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Was Gorbachev the Cold War’s Genuine Terminator?

Kim Jang-hoon
Dongguk University, Political Science and Diplomacy

Surely you know who Gorbachev is. How could you not? ikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, and is considered to be the person who ended the Cold War. In 1985, when he was appointed as general secretary, the economic growth of the Soviet Union had slowed and the Soviet Union was falling behind the West in terms of their technology and in their standard of living. Moreover, the War in Afghanistan made matters worse. Gorbachev sought to end the Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’. To solve this problem, he applied several important economic reforms such as Perestroika (reconstruction, restructuring), Uskorenie (acceleration) and Glasnost (openness). Due to these reforms, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. These reform movements were needed to overcome the worsening economic crisis and the pursuit of national interests to deal with changing international circumstances. Gorbachev did not want to change the Soviet system but wanted to make it better (Reform Communism) I will explain the background of the birth of Gorbachev’s reform policies.

The historical context surrounding Gorbachev and the Soviet Union is a complex collection of factors which included deep global structural trends, the policies of leading states such as the United States or European states, and the actions of transnational movements and particular individuals. All of these things shaped Gorbachev’s reform policies. To make this all clearer let us divide the important historical context into three categories: economic crisis, peaceful and intimate international environment, and the overwhelming reinforcement of US military power.
The economic crisis is very important. The gradual and incorrigible decline of the Soviet economy and its economic position became a very significant matter that stimulated Gorbachev into renovating the Soviet system. Before World War 2, the Soviet Union’s economy developed reasonably well in her own unique style, and in contrast, the dynamism of the capitalist economy had a great economic crisis. Meanwhile, since World War 2, the Soviet economic growth rates had begun to be slowed, and at last, the gradual and incorrigible decline of the Soviet economy was futher deepened. When Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, the seriousness of the economic crisis was very clear not only to him but also amongst the common people.

Second, peaceful and intimate surroundings had an impact on the Cold War. The cultural, social, and international-organizational factors created a more peaceful environment for Gorbachev’s change. Firstly, the ongoing revolution in the technologies of communication and transport had made the international environment rather harmonious. In the past, it was possible for ruling groups to isolate their people from the outside world. But since World War 2, advances such as jet travel, television, and data transmission had greatly enhanced the ability of large numbers of people to communicate over long distances. The proliferation of these opportunities had made strategies of cultural and social autarky increasingly costly and difficult to sustain. From the end of the World War 2, the number of international organizations had skyrocketed. By the mid-1980’s, roughly 300 international organizations were in operation, and a great number of them were engaged in global rather than regional activities. International organizations exerted powerful attractions that over time reoriented Soviet attitudes and behavior. As new norms of human rights emerged the Soviet legitimacy had declined. Since the 1970’s, the legitimacy of the regime has been progressively eroded and the world standard of human rights that now emphasized fundamental freedoms of expression and conscience was not up to par in the Soviet Union. By the mid-1980’s, the legitimacy of Soviet political practices was under systematic assault by internal dissidents and by a powerful network of human rights watchdog organizations.

Finally, overwhelming reinforcement of U.S. military powers also played an important role. When Ronald Reagan became the president of the United States in 1981, the detente of the 1970’s had already collapsed and a new Cold War was emerging. Because he had an unshakable conservative conviction or fear towards the Soviet Union, he had to cope with an unexpected assault of the Soviet Union and equip the United States with powerful and advanced weapons. At last, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and strongly pushed it forward. SDI meant that overwhelming armaments would be launched even into outer space. At the same time, other U.S. military powers including nuclear weapons and conventional weapons were well prepared. During Reagan’s first five years, this trend has been accelerated and the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union grew extensively.

As we can see by looking at the historical context Gorbachev had no choice but to carry out reforms. The reforms which Gorbachev performed, such as Perestroika, Glasnost and Uskorenie, accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and led to the end of the Cold War. These were not volunatary reforms, they were out of necessarity. He was the man of the hour so to speak and if another had been given his position it is likely the Cold War would still have consequentially ended.

Kim Kang-su  wellmade01@dongguk.edu

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