Accommodation, Detente, and “Winning the Cold War”
Tolstoy would look at the assertion that Reagan brought down the Evil Empire and say: no he didn’t. The individual decisions by millions of Russians, Poles, Latvians, Georgians, Germans, etc. brought down the Evil Empire, and the relationship between those individual actions and the action of any one man is obscure – and, moreover, anything Reagan did that was significant was overwhelmingly likely to have been done by someone else in his place at that time, because those actions were forced choices, driven by necessity, even if we don’t fully understand the laws thereof.
Even if someone else in Reagan’s position would have pursued different policies, I think the first part of this would still have been true. One wouldn’t need to accept all of Tolstoy’s assumptions to reach this conclusion. Crediting any particular administration or U.S. policies for the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR greatly overstates the importance of America’s role in bringing about these events. It necessarily minimizes or ignores the agency of the nations that freed themselves.
George Kennan was sharply critical of American (and Republican) self-congratulation at the end of the Cold War:
The suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic-political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish. No great country has that sort of influence on the internal developments of any other one.
The popular story of Reagan “winning the Cold War” also ignores that Reagan adopted many of the practices of detente in his second term. To the extent that Reagan was successful in his dealings with the USSR, it was partly because he had moved towards a policy of detente that he had initially repudiated in such strong terms. The U.S. can legitimately take credit for providing for the security of western Europe until communism failed in the USSR and its satellites on account of the system’s own fatal weaknesses, but it was the nations living under communist rule that brought about the momentous changes of 1989-1991.
There is a strong bias against inaction and accommodation in American foreign policy debate, which is rooted in certain stories that many Americans tell themselves about America as an “indispensable nation” whose “leadership” is essential in virtually every part of the world. Inaction and accommodation are also frequently identified with “weakness” and their opposites are commonly identified with “strength,” whether or not these identifications make any sense, and so there is always a desire to be seen “doing something” to avoid the charge of passivity. The tendency to see virtually every foreign conflict as a problem for the U.S. to solve also informs the habit of taking credit for almost any positive or liberalizing development around the world and assigning blame for any reversal. The problem here isn’t so much an “extraordinarily high regard for individual potency” among Americans, but an extraordinarily high regard for American power to “shape” events on the other side of the world in countries that we often don’t understand very well and don’t influence nearly as much we like to think we do.