Engaging the ‘evil empire’ : East-West relations in the Second Cold War

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2017-05

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Between 1980 and 1985, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union underwent unexpected and profound change. US-Soviet relations transformed so rapidly that scholars have since used this as a textbook case of longstanding adversaries setting aside prior disagreements and beginning to cooperate. What explains these shifts? Why would the superpowers suddenly start to cooperate after an extended period of intense rivalry? Using archival evidence from both sides of the Iron Curtain, this dissertation locates the root causes of the end of the Cold War in the first half of the 1980s. Changing perceptions of the balance of power between East and West hastened the Cold War’s peaceful conclusion. In the capitals of the superpowers and non-superpowers alike, observers perceived the same fundamental trends. Upon taking office, Ronald Reagan and his advisors (and US allies) lamented the United States’ weak position, which discouraged overt diplomacy with the Kremlin. Over the next five years, the administration’s outlook brightened considerably, as the US economy recovered and that of the Soviet Union faltered. It was at this point that Washington began to engage the Kremlin in public, confident in renewed US and Western power. Eastern leaders took a similar view of the shift in the balance of power. Throughout the first half of the 1980s, Warsaw Pact leaders lamented the erosion of their position and looked for ways to arrest this decline. Given their growing concerns about long-term survival, they believed that they would have to engage with the West and accept less advantageous agreements than they might have pressed for even in the recent past. Using new, international evidence, this dissertation sheds fresh light on one of the most consequential historical events: the end of the Cold War. It also speaks to key debates in international relations, including the use of diplomacy as opposed to force, crisis stability, and alliance politics. In a world shaped by the end of the Cold War, a better understanding of that period will help policy-makers to better respond to today’s challenges.

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