Mr Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall: Reagan’s Influence on the Soviets

The Berlin Wall was opened on the evening of November 9, 1989. It paved the way, for the collapse of the SED dictatorship as well as the dissolution of the GDR, while at the same time allowing Germany’s reunification. A revisionist theory has manufactured a consensus that credits Gorbachev and civil unrest within the GDR as being the deciding factors. The truth is that the fall of the Berlin Wall would likely never had occurred if it was not for President Ronald Reagan and the foundations he laid out during his quest for peace with the Soviet Union. 

The Hawk

While his domestic objectives were primarily based on ‘Reaganomics’, smaller government and deregulations, in line with a fiscally conservative mindset, his foreign policy demarches, particularly during his first term, were based on military strength, which included increasing the military budget by 40 per cent and the subsequent paradigm shift from détente to roll back.

With the communist threat continuously spreading and the constant pursuit of extending territory and ideology, Reagan realised the significance of conducting a different kind of policy than his predecessors. Moreover, the omnipresent scenario of mutual assured destruction (‘MAD’) between the two superpowers had been one of the main reasons Reagan was extremely eager to find a way to win the Cold War.

This alternative solution came in an unlikely form and remained one of Reagan’s most significant achievements in shaping the outcome of the Cold War. It was the introduction of the Strategic Defense Initiative (‘SDI’) in 1983, a futuristic defence program that would alter the American position significantly. The idea was to make nuclear war impossible. ‘SDI’, a missile defence system, some ground-based, some stationed in space, offered a chance not only to prevent attacks conducted by the Soviet empire but furthermore to put enormous pressure on the Soviet Union. Not without reason did Henry Kissinger once state that the US’ commitment to ‘SDI’ was one of the main reasons for the end of the Cold War.

The impact of the Strategic Defense Initiative did leave the Soviet Union with two rather atrocious alternatives: It would either lead to a US breakthrough and the implementation of ‘SDI’ or consume all Soviet resources during the process of countering the United States’ plans.

Reagan’s ‘SDI’ was a game-changer. For decades, the Soviet Union had gone all-in to maintain its status as a global superpower, which had mainly been based on its nuclear arsenal. ‘SDI’ now threatened to make the weaponry impotent and obsolete with one single scientific invention. A fiasco for the Soviet Union, not only in terms of its ambitions as a superpower but also economically. Suddenly, the Soviets found themselves in a peculiar position and needed to resume arms control talks.

Another crucial element that forced the Soviets to collapse and allowed East Germany to be liberated was the idea that the United States would be able to passively engage against this spread of communism under Soviet influence by supporting anti-communist movements in several parts of the world. Born was the Reagan Doctrine.

It was the antidote for the Brezhnev Doctrine that had worked by the rule of whatever the Soviets got (i.e. territory), they would keep. The Reagan Doctrine aimed to negate this process and simply said: no, you will not.

The modus operandi here was to fund resistance fighters as mentioned above with financial capabilities and political influence with the ultimate aim of forcing the Soviets into an overspending and subsequent collapse of its system. While the United States spent less than one billion a year, the Soviet Union spent about eight billion per anum to overcome the impact the Reagan Doctrine had on communist expansion plans.

The Negotiator

Negotiations with the Soviets had been puzzling over the decades, with Brezhnev, Andropov and Chermenko having one trait in common: an ideology that went back to the second World War and culminated in the distrust against the West. This parochial attitude changed, however, and an opportunity arose when Gorbachev became Reagan’s new interlocutor.

Not only was Gorbachev the product of a different generation, but was more modern, moderate and most importantly, educated. In his approach to persuade the new Soviet leader, Reagan conducted four summits between 1985 and 1989, Reagan’s last year in office. Reagan’s hopes regarding Gorbachev were warranted, and the two leaders concurred on the idea to cut nuclear weapons in half during the Geneva summit of 1985.

However, one needs to take into account the fact that Reagan’s military expenditure – as well as Saudi Arabia, conveniently an ally of the United States, increasing its oil production to the Soviet’s detriment – had undoubtedly had a severe impact on the Soviet Union at this point already with its economy struggling to keep up with the US’.

It would, therefore, be rather ambitious to argue Gorbachev had been open to negotiations out of the goodness of his heart. More had it been out of necessity in order to stop an inevitable downfall based on overextension and the financial pressure Washington had put on Moscow via the arms race and economic embargos.

In October 1986, Gorbachev told party associates: ‘We will be pulled into an arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it because we are at the limit of our capabilities. If the new round [of an arms race] begins, the pressures on our economy will be unbelievable’. Only days after his statement, Gorbachev’s proposed – inter alia- a 50% reduction of the nuclear arsenal Reykjavik summit.

His statement, as well as the following actions, reiterate the argument that it had been Reagan and his policies that made the Soviets change their course. Admittedly, it still takes a reasonable person as opposed to a hardliner on the other side of the table. However, Reagan had undoubtedly delivered the incentives.

During their summit in Reykjavik however, Reagan’s counter-proposal was as ambitious as ever. In his determination to end the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear holocaust, he not only proposed to abolish all nuclear weapons but was also willing to share his ‘SDI’ plans with the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev, however, did not believe the willingness of Washington to share ‘Star Wars’. He instead made it clear that the Soviet Union was willing to accept Reagan’s idea of abolishing all nuclear weapons but made Washington’s abolishment of ‘SDI’ his sine qua non.

One can see how close the two superpowers came in an attempt to jointly abolish their nuclear arsenal, guarantee peace and also the impact Reagan had had at this point in history already. Two sides that, only twenty-four years ago had come dramatically close to a nuclear war, were all of a sudden negotiating about abolishing all nuclear weapons and sharing technologies.

Nonetheless, Gorbachev had to convince many people within the Politburo, who did not want to rule out a play by Reagan and a potential first strike from the Atlantic coast. Gorbachev succeeded. Moreover, his policies of Perestroika and Glasnost arguably set the stage for a dissolution of the Soviet Union.

On December 8, 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, arguably the last piece of the puzzle – the progress that had started with Reagan’s presidency in 1981- and the initiation of the end of the Cold War as the world had known it.

After Reagan had left office, the Berlin Wall opened ten months later and the Cold War – though unofficially – was declared history on December 3, 1989. The Soviet Union ultimately dissolved in 1991, with Germany being able to reunify its country. While Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in the early nineties for his contribution during the Cold War, he once said about Reagan, and this is perhaps worth more than any external evaluation: ‘He has already entered history as a man who was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Cold War’.

As such, he remains the man, who laid the foundation for Germany’s reunification and ought to be commended for it by all Germans.