Commentary Magazine


At the Highest Levels, by Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott

Bush/Baker & Gorbachev

At the Highest Levels: The inside story of the end of the Cold War.
by Michael R. Beschlos and Strobe Talbott.
Little, Brown. 496 pp. $24.95.

In 1989 the historian Michael Beschloss and the journalist Strobe Talbott

quietly asked a large number of American and Soviet officials if they would speak with us on a regular basis about what was happening within and between their two governments; many consented, on the condition that we not identify them as sources.

The result, At the Highest Levels, is less a book than a compilation of memos on conversations. It may also be an unprecedented triumph of tattletaling. And since President Clinton has appointed one of the authors, Strobe Talbott, as his super-envoy to Eurasia, it may be, as well, a guide to future U.S. policy. But this does not make it history.

The authors do not feel obliged to provide logical transitions between paragraphs, let alone between incidents, which follow one another without evident rhyme or reason. Nor, as they go along, do the authors make explicit judgments about whether their dramatis personae are telling the truth or lying, are judging or acting wisely or foolishly. Not until the very end do they summarily lay out their own views on the things they have been writing about. These turn out to be neither more nor less than the views of former Secretary of State James Baker and former President George Bush: namely, that the end of the cold war came about through the foreign policy of the Bush administration toward the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev. In the authors’ words:

From January 1989 through December 1991, [George Bush] coaxed the Soviet Union toward worldwide surrender. He did so largely by exercising restraint and refraining from pushing the Soviet government too hard, thus never giving Moscow a pretext to reverse course.

The Bush team believed, and the authors concur, that Gorbachev swallowed the reunification of Germany and did not order Soviet troops to shoot the crowds that brought down the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe’s Communist regimes, and ultimately the Soviet Union itself because U.S. policy was so artfully accommodating. But this is sheer nonsense. In the first place, by the time the Bush team put its stamp on U.S.-Soviet relations in the summer of 1989, the Soviet regime’s internal decay, aggravated by Gorbachev’s incompetence, had passed the point of no return. Not the least decisive of these developments was Gorbachev’s announcement that local First Secretaries, the country’s centurions, would have to stand for election—an act that broke whatever still remained of Communist-party discipline. From the summer of 1989 on, had any Soviet official issued an order to make civil or international war, the order might well not have been obeyed, and surely would have plunged the regime into mortal crisis. Gorbachev, in other words, was responding far less to Bush than to a domestic situation he could no longer control.

But in the second place, the premise of this book—that the Bush and Gorbachev teams co-managed the disappearance of the Soviet Union—is the reverse of the truth. Not only did Gorbachev do everything in his power to keep the Soviet Union alive, but so did Bush. Indeed, At the Highest Levels itself shows that the administration supported Gorbachev’s Soviet Union to the very end, to the point of affronting both the powerless Baltic peoples suffering under Gorbachev’s crackdown and also the great mass of Russians and Ukrainians (the latter soon to become the world’s third largest nuclear power). True, the authors concede that maybe Bush and Baker persevered in their commitment to Gorbachev and the Soviet Union a bit too long. But the commitment itself was anything but tactical. It was the very essence of the administration’s vision of U.S.-Soviet relations.

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That vision, rather than any particular results, explains the U.S. position in the negotiations chronicled in this book. These had to do primarily with arms control and Eastern Europe.

Beschloss and Talbott report the long train of U.S.-Soviet arms-control negotiations as a series of victories by Bush and Baker, Gorbachev and his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, over the “hardliners” in their respective camps. At the same time, they praise Bush and Baker for forcing bold, unprecedented U.S. concessions. What were these concessions, and by what standard were they a good thing?

The U.S. entered into the armscontrol process in the late 1960’s in order to prevent the Soviet Union from acquiring enough warheads with the combination of yield and accuracy to carry out a disarming first strike. The Soviets then had some 300 such warheads, and there were some 2,000 points in the U.S. against which they might have been used. Hence the “bottom-line” ratio of Soviet “counterforce” warheads to U.S. strategic targets was a relatively benign one to seven.

