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Reagan and Gorbachev: Presidential Politics, the Cold War and Lessons for Today

A discussion with Jack F. Matlock, Jr., president Ronald ReaganÌs principle advisor to Soviet and European Affairs, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987-1991), and author of Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (Random House, 2004). With additional commentary presented by Stephen Kotkin, Director of Russian Studies at Princeton University and author of Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000 (OUP, 2001), and moderated by Nina L. Khrushcheva, Professor, Graduate Program in International Affairs, New School University.

On November 4, 2004 the project on New Post-Transition Russian Identity, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and organized jointly by the New School University, The World Policy Institute, and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, presented a panel entitled: ÏReagan and Gorbachev: Presidential Politics, the Cold War and Lessons for Today.Ó The following is a discussion summary of the presentations and the question-and-answer period which followed.

The discussion began with opening remarks by Professor Khrushcheva on the relevance of the discussion coming just two days after the re-election of George W. Bush. She then gave an introduction of Ambassador Matlock, highlighting his experience with the Soviet Union and the high and warm relationship he had with the Russian people. She stated that the relationship between Bush and Vladimir Putin is very different from that of Reagan and Gorbachev. Reagan and Gorbachev were two leaders willing to turn away from their hard-line advisors and work together cooperatively; while Bush and Putin are turning more towards authoritarianism and unilateral action.

Ambassador Matlock began his remarks by explaining why he chose to write his book Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended , which he stated was done to clear up what he believes are misconceptions in popular literature about the end of the Cold War. The key points of his remarks were: When Did the Cold War End? Who won the Cold War? And what are the current politics and policies of both the current American and Russian administrations?

On the first point, Matlock believes that the popular reckoning of the end of the Cold War as 1991 is incorrect. He sets the ideological end of the Cold War as September 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech in New York City turning the Soviet Union from the Marxist class struggle towards the improvement of the common interests of mankind. Matlock believes it is untrue that the aim of American policy at the time was to bring about the end of the Soviet Union along with the end of the Cold War, and cited a 1991 speech by President George H. W. Bush supporting the existence of the Soviet Union then consisting of twelve republics, minus the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania).

On his second question about who won the Cold War, Matlock did not support the current conventional wisdom of a specific winner. He again put forward the idea that the goal of American policy during the Reagan years was not to eliminate the Soviet Union, but to end the military rivalry and to live with a peaceful Soviet Union. He felt that Îvictory’ in the Cold War came with Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Soviet system, to introduce democratic principles and end the military tensions between the two powers. He stated that the end of the Cold War was not a single event, but a process in the years between 1988-1991.

On his final point, Matlock was critical of the policies of the current Bush administration. He criticized the current Bush administration for its wide-ranging unilateralist policies, contrasting that with Reagan who while putting a premium on maintaining alliances such as NATO, was willing to back down to foreign interests on other cultural and economic issues. He was also critical of the current administration’s policy towards nuclear weapons; both in its reluctance to reduce current stockpiles while discussing the creation of new weapons.

ÏNuclear weapons are useless militarily unless you’re a terrorist,Ó Matlock said.

He reiterated that Reagan was always willing to negotiate, unlike the current Bush administration.

Professor Kotkin’s commentary also focused on three main points: 1) that the reputation of the United States is currently at its highest level in Russia since the Reagan era, 2)

that he felt Reagan and Matlock were the right people at the right time for the opening of the Soviet Union to the West and, 3) in the1980’s no book was available for Reagan to get up to speed on the Soviet Union.

The formal remarks were followed by a question and answer period with audience members. A transcript of this portion of the discussion is provided below.

QUESTION: What is your assessment of what is going on in Russia today?

MATLOCK: That’s one that I think both Nina (Khrushcheva) and Steve (Kotkin) may even be better qualified than I to answer, but I’ll give my view and I would welcome theirs as well. I think that the recent moves that President Putin has made are very disturbing from the standpoint of one who wishes well of the Russian people and of their attempts to build a stable democracy. First of all, I think that the restrictions on the media, particularly the electronic media, are deplorable. You can’t criticize the president anymore in the electronic media and you can’t really report on what’s going on in Chechnya. By the way, I think that Gorbachev has also criticized this development. Second, you have the whole spectacle of the Khodorkovsky (Mikhail Khodorkovsky, owner of the majority of shares in the Russian oil company Yukos) arrest and the move against Yukos, which is clearly political though it takes a legal form.

