By Kirby Fleitz, Undergraduate student at HLS
On March 12th at 12 pm the Russian Studies Workshop hosted the second panel in the ongoing series Critical Conversations in Russian Studies. Led by IU professor Michael De Groot, the panel was centered around a discussion of Soviet Foreign Relations and the Late Cold War. The panel was co-sponsored by the Department of International Studies. Panel members consisted of the following: Professor Fritz Bartel of Texas A&M, Susan Colbourn, Postdoctoral Fellow at Johns Hopkins, Professor Michael De Groot of Indiana University, Professor Simon Miles of Duke University, and Professor Christopher Miller of Tufts University. The panel members were introduced first by Sarah Phillips and secondly by Lizzie Patterson, an undergraduate in HLS and a student of prof. De Groot. Once introductions were finished the discussion portion began.
Prof. De Groot opened the panel by asking Prof. Bartel why his recent works situate the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the 1970s. Bartel chose the end of the Cold War as starting in the 1970s due to that time period being a decade of profound change. Importantly, these changes initially appeared to be advantageous to the USSR. Nuclear parity gave way to a new technology competition the Soviets ultimately could not match, the Helsinki accords gave long sought for recognition of Eastern European borders but came attached with a new international emphasis on human rights, and the twin oil shocks of the 1970s hindered the Soviet economy of the 1980s. In contrast, Prof. Miles put the start of the end of the Cold War as the 1980s, highlighting the large shift in perception of military power by both the USSR and the Reagan administration between 1980 and 1985.
The panel then turned to a discussion of the term “second Cold War itself’ with Dr. Colbourn being asked first about the causes of a “second Cold War” and how useful an explanatory tool the term itself is. Dr. Colbourn cited changes in the zeitgeist in Western minds and a return of competition and rivalry as a way to understand the term before addressing whether its use. She highlighted that the usefulness of “the Second Cold War” is dependent on how détente is understood. If détente meant a break from Cold War competition then the term is useful, but if détente is viewed as a shift in competition then the term is not useful.
Discussion turned to the domestic structural problems facing the Soviet economy at this period. Miller raised two main points to answer the question. His first point was that the people in charge of the Soviet Union benefitted from the status quo, an issue facing every government but magnified in the Soviet system due to it being harder to remove established figures. Secondly, he pointed out that the Soviets were unable to easily replicate stolen technology from the West in the 1970s and 1980s nor domestically produce them, leading to technological stagnation. Both points contributed to economic stagnation.
Prof. De Groot then asked Prof. Bartel how structural Soviet economic failures were related to worldwide structural economic factors of the 1970s and 1980s. He responded by noting that the twin Oil Shocks of the 1970s further increased the economic burden of maintaining Eastern bloc nations, forcing a binary choice of improving domestic conditions in the USSR or holding onto Eastern bloc. These limitations influenced non-intervention in Poland in 1980-81. The permissiveness in 1989 can then be understood as Gorbachev/USSR choosing domestic concerns over the bloc. Prof. De Groot questioned whether American economic contributions to end the Cold War were under-discussed. Fritz argued yes, primarily through interest rate adjustments and the tightening of loan conditions, but this aspect is only clear with hindsight.
The question of American contributions to ending the Cold War was expanded upon by Prof. Miles, who noted three main ways the US contributed. First, the Carter Administration began processes that are often associated with the Reagan administration and should therefore be discussed more. Second, the military technological revolution of the 1980s pushed the US ahead in the arms race and added further economic stress for the Soviet Union. Finally, the ideological and human rights element emphasized by the US is also important.
Still focused on the West, Prof. De Groot’s asked Dr. Colbourn about how trans-atlantic unity survived during the 1980s. NATO, in her view, got lucky that the USSR and Warsaw Pact collapsed. The “dual-track” decision to deploy and negotiate generated very strong domestic opposition to weapons deployments that could have forced the hands of governments to not deploy. West Germany had the strongest domestic protests against NATO weapons plans and some American planners feared a West German government bowing to domestic pressure and voting out weapons on its soil.
Discussion then turned to the heavily debated question of whether or not the collapse of the USSR was inevitable: Could they have adopted a Chinese model? Miller argued that a Chinese model was impossible for the USSR to adopt because the Soviet economy was worse off than China’s economy and thus growth was far harder. In addition, Soviet bureaucracy was ossified by the 1980s, further inhibiting change. In his opinion, Soviet collapse was not inevitable. Gorbachev could have employed a small amount of political violence against the earliest independence movements and preserved the Soviet Union. Some losses likely would have occurred, but the USSR would have remained. Gorbachev’s insistence on not employing political violence was central to his beliefs and accelerated the collapse of the USSR.
The final question for the panelists from Prof. De Groot was asking the panelists to project future scholarship in the field of end of the Cold War studies. What room for new research exists? Prof. Bartel noted that research at this point has only hit the tip of the iceberg. He believes continued work on connecting structural factors with discrete events and agents in the late 1980s remains. Prof. Miles cited three major areas that need to be addressed yet. First, the intelligence component remains, mainly in long-range intelligence. Second, more work on the military technology revolution of the 1980s exists. Lastly, the scope of research and narratives can be expanded beyond just the superpowers. Dr. Colbourn argued for expanding the view of the period as not just a prelude, but as a fully realized period of transition. Still unanswered questions remain in the nuclear dimension, regarding strategic arms control negotiations (SALT II and START I in particular) and the nuclear dimension of the Warsaw Pact. Speaking last, Prof. Miller noted a different framing for the period in an East Asain perspective, as current end of the Cold War framing does not make sense in the East Asian case. Lastly, he argued technology should be taken more seriously.
The panel then ended after taking audience questions.