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Tilting at Windmills

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June 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

ALL ABOUT OIL....I am, I think, more inclined to give Ronald Reagan a share of the credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union than many of my fellow liberals. But while rock-jawed rhetoric and missile defense may have played a role in the demise of communism, they were hardly the overwhelming factors that conservatives play them up to be. I'm reminded of this by Yegor Gaidar, who, despite an obvious agenda of his own for saying so, tells a big part of the story here:

The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms.

As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.

[The Soviet leadership was then faced with three options: start charging hard currency for oil exports, reduce food imports, or cut back military spending. None of them were seriously considered.]

Unable to realize any of the above solutions, the Soviet leadership...started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely....The Soviet Union then received a final warning from the Deutsche Bank and from its international partners that the funds would never come from commercial sources. Instead, if the Soviet Union urgently needed the money, it would have to start negotiations directly with Western governments about so-called politically motivated credits.

....When the situation in the Soviet Union is examined from financial and hard currency perspectives, Gorbachev's policies at the time are much easier to comprehend (see figure 6). Government-to-government loans were bound to come with a number of rigid conditions. For instance, if the Soviet military crushed Solidarity Party demonstrations in Warsaw, the Soviet Union would not have received the desperately needed $100 billion from the West.

The only option left for the Soviet elites was to begin immediate negotiations about the conditions of surrender. Gorbachev did not have to inform President George H. W. Bush at the Malta Summit in 1989 that the threat of force to support the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would not be employed. This was already evident at the time. Six weeks after the talks, no communist regime in Eastern Europe remained.

Once it became clear that there would be no repeat of 1956 or 1968, every one of the Eastern bloc states seceded from Soviet control in short order and the Soviet empire was no more. Twas oil that killed the beast, not Star Wars.

Via Tyler Cowen.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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Comments

Eh? Hasn't the argument always been that the arms race bankrupted the U.S.S.R.? How is that inconsistent with this portrayal of a country desperately needing to borrow money?

Posted by: demisod on June 13, 2007 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Could happen here: out of oil, out of money and out of luck--US collapses.

Posted by: Dr Wu , the last of the big-time thinkers on June 13, 2007 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

I'm all in favor of an accurate historical record, but just wait until this article hits the newsboards of the radical right (and the ex-communists) in Russia: "Proof: international bankers were responsible for the downfall of the Russian Empire! Next: our intrepid reporter uncovers evidence that those bankers had horns!"

Not gonna be pretty.

Posted by: lampwick on June 13, 2007 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

I tend to give Harry Truman, George C. Marshall (whom Truman believed was the greatest American in the Twentieth Century), Dean Acheson, George Kennan and a few others a lot of credit for the defeat of the Soviet Union. They laid the groundwork, in spite of the Republican crazies of the day. Ronald Reagan deserved some degree of credit (for reversing the Nixon/Kissinger disasters, the Ford/Kissinger disasters, the Carter disasters), but Reagan's success was built on the successes of Truman et al, through LBJ, to begin with.

Posted by: MaxGowan on June 13, 2007 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, this doesn't really undercut the argument of the Reagan lubbers. Why did the Soviet economy fail? Because they were forced into a budget-busting arms race with the United States. They couldn't cut back military spending and remain a superpower, so they they bankrupted themselves. A crash in oil prices may have been the trigger. But the underlying instability was an insatiable war budget.

So missile defense, in as much as it made the Soviets spend on new crazier deadlier missiles, might be argued to have been the straw that broke the "evil empire's" back.

Posted by: Tim Dickinson on June 13, 2007 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

If one were to give Cheney far more of the benefit of the doubt than he deserves (recalling his historically uniform ineptitude on international matters), this would clearly explain why we're in Iraq.

Posted by: The Confidence Man on June 13, 2007 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

I did not see any mention of Brezhnev's death as a contributor of the Soviet Union's demise. If he were still alive, so to would the Soviet Union, because he had no economic or humanitarian ethic to prevent the suffering that reduced food imports would have caused. Zimbabwe's Mugabe is a current example of this lack of ethics in a leader.

Posted by: Brojo on June 13, 2007 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think Kevin is saying Reagan's policies had no part, but if oil had remained high the Soviets may not have run out of money.

Posted by: crack on June 13, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

What's missing in Gaidar's article is the fact that getting the Saudi's to go along with the huge drop in oil prices was a major Reagan administration initiative. You can see the roots of it in early national security memos. And the U.S. provided increasing security guarantees and military aid to the Saudi's as an inducement to increase oil production.

Posted by: Hacksaw on June 13, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

One might also mention how the system reached the point where the arms race or low oil prices could cause a massive empire to collapse. I mean seriously, they had a massive army, controlled millions of people, and could have easily have made the collapse a violent hellish nightmare. The collapse had many, many causes. The trigger was in part oil prices and the unsustainable arms race; but neither of these explain why Gorbechev didn't threaten to move the Red Army into the Eastern Bloc, or threaten retaliation if they didn't recieve the resources they demanded. The system was inherntly sick from the inside, had pressures to reform from the inside and out, and finally had a leader unwilling to force Communism on an unwilling population. I really hate these simplistic Americentric views that we (the mighty Reagan) caused the collapse. The truth is much more complicated.