Now it may well be that if Khodorkovsky, or I should say when, Khodorkovsky is convicted he will be guilty of whatever they charge him with, although frankly some of the tax charges seem excessive since they exceed the cash flow during that period. But the fact is that he was one of those who played very fast-and-loose and he is probably guilty of asset stripping and underpayment of taxes and other things. The only thing is that every other oligarch is also guilty of that and selecting him was obviously done for political reasons. Even more disturbing than the personal vendetta, I find is the move against the firm itself which does have fairly significant minority investors. If they are pushed to bankruptcy, and I think yesterday they set a vote of their shareholders as to whether they would push for bankruptcy, it will virtually wipe out, I would say, the minority investors and that’s obviously not fair. And its not going to encourage, I would think, money coming into Russia that should be coming in investments. And then finally we have, not finally but the last I’ll mention, we have his latest moves to appoint the state governors and to have all members of the Duma (the Russian national parliament) elected on party lists, rather than half of them elected in constituencies. I think all of those are steps back, whether this will lead to anything like one man rule I doubt. I think the big problem right now is corruption in the bureaucracy, corruption particularly in the security organs. I think its this corruption that makes it difficult to deal with the terrorism within Russia, and these moves are not going to do anything to do that. I would prefer to see him moving against corruption if he’s going to take more autocratic measures in doing things.

Frankly, I think Russia though is so varied, and has so many separate interests now, I don’t think you can really reimpose a total autocracy on it. Therefore, I really don’t think that this is going to go so far. What I’m watching now is whether Pres. Putin during his current term will get the constitution amended in order to get further terms (Putin currently is in his second of two constitutionally-allowed terms). I think that would be extremely dangerous if that should happen, but basically I think these things, we do have to leave up to Russians. They’re going to want to make the decisions. Most of the Russians I talk to, I haven’t talked to that many, but several I have talked to who undoubtedly want democracy, are not as disturbed as I am, particularly by the latest moves. I know one person who actually was in the Duma for two terms, who was elected, and is very western and democratically oriented told me a couple of weeks ago, look most of these governors are tied in with local mafias and with criminal gangs and the only way to get rid of them is by presidential appointment. He said the thing that worries him is that he’s not sure they have 89 honest people that are capable of really replacing them.

On the constituencies, this person said I’ve won election twice and I found I couldn’t do anything for my constituents because I wasn’t really part of a party that had enough seats in the parliament to do it. So if they start electing the parliament on party lists, on the one hand the bad news is that will tend towards what could be a one-party system if you only have one big party as you do now. On the other hand, it may force the democratic forces to get together finally. They have been so divided and fighting among themselves, maybe it will force them to get together and put up more of a fight. We’ll have to see. One of my experiences throughout my career has been that many of these decisions made have totally unintended consequences. As a final thing I would wait and really see what other shoes there are to drop, and how these things work out.

When I was in Moscow in the late eighties and up through Î91 when people began to speak more freely, they would often ask me how long will it take for us to be a normal country? That was usually the word, they wouldn’t say democracy, as a rule, a normal country. What they meant by a normal country is what we mean roughly by democracy. And I would answer them, sometimes to their dismay, two generations. I’ll stick by that and say they’re more than halfway through the first, they’re a little more than a quarter of the way there. Right now, they’re experiencing some steps backwards; let’s hope those steps won’t continue backwards. I would end with a quotation from a Russian political scientist whose judgement I do respect, who said in June, before the latest proposals, said yes; Putin is ruling as an autocrat, so far an enlightened autocrat, and that’s all right with me so long as he stays enlightened. And maybe that puts it about as well as one can, will he stay enlightened? Or will he go toward the more totalitarian direction? If the latter, that’s bad news for all of us, if the former, well maybe its going to be a necessary transitional period.

QUESTION: How is the US affected by a difference in feelings on the part of the Russians towards the United States from the 1980’s to today, and how does that affect the US’s strategy?

MATLOCK: I think its going to take a long time and probably a few dramatic gestures to turn the tide and I think that public opinion can be probably not that deep and I don’t think its probably that much against Americans as American policy as they have seen it. What really turned it were several things. First of all, expectations which were raised in the early nineties that very quickly they could be living as well as we do if they would just adopt a capitalist system and free enterprise, and if they had free elections and democracy. It didn’t work out that way. Since the chaos that they got and the wide-spread thievery of state assets which happened was called democracy, most of them don’t like the name anymore. But also they associated it with our influence and what had been a hope that they could be, in effect, more like us in many respects, particularly in terms of standard of living, were dashed in the early 1990’s.

