The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War.

Author:Trauschweizer, Ingo
Position:Book review

The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War. By James Graham Wilson. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. 278 pp.

The relationship of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev defined the end of the Cold War era, but did either man pursue a coherent grand strategy? James Graham Wilson, a historian at the State Department, presents a nuanced study of the Reagan administration's foreign policy. He argues that men made history, most notably Gorbachev and Reagan, but also George P. Shultz, George H. W. Bush, and other key advisors in Washington and Moscow. Wilson's thesis is stated succinctly in the book's title, Triumph of Improvisation, indeed, as he demonstrates that the Reagan administration lacked a clear blueprint; that Reagan himself remained caught in incompatible objectives to eradicate communism and to reduce nuclear armaments, which required engagement with the Soviets; that Reagan's passive leadership style let fester divisions within his administration, which led to clashes between hawks like Caspar Weinberger and realists like Alexander Haig in 1981 and 1982 and between Secretary of State Shultz and hardliners in the national security establishment throughout the 1980s; that Gorbachev abandoned ideological dogma and ossified structures in domestic and foreign policy in pursuit of a better Soviet Union; and that the triumph of "democracy, capitalism, and an open world order" (p. 170) owed much to Bush's pragmatic statesmanship. Neither the Reagan administration nor Gorbachev's inner circle had an attainable grand strategy. Washington and Moscow acted more from recognition of weakness than assumptions of strength, and both Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev subscribed to variants of peace through strength, while Gorbachev and Reagan turned to engagement and summitry.

Reagan's objectives were defined by missionary zeal to spread American values and by a deeply held religious faith. He reached instinctively for tough rhetoric, and he favored, emotionally, an ideological crusade, but he also feared the specter of nuclear war, and as early as spring 1981, he attempted to engage the Soviet leadership in constructive negotiations. Yet Reagan never recognized the fundamental tension between crusader rhetoric and a policy of engagement. Wilson concludes, for example, that the Strategic Defense Initiative was a bid for safety from nuclear holocaust by a president who did not believe in...

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