2004 June 09 Wednesday
Ronald Reagan Really Did Catalyze End Of USSR

James Pinkerton, a former Reagan Administration domestic policy wonk, describes how Ronald Reagan really did help accelerate the collapse of the USSR.

But years later, in 1991, Vladimir Lukhin -- once a top diplomat for the USSR, then the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma -- told me how Reagan's SDI speech was received on the other side. In '83, upon hearing of Reagan's SDI speech, then-leader Yuri Andropov ordered two different studies -- one from the Red Army, one from the Soviet academy of sciences -- to analyze the new American initiative. Two years later, in 1985, the reports came back to the Kremlin, both bearing the same basic message: "We don't know if the USA can succeed with this missile-defense plan, but we know that the USSR cannot." This forced the Politburo into an agonizing reassessment: something, Lukhin recalled, had to change. And that change, the Russian gerontocrats hoped, would come in the form of a young new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who took power in 1985. Gorbachev had no intention of unhitching the communist system in Russia, but in the course of trying to compete with the Americans, that's exactly what happened; "Gorby" was an accidental liberator. As Lukhin told me, "Reagan accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union by five to ten years" -- which was fine with Lukhin. And if that single step shaved so many years off the lifetime of the evil empire, that's pretty good in my book.

What I learned from Ronald Reagan: A political condition that is widely believed to be permanent can suddenly be changed. Now, that is not true of all political conditions under all circumstances. Conditions have to develop to a point where a big break with past patterns becomes possible. Ronald Reagan as US President in 1960 could not then have catalyzed the break-up of the Soviet Union. But one should not always assume that just because some condition has a feeling of permanence that it really has to be accepted as unchangeable.

The secular ideology underpinning the Soviet regime was based on a view of this physical world. It was disprovable in this physical world and by the 1980s the objective evidence had accumulated to the point where the evidence weighed overwhelmingly against communism. The Soviet Union's own elite protectors of their order such as the KGB and the party elite had spent enough time abroad and knew enough about the rest of the world to know that their system was failing massively. That the Soviet system could then be pushed to a tipping point was something that Reagan, a far more intellectual and learned man than his critics knew or wanted to believe, was able to see quite clearly.

We ought to be asking ourselves what are the status quo policies and systems of belief of today that could be pushed to a tipping point for our advantage. One regime stands out in this regard: North Korea. It is based on an ideology that is disproven in this world. Yet it is incredibly isolated and the North Korean population does not understand the extent of the gap in living standards between North Korea and, say, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. The Bush Administration like the Clinton Administration before it is making a serious mistake by not trying much harder to reach the North Korean people with information about the outside world. All manner of books and radios ought to be delivered into North Korea by airborne balloons, sealed plastic containers dropped near their shores, smuggled in from China, and placed aboard North Korean ships docked in foreign ports.

We also ought to be asking ourselves what longer term strategies we should be pursuing to slowly move societies that are host to other hostile ideologies toward tipping points. Of course the most obvious are the Islamic countries. In my view impatience and a Panglossian outlook are causing too many people to view terrorism as a short-term problem that can be solved with short-term tactics. But Islam has been around for a long time and the Islamic societies are not now near tipping points away from the allure of the beliefs found in the base text of Islam.

On the domestic front one subject where there is far too much defeatist thinking is immigration. Lots of people do not like current lax immigration policy that allows in large numbers of unskilled immigrants who are creating a growing lower class and an increasing burden upon the more productive. People who resign themselves to the stupidity of current immigration policy should allow themselves to get more angry and to more loudly proclaim their anger with current policies. Immigration is a solvable problem. We just have to be willing to get mad enough at our politicians to force them to take notice.

Note: Over 10 years ago I read a quote in The Economist by a former socialist Foreign Minister of Italy who relayed a conversation he had with Reagan in the early 1980s. Reagan told this Foreign Minister that he was going to keep upping his competitive push against the Soviets until the whole Soviet system collapsed. The Foreign Minister said that at the time he thought Reagan was crazy and yet he turned out to be right. I've tried Googling for this to no avail. If anyone comes across the quotes for that conversation or similar conversations between Reagan and other political figures in the early 1980s could you post a link in the comments of this post?