Then the United States did a number of moves in its foreign policy that seemed antagonistic to Russia, or at least excluding Russia, when Russia was trying to be part of the world. The way that the NATO expansion was carried out in its first phase. Second the troubles, first in Bosnia, then the bombing in Serbia over Kosovo. After all we had said that when we expanded NATO that you don’t have to worry, this is a defensive alliance. It cannot be used offensively, and the next thing they know we’re bombing Belgrade (capital of Serbia). They were wondering; Îare we next’, if they don’t like something that we do? And then, of course, there was a deep disappointment with our invasion of Iraq, so that has pushed up the negative ratings to I think the high 80’s percent now I believe.

What can we do now? I think a little show a little more demonstratively respect and concern for true Russian interests, rather than just dismissing them. I think, although Pres. Clinton got along fine with (former president Boris)Yeltsin in the short range and got most of what we wanted from him, the fact was some of the things we wanted we probably shouldn’t have wanted. But mainly the government as a whole began to treat Russia as though it didn’t matter anymore. That you could ignore it. And some like Gen. Bill Odom would write that Russia just has to reconcile to the fact that it’s a fairly weak to medium sized power and we really don’t have to pay that much attention to it. It wasn’t until 9-11 and the War on Terrorism that we realized that Russia sits on some pretty strategic real estate among other things. And you suddenly realize that okay; they are the only other country that has a massive nuclear arsenal still. Part of it was attitudinal and part is a result of what they assumed was adopting our way of life was not a satisfactory one. Its going to take a long time to put that back, I think that what we have to do to put it back, and Nina can probably tell us much better than I can, I don’t know whether you agree with me on my analysis or not.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: I do. Since I’m just a moderator here I’ll wait until a better opportunity to present my thoughts on that.

QUESTION: Can you evaluate what those of us watching the Reagan presidency were hearing about the influence of outsiders on Pres. Reagan’s attitude towards the Russian people. Was it important element in his changing attitudes towards the Russian people?

MATLOCK: Oh I think so, take the latter question first. One of the wonderful things about working with Pres. Reagan was he was a man who knew what he didn’t know and was comfortable with that, but wanted to learn more. So he really was constantly seeking more information about those subjects that he felt were important. You ask about particular individuals, yes I think Jim Billington (former Librarian of Congress), Suzanne Massie (author of Land of the Firebird , a book on Russian history and culture), both of them had influence I would say in giving Reagan a better feel for the Russian people, and Russian history. I would say that Reagan never confused the Soviet Union with Russia. He never confused communism with the Russian people. And that was another thing that you noticed when he visited Moscow, his great respect for the people and for the culture. In the case of Suzanne Massie, it was largely teaching about Russian history. She had lunch with him once, and he read Land of the Firebird , before he went to Geneva. He spent much more time in general trying to understand what makes Gorbachev tick; what’s his personality, where’s he coming from, what’s his way of thinking, then he did trying to memorize the number of nuclear missiles and that sort of stuff. He wasn’t an expert in the details and he didn’t want to be, he had (former US Secretary of State George) Schultz always along, or others, to deal with the details, although he understood a lot more than some of his detractors said. But to get a cultural feel for the people and where they’re coming from I think was very important to him, and certainly his dealings with Suzanne Massie, she helped that.

Jim Billington was particularly helpful to us in setting up plans for cultural exchanges, and helping us draft some of the proposals. He made proposals for a very wide expansion of contacts at his first meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva in December 85; Jim Billington played quite a role in that. Billington also came with the Reagans to Moscow in 88 and particularly helped the first lady particularly to understand icons and so on and the church history. He also made sure that when Reagan gave a talk at the Danilov Monastery that it was I would say politically potent shall we say, because he took the occasion then to make the case that they must legalize the Uniates (the Ukrainian Unaite Church, allied with the Roman Catholic Church and persecuted under the Soviet regime) in the Ukraine, something which the (Russian) Orthodox Church opposed, but which was very necessary for religious freedom. And the whole point he wanted to make was, we think you deserve respect, we want you to get better treatment from the government, but we don’t see you as the sole official church and we know that there are others here and they have to get their freedom too. And it was Billington who got some of these elements into Reagan’s speeches. One of Reagan’s biographers, I think it was Edmund Morris, said about that speech that it was a boo-boo, that he didn’t understand that the Russian Orthodox Church was against legalizing the Uniates in the Ukraine. Absolutely wrong, it wasn’t a boo-boo, it was quite on purpose, because he wasn’t trying to be nice, but to try to tell people what it means to be free, what it means to separate church and state, and so on.

