|RICHARD NED LEBOW AND THOMAS RISSE KAPPEN
International Relations Theory and
the End of the Cold War
The reorientation of Soviet foreign policy under Mikhail Sergeievich Gorbachev and the East West reconciliation it brought about constitute a formidable challenge to international relations theory. Neither realists, liberals, institutionalists, nor peace researchers recognized beforehand the possibility of such momentous change, and they have all been struggling to find explanations consistent with their theories.
The ongoing transformation of the international system represents a double surprise for the profession. Most theorists and policy analysts assumed that bipolarity and its associated Soviet American rivalry would endure for the foreseeable future. In the unlikely event of a system transformation, the catalyst for it would be superpower war. This was a fundamental tenet of realist theories of power transition.' Some peace researchers also predicted that relative shifts in power were likely to prompt more aggressive behavior on the part of the disadvantaged hegemon. Everybody was surprised when the Soviet Union changed course, retreated from Eastern Europe, and allowed constituent republics to secede and did all this peacefully.
Stability Versus Change
To improve our theories we need to know how and why they are inadequate. The how is not hard to establish. Political scientists and their theories failed not only to anticipate any of the dramatic events of the last several years but also to recognize the possibility that such changes could take place.
Radical shifts in policy and their consequences are almost always difficult to foresee. Diplomats and journalists as well as political scientists were taken by surprise by Stalin's purges and pact with Hitler and by President Anwar el Sadat's peace overture to Israel, just as they were by the direction, scope, and pace of change in Gorbachev's Soviet Union.
To be fair, we must acknowledge that macrotheories of international relations do not aspire to make specific predictions. They attempt to predict broad trends, or responses to those trends, and rarely concern themselves with the timing of either. Most theories of international relations are also probabilistic; they do not require every case to conform to their expectations. Some approaches, like chaos theory and poststructuralism, challenge the notion of linear causality or the possibility of prediction.' However, the majority of international relations theorists including those working within the traditions of realism, liberalism, and institutionalism share the epistemological conviction that causal inferences of a conditional or probabilistic kind are possible. It is entirely legitimate to hold these scholars to their own standards and evaluate the validity of their theories on the basis of their probabilistic predictions.
Measured by its own standards, the profession's performance was embarrassing. ' There was little or no debate about the underlying causes of systemic change, the possibility that the Cold War could be peacefully resolved, or the likely consequences of the Soviet Union's visible decline. None of the existing theories of international relations recognized the possibility that the kind of change that did occur could occur. Because of the failure to recognize this theoretical possibility, practitioners remained insensitive to the change after it was well under way. Few expected major change in Eastern Europe even after the Soviet Union's foreign policy had undergone radical changes and Gorbachev had repeatedly stressed his belief in the "absolute independence" of "all fraternal countries.”
The why of our collective failure is also apparent. Intelligence analysts distinguish between simple and complex surprises. The former are idiosyncratic events that cannot be foreseen or whose prediction requires special information. The shooting down of a Korean airliner over the Soviet Union in September 11983 is a case in point. Western analysts had long been aware of the Soviet Union's sensitivity to unauthorized aerial incursions but could not have guessed that a Korean 747 would overfly the Kamchatka Peninsula or that Soviet air defense would mistake it for an American spy plane.
It is undeniable that scholars lacked precise data about the internal economic and political situation in the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire.? But indications of Soviet economic decline were ample, and Sovietologists carried on a lively debate about the future of the post Brezhnev Soviet Union.8 The failure of Soviet Specialists and international relations scholars was not empirical but conceptual. Because they did not consider the possibility of a peaceful but radical transformation of the Soviet political system and its foreign policy, they did not grasp the significance of the data at their disposal.
Complex failures refer to events that could have been predicted if analysts had interpreted properly the information at hand. Examples include the Soviet missile deployment in Cuba in 1962, the 1973 attack against Israel by Egypt and Syria, and the steep rise in oil prices imposed by OPEC following the 1973 Middle East war. In retrospect, analysts recognized that they had had the information necessary to predict these developments. They were the victims of faulty conceptions that led them to ignore relevant information or to interpret it incorrectly.
The failure to expect or seriously consider the possibility of far reaching foreign policy change in the Soviet Union is a complex failure. International relations scholars were misled by widely shared and deeply ingrained conceptions about the behavior of great powers in general and the Soviet Union in particular. These conceptions determined the questions they thought important and researchable and directed scholarly attention toward the explanation of continuity and stability and away from the study of the prospect of change. Soviet and Eastern European specialists were similarly slow to grasp the revolutionary potential of Mikhail Gorbachev. They underestimated the possibility of significant political change in the Soviet Union and exaggerated the stability of Eastern Europe's communist regimes. Many scholars argued that the post Brezhnev leadership would be unlikely to sponsor major political or economic reforms to address the Soviet Union's intensifying economic crisis.