Posted by: Tim on June 13, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

I give the reform government of Hungary the credit for the final downfall of the Soviet Union along with Gorbachev. Hungary and Austria agreed to remove the physical wall along their border. That allowed East Germans to drive to Hungary, ditch their Trabis, dash across the border, and take a train to West Germany. Having East Germany hemorraging people was the initial domino that led to the fall of each Eastern European communist government. The other piece, as mentioned in the post, was Gorbachev's unwillingness (for whatever reason) to invade.

Posted by: CA Pol Junkie on June 13, 2007 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

Wasn't this the twist the gave us the victory in Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising.

Posted by: Felipe on June 13, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

What Dr. Wu said.
Scary.
True.

Posted by: Clark on June 13, 2007 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

What Dr. Wu said.
Scary.
True.

Posted by: Clark on June 13, 2007 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

In other words, our friends the Saudis helped us defeat the Evil Empire. This is why it's important to cultivate friends in the Middle East, and why we must stay the course in bringing democracy to Iraq.

Posted by: Al on June 13, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Did twenty billion a year really make that much difference? Wasn't the USSR economy something like $1.0 trillion at the time? We're talking 2% of GDP. I thought the problem was they were hopelessly behind technologically.

Posted by: Jose Padilla on June 13, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Apologies for double post.
Computer slooooooow.
May be out of gas :-0

Posted by: Clark on June 13, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

demisod, the first commentator, said all that needed to be said.

unsurprisingly, the liberals' analysis has proved to be 100% correct one more time.


unsurprisingly, again, conservatives have been proved to be as clueless about history as they have been about prognostics as to what needed to be done in March 2003 to contain terrorism.

Posted by: gregor on June 13, 2007 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

The arms race certainly drove the USSR broke. But not missile defense, which was and is completely phony; Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative was still, for all practical purposes, still on the drawing board when Yeltsin took office, and even now it's completely useless against any realistic attack (meaning, a surprise attack that uses countermeasures like decoys).

Posted by: Joe Buck on June 13, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

This is old news. Oil prices by far is the largest factor in the Soviet decline. 2nd largest factor? Ossified industry and economy. A distant smaller factor? Whatever small effect U.S. military spending may have had.

Posted by: Stink on a Monkey on June 13, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

To argue that RR destroyed the Soviet Union, one would have to run the thought experiment of replacing RR with any president previous to him. For example, replace RR with Truman against Stalin. Would that have resulted in the destruction of the Soviet Union? I would think that it would have resulted in a radioactively hot war. Same with Ike or JFK or Nixon and the Soviet leader at the time. I have a pretty good imagination and each time it comes up with pretty bad consequences.

No, without the long slow bleed of the Soviet economy, and the realism of Gorby, things would have been much much worse.

Posted by: qingl78 on June 13, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

...might be argued to have been the straw that broke the "evil empire's" back.

Posted by: Tim Dickinson on June 13, 2007 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

If it's a straw that breaks the back, it's their cumulative weight that achieves the effect. So how much less value the penultimate straw or the first? And, in this case, the camel was seriously flawed: crippled, sclerotic, half-deaf, showing all the signs of both a failing economy and empire.

I'll go with the bigger, longer, more complicated story.

Posted by: notthere on June 13, 2007 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

Saying that RR destroyed CCCP is like saying that removing that rock you took from Arizona was responsible for the Grand Canyon. RR took the last rock. Without the HUGE work before RR, no end of the CCCP.

Or put another way: RR supplied .0001 % of the effort to end the Soviet Union.

Posted by: POed Lib on June 13, 2007 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Tim,

While I agree that it is simplistic to state that Reagan alone caused the collapse of the Soviet empire (though I think he gave it a mighty shove), I take issue with any Gorby-centric explanation that credits him with somehow engineering the collapse.

You wrote that in Gorbachev, the Soviet's finally found "a leader unwilling to force Communism on an unwilling population." I disagree. By Gorbachev's own account, he was desperately hoping to salvage the USSR (i.e. communist-run Russia). He knew he couldn't hang onto the rest of the Warsaw Pact (although he briefly toyed with using Russian forces in Poland) and figured he could cut them loose and save Russia. Any doubters about this need only ask folks from the Baltic states about how Gorbachev was "unwilling to force Communism on an unwilling population" in 1990 and 1991.

In any event, I have always found it strange that Gorby got so much adoration from lefties in the West for simply not murdering thousands of people as they sought freedom from the tyranny he represented. I guess anything was better than giving the U.S. (to say nothing about Reagan) any credit at all.

