On February 24th, IWP hosted a panel discussion on the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and the conclusion of the Cold War, guided by the arguments of the book, The Grand Strategy That Won the Cold War: Architecture of Triumph. This book featured several IWP faculty members as editors and contributors, specifically: Dr. Douglas E. Streusand, Dr. Norman A. Bailey, and Dr. John Lenczowski. The panel of experts was composed of Dr. Streusand, Dr. Francis H. Marlo, and Dr. Paul Gelpi — in addition to a digital recording of Dr. Bailey providing context on the book itself.
The panelists noted that Reagan is often thought to have played only an oblique role — if any at all — in ending the Cold War. But the panelists asserted that this view does not adequately credit Reagan and the U.S. with building, in the words of panelist Dr. Streusand, a “neo-Hamiltonian” grand strategy that subsequently destroyed the Soviet empire. Moreover, such a collapse was hardly inevitable, the panelists argued, despite the Soviet system’s economic and political entropy. Instead, collapse required an aggressive “game plan” whose top-level focus was on “winning” the Cold War rather than deterring or appeasing the Soviet Union.
This grand strategy required modernizing the conventional military so that it could, in addition to deterring invasion in Europe, operationally deny it. The strategy also required insulating U.S. strength with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the event of a sustained nuclear exchange. While such a scenario would prove devastating, it was increasingly clear that the U.S. would emerge decidedly better off than the Soviet Union. This understanding cast doubt on the belief in the Soviet Union that it could hold its own in a nuclear exchange, and made the specter of nuclear war less problematic than before, at least on a strategic level.
Dr. Paul Gelpi, a professor of military history at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and an editor of the book, argued that history is first the purview of journalists, and after a decade, tends to move to that of the historian. For this reason, Reagan scholarship has changed for the better as time has gone on. For instance, the view of Reagan as a quixotic bystander of the natural collapse of the Soviet system has now more than ever been met by strong scholarly criticism. It was Reagan’s insurgent-like exploitation of fissures in the Communist world that cast the greatest doubt on the Soviet narrative: namely, that secession from Soviet control was impossible. Reagan used doubt to cloud the Soviet Union’s abilities to execute its own strategic objectives. Now, so argued Dr. Marlo, the rules of the game had changed, so that a competition with the Soviet Union could be “won” instead of avoided or mitigated.
Dr. Francis Marlo (also an editor and contributor to the book) and Dr. Steusand went on to show how this doubt-inducing strategy manifested in the shifting balance of conventional forces in Europe. U.S. military modernization allowed the army not just to impose penalties on Soviet military aggression, but also made it able to halt this aggression. The doubt of the Soviet military that it could not defeat U.S. forces did not naturally emerge from the ills of communism but from active pressures exerted against the system from the outside.
Lastly, Dr. Gelpi suggested that by the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Soviet Union was made to doubt its ability to fulfill its end of the equation of mutually assured destruction. SDI increased the perceived strategic cost for the Soviet Union to engage in a sustained nuclear war with the United States. Presenting a nuclear strike as a credible action in the Soviet repertoire was essential to remaining powerful in the eyes of its adversaries. To cast doubt on this last guarantee of Soviet power, as SDI did, was to cast doubt on everything built beneath it.
A strategy with the tactics and outcomes mentioned above needed a skilled organizer. The panelists argued that Ronald Reagan was that skilled organizer.
One interesting question was raised in response to the presentation: in view of resurgent Russian aggrandizement today, did the U.S. truly “win” anything? To this, Dr. John Lenczowski, a principal Soviet adviser to President Reagan on the National Security Council, founder of IWP, and contributor to the book, answered that the Soviet Union truly “lost” the Cold War in the sense that the faith in the strategic and political ideology that animated it was roundly rebuffed by Reagan’s policies. The panelists cautioned that without recourse to a grand strategy today, the United States increasingly will be outmaneuvered in its foreign policy.
To purchase The Grand Strategy that Won the Cold War: Architecture of Triumph, please click here.