These were important, and in fact we made a point, of opening, of making sure he was briefed by people on the outside, as well as on the inside. As we were doing this Soviet Union 101 as I called it, this course, whenever there was a topic he was particularly interested in pursuing, I would have not the head of the intelligence agencies, but the analysts who knew that best to come and have a meeting with him or maybe we’d have two or three. (The late) Adam Ulam (a renown Russian scholar and political scientist) came down and from Harvard and we had several outsiders come in and talk to him and answer his questions. And that was very important because we needed to go beyond the normal position papers, we had plenty of that. But to really get a feel for what these people were like, and Reagan was very good at that.

I think some of that seems to be absent today. I haven’t worked in the government since 1991 so I can’t give details, but there does seem to be not the same willingness to keep an open mind and listen to a variety of sources.

QUESTION: Why is Russia so silent on the question of North Korea’s nuclear power, and on Iran?

MATLOCK: Why is Russia so silent on the question of North Korea’s nuclear power? I don’t think they are silent. I think they clearly want this to be dealt with and they are participants in the, what is it, five party talks? Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, US, and, I guess its six party, they participate in that. Obviously it is not in their best interest to have North Korea develop them. I don’t think they’ve ever considered it in their interest. I think the point that both they and the Chinese make, and by the way the South Koreans, is that these multi-party talks are fine but the North Koreans say they want bilateral assurances from the United States and they doubt we’ll be able to get an agreement until we do that. That has been the position of North Korea. They haven’t gotten way out in front, but I think clearly they don’t want to see that happen, but they would say, North Korea’s problem they are building them up because they see a threat from the United States and they particularly saw that threat when we stopped talking to them. Therefore, it is really up to you to deal with them bilaterally as well as multi-laterally.

KOTKIN: On North Korea, let’s assume they have eight bombs I don’t think they do; I have no idea but let’s assume they have 8 bombs. The Soviet Union had 40,000 nuclear weapons, had 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, had unbelievably sophisticated biological weapons and a delivery system that could bring those weapons right into this classroom. The Soviet Union had 5.3 million men in the army plus the Soviet army had gasoline which the North Korean Army doesn’t have. Be careful when you use words like threat in discussing things in the world. This is not to say that I like anything about the North Korean regime there is nothing I like about the North Korean regime. But there are threats and there are threats. There are strategic places and strategic countries and places that require attention and then there are other places where people are not that upset. Most of East Asia is less upset about what’s going on with North Korea than we are and they live there. So I don’t mean to downplay bad things, but just be cautious.

I would just add an aside on Iran. The United States debated internally whether to

destroy Chinese nuclear facilities before the Chinese exploded their first bomb. These documents are now declassified and are available on the web. Read them. There were internal discussions within the United States Government whether or not to destroy the Chinese nuclear facilities and there were many advocates to move forward and destroy them, to make them inoperable. The United States fortunately chose not to do that. Today China has 24 or so Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. I don’t think it’s a very serious part of the world strategic balance of power or of US/China relations. I don’t mean to dismiss nuclear proliferation as an issue, I just think it needs to be well defined in our discussions of what constitutes a threat or not and what would be appropriate behavior. So forgive me for that comment. Perhaps, Ambassador Matlock disagrees but I just wanted to interject÷÷..

MATLOCK: I agree. I would say the problem with North Korea fundamentally is that they do sell their technology to the highest bidder at least up to now and the biggest threat is it getting into the hands of terrorists. So I think that is a side of it that we have to consider but there is also a similar threat I think implicitly in Pakistan.

QUESTION: Your description of the eighties makes me think about what was going on in the rest of the world and what was Mr. Reagan’s view about that? I’m wondering whether his growing openness to the Soviet Union had any affect on what he was doing in Nicaragua or what he was doing with the Cubans?

QUESTION: Based on your rich experience, how would we train experts in the Soviet Union, or Russia, today? What should they know?

QUESTION: To follow up on North Korea, is it the president of our country who made North Korea a strategic threat? Is Russia the biggest threat to nuclear proliferation today and the biggest source of nuclear material?