For international relations scholars, the preeminent intellectual question in the security field was "the long peace" between the superpowers. In international political economy, it was the survival of the postwar international economic order despite the declining hegemony of the United States. Both questions assumed that the robustness of the political and economic status quo was an anomaly that required explanation. Security specialists deemed it remarkable that the superpowers had avoided war, unlike rival hegemons of the past. They were just as surprised by the seeming durability of superpower spheres of influence. "The very fact," John Gaddis wrote, "that the interim arrangements of 1945 have remained largely intact for four decades would have astonished and quite possibly appalled the statesmen who cobbled them together in the hectic months that followed the surrender of Germany and Japan.,, 12 Many political economists were equally surprised that neither Germany nor Japan had attempted to restructure international economic relations to suit their respective interests.
The prolonged survival of the postwar political and economic orders had important intellectual consequences. Because these arrangements had successfully weathered so many challenges, scholars greatly exaggerated their stability. Expectations about the continued survival of the economic and political orders may have reinforced one other. Concern about America's economic decline predated theoretical interest in the Soviet Union's decline. The fact that the postwar economic order established by the United States survived its decline as a hegemon encouraged the belief that the political economic order erected by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe would survive the decline of its creator.
The evolution of superpower relations also encouraged this conclusion. Central Europe had been the most important arena of the Cold War; between 1947 and 1962, Moscow and Washington had approached the brink of war in a series of crises provoked by their efforts to extend, consolidate, or protect their respective spheres of influence. After the Berlin crisis of 1961, tensions eased, and an uneasy peace descended on the region. With the signing of the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords in August 1975, the Western powers formally acquiesced to the status quo. The United States and its principal European allies recognized the legitimacy of Eastern Europe's communist governments and the postwar boundaries imposed on them by the Soviet Union. The unexpected stability of the postwar political and economic orders directed scholarly attention to the intriguing question of why they had endured. Attempts to explain this, and the controversy these explanations provoked, pushed the problem of change out of the pages of the principal journals and into the obscurity where it has lingered until quite recently. No major theory of international relations made change its principal focus, and even theories that incorporated some concept of change made no attempt to specify the conditions under which it would occur. In the absence of theoretical interest in change, there was no debate about how or why the postwar order might evolve or be transformed. Scholars became correspondingly insensitive to the prospect that this could occur.
In a deeper sense, our blindness may be attributable to the political assumptions that shaped our view of the world and directed our research agenda. For example, the absence of superpower war seemed so anomalous because of the widely shared belief that the Soviet Union was an aggressive and expansionist adversary. If Soviet leaders had not been regarded as gain seeking and risk prone but as loss avoiding and risk averse and much evidence from the time of Khrushchev on recommends this interpretation the superpowers' success in avoiding war would not have required an extraordinary explanation.
Cold War critics were equally myopic. Those who considered the nuclear arms race and its escalatory potential to be the major source of tension in East West relations directed their scholarly attention to the domestic and international causes of the arms race and the ways it might be halted or stabilized through arms control and security regimes. Once again, few recognized or studied the possibility that the underlying conflict might undergo or indeed, had already undergone a profound transformation.
The same myopia affected the study of political economy. For years, the reigning orthodoxy, imported from classical economics, was that states were rational and gain seeking. If scholars had started from the premise that the world's capitalist establishment, like its political leaders, was above all else anxious to preserve order and predictability especially when that order had been so spectacularly successful they would not have viewed the survival of the postwar international economic framework as anomalous.
Theory is supposed to free scholars from their political, generational, and cultural biases. But social theory inevitably reflects these biases. It does a disservice when it confers an aura of scientific legitimacy on subjective political beliefs and assumptions.
The end of the East West conflict, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the possible reconciliation of Israel and the Palestinians have rekindled theoretical interest in change and its causes. The contributors to this book are divided in their judgment about the ability of existing theories to account for the end of the East West conflict and the ensuing transformation of the international system. All the authors acknowledge causal links among changes in the international environment, developments within the Soviet Union, the shift in Soviet foreign policy, the end of the East West conflict, and the transformation of the international system. Their attempts to explore the nature of these links provide the book with theoretical coherence.
All our essays are about change and its causes. However, there is no consensus among the authors (or in the discipline) about the nature of those changes, their timing, their causes or relative importance. For some scholars, the critical change is the end of bipolarity. For others, it is the end of the East West conflict. The two events are related but distinct: the former refers to a shift in the distribution of power within the international system; the latter to a specific international conflict.
