Interview with historian Archie Brown: Rethinking the Cold War

There's a widespread assumption that the Soviet Union had no alternative to ending the Cold War in the way they did. But that's wrong, says the Oxford historian

March 26, 2020
Archie Brown is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford
Archie Brown is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford

Why did you decide to write this book?

I was dissatisfied with the widespread assumption that the Soviet Union had no alternative to ending the Cold War in the way they did. My aim was to write a book that rejected simplistic materialist and triumphalist explanations of the Cold War’s ending; I wished to show how both leadership and ideas mattered, and to study the domestic context of foreign policy in each of the countries on which I focus. While I did a lot of new research, I felt I had the relevant background knowledge to tackle this subject. I’ve written entire books on the transformation of the Soviet political system during perestroika. I wanted to tackle with equal seriousness the profound change of Soviet foreign policy and the transformation of an adversarial relationship with the West to one of partnership. Moreover, while others have written about Reagan and Gorbachev or about Thatcher and Reagan, no other author has studied the triangular interrelationship of these three very different but influential leaders.

Your book highlights ‘the human factor’; what do you mean by that and what was its significance in the ending of the Cold War?

Often heads of government are not as important as they think they are, but there are times when they play a decisive part in the making of history. Gorbachev not only changed Soviet foreign and domestic policy fundamentally, he spearheaded a conceptual revolution. The idea of ‘all-human values’ and ‘universal interests’ taking precedence over those of any social class or nation was especially significant. In a further break with Marxism-Leninist interpretations of history, he referred frequently to the ‘human factor’ (chelovecheskiy faktor) which, domestically, meant placing a new emphasis on the autonomy of the individual and, internationally, on the significance of establishing relations of trust and mutual understanding with leaders of other countries.

For that, he needed interlocutors willing to engage with him, especially the President of the United States. There were powerful interests in both the USA and the USSR against any such rapport. Reagan himself described the Soviet Union in 1983 as an ‘evil empire’, so his turn to engagement, with the strong encouragement of Margaret Thatcher (the foreign leader to whom he felt closest), was no foregone conclusion. Thatcher, following her extended visit to the Soviet Union in early 1987, was persuaded of the seriousness of change in the Soviet system. Less ‘Iron Lady’ than Go-Between, she became Gorbachev’s strongest supporter among conservative politicians worldwide, so much so that her 10 Downing Street Foreign Policy Adviser complained that she had become ‘dangerously attached’ to Gorbachev, who had become ‘something of an icon’ for her.

What difference do you suppose it would have made had other leaders been in power during the second half of the 1980s?

In Gorbachev’s case, the difference was fundamental. The Soviet leader to succeed Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985 had to be chosen from among the ten remaining full members of the Politburo. From archival documents, interviews, diaries and memoirs, we know the views and mindsets of all of them. Not one of the other nine would have risked either political pluralism or freedom of speech and publication at home, raising expectations in Eastern Europe. None of them but Gorbachev would have declared in 1988 that the people of every country had the right to decide for themselves what kind of political or economic system they wished to live in. It was change in Moscow that made the political transformation of the eastern half of the European continent possible.

Gorbachev, however, needed Western interlocutors. Reagan was a mixed blessing, but his hitherto hard-line credentials enabled him to shrug off criticism that he had gone ‘soft on Communism’. Margaret Thatcher was more influential than a ‘realist’ approach to international relations would predict, given the huge disparity between UK military power and that of the USA and USSR. But alternative Western leaders would have had to be remarkably obtuse not to notice the qualitative change of the Soviet system and to respond to it. Reagan and Thatcher were nothing like as indispensable for a negotiated end of the Cold War as Gorbachev was.

In what ways are the themes of The Human Factor relevant today?

The lessons include: the potential of human agency to change the course of history; interaction is more conducive than isolation to liberalization of highly authoritarian regimes; politics matters at least as much as economics and political skills should be prized; proliferation of nuclear weapons was and remains a danger for all humanity; a successful foreign policy is sensitive to the interests of other nations, not hamstrung by domestic constituencies; there are universal interests that transcend national interests; and mutual trust in international relations, painstakingly gained and then lost, is very difficult to re-establish.

Archie Brown is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of the British Academy, and an International Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of numerous books on the former Soviet Union and its demise, including The Gorbachev Factor (1996) and The Rise and Fall of Communism (2009). His latest title, The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (2020) is published by Oxford University Press.