Only Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev could have ended the Cold War. So says Jack Matlock, who knew the key players and saw that triumph of diplomacy as an eyewitness. He served as our ambassador to the Soviets during the last years of the U.S.S.R and as senior director for European and Soviet affairs on the National Security Council. Matlock spent decades observing Russia as a diplomat and top-level policy thinker. Here, he explains how to avoid geopolitical conflict and how we should think about Vladimir Putin.
Octavian Report: To what extent were Reagan and Gorbachev as people essential to ending the Cold War?
Ambassador Jack Matlock: I think only Reagan and Gorbachev would have been able to do what they did. You had to have the two of them in office at the same time. Now, the first George Bush finished it off. But essentially, the Cold War was over ideologically when Reagan left office. It was just up to Bush to continue the policies Reagan had set with Gorbachev in order to finish it peacefully. It was finished by negotiation so that both sides came out as winners.
That’s why today, when we talk about winning the Cold War as if Russia was the loser, we’re not only distorting history, we’re making it much more difficult to build a peaceful world.
OR: In what way do you think Russia won?
Matlock: First of all, Russia was part of the Soviet Union. We ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union, not with Russia. We’ve got to stop talking about Russia as if it was the same entity, whether a Communist empire or whether the current Russian Federation. There are a few characteristics that they share, but these are entirely different political entities.
That’s one thing you have to understand. The Soviet Union won the Cold War — as did everybody else. Ending it saved them from the collapse that was going on internally. The arms race was killing them. Their ideology was killing them. Their foreign policy was not in their interest. Gorbachev saw that and Reagan saw that. We set terms to end the Cold War which were in the interest of the Soviet Union if they wanted to follow a peaceful policy towards the West, which they did.
Losing the Cold War would have been if it went hot. Everybody would have lost. We ended it without anyone losing anything. The Soviet Union lost nothing in ending the Cold War other than its control of Eastern Europe, which was not an advantage for it but a disadvantage. The idea that somehow controlling other countries that don’t want you to control them is an asset is absolutely wrong. Look at the problems we have in the Middle East today. It is a liability. It is not an asset. In giving up those liabilities, Gorbachev made it possible to try to reform the system.
He was unable to do so but the system broke up from the inside after the Cold War was over. Ending the Cold War, ending the arms race which literally was killing their economy, ending their attempt to project their power abroad which was creating liabilities, ending all of that was to the advantage of the Soviet Union. It gave the country the possibility of reforming and coming into the late 20th century. They couldn’t do so under the conditions of the Cold War.
OR: How do you view Reagan as a political thinker?
Matlock: He was not an intellectual but he was very firm in his basic beliefs. He also understood something very few American presidents understand. That being: he didn’t know everything. Therefore, he was quite willing to listen to those who knew more than he did about a given situation.
He was never a warmonger. The reason he was in favor of increasing our defense budget when he came into office was simple: he thought we were too weak to negotiate. He said and he wrote before he met Gorbachev the first time, “I’ve got to convince him that we don’t want an arms race but if he insists on one, he’s going to lose it.” The point was to be strong enough to negotiate from strength, not to use those weapons. He never intended to use them. He didn’t increase our deployments abroad. In a few cases he authorized action abroad, but he would bring the troops back if they got into trouble. For example, the Marines in Lebanon. Basically he was anything but a warmonger. He was a man of peace but he understood that when you were dealing with a Soviet Union still guided by the policies that Gorbachev’s predecessors had followed, you had to be strong. If you wanted to bring down arms, you had to prove to them that if they didn’t, they were going to lose the arms race. That is precisely what he was able to do.
As far as nuclear weapons were concerned, he hated them. He thought they were an abomination. His great dream was to set the world on a course of abolishing them. That’s what allowed him eventually to team up with Gorbachev: when Gorbachev began to talk also about eliminating nuclear weapons, that caught his fancy. He overruled his staff who kept saying, “Well, this is just propaganda.” He would say, “No, you may knock it but that’s precisely where we should be going.” He kept a basic understanding of these big issues.
He had another characteristic that people don’t give him credit for. They used to say, “Oh, he’s only an actor.” He had never been only an actor. After all, he was head of the Screen Actors Guild. He had negotiated and was a very good negotiator with the studios. He had been governor of California, of course. The point is that as an actor, he did know how to put himself in another person’s shoes. What interested him before he began dealing with Gorbachev is: where’s this fellow coming from? How can we explain to him that many of the policies of his country are not in his country’s interest? How can we convince him of that? How do you deal with him personally? I think he had empathy for other politicians. Empathy is not sympathy but it is an understanding of where they’re coming from. That’s what he concentrated on. That’s why he, in a relatively few years, was able to bond with Gorbachev.
During a 35-year career as a diplomat, Jack Matlock served, among many other appointments, as Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and Senior Director for European and Soviet Affairs on the National Security Council Staff.