Posted by: Hacksaw on June 13, 2007 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

Anatoly Dobrynin, former Soviet ambassador to the U.S., always asserted that it was a lie that the Soviet Union collapsed because of anything the U.S., and particularly, The Gipper did. He said it was due to poor governance and imperial overreach. Which should be a cautionary tale the United States can learn from.

All of the factors are there for the collapse of the United States - bad governance, imperial overreach and gross overspending on the military. Not to mention idiotic lemmings like Norman Rogers, ex-liberal and Al, who will follow the worst president in American history, George W. Bush, right over the cliff without ever having an independent thought...

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on June 13, 2007 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

The explanation of the Soviet Union's collapse because of debt and unsustainable defense spending will be used to explain the United States' collapse someday. Will the world hold Osama bin Laden, like some do Ronald Reagan, responsible for this coming event, or will W. Bush and his henchmen be the ones held responsible? The voters will want to know, while they avoid looking in the mirror.

Posted by: Brojo on June 13, 2007 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

We're talking 2% of GDP.

But we're talking about the 2% of GDP that came in "valuta" -- real Western currency. Most of their GDP was in rubles that could only be used inside the COMECON, i.e. not for exotic goods like decent children's shoes or jeans.

The other factor that doesn't usually get included here was the hunger of Soviet elites, from the '60s on especially, to live "normal" lives, at reasonable standards of consumption. If the USSR never seriously considered tightening its belt, that was in part because elites considered a certain standard of living -- not as high as the West, but not poverty, anyway -- part of the bargain they had made for the society's internal corruption and unfreedom. The nomenklatura simply wouldn't have been willing to give that up to renew the struggle. If there's one thing the "Reagan-stood-tough" line undervalues, it's the obvious rising tension provoked by the USSR's transparent failure to provide economic well-being to its citizens -- especially the Soviet middle class's envy of its West European counterparts.

Posted by: mattsteinglass on June 13, 2007 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Hate to display my ignorance here, but what is the "obvious agenda" of Gaidar that would cast doubt on his recounting?

Posted by: Glenn on June 13, 2007 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Poverty broke the Soviet Unions back? So why hasn't Cuba fallen?

The reason the Soviet Union fell was because of Chernobyl.

http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/gorbachev3/English

Posted by: DR on June 13, 2007 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting, but forgive my knee-jerk suspicion of anything coming from the "invade Iraq is the answer, what was the question?" AEI.

Posted by: anonymous on June 13, 2007 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Hacksaw, the Russian population never showed itself particularly "unwilling" to accept Communism. There was never a popular revolution in the USSR, unlike the East Bloc countries. And Gorbachev in the brief Baltic hard-line moment wasn't trying to impose Communism; he was trying to prevent the breakup of the Soviet Union, which he thought would be an economic and social disaster for most of its inhabitants. Guess what? He was right.

Posted by: mattsteinglass on June 13, 2007 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

Gaidar - he can spot 'em a mile away. But, you know, don't ask, don't tell.

Posted by: mroberts on June 13, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

This sounds like the last straw of the British Empire, and perhaps the end of the American one, in a possible Suez moment

Posted by: jhm on June 13, 2007 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

I (reluctantly) give Reagan a lot of credit as well, but the right only remembers is the tough talk and the arms build up. Reagan, especially in his second term continued to talk and work with the Soviets on things they coulds agree on. It was actions that although now forgotten drew a lot of flaq from his right wing at the time. Reagan used both a stick and a carrot and never stopped talking to his enemies, both action the current right seems incapable of.

Posted by: Colin Crolly on June 13, 2007 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

I (reluctantly) give Reagan a lot of credit as well, but the right only remembers is the tough talk and the arms build up. Reagan, especially in his second term continued to talk and work with the Soviets on things they coulds agree on. It was actions that although now forgotten drew a lot of flaq from his right wing at the time. Reagan used both a stick and a carrot and never stopped talking to his enemies, both action the current right seems incapable of.

Posted by: Colin Crolly on June 13, 2007 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

Read History and then you won’t need the AIE. The Soviets had to force the East Germans to open up. They had larger motives than leveraging favourable terms in loan negotiations. The principle hegemonic force involved was ideational.

The fact was Gorby and his circle believed deeply in Communism and its ideals. They also understood that almost everywhere it had lost any legitimacy it had once had. Glasnost was part of an attempt to re-invigorate the Communist world.

The historical record is pretty clear. Gorby et al were attempting to open the system up politically. They also hoped to maintain the Warsaw Pact’s essentially Marxian, economic structure. The result being the entire system collapsed. A lesson the Chinese, for one, have taken to heart, as they are clearly doing the opposite.

The biggest obstacle Gorby faced was the Soviet army’s leadership, who didn’t trust the west. This is why Reagan switching his rhetoric away from a neo-conservative-inspired bellicosity was important. It made a difference in Moscow, allowing Gorby to carry out and continue his reforms.

As long as it maintained its nuclear arsenal, which granted it immunity from serious existential threat, the Soviet Union could have probably survived even the most catastrophic economic disaster. Think North Korea, straddling Eurasia.

