Simon Miles. Engaging the Evil Empire: Washington, Moscow, and the Beginning of the End of the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. 248 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-5169-1.
Reviewed by Paxton Stover (Kansas State University)
Published on H-War (August, 2022)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Simon Miles has produced a stimulating work that adds to the growing list of scholarly works aimed at explaining why the Cold War ended the way it did. Engaging the Evil Empire examines the Cold War relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the first half of the 1980s, focusing on the five years that preceded the beginning of the collapse under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Miles takes a narrow view of the conclusion of the Cold War, only covering the relationship between the two superpowers during the early 1980s. Making use of new evidence that shows contact between Washington and Moscow during this time, Miles is able to reconstruct in detail the extent of mutual engagement they were able to achieve in the midst of their hostility toward one another. Despite acknowledging “the central role of perceptions in the events and evolutions” in a process that “remained highly contingent and in which the leaders’ “choices were far from preordained,” Miles attributes the outcome of the Cold War to the deliberate management of the “power shift” that occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union, thanks in part to these backdoor communiqués (p. 6).
One of the main focuses of his argument is Ronald Reagan and his dual-track foreign policy during his first term in office (1981 to 1985). Through heavy use of primary source material, like letters, speeches, and government memos, Miles makes note that while Reagan was well known for his public displays of hostility toward the Soviet Union during his 1980 presidential campaign and his first term in office, he was also conducting quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy to have a more cooperative relationship with the Soviets. Even though Reagan made these covert overtures to the Soviets, little improved between the two superpowers before Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. While these materials help to show President Reagan’s apparent contradictory efforts in dealing with the Soviet Union, Miles’s argument is somewhat lacking in regard to the Soviet perspective. By providing more on the internal difficulties within the Soviet Union during this time, a fuller thesis could have been achieved. All the same, Miles’s research and use of sources leaves little doubt that the “grand strategies” of both superpowers were decisive in determining the eventual outcome of their confrontation.
However well researched his work is, one question that it brings forth is whether the policies the United States and the Soviet Union pursued during this time can qualify as “grand strategy.” The term is usually defined as the goals pursued at the highest levels by a nation to further its interests. This means using every available method and putting every effort into attaining these clearly defined long-term goals. But in the case of Miles's argument, President Reagan’s “dual-track grand strategy of carrot and stick” hardly met those criteria, given his tendency to send “conflicting messages to the Kremlin and the world” (p. 56).
On the Soviet side there was great instability in its leadership, with President Reagan having to deal with Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko all before the appointment of the novice that was Gorbachev. Therefore, trying to ascribe a common Soviet grand strategy that transcended each of these changes in leadership is no less problematic. It would have been more accurate for Miles to acknowledge that in both Washington and Moscow there was more blundering, improvisation, and posturing being done than purposeful and coherent foreign policy. Yet there was also a readiness by both sides to avoid costly mistakes and unnecessary risks. Such an acknowledgment would not have detracted from but would have enhanced the significances of his conclusion that by 1985 both superpowers were headed by leaders predisposed to manage the forthcoming challenges in a manner leading to the Cold War’s successful resolution.
This resolution is more noteworthy considering that neither side anticipated what was coming. Reagan’s intuition was eventually proved right in that the Soviet “evil empire” was doomed, but he assumed that this event would take decades instead of a matter of years. While seen as a novice leader by many both within and outside the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was confident that he could strengthen the Soviet state by reforming it, even though in foreign policy much of his “early new thinking looked like the old” (p. 117). Instead, the end proved to be “a highly contingent, frequently chaotic process” that gave policymakers “ample opportunity to make choices” (pp. 130-31). Therefore, Miles's claim that “a broader view of the end of the Cold War, taking the power shift of the first half of the 1980s into account, changes the story of its legacy” leaves room for questioning and further analysis (p. 139).
Though Miles overanalyzes at times, this book is an important case study of the people, politics, and foreign policy that went into ending the confrontation between the two superpowers in the latter half of the twentieth century. And while the period after 1985 is not the subject of the book, the concluding chapter attempts to explain “the origins of today's renewed tensions between Washington and Moscow” but leads to the unsurprising conclusion that the desire of “Russia's current leaders ... to return to the position of international influence they enjoyed as Soviet citizens” comes as “no surprise” (p. 139). Still, with the Cold War being declared as officially over but the current geopolitical climate still drawing questions and comparisons with that period in time, Miles’s study highlights just how much success depends on the choices made by particular leaders in response to unexpected circumstances. It also serves as a reminder of the unforeseen effect and value that cooperation and engagement with adversaries can have. As a result, it would be a welcome addition to any upper-level undergraduate or graduate course on the Cold War and international relations.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Paxton Stover. Review of Miles, Simon, Engaging the Evil Empire: Washington, Moscow, and the Beginning of the End of the Cold War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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