Update: Frederick Turner on the importance of Reagan's labelling of our enemies as enemies.

Later I read the Austrian free market economists, and realized two things: one, that they had essentially won the argument with the socialists, both on the theoretical level and on the level of practical results; and two, that Reagan had realized this twenty or thirty years earlier, and it was I, the socialist, who had been the pseudo-intellectual, and not he. Later still, after I had been practicing the martial arts for a few years and had been in enough championship bouts to validate the ancient teachings about clarity of spirit and trained instinctiveness of decision, I came to another realization. The enemy can only be defeated through his own feelings; he can only be defeated if you recognize him as your enemy; and he will only concede when he realizes that you are crazier -- more committed to victory -- than he is.

And there were indeed enemies in this world. As Yitzhak Rabin said, "You make peace with your enemies, not with your friends." Ronald Reagan could well have coined the same words. If we pretend that our enemies are really our friends, and that if we make nice with them they will do what we want, then we will never be able to make peace with them. Why should they make peace -- looking at it from their point of view -- when we do not even respect them enough to recognize them fair and square as our enemy? Christ said "love your enemy," but he did not say "don't have enemies," because that is not in our power. We love our enemies by respecting them, and we are able to make peace with them if we respect them enough to take them seriously, and put them in a position where it is in their interest to make peace with us.

This brings to mind the current "War On Terror" as George W. Bush has labelled the fight against the Muslim Jihadists who use terrorism. This muddled phrase is a far cry from Ronald Reagan's term "Evil Empire" directed at a clearly labelled ideological enemy. "War On Terrorism" would be a slight improvement. A bigger improvement would be "War On Terrorists". But even that falls well short of what is needed. We are not warring against all terrorists throughout the world regardless of their motivations and targets. We are not, for instance, fighting terrorists in Sri Lanka. We are specificially warring against Islamic terrorists.

There is a reluctance in our elites to clearly label the enemies we are fighting. But our enemies see themselves as Muslim warriors. A substantial portion of all Muslims in the world approve of their fight and see them as legitimate fighters for Islam. One reason for this reluctance is that while we wanted to totally defeat fascism and at least some of us wanted to totally defeat communism most people (quite reasonably in my view) do not see the wiping out of the Muslim religion as an achievable or acceptable way to eliminate the Islamic terrorist threat. Yet we need a more clearly labelled enemy. "War On Terror" just doesn't cut it.

In my view as long as Muslims continue to pine for the return of their golden age of enormous empires expanding at the edge of a sword we are going to continue to face threats from them. As long as Muslims believe that the proper relation between Muslims and non-Muslims is that of ruler and very submissive subject they are going to be a threat to the secular Western liberal democracies and to much of the rest of the world. The terrorists are like the tip of the iceberg of a mindset that pervades whole Muslim societies. The root idea that we need to defeat is their mindset holds that there is no separation between government and religion and that Muslims have a right and obligation to rule. The "War On Terror" phrase is a denial of the real body of beliefs that we are fighting.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 June 09 12:02 PM  Politics Grand Strategy

gcochran said at June 9, 2004 1:57 PM:

You ought to ask yourself what _our_ potentially fatal internal contradictions are.

Invisible Scientst said at June 9, 2004 9:27 PM:

As a general rule, empires have their intrinsic self-destruction mechanisms, similar to the aging of
biological organisms. Just like the Roman, Turkish, and British Empires, the Soviet and American
Empires also have their own weaknesses. And hopefully, the US will be fortunate enough to adapt
in such a way that the worst case scenario will be like the United Kingdom, whose population
survived well, instead of the other empires who lost much more than their colonies.

Right now, the US has a problem similar to the Roman Empire: EXCESSIVE reliance on foreign labor (and talent).
This manifests itself not only as the immigration policy which is geared for the import of cheap labor,
but more importantly, the reliance on foreign outsourcing by paying for it with paper (instead of gold): Close
to half the US money supply is owned by foreign countries, and this percentage will increase. Every year, a high
percentage of the US GDP equivalent is paid to foreigners in cash, as trade deficit for imported items. At some
point, the US will not be able to pay for all of this foreign imbalance, and this can trigger a collapse (preceded by
war, of course). Note that 45 % of the population of the Roman Empire, was made of slaves.