Posted by: wsam on June 13, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Don't forget about Chernobyl. It was an enormously expensive and difficult problem.

Posted by: The Bobs on June 13, 2007 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

I agree that oil had more to do with the collapse than Star Wars, but I think this paragraph at the beginning of the linked article alludes to the real cause:

"In a simplified way, the story of the collapse of the Soviet Union could be told as a story about grain and oil. As for the grain, the turning point that decided the fate of the Soviet Union began with the economic debate of 1928-29, when the discussion centered on what would later be called the "Chinese path" of development."

At that time Lenin's NEP:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Economic_Policy
allowed limited free enterprise and the economy was improving-hence the "Chinese model" that is mentioned. When Stalin smashed the NEP and started the 5-year plans he created the infrastructure that would later not be resilient enough to hold together when faced with crisis.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on June 13, 2007 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

"For instance, if the Soviet military crushed Solidarity Party demonstrations in Warsaw, the Soviet Union would not have received the desperately needed $100 billion from the West."

When your enemy becomes your banker, you end up mopping his floor..........

Posted by: GOPNemesis on June 13, 2007 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

GOPNemesis: When your enemy becomes your banker, you end up mopping his floor...

Good point. I presume, of course, that you're talking about the relationship of the US to its Chinese bankers.

Posted by: alex on June 13, 2007 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

The USSR was running on borrowed time for years before the Saudis dissed OPEC (not to mention the Soviets). Certainly, that helped expedite the process, but there were plenty of signs of severe economic hardship in the USSR at least 10 years before the Saudis played the market.

ANd the Star Wars gambit never made any sense. There is no record I'm aware of that the USSR tried to respond to the US missile defense program. How could that have led them to bankruptcy?

Posted by: MeLoseBrain? on June 13, 2007 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Oil will bankrupt all nations who will not adapt to new (alternative) energy sources.

We're like a herd of sheep, quietly grazing all the grass in our little valley down to the roots. Only, it takes 500 million years for the grass to grow back.

Posted by: osama_been_forgotten on June 13, 2007 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

"Eh? Hasn't the argument always been that the arms race bankrupted the U.S.S.R.?"

The arms race CONTRIBUTED to the collapse of the USSR, but not by design. Up to the last minute, Reagan and then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger justified the ever-growing US defense budgets by saying that the USSR was STRONGER then ever and growing still-stronger by the minute.

The post-hoc Conservative mythology that Reagan bankrupted the USSR by design is the direct opposite of the stated intentions of the Reagan administration.

As the old joke goes, I snap my fingers every five seconds to keep the elephants from swimming across the Atlantic and destroying Topeka. Topeka is still there, I can CLAIM credit for saving it, but only a Republican will GIVE me credit.

The USSR collapsed because Communism is an economic system that does not work. It took 70 years for it to collapse under the weight of its basic absurdity as a way to run a country, but its collapse was as inevitable as the rise and fall of the tides.

Posted by: xtalguy on June 13, 2007 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

This article offers a more nuanced analysis
...Or as a Western economist of Russian origin put it some years later, there was no economic inevitability about the downfall of the Soviet Union. The performance was poorer than in other developed countries, but the system was still workable, and even capable within limits, of technological innovation. G. Khanin, a leading Russian economist and one of the most critical, takes a more skeptical view, noting the steady decline of growth rates over twenty years; but he too points to the fact that national income grew under Andropov and the years after (1983-1988) by 11 percent; it was not just a matter of the fundamental inefficiency of the command economy."....
...It was a crisis of self-confidence, or to use the term so often used in Russia, a "spiritual crisis." Russia in the 1980s could be compared to an athlete who was muscular and well trained but not strong in heart. The origins of the crisis date back to the early days of the regime. At the bottom of it was the growing discrepancy between promise and performance....

"Gibbon, in his chapter on Julian, the apostate, writes that "in every age the absence of genuine inspiration is supplied by the strong illusions of enthusiasm and the mimic arts of imposture."

It was noted at the time, that the Soviet Union of 1968 would not have collapsed, but there was no longer the will for the force necessary to prevent it.

Posted by: Mike on June 13, 2007 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

$20 billion a year is all it took?

Posted by: Brian on June 13, 2007 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

xtalguy wrote "The post-hoc Conservative mythology that Reagan bankrupted the USSR by design is the direct opposite of the stated intentions of the Reagan administration."

In January 1983, Reagan signed national security decision directive 75 entitled "U.S. Relations with the U.S.S.R." Now declassified, you can read it at:

http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsdd/nsdd-075.htm

This remarkable document lays out Reagan's strategy for dealing with the Soviets, including a desire to "promote, within the narrow limits available to us, the process of change in the Soviet Union ..." using military, political, and economic means. Among the policy points is a U.S. objective to avoid "unduly easing the burden of Soviet resource allocation decisions, so as not to dilute pressures for structural change in the Soviet system."

