‘Maximum Pressure Brought Down the Soviet Union’ and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves
Editor’s Note: This article is drawn in part from the author’s new book, Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.
As the Donald Trump administration prosecutes its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, proponents of that policy regularly invoke the Cold War as a model for how the policy is supposed to work. In this version of history, President Ronald Reagan allegedly “shifted away” from containment in the early 1980s and brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union through a policy of massive defense spending, economic warfare, support for proxies, and an ideological offensive. Curiously — and problematically — one of the key sources for this line of thinking appears to be a 26-year-old book by the conservative activist Peter Schweizer on what he calls Reagan’s “secret strategy” that is newly popular among administration officials and their supporters.
The obvious implication of the Cold War analogy is that a similar approach is what is required to bring down the Iranian regime, as well as the hostile regimes in Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and potentially even China. It was not a coincidence that shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 — Pompeo chose the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, as the venue for a speech to the Iranian diaspora. If the United States just keeps up the pressure, the logic goes, these regimes will end up, like the communists in Moscow, on the ash heap of history.
In fact, although ideological confrontation, sanctions, and a military buildup obviously played a role in the containment and ultimate disappearance of the Soviet Union, this simplified take on the past overlooks the reality that regime change was never the near-term goal of U.S. strategy toward Moscow. What U.S. leaders actually did for more than four decades after World War II was grudgingly accept that they had to coexist with the Soviet Union, contain it by maintaining significant military power and strong alliances in Europe and Asia, demonstrate the superiority of capitalism and freedom, and patiently wait until the Soviet leadership realized that its system was failing and had to change. It finally did so in 1985, nominating the young Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party, and the result was the largely peaceful end of the Cold War, the liberation of numerous “captive nations,” and ultimately the decline of the Soviet Union itself — all without extensive civil conflict among Soviets or direct military conflict with the West. But this outcome was not the result of a U.S. policy of regime change. If U.S. policy in the Cold War is going to inform policy choices today, it is important to understand what that policy actually was.
Containment Yes, Rollback No
In the early post-World War II period, there were, of course, proponents of regime change through “maximum pressure” — or even preventive war — in Russia, but they lost the debate. As Richard Haass, a veteran of several Republican administrations, has written, “seeking regime change, or rollback, was deemed too risky, even reckless, given what could result if a desperate Soviet leadership lashed out with all the force at its disposal.” Rollback and regime change were even rejected even by Cold War hawks like Paul Nitze and John Foster Dulles, who focused instead on competing with the Soviets for influence in what was then called the third world and accepted the reality that political change in Moscow was not in America’s power to achieve at acceptable cost. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon all stood up firmly against the Soviet Union and waged the Cold War militarily and ideologically. But none thought there was any realistic prospect of ending the Soviet regime during their administrations.
In the wake of Nixon’s pursuit of détente in the early to mid-1970s, a new generation of cold warriors — including members of the anti-Soviet Committee on the Present Danger — complained about containment. They renewed the calls for more offensive measures to weaken the Soviet Union internally, but they, too, failed to win over the actual decision-makers. While Reagan boldly criticized the “evil empire” and denounced accommodation of Moscow, his policies also reflected the need to manage the problem for the foreseeable future. His vision for destroying communism was only “a plan and a hope for the long term,” as he put it to the British Parliament in 1982. Reagan himself later admitted that when he declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” during a speech in Berlin in June 1987, he “never dreamed that in less than three years the wall would come down.” Secretary of State George Shultz has said that Reagan did not have a strategy “to spend the Soviets into the ground” through an arms race, and U.S. ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock wrote that there was no strategy “to bring the Soviet Union down.” As the Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis put it, “At no point did … the Reagan administration give anything like serious attention to how they might actually overthrow the Soviet regime, or to what they would do in the unlikely event that such a thing should come about.” Reagan was obviously no dove. But while the United States under his leadership worked assertively to contain Moscow’s influence, Gaddis writes, “it did not seek nor was it prepared for any effort to remove the Soviet government from its position of authority.”
Also relevant in today’s context is that Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union — building on that of all his postwar predecessors — included extensive diplomatic engagement and the pursuit of arms control, even while the Soviet regime was mistreating its citizens at home and expanding its influence abroad. In the caricatured version of the end of the Cold War, U.S. isolation of the Soviet Union and refusal to deal with its leaders accelerated the fall of the regime. In fact, however, as historian Melvyn Leffler has pointed out, Reagan “fiercely wanted to talk to Soviet leaders from his first days in office.” Gaddis has also noted that Reagan began looking to improve relations with the Soviet Union from the moment he entered the White House and “began shifting American policy in that direction as early as the first months of 1983, almost two years before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.” Reagan’s approach did not change even after the Soviets shot down a South Korean civilian airliner in September 1983, killing 269 passengers, or when the hard-line apparatchik Konstantin Chernenko took over the Soviet leadership in February 1984.