The polarity of the international system is of particular interest to realist scholars who maintain that it determines the fundamental character of interstate relations. Most realists agree that bipolarity has come to an end, although they disagree about when and why it happened. Some, like John Mearsheimer, maintain that bipolarity ended with the Soviet Union's political and military retreat from Eastern Europe. 16 Other realists attribute the end of bipolarity to the breakup of the Soviet Union as a state. 17 Kenneth Waltz, who originally concurred with Mearsheimer, now argues that the international system remains bipolar.
These differences reflect realism's failure to develop an operational measure of polarity. Without such a measure, realists have no guidelines for distinguishing cause from effect. Some argue that the withdrawal from Eastern Europe or the collapse of the Soviet Union caused the end of bipolarity. Others insist that these developments were the result of the Soviet Union's decline and thus a consequence of the end of bipolarity. Both assertions are in any event problematic.
Realists who contend that the retreat from Eastern Europe or the breakup of the Soviet Union brought about the end of bipolarity have difficulty explaining these triggering events. Realist theories assert that states need to maintain their power relative to other states. According to Kenneth Waltz, it is axiomatic that states "try to arrest or reverse their decline."19 The Soviet Union's willingness to give up what had been regarded until then as a vital sphere of influence and allow constituent Soviet republics to secede appears to contradict realism's core assumption that leaders are highly motivated to preserve their states and their states' power.
Some realists have tried to finesse this problem by portraying both developments as unintended and unforeseen consequences of bad policy decisions by Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze. But if wiser policies could have preserved the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, the international system would by their definition still be bipolar. The argument of unintended consequences in effect divorces polarity from the international distribution of capabilities by which it is supposed to be determined. Moreover, the suggestion that Gorbachev's policies were ill considered and counterproductive compels scholars to look outside realism to ideas, domestic politics, or decision making to explain Gorbachev's foreign policy and the resulting transformation of the international system it brought about.
Realists who maintain that the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union were the result of the Soviet Union's decline avoid these conceptual problems. But they have no theoretical basis for making such a claim. Without operational definitions of polarity, there are no criteria for establishing the decline of bipolarity independent of its consequences.
Realists and nonrealists alike are interested in why and how the East West conflict was resolved. To answer this question, they need a more precise understanding of the nature of that conflict and the stages through which it passed. The dependent variable must be delineated before the search for independent variables can begin.
Most analyses of the end of the East West conflict focus on the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. This is understandable because his liberalization of the Soviet system, sponsorship of political change in Eastern Europe, and commitment to disarmament were the catalysts of accommodation. But as Kenneth Oye and Richard Herrmann acknowledge in their essays here, major improvements took place in East West relations long before Gorbachev came to power in 1985.
The Cold War is generally assumed to have begun in 1947 and to have had twin peaks of tension. The first peak, between 1948 and 1954, was characterized by acute confrontations in Central Europe, Korea, and the Taiwan Straits. The second peak, between 1958 and 1963, witnessed renewed confrontation in the Taiwan Straits and Central Europe and a war threatening crisis in Cuba. In between, Stalin's successors made two unsuccessful attempts to reach an accommodation with the West.
By the late 1960s the Cold War had lost much of its intensity. American military involvement in Vietnam did not prevent the two superpowers, and the Soviet Union and Western Europeans, from exploring their common interest in war avoidance and trade. The resulting detente was short lived, but the Cold War revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s was a pale imitation of its predecessor. Ostpolitik and the Helsinki Accords kept Central Europe free of confrontation, while strategic parity prevented another Cuba. In the Far East, American rapprochement with China reduced the threat of renewed confrontation in Korea or the Taiwan Straits. Cold War II was a search for strategic advantage and a limited competition for influence in the Third World.
By the time of Gorbachev, East West relations were fundamentally stable. Twenty three years had elapsed since the last war threatening crisis. The superpowers took each other's commitment to avoid war for granted and had entered into a series of arms control and "rules of the road" agreements that regulated their strategic competition and interaction. These accords weathered the shocks of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Reagan's commitment to Star Wars. Gorbachev's initiatives were built on this preexisting foundation.
This cursory review of the Cold War suggests that Gorbachev's policies initiated the final phase of a reconciliation that had been proceeding fitfully since the death of Stalin. Gorbachev would never have contemplated or have been allowed to carry out his domestic reforms, asymmetrical arms control agreements, and liberation of Eastern Europe if he or the majority of the Central Committee had expected a hostile West to respond aggressively to a visibly weaker Soviet Union. The willingness of Gorbachev and his key associates to make unilateral concessions indicates that for them the Cold War had already receded into the past. They were doing away with its atavistic institutional remnants to facilitate cooperation with their former adversaries and the benefits this was expected to bring.
