The End of the Cold War:
Defensive or Offensive Realism?


The end of the Cold War has arguably been the most important change of the 20th century. The relatively peaceful and passive end of the Cold War took the whole world by surprise -- especially those the West who had been fearing World War III between the Eastern Communist bloc and the West for the past 50 years. No body had been prepared for the series of events that began in the late eighties and culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Even some of the key players at the end of the Cold War -- namely Gorbechev and Reagan -- could not have foreseen this quick end. Among the academics, there was debate over why theory hadn't predicted the end of the Cold War. I argue that two tenets of realism convincingly explain the end of the Cold War: defensive realism can be used to explain the US's behavior during the end of the Cold War, and offensive realism (i.e. Zakaria's state-centered realism, or Wolworth's hegemonic realism) can be used to explain the Soviet Union's behavior at the end of the Cold War.

Defensive realism predicts that when leaders feel threatened and insecure, they will tend to increase their security by pursuing ambitious military and diplomatic strategies. In order to properly defend my thesis, it is important to show that the United States did feel that its relative power in the international arena was declining. Indeed, the US did feel extremely insecure. Starting in 1979, American perceived a high level of external threat. The 444 day hostage crisis in Iran was particularly damaging to American morale, and the media extensively covered the story and the implied failure of the president to resolve the crisis. Furthermore, the USSR invaded Afghanistan which Taliaferro argues was "the most blatant threat since the Cuban missile crisis." These two world events led to an widespread perception of American weakness, which ultimately proved to be detrimental to Carter in the 1980 campaign. As defensive realism would predict, the presidential administrations, beginning in 1979, took steps to increase the US's security by pursuing an ambitious foreign policy. Even under Carter, beginning in fiscal year 1980, the military budget started to increase. The budget was increased even more notoriously under the Reagan administration. Reagan pursued an increase of $1.7 trillion for the period 1982-1987, which amounted to a real annual increase of 7 percent a year. This was part of a long-term plan to spend the Soviets out of power. Also, this increase in expenditures led to an increase in military preparedness.

Furthermore, the US began pursuing more aggressive diplomatic strategies. Reagan led a renewed campaign to "get tough" against the Soviets, and this led to a more assertive stance against the USSR. First of all, Reagan was renowned for his excessive verbal denunciations of the Soviet regime. Through his rhetoric, Reagan portrayed the Cold War as a moral crusade against evil, and he vowed to be relentless in his pursuit against the Soviets. Moreover, during the SALT talks, Reagan refused to concede to the Soviets on certain points, especially those with regard to his pet SDI program. Brown argues that Reagan had an invested interest in pursuing a Star Wars program, and he never put that on the bargaining table with the Soviets, much to their dismay; it was, after all, his "trump" card.

As well as Reagan's dealings with the Soviets themselves, Reagan also pursued an aggressive foreign policy in Latin America and in the Middle East. In Latin America, Reagan zealously supported anti-Communist factions, especially in Nicaragua, Cuba, and El Salvador. The CIA even trained Nicaraguan Contra guerrillas. Furthermore, Reagan exploited rivalries in Middle East to American advantage. He took an aggressive stance towards the situation in Lebanon and even employed US Marines to help keep the peace in Lebanon, as he ascertained that "keeping troops in Lebanon was ‘central to our credibility on a global scale.'" These aggressive policies are examples of American resolve to shift the balance of power back against the Communist bloc.

Defensive realism also predicts that in the face of an external threat, the government will be able to mobilize economic, military and human resources. Indeed, this was the case during Reagan's administration. As mentioned earlier, Reagan was easily able to increase the military budget, even though the Democrats controlled the House (who is responsible for passing the budget). In fact, Congress gave the President everything he wanted during the first years of his presidency. Even when the Democrats controlled the Senate, it was still the same. In general, Reagan was an extremely popular president who enjoyed great support for his policies for most of his years in the White House.

Finally, defensive realism predicts that when a state's leaders perceive a relative advantage, they will pursue more co-operative security policies. This is exemplified when, in 1986 it became clear that the US had the relative power advantage, Reagan started making concessions to the Soviets. By this point, it was clear that the US was in a position of strength, and as defensive realism predicts, felt secure enough to relax its policies.

