As the Soviet flag was lowered from atop the Kremlin 20 years ago this month for the last time, it marked the first time in modern history that major powers ended their struggles without war. After threatening American values and interests at home and abroad for nearly half a century, the Soviet Union and the Cold War simply vanished. The perilous contest died, but a dangerous myth lived and thrived-- that President Ronald Reagan won the day with unmatchable hikes in military spending and by being tough and uncompromising. Today, that myth tugs daily in wrong directions regarding the most momentous U.S. policy decisions in hotspots like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and China.
The myth that military power and true grit conquer all locks every major dispute into a test of wills. It blocks the full deployment of American powers. It does no justice to the sophisticated diplomacy employed by Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush. Above all, it blinds today's policymakers from seeing clearly what actually won the Cold War and what matters most in 21st-century global affairs—the strength of the U.S. economy.
Without doubt, superior arms and determination were essential in thwarting the Soviet Union. But diplomacy was at least as critical, especially as the Soviet demise neared, when the Cold War could have concluded not with a whimper, but a bang. At that moment and during the critical period that followed, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush used diplomacy not to make unrealistic demands upon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but to help him do what he wanted to do—dismantle the Soviet empire to save the Soviet Union itself and reform the Soviet political and economic system. Gorby was on the ropes. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet troops limped out of Afghanistan, and the Soviet economy was in tatters. Almost everything Gorby wanted to do would reduce the threat to America and its allies. The trick was to help him do it, and that's what Reagan and Bush did. Pure toughness without sensitive diplomacy would have weakened Gorby in the Kremlin and could have led to more Cold War standoffs, or to war. Toughness tendered with diplomatic compromises led to winning without war.