In the 1970’s, arms control earned a bad reputation when the Soviet Union, despite the treaties it had concluded with us, built up the ratio to a very threatening three to one. Then came the START I treaty (concluded in 1991), which provided for a big cut in the number of Soviet warheads but also for a proportionally bigger cut in the number of things—e.g., submarines and missile sites—against which they might be aimed. Thus, under START, even without cheating, the Soviets would have seen their ratio rise to perhaps eight to one.

During negotiations for START II, which called for still deeper cuts, the Soviet side argued that it should be allowed to make reductions not by destroying its missiles but rather by “offloading,” i.e., removing five warheads from missiles that could carry six. And although it promised to do away with the most dangerous class of missile, the SS-18, it wanted to retain 90 silo launchers for them. Even Bush’s National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, a devotee of arms control, objected that the U.S. had no means of knowing how many warheads were on any given missile or which silos contained missiles at any given time. The net effect, Scowcroft warned, might be to enable the Soviet military to wipe out American strategic forces with a fraction of their own.

It is not difficult to imagine why the Soviet military would want such a deal. But why did Bush embrace it? Because he believed, along with the authors, that allowing Gorbachev to brandish U.S. concessions at home would mute the hostility of the Soviet military to his reforms. There is, however, no evidence that Gorbachev thought this way, or that this was the reason the Soviet military stood by as the Soviet system disintegrated from within. As for the American side, the best one can say for these militarily indefensible treaties is that the political collapse of Communism may render them irrelevant.

Now consider Eastern Europe. The authors report Bush as saying, in the aftermath of the Malta summit of December 1989, “that given a choice between the success of perestroika and German unity in the near future, he himself would choose perestroika.” At that summit he also told Gorbachev, despite the official U.S. position on the subject, that he would do nothing to support the independence of the Baltic states “so long as Soviet tanks do not roll.” A year later they did roll, and Bush still stuck with Gorbachev.

Before and after the Malta conference, even as the peoples of Eastern Europe were demanding the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops, the Bush administration was trying to negotiate long-term parity between U.S. and Soviet troops in Europe as a whole. When visiting the region, the authors tell us, Bush felt more comfortable with Communist rulers than with their democratic opponents. Thus, not only did Bush not “dance on the [Berlin] Wall,” he was actually pursuing the old notion of trading an effective American acquiescence in Soviet predominance over Eastern Europe for promises of nonviolence and stability. During the 1970’s this had been known as the Sonnenfeldt doctrine. Earlier, simply as Yalta.

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In sum, the Bush team never understood the Soviet regime’s internal troubles or how these troubles constrained Soviet foreign policy. While Bush & Co. parroted Gorbachev’s talk of free-market reforms, the Soviet leader was trying to extend the state’s control over black-(read, free-) market transactions. While the Bush team, echoed here by Beschloss and Talbott, was considering Boris Yeltsin beneath notice, the Russian people, as well as those of the Baltics and Ukraine, were seeing Yeltsin as their best hope against Communist tyranny. Beginning in the spring of 1990, as Gorbachev turned to the armed forces and the KGB in a belated attempt to maintain the Soviet Union the only way it could be maintained, the Bush team, seconded here by the authors, worried chiefly about helping him to succeed.

By that time even the bureaucrats at the State Department and CIA had figured out that America’s interests did not coincide with Gorbachev’s and that the U.S. should not try to pay for Soviet concessions which history was in the process of giving us for free. Bush & Co., however, were rejoicing that Gorbachev had shown them the “twinkle in his eye, and sometimes even an actual wink.”

Not even the death of the USSR ended the attraction of U.S.-Soviet relations for Bush & Co., or for Beschloss and Talbott. To the end of its own days the administration mourned Gorbachev and resented Yeltsin. It spurned Yeltsin’s January 1992 proposal that America and Russia simply stop targeting their missiles on one another, preferring instead to conclude START II. More ominously still, the Bush administration put pressure on Ukraine to surrender its nuclear weapons to Russia, mindless of the deterrent effect these weapons have had on the increasingly powerful military-industrial types within Russia who want to recreate the Soviet Union under another name, and who might be willing to wage war to do it.

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As one of the Clinton administration’s principal sources of ideas on Eurasia, Strobe Talbott can be expected to prescribe more of what this book endorses: the costly, incompetent, and failed policies of Bush/Baker. For that reason alone, the book he has written with Michael Beschloss is worth reading.

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