One reason the Roman Empire collapsed, was birth control in the elite of Rome. The US is also doing the same, but
compensating with the immigration of some talented people, whose loyalty to the US is at best temporary.

Invisible Scientist said at June 10, 2004 12:41 AM:

This is an addendum to the above remarks.
Please note that Germany, despite its unemployment level which is over 10 %, is about to create new
legislation to facilitate the immigration of very skilled foreigners. Clearly, it is now a matter of national security for
the US, to decide what kind of immigrants must be allowed in. The low-skill immigrants, including illegal immigrants
are certainly a useful underclass for the minimum wage jobs engendered by the ruling elite, but in the
long run, we need to enhance the level of education at home. Finland has done very well with a very good
egalitarian educational system that dramatically increased the average level of education and skill.
Also, there must be a national security policy to encourage the intelligent families to have more children, very generous
tax credits to have many children, ONLY for those familes with IQ at least 139: for each extra child, 15% tax credit
if the IQ of the parents is at least 139. For example, if the parents with IQ at least 139,
have 6 children, and if their annual income is
$100,000, then the IRS should assume that their income is only $10,000
since 6 times 15,000 dollars would be subtracted from their income.

Michael said at June 10, 2004 6:42 AM:

I really liked the practical, problem-solving attitude of your post.

A question though about Reagan's anti-Communist strategy. He promised to raise the stakes with SDI to a level at which the USSR could not compete. Wasn't he taking a risk then, that he would provoke them to act before they were outclassed militarily?

With regard to your views about informing the people in backwards countries. My impression has always been that this has been a key element of the strategy behind the attack on Iraq. On the day Baghdad fell, CBC Television here in Canada showed us what was on all of the other Arab TV networks.

Either there was no reporting at all or the focus was on people who had been injured during the war. This seemed to indicate that as long as the current regimes were in power only anti-western news could get through. And, so, in the age of Al-Qaeda, it seemed that a key reason for attacking Iraq was an attempt to find a way to break into the blanket of hate propaganda that was enveloping a huge part of the world.

Luke Lea said at June 10, 2004 9:18 AM:

Though I don't always agree with you, Randall, you are consistently interesting, often brilliant, and always well-written; plus your heart is in the right place, in that you seem to be concerned about more than your own personal welfare (which, in the case of Godless, for example, I sometimes wonder about).

That said, I disagree when you imply that low-skilled immigrants are bad primarily because they are a burden on "the more productive." They are bad, in my opinion, because they are a burden on the least productive, who have to compete with them, and because their energies and ambitions are needed in the countries of their origin. Mexican per capita GDP, for example, has largely stagnated over the past several decades, during which uncounted millions of its most enterprising workers have been free to come to the United States. This lack of progress may not be a mere coincidence. What are your thoughts?

Randall Parker said at June 10, 2004 12:14 PM:


Actually, I totally agree that bringing in more low IQ people is a burden on the low IQ people who are already here. That is bad for our poor people of limited ability for all sorts of reasons. One is that it drives down wages and benefits at the bottom end. Also, it causes transfer payments, social services, and educational services to be stretched out over more mouths basically. Also, they are more victimized by crime since they become more likely to live near criminals. Make low IQ people rare and most such people will live near more able people.

The burden on the more productive affects both them and the less productive. It takes a number of forms:

1) More higher IQ people shifted into teaching, social work, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, judges, and other people who have to deal with criminals and malfunctional families. That leaves fewer higher IQ people available to do work that produces wealth.

2) The higher taxes on the more productive reduces their spending power and hence reduces the amount of money they have to buy goods and services from the less productive and lower in IQ. Higher taxes means less lawn service, house cleaning, construction work on one's house, and so on.

3) More money spent on personal and property security. This is effectively a tax.

4) Higher costs for pollution control. Double the population in some area. Each person has to generate less pollution in order for the total amount of pollution to stay the same. But the cost of per person pollution reduction is not linear. So the higher the population gets the more the pollution control cost goes up per person.

