The passing of Ronald Reagan has reignited the debate over his role in the death of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The standard conservative line, expressed, for instance, by John Lewis Gaddis, is that Reagan's expensive arms buildup forced the Soviet Union into a level of military competition that it was economically unable to sustain without either reforming politically or collapsing economically. As Gaddis quotes Reagan: "capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism – money. The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever."
The problem with this theory is that economic hardship and military competition have never succeeded in bringing down a ruling Communist regime, before or since. Former Soviet acolytes Cuba and North Korea, as well as China under Mao, continued their militarily aggressive and brutally oppressive ways through economic catastrophes far worse than the Soviet Union suffered during the 1980s. Likewise, non-communist dictatorships throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and even the former Soviet Union itself have flourished during massive economic failure--and some have even found the resources for foreign military ventures along the way. Apparently, ruthless repression, combined with control by fiat of an entire nation's wealth, can compensate for a lot of economic mismanagement in winning obedience from one's downtrodden populace.
An alternate theory, more palatable to liberals, is that it was American engagement and detente, not competition, that brought down the Soviet Union. I had thought that a previous version of this thesis--that the Helsinki accords fatally undermined the Soviet Union's claim to legitimacy, by committing it on paper to respect human rights--was about as ludicrous a version of that theory as one could ever hope to find. But a recent variation, touted by Slate's David Greenberg, and by John Patrick Diggins in the New York Times, is even more laughable: it credits Reagan himself, who, by being friendly and accommodating towards Chairman Gorbachev, supposedly seduced him into enacting reforms that were fatal to the Communist Party.
Putting aside the ridiculous idea that a Soviet dictator would agree to dismantle the apparatus of his own power as a result of the beguiling charms of an American president, the simple fact is that Reagan spent most of his administration confronting and denouncing the Soviets whenever possible, declaring his expectation that Communism would disintigrate and his intention of speeding the process as much as he could. He did talk face-to-face with Gorbachev at several summits, and reportedly they were on good terms. But any Soviet leader who could be talked out of power by a charming foreigner would have been talked out of power by one of his more ambitious comrades in the Party long before reaching the top.
Of course, we're left with the question of why the Soviet Union did collapse, if not as a result of Reagan's bluster or charm. Slate's Fred Kaplan implicitly offers an intially plausible theory: that the Soviet Union fell because Mikhail Gorbachev, the top of the Soviet pyramid, recklessly initiated a whole set of reforms that quickly and fatally undermined his own Party's hold on power. The attraction of the theory is that it fits our normal picture of autocracy: if the autocrat's word is law, then the autocrat's decisions--including those that result in a complete surrender of power--will be obeyed.
However, the Soviet Union was not an autocracy tout court, but rather an institutional oligarchy, with a ruling party instead of a ruling despot. Such regimes usually act to save themselves even in the face of squeamish leadership--think, for instance, of the Chinese Communist Party's purge of Zhao Ziyang for lacking the stomach to attack the Tienanmen protesters, or General Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law in Poland, overthrowing the civilian communist leadership, in order to crush Lech Walesa's Solidarity union.
There have, it is true, been cases of such institutional oligarchies giving up their monopoly on power--Mexico and Taiwan come to mind. But both these countries already had fairly robust civil societies independent of government, thriving commercial sectors, relatively free information flow and even rudimentary democratic politics by the time their ruling parties accepted a democratic change of government. What caused the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to acquiesce so meekly in its own overthrow, in the absence of similar internal forces?
My best guess--and I admit that it's at best a guess--is that more than any other ruling oligarchy, the Soviet Communist Party adhered to an elaborate founding ideology that commanded its members' loyalty--and was also vulnerable to refutation. In particular, the premise of Soviet communism--putting aside the unfalsifiable ideas about the perfection of socialism--was that the revolution that began in Russia would gradually spread to the rest of the world, until capitalism had been completely defeated.
The real shock, then, that fatally undermined the Party's faith in itself was the wave of instability that shook the communist world during the 1980's. In Poland, Afghanistan and Nicaragua, communist governments actually stood a chance of being overthrown and replaced with non-Marxist alternatives. This was nothing like the heresies of China and Yugoslavia--mere schisms within the fold--or even the Nazi invasion, a military attack from outside. Nor could it be compared with the brief, easily-crushed uprisings in Eastern Europe in 1956 and 1968. Rather, the prolonged threat of genuine counterrevolution from within, emanating simultaneously from several parts of the empire, cast doubt on the historical inevitability of irreversible Communist advancement, as expressed in the Brezhnev doctrine. Meanwhile, the economic burden of buying quiescent loyalty from Eastern Europe, Cuba and other allies was approaching unsustainability, and thus threatening a further erosion of the communist domain.
Only such a fundamental challenge to the founding premises of Soviet communism, I believe, could have persuaded the Party to accept the huge--and ultimately lethal--risk of Gorbachev's proposed reforms. And only a widespread perception of these reforms' urgent necessity could have held the Party back from abruptly terminating them before they spun wildly out of control, breaking up the empire they were designed to save and bringing down its ruling Party.
How much the Reagan administration contributed to this challenge is difficult to estimate, even in retrospect. Would the Nicaraguan and Afghan rebels have posed a serious threat without American aid? How much did American encouragement affect the Polish underground resistance? Regardless of the answer to these questions, though, the Reagan Doctrine was, in retrospect, clearly on the right track--most likely moreso than either the massive arms buildup of the '80s or the diplomatic lovefest that followed it.