Indeed, only a few days after Chernenko took office — in the first of a series of letters not unlike those Obama would write to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, almost 30 years later — Reagan wrote the Soviet leader to say, “The US firmly intends to defend our interests and those of our allies, but we do not seek to challenge the security of the Soviet Union and its people.” “I want you to know,” he emphasized in a private, handwritten note the following month, “that neither I nor the American people hold any offensive intentions towards you or the Soviet people. Our constant and urgent purpose must be … a lasting reduction of tensions between us. I pledge to you my profound commitment towards that end.”
Reagan’s message in his first meeting with the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, in September 1984 was also that the Soviet Union had “nothing to fear from us” and that the United States wanted “nothing less than a realistic, constructive, long-term relationship with the Soviet Union.” This was not the approach of someone bent on achieving regime change in Moscow anytime soon, or who thought that refusing to talk was the best way to achieve it. In his study of the neoconservative movement, historian Justin Vaïsse concluded that “over the years Reagan moved steadily away from the neoconservatives, in the end adopting policies in defiance of their wishes that probably contributed just as much to ‘winning the Cold War’ as anything they proposed.” Ultimately, Leffler notes, Reagan would engage Gorbachev with “conviction, empathy, and geniality.”
Containment Is Not Appeasement
Containment, it should be noted, was not then and should not today imply inaction or indifference. The menu of policy options for dealing with adversarial regimes includes the maintenance of strong alliances and forward-deployed U.S. forces; measures such as no-fly zones and selective air strikes; incentives for governments to respect human rights and develop democratic institutions; investment in economic development, education, and exchanges; targeted economic sanctions; and a better resourced and revitalized diplomatic corps. Such tools can be used judiciously to advance U.S. interests while acknowledging the limits of what can reasonably be accomplished.
Nor does containment require giving up hope for future progress or rule out working for eventual political change. As the diplomat George F. Kennan wrote in his famous 1947 “X” article:
[T]he possibilities for American policy are by no means limited to … hoping for the best. … [T]he United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate … and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.
Ultimately, of course, the Soviet regime did disappear, but it is worth noting that change came about only after decades of containment and generational change, that the United States had no control over its timing, and that it was neither outside intervention nor bottom-up revolution but the regime itself — through Gorbachev’s promotion — that ultimately recognized the need to try to reform and salvage a crumbling system.
While it is widely taken as a given that U.S. support for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is worth pointing out that the Politburo turned to Gorbachev more than a year before the United States tipped the military balance in Afghanistan by providing Stinger missiles to the Afghan rebels. The war in Afghanistan may have accelerated the Soviet collapse, but it did not cause it.
Is Change Possible?
It is true that the prospects for political change in countries where regime change might be contemplated today do not seem propitious. But then again, they did not seem very propitious in Moscow, either, and there are both empirical and theoretical reasons for believing that engagement, diplomacy, and economic development actually provide greater prospects for stability, peaceful relations, and long-term democratization than outside-imposed regime change. In countries as diverse as Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines, Serbia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, industrialization and economic growth — even in military autocracies — contributed to the expansion of the middle class, rising educational levels, demands for greater individual freedom, the rule of law, and increased international engagement.
There is obviously nothing automatic about this process — 30 years of rapid development in China have not made it more cooperative or democratic. But it is equally true that the prospects for positive change are even worse if the country in question is politically and economically isolated or facing a foreign-sponsored insurgency. The precedent of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and the situations in North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela today hardly suggest that sanctions and isolation are the best ways to encourage democracy, human rights, and regional cooperation. In the case of North Korea, such policies have also failed to prevent nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation.
Economic and political engagement with distasteful regimes obviously comes at a cost — more revenues for nefarious activities and the structures of repression — but the reality is that even when resources are scarce, the dictators and their cronies are the last to suffer. And the painful truth is that economic sanctions and isolation have a terrible track record of producing revolutions and never induce leaders to give up power voluntarily. This is because — as former Treasury and CIA official David S. Cohen and scholar Zoe A.Y. Weinberg have written — “the costs of relinquishing power will always exceed the benefit of sanctions relief.” To believe that continuing to squeeze U.S. adversaries with sanctions will bring about regime change anytime soon would be to base policy on hope rather than experience.
The Cold War analogy with the Soviet Union does, of course, demonstrate how a dangerous adversary can be contained, and it provides hope that in the long run, even hostile regimes can evolve in a relatively positive direction. But the Soviet Union’s positive evolution, whose timing could not be controlled nor predicted, took place not as a result of a U.S. policy of total confrontation, let alone military intervention, but at the end of a long, patient, process of deterrence, diplomacy, arms control, soft power, and alliances. As they formulate policy today, current leaders would do well to keep this actual history in mind — rather than the dangerous caricature embraced by Trump and his supporters.
Philip H. Gordon is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department and White House official in the Obama administration.