Superpower Diplomacy - The end of the soviet superpower, 1985–1991

Gorbachev demonstrated his strength as well as courage by resuming the Geneva talks despite American failure to fulfill any of the conditions the Soviet Union had set for its returning to the negotiating table. By then he had gone farther than the U.S. administration in drawing conclusions from the futility of the arms race while remaining convinced of his ability to preserve the Soviet Union as a superpower by ensuring its ascendancy through radical reforms of its political and economic system. Gorbachev understood that the West had reasons to fear the offensive Soviet military posture and acted to reassure it in order to break the spiral of the arms buildup.

As the Soviet Union began to set the pace of the Geneva negotiations by making unilateral concessions, the first meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan took place in Geneva in November 1985. The course of American policy at this critical juncture was in the hands of a president less attuned to the complexities of international politics, more beholden to an ideological view of the Soviet adversary, and less capable of sustained attention to the business of government than any U.S. president of the superpower era. Defying his own notion that the Soviet adversary was inherently untrustworthy, he intuitively decided that Gorbachev could be trusted—a decision that opened the door to the solution of problems previously regarded as insoluble and to the eventual termination of the Cold War.

The personal rapport established between the two leaders disrupted the pattern of super-power diplomacy. They both believed in the abolition of nuclear weapons—a convergence of views that foreshadowed the transformation of nuclear-based superpower diplomacy into a more normal kind. At the Reykjavik summit of October 1986, Reagan, not grasping the subtleties of deterrence, created confusion about whether he was willing to abolish all nuclear weapons or only some of them, thus putting in doubt the critical deterrent on which NATO had traditionally depended. Although the summit appeared to have failed, Gorbachev's readiness to give Reagan the benefit of the doubt allowed the Geneva talks to continue and bear fruit in the signing of the landmark treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in December 1987.

The treaty differed from previous arms agreements by providing for the complete elimination of a whole class of armaments, by reversing the arms race rather than merely slowing it down, and by introducing the kind of intrusive inspections that the Soviet Union had been consistently resisting to protect its secretive political system. By that time Gorbachev had already imposed upon the reluctant Soviet military a change of the country's strategic posture from offensive to defensive, precipitating the loosening and eventual disintegration of the Warsaw Pact. His unilateral reductions of Soviet conventional forces facilitated the negotiation of an agreement on deep reduction of conventional forces in Europe (CFE), previously regarded as all but impossible.

The CFE, which changed drastically the military landscape of Europe, had been negotiated between the two alliances rather than between the United States and the Soviet Union alone, thus signaling the demise of their superpower domination. In the last decisive stages of the Cold War, the nuclear balance that underlay that domination played a secondary role to the effects of the internal upheaval within the Soviet bloc, which led by the end of 1989 to the collapse of Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and, two years later, of the Soviet Union itself. Adaptation to these unexpected developments, which vindicated George F. Kennan's original design for containment, was a challenge comparable to that which the adoption of the policy of containment posed forty years earlier. This time the United States could at least rely on the expertise of a generation of academic specialists and career diplomats well versed in the workings of the Soviet system, such as ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr., in the sensitive Moscow post. In responding to the challenge, the administration of President George H. W. Bush, which inherited from its predecessor a dramatically improved U.S.–Soviet relationship, had a mixed record.

Even as the Soviet power was disintegrating, the Bush administration acted on the assumption that a reformed Soviet Union would remain America's superpower partner for the foreseeable future—an assumption confirmed at the December 1989 Bush-Gorbachev summit off Malta. The misjudgment led Washington to occasionally try to oppose the inevitable. When Romania threatened to descend into chaos amid the downfall of its dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Washington sent signals that it would not mind Soviet intervention to restore order there, only to be rebuffed by Moscow. And when Ukraine showed a readiness to break away from the Soviet Union, Bush, on a visit to Kiev, publicly expressed U.S. displeasure.

Otherwise, however, in responding to the self-liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination, U.S. superpower diplomacy was at its best. It extended unqualified support to the postcommunist governments without trying to seek added advantage at Soviet expense—an attitude that facilitated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the region and the emergence of Europe's new and safer security environment. The Bush administration wisely proceeded to unilaterally remove the tactical nuclear weapons that had been most prone to make Europe a nuclear battlefield, dismantle the intermediate-range missiles in accordance with the INF treaty, and begin to destroy, in collaboration with Moscow, the stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons as well. This was the most important legacy of superpower diplomacy for the post–Cold War era.

The United States was the first of the powers responsible for Germany to recognize the inevitability of its reunification and worked consistently toward that end together with the Soviet Union, once Gorbachev, too, had come to the same conclusion. Great Britain and France only reluctantly followed. The "two-and-four" agreement between the German states and the powers set the terms of the unification without antagonizing Moscow and ensured the integration of the potentially overwhelming German power into the European Community and NATO.

However, once the Soviet Union collapsed and a critically weakened Russia became its most important successor state, possessing the bulk of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the United States continued to deal with the government of President Boris N. Yeltsin as if Russia still were a super-power. The likelihood of its irreversible descent to the ranks of secondary powers distorted America's priorities and its self-perception as the world's last remaining superpower.

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