Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and their interpreters at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland
Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and their interpreters at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland

‘The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War’, by James Graham Wilson, Cornell University Press, RRP$29.95, 280 pages

If John Kerry ever gets to spend a day back home, the US secretary of state might wish to meet James Graham Wilson, a young scholar in his department’s Office of the Historian. Wilson’s recent book, The Triumph of Improvisation, offers a fresh and valuable look at the end of the cold war. Good histories do not offer policy recipes, but they can suggest ideas for policy makers.

As a participant in the closing days of the cold war, I recall telling the FT’s then diplomatic correspondent in Washington that in a few years young people would have a hard time grasping how it felt to live under that threat – in part because the end came so smoothly and peacefully. I am heartened that Wilson, who came of age after that era, wanted to understand how Presidents Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and George HW Bush orchestrated an amazing end to the fearful and seemingly perpetual superpower confrontation.

The title of The Triumph of Improvisation reflects that Wilson is writing against the backdrop of studies in “Grand Strategy”, as typified by Yale’s popular programme. The author seems surprised that leaders do not operate according to a “master plan”. But he describes artfully the practitioner’s reality of how policy is devised, tried, questioned, reconsidered, adjusted – and continually reargued. Moreover, it is encouraging that Wilson – and his mentors at the University of Virginia – are reviving the discipline of diplomatic history and the study of leaders and events. With headings such as “Individuals and Power” and “Individuals and Strategy”, Wilson offers a refreshing exploration of the human qualities of leadership.

Wilson recognises that Reagan’s diplomacy was based on fundamental beliefs, if not a detailed plan. Reagan felt he needed to restore America’s economic dynamism, military strength and belief in itself. After the dismal 1970s, the revival of capitalism in the 1980s offered a striking contrast with the stagnation of the Soviet Union. When oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s, Soviet decline became crisis. Reagan’s optimism – his faith in American genius, ideas, power and goodness – also made him willing to engage and even negotiate with Soviet opponents. Many of his advisers, in contrast, were too pessimistic or hostile to work with the Soviets.

Wilson is intrigued by Reagan’s seeming duality: the president wanted to consign the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and communism to the “ash heap of history”; yet he also sought to engage and negotiate with – and thereby legitimise – Soviet leaders in order to abolish nuclear weapons. Reagan saw no need to trade off one aim for another. And his management style permitted his senior advisers to battle over the translation of these impulses into policy.

In Wilson’s account, the persistence of the then secretary of state George Shultz in encouraging the president’s negotiating instinct was decisive. Shultz rates a black belt in the arts of bureaucratic conflict, and his adroit management of the complex relationship that secretaries of state have with their presidents is worthy of careful study. Shultz’s background as an economist was also critical. He believed the new information age gave capitalism and the US a critical edge, so that he could confidently advise Gorbachev on his perestroika from a position of US strength. This common interest became a basis for trust and partnership, although not in Russia’s case for economic success.

Wilson also portrays how George HW Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, extended US influence through skilful understanding – and leadership – of allies. Trust, steadiness and reliability – honed with an edge of toughness and resolve – are the bulwarks of successful alliance diplomacy. Wilson recalls that Bush handled surprising events and adroitly oversaw new international partnerships, despite “political constraints”, “a hostile Congress”, “public clamour over the federal budget deficit” and “competing domestic aims”. This might sound familiar to followers of today’s headlines.

The Triumph of Improvisation underappreciates one important change in US strategy as Bush followed Reagan. Reagan had focused on ending the Soviet Union, abolishing nuclear weapons and developing the Strategic Defense Initiative as a “massive insurance policy” for Americans and Russians alike. Bush shifted attention to slashing and equalising conventional forces in Europe to reduce the significance of nuclear arms and roll back the Soviet empire on its central front. In doing so, Bush’s priority shifted subtly to Germany and the Nato alliance, which were pillars of Bush’s remaking of cold war institutions. The Nato summit of May 1989 – where, within months of taking office, the “cautious” Bush launched a bold reduction of conventional arms, sidelined the contentious issue of short-range nuclear missiles, and reinforced his close ties with Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany – deserves much greater attention as a model of alliance leadership.

Wilson does, however, make a point that most historians overlook: in addition to ending the cold war successfully and leading skilfully a coalition that reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Bush laid a foundation for a new configuration of power that recognised the changing economic forces of globalisation.

Finally, the author highlights “Gorbachev’s ambivalent role in history”. Wilson observes that “much of the world regarded him as a saviour, yet he lost the Soviet Union” and Russia’s empire. “His mission to revitalise Communism failed.” Yet Wilson generously concludes that, “Defeat notwithstanding, Mikhail Gorbachev was the most important individual in the story of the end of the Cold War.” Eduard Shevardnadze, the then Soviet foreign minister who passed away this month, deserves an honourable mention, too.

Secretary Kerry may recognise that the story told by Wilson continues to unfold. President Vladimir Putin rejects Gorbachev’s failures and seeks to restore Russia’s influence – and even territory. President Xi Jinping tells his cadres that Gorbachev committed a terrible error by abandoning the Communist party, which Xi believes must be strengthened and cleansed in China so as to lead its economic restructuring. Economic blows and insecurities have sapped the confidence and resources of the market democracies. A different American venture to expand the frontiers of freedom has ended in tragedy and withdrawals. America’s allies question US resolve and reliability.

So what might Secretary Kerry learn? Wilson’s book suggests that individuals and power, economic strength and dynamism, the confidence and trust of allies, and diplomatic resilience and adaptability matter. The US also needs strategic direction, especially in an era of flux. These ingredients of success are sounder than airmiles travelled, meetings convened, and lines tweeted.

Robert Zoellick served as a US undersecretary of state from 1989 to 1992 and helped negotiate Germany’s unification

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