5) Tipping points in public order. You get the "Broken Windows" effect. When the dummies are few in number the more intellectually capable are able to maintain public order. But once the smarties become too small a fraction of the population there are tipping points reached where instead of all of society being orderly the more affluent increasingly retreat to enclaves and the concentrations of the dummies goes way up. They are far more likely to then prey on each other to harmful effect.

BTW, one consequence of Mexico's outflux has been to reduce the public return on education. Why teach people who are just going to leave anyway?

Luke Lea said at June 10, 2004 12:58 PM:

Well, ok, to the extent that less skilled and intelligent people will be less productive, and therefore may require a tax on the output of the more productive to subsidize their living standards -- something that I support, btw -- they will be a burden on the more productive as well as the less.

On the other hand, How safe are we in conflating intelligence and honesty? I know from the Bell Curve that there is a statistical relationship between low intelligence and a whole host of pathological conditions, but is that an inherent problem, or one that just shows up under current social conditions (e.g., in big cities). In smaller communities where everybody knows everybody -- something else I am working for -- these problems might diminish.

In any case, here in the United States I feel we have a permanent obligation to our African American population, which has been here from the beginning, and has played an important part in our historical development (there were a significant number in Washington's army, for instance, I was surprised to learn).

You needn't reply to this. I'm just running on.

Fly said at June 10, 2004 8:04 PM:

“In any case, here in the United States I feel we have a permanent obligation to our African American population, which has been here from the beginning, and has played an important part in our historical development”

I may be reading you out of context Lea. Are you saying we owe a particular debt to African Americans or are you saying that as American citizens we need policy that protects their interests?

If the former, then I disagree. African citizens shouldn’t be treated any better or worse than any other citizens. I feel no guilt for the past. I feel admiration for most if not all of my ancestors’ achievements, both white and Indian (and probably some African American given the amount of “passing” that has occurred). Any sin for slavery was more than paid back in the blood of the Civil War. The casualty rate for white Southerners, both slave owners and non-owners was very, very high. Any sin for apartheid was more than paid back by busing and forced integration and affirmative action for the last decades. Enough is enough.

If you meant the latter then I agree. US policy should benefit all American citizens, not illegal aliens. Poor whites and blacks with limited skills are American citizens who deserve a decent chance at a good life.

Randall Parker said at June 11, 2004 1:29 AM:

Michael, Regards the question of whether Reagan was running the risk of a hot war with the Soviet Union: With Reagan in the White House the Soviet leaders were less likely to make a move that would prompt a US response that would then start an escalation. I think they understood and respected strength.

As for the US arms build-up: The Soviets were in no position to attack first before the US built up further. They had serious problems. What were they going to do? Grab Western Europe? To what end? The Soviets would have experienced totally unacceptable losses. They didn't want to die. From their standpoint I think it made more sense to play for time.

Randall Parker said at June 11, 2004 1:46 AM:


Regarding intelligence and honesty: I don't know that intelligent people are any more honest. But the smarter one is the better able one is to see the consequences of one's actions both on oneself and on other people. If one feels strong impulses then my guess is that a smarter person has a better chance of using intellect to control impulsive urges than a dumber person does. One can introspect on one's urges and better fight internally to put one's intellect in charge of them if one has more intellect to use to do this. A smarter mind has a better chance of figuring out one's feelings and coming to understand that one's feelings can not be entirely trusted to guide decision making.

geoffg said at June 11, 2004 4:56 AM:

Some of the genious of Reagan's negotiations with Gorbi that is often overlooked: he offered SDI to the Soviets for "free"!

nikita said at June 13, 2004 6:00 PM:

another point to ponder:
"President Reagan's death brought to the fore his outstanding accomplishment of ending the Cold War. Like American presidents before him he led the U.S. in the charge against communism by forging alliances and sending troops to remote theaters at high cost in blood and treasury. What made Reagan's vision for victory particularly remarkable is that it stemmed from the belief in the power of technology as both a force multiplier and a game changer. "
Reagan's way of war

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