No, Reagan did not develop SDI to bankrupt the USSR. But he did recognized early on that the Soviets could not afford to keep up with the U.S. in an arms race and that trying to do so would lead to the Soviet system's collapse. Fortunately, with time we get access to things like this NSDD or Reagan's diaries or people take the time to look at his early writings and speeches and realize that maybe, just maybe, Reagan knew what he was doing.

Posted by: Hacksaw on June 13, 2007 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Twas oil that killed the beast, not Star Wars.

It's not an either/or. They couldn't afford Star Wars because their economy was decrepit. Had they not had such a decrepit industrial structure, they'd have not been as dependent on exports of a single commodity.

That said, Republican boosters do give too much credit to Reagan's military expansion. the U.S.S.R. had fallen behind Taiwan and S. Korea in industrial output, and they knew they had to make severe changes. They couldn't afford to maintain their garrisons in the Iron Curtain countries; indeed, they needed financial assistance moving the armies back home.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on June 13, 2007 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Dr. Wu: Could happen here: out of oil, out of money and out of luck--US collapses.

It depends how rapidly we develop our other domestic energy supplies, a topic that we return to from time to time.

Last year the U.S. decreased its consumption of carbon-based fuels by about 1.5% (I posted a link yesterday), and increased generation of power from solar, biofuels, and wind by about 35% (obviously, of a much smaller base.) With increases in nuclear power (in the planning and permitting stage), and coal (planning and under construction) to go along with the renewables, the collapse can be prevented.

but you make a good point that should be remembered.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on June 13, 2007 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

qingl78: To argue that RR destroyed the Soviet Union, one would have to run the thought experiment of replacing RR with any president previous to him.

You can turn that thought experiment around. Put Nixon/Ford/Carter in the U.S. presidency subsequent to 1980, and the U.S.S.R could have lasted another full decade longer than it did. This is why conservatives give Reagan some credit, and why, in my opinion, he deserves some.

I think that MaxMcGowan had it about right.

Posted by: MatthewRmarler on June 13, 2007 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Why is it so hard to accept Goby screwed up? He and his circle initiated a process of reform and lost control. They were trying to save communism and ended up destroying the USSR. I don’t think there is much real dispute about this.

I guess I can understand, however, that kind of explanation isn't very satisfactory if you prefer to see fluctuations of GDP and the machinations of international banking behind every change.

There is a great essay in Nail Ferguson’s ‘Virtual History’ which imagines how history might have proceeded without Goby. I suggest it.

Posted by: wsam on June 13, 2007 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

MatthewRmarler: Put Nixon/Ford/Carter in the U.S. presidency subsequent to 1980, and the U.S.S.R could have lasted another full decade longer than it did.

Why?

It was Gorby who started the chain of events that led to its demise. He was chosen in 1985 largely because, after short timers Andropov and Chernenko, they needed somebody who'd last a little longer. There's no reason to believe that choosing him had much to do with RR. There is also little reason to think that his changes were a direct response to US actions. The big Soviet military buildup was in the 1970's. From an objective POV, the US buildup of the 1980's was a response to the Soviet buildup of a decade earlier. We responded to them more than the other way around.

Reagan's overdone defense buildup was an enormous waste of US money (this coming from someone who indirectly benefited from it), and the bellicosity of his first term was truly frightening. It had the Soviets keyed up (think "The Bedford Incident" writ large). That seems to be largely forgotten because of the improvements in his second term. If that bellicosity had been standard fare throughout the cold war, we'd probably be living (if at all) in a radioactive wasteland.

Posted by: alex on June 13, 2007 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

"It took 70 years for it to collapse under the weight of its basic absurdity as a way to run a country, but its collapse was as inevitable as the rise and fall of the tides."

Amen to that. For years I had on my bookshelf a wonderful little pamphlet, written in 1970 by Andrei Amelrik, entitled, "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?" Amelrik was not correct in all details, but he was essentially on target in his depiction of how economic forces were going to rip the Soviet Empire apart.

In fact, the demise of the Soviet Union was kinda like the outcome of our glorious invasion of Iraq: pretty obvious from the getgo to an unbiased observer, but so important to a certain ideological view of the world that the truth had to be lied about -- and still has to be lied about -- at all costs. And lied about it will by, by the same kind of mind that is convinced a liberal press stabbed us in the back in Iraq.

Posted by: Diana on June 13, 2007 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

So a drop in oil prices ended the Soviet Union? Then it is quite sad for Russia that Putin has decided to bet its economy on oil and natural gas exports.

Did RR win the Cold War or was it the result of Soviet economic weakness? Either way, the conservatives were right. According to conservative economics, a socialist economy is guaranteed to collapse in the long term.

