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Gorbachev and New Thinking in Soviet Foreign Policy, 1987-88

In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev implemented a series of changes in his country's social, economic and foreign policies designed to bolster the domestic standard of living and usher in a new era of détente with the United States. The cumulative effect of his "new thinking" was to hasten not only the end of the Cold War, but also the breakdown of the Soviet Empire and, in time, the Soviet Union itself.

Mikhail Gorbachev became head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, after the messy succession crisis that followed the death of Leonid Brezhnev. From the start, Gorbachev was different from previous Soviet leaders. He had been educated at Moscow State University, grew up in a Christian family, and perhaps most importantly, reached adulthood after Stalin died, so he was not troubled by the haunting memory of purges or indoctrinated in strict Marxist-Leninist thought. Gorbachev's generation was far more familiar with the West than its predecessors, and the growing professional class, that was also well-educated, demanded reforms to improve the standard of living and address the troubled economic situation in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet economy in the mid-1980s faced serious challenges. Years of centralized controls had led to stagnation, and the Soviet economy was already straining to compete with the military buildup in the United States led by President Ronald Reagan. In response, at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in 1986, Gorbachev made two proposals: the first for "perestroika," a complete restructuring of the economy, and the second for "glasnost," or openness. The former proposal would pave the way for privatization of farming and industry, the creation of profit incentives, and a market system for setting prices and governing internal trade. Glasnost would ease censorship controls and create new personal freedoms. Although the proposals were warmly received by Soviet citizens, the Party leadership remained suspicious of change.

Gorbachev's new ideas also had implications for Soviet foreign policy. The previous fall, in November 1985, Gorbachev and Reagan met in Geneva, Switzerland for what would be the first of many summit meetings. At that meeting the two men set an ambitious agenda to discuss increases in trade, cultural exchanges, human rights, the Iran-Iraq War, the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan, and other regional conflicts. At a follow-up meeting the following year at Reykjavik, Iceland, Gorbachev surprised Reagan with a proposal for massive cuts in the nuclear forces of each country on the condition that the United States would abandon its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Developing, building, and maintaining a competitive nuclear arsenal and system of defenses was draining the Soviet economy and preventing needed domestic reforms from successful implementation. In spite of this promising start, Reagan's continuing commitment to SDI prevented an agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1986.

In order to continue economic reforms and implement perestroika and glasnost, the Soviet Union needed the costly Cold War competition between the superpowers to slow down. As long as it was engaged in an expensive arms race and supporting Third World revolutionaries, there could be no economic revitalization at home. Gorbachev still believed in socialism, and at the same time he was determined to try to save the Soviet Union from the collapse that could emerge from continued economic crisis. Gorbachev therefore continued to press for arms agreements. As a result, in 1987, the United States and Soviet Union reached an agreement on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces. They managed it by skirting the SDI issue, but the agreement was, nonetheless, important nonetheless for setting a precedent for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In addition to the INF talks, the two nations also embarked on the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, or START, signing the first agreement of those negotiations in 1991. Moreover, Gorbachev oversaw the Soviet withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Angola, and withdrew Soviet support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the communist governments in Cuba and Vietnam. He also negated the Brezhnev Doctrine that pledged Soviet intervention where communism was under threat, choosing instead to loosen Soviet control over the countries of the Eastern Bloc and allow them some freedom in navigating their own futures, a policy that became known popularly as the "Sinatra Doctrine" because it allowed the Eastern European states to "do it their way."

The Reagan and Bush Administrations took great care in reacting to these extraordinary developments. Although Reagan welcomed new overtures from the Soviet Union for peace and cooperation, he also remained wary and continued to build up U.S. defenses so that any negotiations that followed could be initiated from a position of strength. Historians differ in their interpretations as to whether economic pressure from the United States or an ongoing internal reformist trend in the Soviet Union was more decisive in ending the conflict, but both were important factors. Moreover, the relaxation in the arms race made it possible for both sides to pursue peaceful cooperation in other areas, and that helped Gorbachev to pursue more liberal policies toward Eastern Europe. Reagan's successor, President George Herbert Walker Bush, aided the process by largely staying out of it; he did not go to Eastern Europe to revel in the Soviet defeat, making it easier for Gorbachev to effect the retreat without concerns for the international prestige of the USSR. Although the many reforms that stemmed from Gorbachev's "new thinking" were designed to save the Soviet Union, they ultimately brought about its collapse. As a result, these reforms played a fundamental role in bringing about the end of the Cold War.


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