How We Ended the Cold War | The Nation


How We Ended the Cold War

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The Echo Effect

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John Tirman
John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. His latest book, The Deaths of Others:...

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Perhaps the more remarkable part of the story, however, is how the public demand for change in the West was echoed in Moscow, with tangible results then replayed on the world stage. The steady parade to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by ordinary citizen diplomats, lawyers, doctors, scientists and a variety of dissident politicians created an entirely different--and largely unanticipated--dynamic for détente. At one level, all this contact merely turned up the volume of popular clamor in Western capitals by broadcasting the peace agenda from different venues. Someone like Dr. Bernard Lown of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War could say precisely the same thing in Moscow that he said in Boston, but with a Russian physician at his side, after a meeting with a Soviet leader, his message carried more weight. This simple, self-induced echoing was the most plentiful East-West activity among nonprofit groups, practiced by a veritable deluge of sister-city envoys, caravans of students, delegations of this union or that recreation club, ad infinitum. These forays had one salient virtue: They raised the temperature on politicians in Europe and the United States, a constant reminder that a popular will was escalating. When the local Rotary Club president visits Moscow, sees an apparent desire for better relations and returns to telephone the local newspaper editor and member of Congress, that is retail democracy at its most vigorous; repeated thousands of times--as it was--it sends an unmistakable message.

This seemingly spontaneous outbreak of citizen diplomacy also touched Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany. The political dynamics were different, of course. Even before Reagan was elected, the labor union Solidarity had already begun its astonishing and formidable challenge in Poland, a revolt not just of the unions but of civil society and clerics, which served as a touchstone for the remainder of the decade. Political dissent was rife in the other "captive" nations and was championed more and more by dissidents in the West. From an early stage of the antinuclear protests, efforts were mounted to connect to the human rights activists in the Warsaw Pact countries, and another unlikely alliance was forged, one that saw the nuclear madness and repression as part of the same loathsome superpower manipulation.

Possibly the most consistently influential echo effect was the one created by "policy entrepreneurs" who engaged the Kremlin over a number of years. The most notable of these was Pugwash, scientists from around the world who met regularly, formed working groups, issued papers and the like from the fifties on. By the eighties, Pugwash-convened task forces had addressed the whole range of arms issues besetting the superpower rivalry--nuclear testing, ballistic missile defense, conventional forces, nuclear doctrine--and provided Soviet scientists with insights on arms control that they may not have found elsewhere. By the early eighties, the Pugwash group was supplemented by several others, notably Frank von Hippel and Jeremy Stone of the Federation of American Scientists, Manhattan Project physicist Victor Weiskopf, Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Bernard Lown, Randy Forsberg of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies and many more.

The policy entrepreneurs went to Moscow typically to create some sense of momentum toward arms control that would resonate in the United States. What was less expected was how hungrily the Soviets would take up their suggestions for arms restraint and the "new thinking" inherent in the American and European peace community. The Soviet policy elite, beginning in the Brezhnev era but flowering, of course, under Gorbachev, adopted several of the most important initiatives of the Western activists. For several years there had been a group of Soviet intellectuals, leaders of influential institutes in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who were pushing internally for reform, a circle that included Yevgeny Primakov, Georgy Arbatov, Yevgeny Velikhov and Georgy Shaknazarov, among others. They were the dynamic core of a struggle for deep-seated political and economic change within the Soviet Union, separate from the appeals from the West. But their receptivity to the new initiatives from the US and European peace community reinforced their own transformative agenda and provided the outsiders with instant access to Kremlin power.

Among the more penetrating influences was the Palme Commission, a high-level group of political leaders convened by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme to formulate alternative security ideas. It argued at length in 1982 for a "common security" framework in which the security of one's adversary becomes a key consideration in one's own defense thinking. "The work in the Palme Commission began a very important stage in my life," top Kremlin adviser Arbatov wrote years later, "and exerted a major influence on my understanding of politics and international relations." In fact, the entire complex of peace researchers working on new, nonoffensive security concepts--led by Anders Boserup in Denmark, Egon Bahr and Lutz Unterseher in West Germany and Randy Forsberg in the United States--apparently had a profound influence on the Russians that extended beyond conventional forces to nuclear doctrine. The thinking seeped in through many pores in the membrane of Soviet Communism via the scientists' exchanges, the many intellectual forums sponsored by peace groups and through the influence exerted by particular Soviet officials who later became prominent in Gorbachev's inner circle.

Moscow's embrace of common security concepts accounts for the firm attitude that nuclear arsenals should be eliminated or drastically cut. The nuclear-testing moratorium, unilaterally pursued by Moscow in 1986-87, was an early, concrete expression of this view; it was aided magnificently by the NRDC seismic-monitoring project, which created a technical system that could detect a nuclear test, thereby answering one of the primary objections to a nuclear-test ban--that it could not be verified. This technical breakthrough not only bolstered the public relations value of the test ban but actually influenced Gorbachev's thinking about issues of nuclear stockpile maintenance, verification and the like. In the crucial realm of conventional forces, Boserup, his British associate Robert Neild and others (including Americans Forsberg and von Hippel) directly lobbied Gorbachev to explore the new concepts of nonoffensive defense.

The result of this and many other such intellectual inroads was the 1988 treaty language offered by the Soviets in the negotiations to reduce conventional forces in Europe. It was, in all important respects, a nonoffensive defense design, a radical departure from previous Soviet positions. So, too, were the unilateral reductions in conventional forces in Eastern Europe in late 1988, especially significant since Gorbachev pledged before the United Nations that December not to intervene in the affairs of other Warsaw Pact countries--fateful declarations, given the events of late 1989, when Soviet control over Eastern Europe suddenly dissolved in a tidal wave of popular resistance. Soviet officials also credited Boserup and others with a central role in the US-USSR talks leading to the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in 1990.

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