Posted by: bobo the chimp on June 13, 2007 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

Hacksaw,
You are right that no one should praise Gorby for NOT murdering people, but compare China in 1989 to Eastern Europe and Russia in 1991. In China, the demands we smaller, and prior to all of the problems in Europe, and the Chinese response was to murder people by the hundreds. Gorby simply wasn't willing to kill to maintain Communism. And when in 1991 the reactionary elements of the Soviet system wanted to prevent the establishment of democracy (via real local repubics in the baltics and elsewhere) Gorby was on the side of Yeltsin to move away from violent imposition of the system of control that he was the head of. I'm not saying we should praise him, but the fact of the matter is, when confronted with the loss of the system that he believed in, and that was the basis of his power, he preferred to lose that, rather than kill to maintain it. Compare with China, N. Korea, or any other dictatorship. He strikes me as somewhat decent, but still no angel.

Posted by: Tim on June 13, 2007 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

"The arms race CONTRIBUTED to the collapse of the USSR, but not by design. Up to the last minute, Reagan and then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger justified the ever-growing US defense budgets by saying that the USSR was STRONGER then ever and growing still-stronger by the minute."

That isn't the case. Reagan's letters from before he was elected President indicated that he believed the USSR could be tipped by pushing economic levers like defense budgets.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw on June 13, 2007 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

Tim,

Fair points and I agree with all of them. I think what bothers a lot of folks is the praise Gorby got simply for not acting as the Chinese did. I mean for God's sake, the man got the Nobel Peace Prize (thus demonstrating the uselessness of this award). So yes, Gorby should be commended for recognizing that Eastern Europe was lost and force was not the answer, but as you note, this hardly makes him the hero many folks continue to insist he was.

Posted by: Hacksaw on June 13, 2007 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

The USSR collapsed because Communism is an economic system that does not work. It took 70 years for it to collapse under the weight of its basic absurdity as a way to run a country, but its collapse was as inevitable as the rise and fall of the tides.

I'll add here that if anyone goes to the library (or has Lexis-Nexis) and checks the major newsmagazines (Time, Newsweek, US News) for August 1977, you'll find articles discussing a CIA report on the Soviet economy, which is described as deteriorating and headed for a possible collapse in the mid-1980s.

Reagan's arms buildup may have helped, but it could also be seen as a way of running to the front of the parade.

Posted by: Swopa on June 13, 2007 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

I am, I think, more inclined to give Ronald Reagan a share of the credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union than many of my fellow liberals.

This is your blog Kevin and you are certainly entitled to your views. However, the CIA had predicted the imminent demise of the USSR in 1979. John Anderson even made a point of this in his campaign platform.

The Soviet Unions's economy, such as it was, was already in shambles. Regardless of anything Reagan did or purposed to do, the Afghan war is what pushed the union over the edge.

Posted by: JeffII on June 13, 2007 at 6:50 PM | PERMALINK

JeffII obviously didn't read my comment, or he'd know that it was 1977, not 1979.

LexisNexis AlaCarte is pretty cool, by the way:

U.S. News & World Report - 8/15/1977
A new study by the Central Intelligence Agency predicts critical economic problems for the Soviet Union in the next decade. The result, according to analysts: The Kremlin will turn inward, pursue a less aggressive foreign policy - but react more strongly to challenges to compensate for any appearance of weakness....

Aviation Week & Space Technology - 8/22/1977
Soviet Union's current and projected economic difficulties, fed by a slowdown in annual growth and a looming oil shortage, will have no immediate effect on its massive military enhancement program, according to a study conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. The study, prepared for the Joint Economic Committee priorities...

SOVIET UNION: Outlook Bearish
Newsweek - 8/22/1977
The impending crisis sounded familiar. Faced with a "looming oil shortage," an official report declared, the nation was in for "serious economic strains" - and the government had yet to make the "difficult choices" needed to deal with the problem. When the CIA released that finding last week, however, it...

Posted by: Swopa on June 13, 2007 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

"İnfantile" is the word Keenan used about those folks who think the Reagan defense build up led to the Soviet collapse. Reagan lovers would have us believe that the survivors of Stalingrad and Moscow quietly caved in to the bluster of our daft president.

Russian defense spending was essentially flat for the ten years from 1976 or so (minor increase around 85), despite certain problems in Afganistan. That pretty much puts the lie to the Reagan myth.

Posted by: mcdruıd on June 13, 2007 at 7:12 PM | PERMALINK

. . . Carter in the U.S. presidency subsequent to 1980, and the U.S.S.R could have lasted another full decade longer than it did. This is why conservatives give Reagan some credit, and why, in my opinion, he deserves some. Posted by: MatthewRmarler

Wrong again.

Carter is the president who gave the CIA authority to begin working with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. So he deserves as much credit as Reagan.

Posted by: JeffII on June 13, 2007 at 7:21 PM | PERMALINK

The Reagan Administration pushed the Saudis into flooding the world oil market in 1986 as part of their joint anti-Soviet strategy that grew out of collaboration in funding the Afghan resistance.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 13, 2007 at 8:42 PM | PERMALINK

There are several reasons for the Soviet collapse.

1. The desire to prevent another Stalin left the Soviet government with an executive too weak to confront the military and too weak to make the radical reforms necessary. Maybe it was like Imperial Japan in the 30's where the civilian politicians could not restrain the aggressive policies of the military.