This understanding of the Cold War was not unique to Gorbachev and his advisers; it was shared by a sizable percentage of elite opinion in Western Europe and the United States. In their essays, Thomas Risse Kappen and Janice Gross Stein argue that Soviet "new thinkers," and through them, Gorbachev, had largely assimilated an interpretation of the East West conflict that had been developed by Western critics of the arms race. They do not deny that Gorbachev's accomplishments were real and significant: he set in motion the process that in five years led to the near total and totally unanticipated reconciliation of the two blocs. But students of Gorbachev's foreign policy must acknowledge as Janice Stein does in her essay that his remarkable opening to the West was only possible because of all of the changes in East West relations that had already taken place. Nikita Khrushchev, who was also committed to ameliorating East West relations, could never have carried through
the radical changes in Soviet foreign policy that characterized the Gorbachev era.
Because Gorbachev's policies represent the final stage of a longterm process of reconciliation, they must be situated in a historical perspective. To do this, we need appropriate conceptions of the East West conflict. Analysts need to identify the key stages and turning points of the East West conflict, the reasons for this evolution, and then go on to assess the relative importance of the final stage ushered in by Gorbachev's initiatives.
Our argument draws attention to the deeper structures of the East West conflict. But it should not be read to suggest that those structures were in any way determining. We suggest that certain kinds of conciliatory initiatives require preconditions, but these initiatives will not occur just because the associated preconditions are present. In their essays, Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein argue that someone other than Gorbachev could have come to power with very different conceptions of internal reform and foreign policy. Grigory Romanov or Yegor Ligachev, other contenders for power in 198 5, would probably have pursued a kinder and gentler version of Brezhnevism, as had Konstantin Chernenko and Yuri Andropov. East West relations might have improved, but the two blocs probably would have retained their essential character and antagonism. Analyses of the East West conflict must recognize the importance of both structure and agents in explaining its resolution.
Analysis must also go beyond the study of Soviet foreign policy. Resolution of the Cold War required the active collaboration of the governments of Western Europe and the United States. Their policies reflected a fundamental reconceptualization of East West relations. This had been under way for some time in Western Europe; it was accelerated, not initiated by Gorbachev.
President Ronald Reagan's positive response to Gorbachev's overtures was critical to East West accommodation. And Reagan's about face was hardly foreordained. In 1953, the troika that followed Stalin Malenkov, Bulganin, and Khrushchev signaled its interest in winding down the Cold War. Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles recognized their objective but spurned most of their advances. Another American president might have responded differently to Gorbachev.
The evidence suggests that Eisenhower and Reagan acted differently because of their different assessments of long term Soviet intentions. In the early ig5os, Eisenhower and Dulles regarded the Soviet interest in accommodation as sincere but tactical. They were convinced that Bulganin, Khrushchev, and Malenkov were just as hostile to the capitalist West as Stalin had been but sought to ease Cold War tensions to safeguard the Soviet position in a period of growing Western strength. Eisenhower and Dulles accordingly decided to step up the pressure on the Soviet Union in the hope of further weakening Moscow's grip on Eastern Europe.
Reagan and his secretary of state, George Schultz, were equally suspicious of Soviet intentions at first. Gorbachev's protestations of good will and his apparent interest in deep cuts in strategic forces flew in the face of their understanding of the Soviet Union and its goals. Even after Gorbachev's foreign and domestic policies had won widespread support and sympathy in the West, Reagan continued to adhere to his "evil empire" image of the Soviet Union and to express doubts about the Soviet leader's sincerity. After all, this was the same president who as late as r98o had explained away the Sino Soviet split as the result of "an argument over how best to destroy us."
Gorbachev's commitment to withdraw Soviet forces from Afghanistan, his domestic reforms, and, above all, the personal impression he made on Reagan in their several meetings finally convinced the president of his sincerity. As a result of his "epiphany," Reagan was transformed from a doubting Thomas into the leading dove of his administration.
We can speculate that Reagan's about face was facilitated by the nature of his image of the Soviet Union. Cognitive psychologists find that simple, undifferentiated images are more susceptible to change, while complex images with more components interconnected through elaborate causal reasoning are more resistant to change. Reagan's image of the Soviet Union, while pronounced in its hostility, was relatively simple and undifferentiated. Once he came to regard Gorbachev as a friend and committed to peace, he may have changed his image of the Soviet Union to make it consistent with his image of Gorbachev.
The validity of any particular interpretation of the shift in Ronald Reagan's foreign policy is not the issue here. Rather, it is the existence of that shift, its importance for East West accommodation, and the corresponding need somehow to account for it. To explain the Cold War and its ultimate demise, we. need to develop conceptions of that conflict that identify critical structures, processes, and actors and their decisions. We need to ask the right questions before we can find the right answers.