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Joseph S. Nye, Jr.: Who Caused the End of the Cold War?

[Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University and Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, was Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government from December 1995 through June, 2004.]

Today we celebrate 11/9. The end of the Cold War was a greater historical transformation than 9/11, but controversy persists about its causes. An article by Steven Erlanger in today's New York Times quotes the neo-conservative commentator Robert Kagan as saying that "the standard narrative is Reagan." But the standard narrative is misleading.

A greater portion of the cause belongs to Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev wanted to reform communism, not replace it. However, his reform snowballed into a revolution driven from below rather than controlled from above. When he first came to power in 1985, Gorbachev tried to discipline the Soviet people as a way to overcome the existing economic stagnation. When discipline was not enough to solve the problem, he launched the idea of perestroika, or "restructuring," but the bureaucrats kept thwarting his orders. To light a fire under the bureaucrats, he used a strategy of glasnost, or open discussion and democratization. But once glasnost let people say what they were thinking, many people said, "We want out." By the summer of 1989, Eastern Europeans were given more degrees of freedom. Gorbachev refused to use force to put down demonstrations. By November, the Berlin Wall was pierced.

But there were also deeper causes. One was the soft power of liberal ideas. The growth of transnational communications and contacts helped spread liberal ideas, and the demonstration effect of Western economic success gave them additional appeal. In addition, the enormous Soviet defense budget began to affect other aspects of Soviet society. Health care declined and the mortality rate in the Soviet Union increased (the only developed country where that occurred). Eventually even the military became aware of the tremendous burden caused by imperial overstretch.

Ultimately the deepest causes of Soviet collapse were the decline of communist ideology and the failure of the Soviet economy. This would have happened even without Gorbachev. In the early Cold War, communism and the Soviet Union had a good deal of soft power. Many communists had led the resistance against fascism in Europe, and many people believed that communism was the wave of the future. But Soviet soft power was undercut by the de-Stalinization in 1956 that exposed his crimes, by the repressions in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Poland in 1981, and by the growing transnational communication of liberal ideas. Although in theory communism aimed to instill a system of class justice, Lenin's heirs maintained domestic power through a brutal state security system involving lethal purges, gulags, broad censorship, and the use of informants. The net effect of these repressive measures was a general loss of faith in the system.

Behind this, there was also the decline in the Soviet economy, reflecting the diminished ability of the Soviet central planning system to respond to change in the global economy. Stalin had created a system of centralized economic direction that emphasized heavy metal and smokestack industries. It was very inflexible--all thumbs and no fingers. As the economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, capitalism is creative destruction, a way of responding flexibly to major waves of technological change. At the end of the twentieth century, the major technological change of the third industrial revolution was the growing role of information as the scarcest resource in an economy. The Soviet system was particularly inept at handling information. The deep secrecy of its political system meant that the flow of information was slow and cumbersome.

Economic globalization created turmoil in the world economy at the end of the twentieth century, but the Western economies using market systems were able to transfer labor to services, to reorganize their heavy industries and to switch to computers. The Soviet Union could not keep up. For instance, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, there were 50,000 personal computers in the Soviet Union; in the United States there were 30 million. Four years later, there were about 400,000 personal computers in the Soviet Union, and 40 million in the United States. According to one Soviet economist, by the late 1980s, only eight percent of Soviet industry was competitive at world standards. It is difficult to remain a superpower when 92 percent of industry is not competitive.

The lessons for today are clear. While military power remains important, and Reagan's rhetoric played some role, it is a mistake for any country to discount the role of economic power and soft power.
Read entire article at Huffington Post