When the Cold War came to an end, the finale was dramatic, swift and rather unexpected. The collapse of communism occurred in just two years (1989-91), with the rule of communism in Eastern Europe being rolled back, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
Historians and Political Scientists have pointed to a range of factors that have been associated to the end of the Cold War.
Some have argued that the end of the Cold was the inevitable consequence of structural flaws that led to the collapse of the Soviet style system. The weaknesses being inherently economic and political in nature. On the economic side of things, one could point to such factors as the failings of central planning and an expression of a desire for western style living standards. The political troubles were attributed to the fact that communist regimes were inattentive to popular pressures. The lack of competitive elections, independent civil society groups, and a free media meant that single-party communist states did not allow for any mechanism for articulating political grievances and offering a dialogue between rulers and ordinary people.
But how did economic and political frustrations mounting over many decades ignite the downfall of regimes in a fairly short time span?
The main answer lies in the impact of the reforms that Mikhail Gorbachev introduced in the Soviet Union, as far back as 1985. There were several key aspects to these reform processes.
The first rested on the notion of perestroika which signaled the implementation of market competition and private ownership to address the longstanding deficiencies of Soviet central planning, but this had some unintended consequences and actually accelerated the economic demise. The second element of the reform process was based on the removal of restrictions on the expression of opinions and political demands, which became widely known as glasnost. This gave a voice to opponents of the political structure but was not welcomed by hardline communists who opposed any reforms that might threaten the privileges and the supremacy of the party state elite. This ultimately led to the formal abandonment of the Communists Party’s monopoly of power. A third aspect of Gorbachevs reforms was a new approach to relations with the archenemy, namely the United States, and Western Europe in general. The long-standing Brezhnev doctrine was duly replaced with the popularly dubbed Sinatra Doctrine, which permitted Eastern European states to ‘do it their way’, suggesting/implying that the Soviet Union would not forcefully intervene or meddle as other communists’ regimes were crumbling, symbolized by the infamous fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany.
It bears reminder that Gorbachev was keen on reforming the system, his initial goal was to reform communism not destroy it.
Gorbachev epitomized the ‘New Thinking’ of Soviet leadership and happened to benefit from an opportune circumstance since many of his predecessors only ruled for short periods and died fairly early during their tenure (Andropov being in power for 15 months, followed by Chernenko who passed away after 13 months), allowing him to enter the fray at the relatively young age of 54. Several quick, successive meetings of the Politburo, at a time when many members were either absent or unable to attend, facilitated his emergence. He took advantage of the bureaucratic process, used his gift for persuasion and subsequently made key appointments within the Soviet foreign policy establishment.
Mikhail Gorbachev also managed to gradually change the Reagan administration’s views of the Soviet Union. During his first term, President Roland Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”. He also launched an unrelenting ideological attack on communism in stark moral terms that pitted it against a free society. However, during his second term, the US President Ronald Reagan came to view the Soviet leader more as a partner than an enemy and became more serious about nuclear negotiations. Repeated meetings in Geneva and Reykjavik as well as the exchange of several letters between the two established a sense of trust and transformed Reagan from a Hawk into a nuclear peacemaker. Reagan ultimately revised his opinion and came to realize the possibility of working with the Soviet Union in the interest of peace.
Mikhail Gorbachev who served as the President of the USSR from 1985 until 1991 and was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (1990) was also the first to speak publicly of a ‘new world order’ following four decades of hostility between the USA and the Soviet Union. In his address to the United Nations on December 7, 1988, Gorbachev stated that, ‘Further world progress is now possible only through the search for a consensus of all mankind, in movement toward a new world order’. The end of the Cold war was then followed by a few short years of this proclaimed ‘New World Order’ (NOW). This NWO symbolized a changed set of geostrategic constellations that replaced the old bipolar era with a new, different order, no longer dominated by two superpowers and their long-running ideological conflict. For Francis Fukuyama, the year 1989 symbolized the ‘end of history, since the collapse of Marxism-Leninism as a world historical force was superseded by ‘liberal democracy’ as the only viable political-economic world view.
Regardless of all of his other accomplishments, feats and missteps, Mikhail Gorbachev will be remembered as a trailblazer and iconic figure of the End of the Cold War era.