MATLOCK: The first one is Ronald Reagan’s view on the rest of the world and as he got more and more involved with Gorbachev, did it change? He felt very strongly that it was our moral duty to support those who resisted communist attempts to impose themselves by force, as he thought the Sandinistas had done in Nicaragua with Cuban support, and also of course the Soviets in Afghanistan. Therefore I think he throughout was eager to show that you couldn’t allow the Soviet Union by these proxy wars to gain control of countries. As I said, he’d made a proposal that we both withdraw from these conflicts and he did that before Geneva. Eventually, in the case of Nicaragua, and this I think finally happened after he left office but we were beginning talks, we began about 1980, actually 86 and 87, to have talks at the assistant Secretary of State level, or the Deputy Minister level, on all the regions in the world to try and get our things together. Eventually in the case of Nicaragua, we negotiated an agreement that there would be elections and we would, both of us, try to make sure they were free, and that if the Sandinistas won a free election, we would stop any backing of the Contras, if the Sandinistas lost, the Soviets would see that the Cubans withdrew, and stop any armed support to them. There were elections, they happened. Now if we hadn’t kept the Contras alive we probably couldn’t have gotten that agreement.

Of course they did agree to leave Afghanistan, with an agreement that was signed in 88 and they left over the next year and so on. So that I think his view was that the pressure that we put on these was an essential part of in effect telling Gorbachev that we weren’t going to let him win by default. And that since he couldn’t win, let’s make a deal and let the people there decide what they want. We also got deals on Angola, one that didn’t stick, but at least it got the Cubans out. So, I don’t think his view of the rest of the world changed that much, but he was willing to negotiate these and he put forward the formula that eventually worked in all of these areas, except the Middle East, we didn’t apply it there.

The second question, does the US still need specialists in Russia and how to train them. Well, of course, we do. I would say it was an illusion during the Cold War to a degree to talk about two superpowers. Just as it is an illusion to talk about a unipolar world today or that we are the sole superpower. Power for what? What are the threats? There is not a single threat to us whether its international crime, drugs, health, disease, or terrorism that can be solved by one country alone. You need different types and just to say because we have the largest military we are a superpower is, I think, superficial and very misleading. Now I think we certainly need specialists in Russia. I don’t know, I have a partiality for my training which No. 1 was Area Studies at Columbia University where I got a little of all the major disciplines and then continued with a Russian Literature major with an ABD. I never finished my dissertation. Someday I’m going to do that because I don’t have a time limit but, frankly, for a diplomat or anybody else dealing in another culture there is nothing more valuable than knowing that culture and if my wife and I were able to make an impression on Soviet citizens it was because we did understand Russian culture. we respected it. You can get into any number of political arguments and they don’t get too acrimonious if you respect the other person.

Maybe this seems almost self-flattery but let me recount something that a Soviet young diplomat told me when I was Ambassador. He came through the line at a reception and said if he could have a couple of words with you later I’d appreciate it. So when we had greeted people I went over and said what’s on your mind. He said, you know, I have been note taker at some of your meetings with our leaders and you come in with some pretty tough talk and if they heard that from anybody else they would be climbing the walls and foaming at the mouth. But when you do it they take it and they don’t seem to get upset. What’s your secret? Well, I had not been asked that question before but I said I think they sense that I really love this country. I may disagree with your policies but I love this country. He said, you know, I thought that was true and wondered if you recognized it.

I think whatever you’re dealing with in whatever form, there is no substitute for understanding and really feeling some rapport with the culture of that country and in fact feel a real rapport. I think that carries you a long way. You can always learn the specifics of what you are doing, a lot of it on the job, but that’s something that takes time and something, I think that our educational system is not set up very well to do. It is what I call the tyranny of the disciplines. Area studies are going by the wayside and except for some jobs in the government there don’t seem to be opportunities. Well now you know I had to study not only the literature but the history, economics, the political system and sociology and it was all important and yet the way academia is now devised people don’t specialize in areas any more and I think that’s too bad.

Axis of Evil Ò yes, I think that was a very unfortunate thing. One thing, they weren’t an axis and there are other countries equally evil and maybe even as much of a threat. And you are quite right that I think using that terminology early on and then making it clear that we were determined to invade Iraq conveyed to the other two that they were next on the list and they better get nuclear weapons as fast as possible. So I think because we don’t attack countries with nuclear weapons. By the way, that’s also a side effect of our bombing of Serbia. I think they began to conclude that then, if they get nuclear weapons, we’re not going to attack them but if they don’t have them and we don’t like something about what they’re doing we just might. So I think the real spurt of proliferation really began in the 90’s when we began to use military means to protect human rights and I am very dubious about using those means.

Summary and transcript prepared by Edward Hancox, Project Associate.

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