2. The smokestack Soviet economy could not adjust to the age of the microchip any better than Czarist Russia could adjust to the age of the smokestack. The entire Soviet doctrine had been that quantity would overwhelm Western quality. The SAM network they built in the Bekaa valley was Soviet state of the art. They had every confidence in it. Israeli decoy drones sending out fake strike force signals tricked the Syrians SAM operators into switching to active radar too soon, thus exposing their positions to the real Israeli strike force behind the drones. This display of crushing Western technological superiority showed the Soviet military that like Czar Nicholas II, they were assuming much too aggressive a geopolitical posture relative to their resource and technological base. The massacre of the Syrian fighter arm the next day hammered the point home.

Posted by: Charles Warren on June 13, 2007 at 8:43 PM | PERMALINK

But while rock-jawed rhetoric and missile defense may have played a role in the demise of communism

I have never, ever, seen any even slightly convincing argument that Reagan caused or hastened the fall of the Soviet Union.

Rock-jawed rhetoric? The Soviets, as well as all Easter and Western Europe viewed Reagan mouth as just that: a fountain of rhetoric. You know the insincere/bullshit kind. They thought he was a clown.

Missile defense? We are still waiting on SDI, which Reagan said, with a rock-jawed assurance, would be deployed in the 90s. Gorbachev’s generals told him that it would be a good thing if the U.S. spent money on SDI because it would be a failure. It was.

SDI was a joke, according to our own Defense Department and Joint Chiefs (who weren’t consulted at all and were amazed when Reagan made his SDI speech, a rock-jawed delivery of course).

The Soviet Union was financial and political toast before Reagan was President. He could not have “saved” the Soviet Union if he had tried. Good grief.

Posted by: little ole jim from red country on June 13, 2007 at 8:56 PM | PERMALINK

.I am, I think, more inclined to give Ronald Reagan a share of the credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union than many of my fellow liberals.

The mistake isn't giving Reagan "credit," it's assuming that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a good thing.

Posted by: JG on June 13, 2007 at 11:03 PM | PERMALINK

Of the all the bloviated nonsense coming from the Americans, this is one of the most insufferable: whatever good happens in the world, we surely must have caused it. If the swallows came back to Capistrano it is only because we threatened them with sanctions if they didn’t.

The truth is, the Soviet Union collapsed under its own inefficient weight. Reagan’s Berlin speech was one of the greatest pieces of political grandstanding ever. When he exhorted Gorbachev to “tear down that wall,” everyone knew its demise was already in the works. But the righties believe Reagan spouted his baloney and G. acted like Dorothy, quaking in her ruby slippers before Ron the great and powerful.

That kind of self delusion, that America says boo and the world jumps, is what got us into this idiotic war!

Posted by: James of DC on June 14, 2007 at 1:24 AM | PERMALINK

Could happen here: out of oil, out of money and out of luck--US collapses.

You didn't read the post, did you? The Soviet Union, according to Gaidar (and a lot of other people) was brought low by a glut of oil - the Saudis cranked up the pumps and tanked the price. Because the Soviet Union exported practically nothing but oil, this meant they had a major crisis in getting hard currency to buy stuff (especially US and Canadian grain, US, European and Japanese electronics, and consumer goods in general) from the rest of the world.

A sidelight here is that the Soviet Union's computer and electronics industry fell badly behind in the 70s, having roughly kept pace until them, and their industrial modernisation plans eventually had to give up on this and start importing both computers, and CPUs for their own designs, in the early 80s.

It also gave them a serious political problem - if oil was cheap on the world market, as a satellite state suddenly you could afford to buy it from somebody other than the Soviet Union, which meant you could tell them to bugger off.

Posted by: Alex on June 14, 2007 at 5:33 AM | PERMALINK

Think what damage we could do to the Iranian leadership with a conservation campaign that drove down oil prices.

Posted by: bob h on June 14, 2007 at 6:07 AM | PERMALINK

Historians David S. Painter and Thomas Blanton argue that the "Reagan Victory School" thesis is wrong. For example, Soviet military spending did not rise up through the mid-1980s, so that could not have been bankrupting them. See their article "The End of the Cold War."

Posted by: shoebeacon on June 14, 2007 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

Soviet Communism failed because it was an inferior economic system. Or does any Reagan hagiographer want to say that it's a better, more efficient economic system? Do you, Kevin?

I thought not.

As for Reagan, anyone who actually visited the USSR would have been able to see plenty of evidence of a not-too-prosperous society long before Reagan was elected.

Then on top of forty years of containment and an inferior economic system there is the fall in oil prices describe here and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. Would the Soviet Union have fallen apart when it did if there had been a Stalin willing to hold it together at all costs?

I think not.

So Reagan, who really did nothing more than his predecessors except talk differently, obviously doesn't deserve any more credit than any of his predecessors.

Posted by: expatjourno on June 14, 2007 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

The mistake isn't giving Reagan "credit," it's assuming that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a good thing.