As defensive realism explains the behavior of the United States towards the end of the Cold War, offensive realism gives an plausible account for the Soviet Union's foreign policy in the 1980s. Offensive realism predicts that states try to maximize their influence in the international arena, especially when they feel that they have the power and the capability to do so. In other words, when a state feels that it can expand its influence without a significant risk, it will. The converse to this theory would therefore state that if a state is in relative decline, and it realizes that to pursue an expansionist policy is significantly risky, it will pull back from the international arena and reinvest its resources. Offensive realists would argue that a state in relative decline would pursue a policy of withdrawal because it is in the state's best interest.

For this theory to apply to the international situation in the 1980s, it is important to establish that the Soviets did indeed consider themselves in a relative decline. Clearly this was the case. It is certain that during the 80s, more so than at those other times, the Soviet was clearly not at the technological or economic level as the United States. Reagan's introduction of a possible SDI program (i.e. Star Wars) drove this point home. It is important to note that the Star Wars program is what made Reagan's symmetrical containment of the 1980s different -- and much more effective -- than the containment of 1950 and 1961. Whereas it had always been difficult throughout the Cold War for policy makers and academics alike to ascertain exactly the full extent of the Soviet's power (i.e. wealth, technology, capabilities, etc.), with the US introduction of the Star Wars initiative it became pretty simple: the Soviets just did not have the resources or the capability to build an SDI. The possible end of the era of "mutual assured destruction," in a sense, symbolized the beginning of the end of the Cold War. At this point it became clear to both the Americans and the Soviets that, indeed, the Soviet's relative power was declining.

Offensive realism would predict, then, that the Soviets would begin to pull back in order to save themselves. This is exactly what happened. First of all, under Gorbechev, the Red Army pulled out of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union could no longer afford to maintain its empire, and Gorbechev realized that the regime of Stalin was beginning to crumble under its own weight. Previously, 45% of the USSR's GDP was spent on defense. Under Breshnev, missiles were a dime a dozen, but tissue paper was hard to come by. Unlike Breshnev, though, Gorbechev sought to reinvest and reallocate the USSR's resources.

Secondly, the Soviets made concessions to US to alleviate threat, especially during the arms agreement talks. As Brown notes, in Reykjavik Gorbechev decided that he had to back down on the SDI issue, and he took it off the agenda. Gorbechev knew he had to allow for this, or else the arms agreements, which the Soviets desperately needed, would never get underway.

Another tenet of offensive realism is that weaker states tend to cooperate with stronger states. The converse of that is that when a strong state starts declining, the weaker states have less of an incentive to cooperate with them. This explains why when the Red Army pulled out of Eastern Europe, the governments were no longer able to keep their Soviet ties. After all, the revolutions of 1989 were sparked primarily because of the Red Army's withdrawal.

Finally, I'd like to make a note about the major personalities involved. Clearly, it can't be argued that Reagan and Gorbechev were not instrumental in shaping the specifics of the end of the Cold War. Their own particular assets and visions added enormously to course the end of the Cold War took. Reagan was, as both Brown and Smith argue, a visionary in his own right whose main focus of his presidency was to "leave Marxist-Leninism on the ash heap of history." He had an incredible ability to mobilize public support which ultimately gave him the power to pursue such an aggressive policy towards the Soviets. Gorbechev, too, was a visionary who was realistic about the Soviet's capabilities during the 1980s, and sought to maximize those capabilities even if it meant, in a sense, retrenchment. The events leading up to the end of the Cold War are clearly contingent on both the personalities of Reagan and Gorbechev, therefore, it was difficult at the time to be able to predict the exact course the leaders would take. However, it is important to note that neither realism nor liberalism could have predicted the behavior of these personalities or the impact they would have had. The impact that individual vision, especially of such strong personalities as Reagan and Gorbechev, could never have been predicted by any theory.

In conclusion, defensive realism provides a compelling explanation for why the United States behaved the way it did at the end of the Cold War. The United States felt threatened by the Soviets perceived increase in power during the late 70s, and this led to the election of a president who was going to going to take a tough stand against the Communist. Reagan had all the support he wanted, and was able to pursue and aggressive policy against the Soviets. This culminated in the Star Wars initiative which made it clear to the world that the United States had the advantage. Offensive realism, on the other hand, provides an equally compelling explanation for why the Soviets reacted to their declining status in the way that they did. In sum, they realized that their situation was too tenable to maintain, they had over-extended their capabilities, and it was in their best interests to pull-back in the international arena. The major personalities involved played a great role in shaping the specifics of the end of the Cold War, but no theory could ever predict the power of a specific personality. Therefore, it does not seem that realism has lost its esteem the way that many proponents of liberalism argue.

Danielle Costa
December 4, 1998
Tufts University: American Foreign Policy


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