Please explain: apart from the complete clusterfuck that Russia appears to be headed towards, in what way was the fall of European communism a bad thing, and how would Poland, the Baltics, et al. be better off if the Soviet Union still existed?

Posted by: Nat on June 14, 2007 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

You're damn tootin'. Perhaps if you frame it like that the wingnuts could get behind it. "I'm not buying a faggot car - I'm FIGHTING TERROR!!"

Posted by: Alex on June 14, 2007 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

I'll have to agree with James of DC. If the US had not engaged in its absurd arms buildup and had not had the huge budget deficits of the '80s, the Soviet Union would still have fallen. Solidarity & Pope John Paul, corruption, Chernobyl, Afghanistan, and vodka all were bringing the Soviet empire to collapse, but it's just beyond the ability of Americans to admit that we don't control everything -- even if the evidence in Iraq and Afghanistan proves every day that we don't control nearly as much as we tell ourselves.

Posted by: freelunch on June 14, 2007 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

"The truth is that despite the liberal/leftwing axis labeling Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative 'Star Wars,' the Soviets were afraid of it and scuttled the Iceland talks over it."

No, dear, they didn't, mostly because it didn't work and couldn't work and they well knew it.

"Reagan built up US missile defenses against the USSR's SS-20s"

No, dear, he didn't, because the system never worked and still doesn't work.

" had been a liberal so long I had stopped thinking"

ROFL... Yeah, right. We believe you about as much as we believe "ex-liberal". I'm rather curious as to why you guys cannot be honest about your political backgrounds and beliefs. Do you really think that you'll gain credibility by lying?

Posted by: PaulB on June 14, 2007 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Sailor -- even if I give you the thesis that it was a joint Reagan- Saudi project to lower oil prices -- I have yet to see a single documented evidence of this -- I still want to know who Reagan asked to arrange the one-third drop in Soviet oil output in the late 1980s. this is what people who know what they are talking about mean when they talk about the role of oil in the downfall of the USSR.
In comparison to this, the drop in world prices in 1986 was a decidedly secondary factor.

Posted by: spencer on June 14, 2007 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Thank God for "strings attached" loans - sometimes, they do good work.

Posted by: Neil B. on June 14, 2007 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

You're a liberal?

Posted by: Paul Moeller on June 14, 2007 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, it was bad for the Russians then, and it will be bad for all of us pretty soon:

Link!

Time for another post from Kevin about Peak Oil.

Posted by: Neil B. on June 14, 2007 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Paul M.: If asking about me, I am basically a populist, left-center type. I don't have knee-jerk objections just because something sounds conservative in some sense, but I sure am not reflexively attracted to it.

Posted by: Neil B. on June 14, 2007 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK
.... "Ronald Reagan. Who's he?"....meathead republican at 11:23 AM
We know who Raygun is: the guy who had one of the most crooked administrations of the 20th century; the guy who should have been impeached for his support of the Contra terrorists; the guy who said not to negotiate with terrorist and sold Iran TOW and HAWK missiles.

Star Wars, SDI, was never built in his regime and never worked in any other. Raygun trashed any possible treaty in Reykjavik because of SDI

...The summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev collapsed tonight after the two leaders had tentatively agreed to sweeping reductions in nuclear arsenals but deadlocked on the crucial issue of restricting the U.S. space-based missile defense program widely known as "Star Wars."
Secretary of State George P. Shultz, reporting in a strained voice on a meeting that began with bright promise and ended gloomily after more than seven hours of negotiation today, said he was "deeply disappointed" and no longer saw "any prospect" for a summit meeting in Washington between the two leaders in the coming months.
Gorbachev, in a news conference tonight, painted a bleak picture of U.S.-Soviet relations leading up to this weekend's summit and said that the talks had "ruptured" over the fundamental differences between the superpowers on the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. He said Reagan's insistence on deploying SDI had "frustrated and scuttled" the opportunity for an agreement.
The United States, Gorbachev complained, had come to Reykjavik "empty-handed," with the same "mothballed" proposals that the Soviets opposed in Geneva. But after the talks here, he said, he had told Reagan that "we were missing a historic chance. Never had our positions been so close together."...

Posted by: Mike on June 14, 2007 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

Had Yuri Andropov not died fairly young by Soviet Premier standards, the 80s would not have played out anything like they did, oil glut or not, Reagan or not, SDI or not. The transition from the paranoid, bellicose Andropov (through non-entity Chernenko) to the (relatively) sunny, daring Gorbachev was almost certainly the most important contingency in the end of Cold War scenario played out in '89 and after.

Then again, maybe not. We forget how close run the thing was. Remember the '91 coup that ground to a halt with Yeltsin confronting the army? All this post facto analysis of "causality" of major historical events blinds us to the sometimes big impact of seemingly small incidents or accidents.

Posted by: Scott on June 14, 2007 at 7:02 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: Sherri on February 14, 2010 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK
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