Webcast Recap

Various commonly held illusions about the Cold War have contributed to a series of foreign policy errors by the United States in subsequent years, said Jack F. Matlock, Jr., former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR. At a 15 March 2010 Kennan Institute lecture, Matlock discussed these myths which are detailed in his book, Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—and How to Return to Reality.

The first myth concerns the widely held notion that the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed. In fact, said Matlock, the Cold War ended well before then, when in 1988 and 1989 the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union went from one of confrontation to one of problem-solving. This shift was at the heart of Gorbachev's speech at the United Nations on 7 December 1998 which "put the ideological war to rest."

Second, the former ambassador contested the triumphant interpretation of the U.S. "winning" the Cold War as if it were a real war. While the Cold War did indeed end on terms set by the U.S., those terms were designed to be consistent with the national interests of a peaceful Soviet Union, which Gorbachev's agreements freed from a disastrous arms race that had distorted its economy at the expense of living standards. A third major illusion concerned the general perception of there being a superpower rivalry whose outcome left one superpower standing. Rather, "there were never two superpowers in the sense that they could transform other nations." The Soviet Union only superficially controlled its satellite states, while much of America's "soft" power – protecting other countries from Communist expansion – disappeared with the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Many opportunities were missed in the 1990s because of the mistaken belief that the U.S. was in a "unipolar moment," said Matlock. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. failed to reduce its military presence throughout the world, desirable because extensive foreign bases were no longer needed to contain an expansionist Soviet Union. Instead, it even expanded its principal Cold War instrument – NATO – further to the east. The NATO attack on Serbia, unauthorized by the United Nations, violated traditional international law and made the transition to democracy in Russia more difficult. A second missed opportunity concerned the failure to continue the rapid and verifiable reduction of nuclear weapons begun by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. Although the Reagan-Gorbachev policies were continued by George H.W. Bush, they were sidelined in later years. With the second Bush administration, "the missed opportunities of the 1990s were destroyed," said Matlock.

Matlock summed up the three "geopolitically seismic" changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s that "reshaped the political map of the world." First was the end of the Cold War, which allowed both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to reduce the heavy cost of the arms race. Second, the Soviet Union ceased to be under the total control of the Communist Party as a result of Gorbachev's moves to liberalize the political system. Communist rule did not end in the Soviet Union because of U.S. and Western military and economic pressure but because Gorbachev saw that the Communist Party was blocking reforms the country needed. Unlike his predecessors, he put the interests of the country above the interests of the Party.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union represented the third major change according to Matlock. The United States did not want the Soviet Union to break up, aside from restoring the independence of the three Baltic countries. The United States and its principal European allies wanted Gorbachev to succeed in creating a voluntary federation, as President Bush stated publicly in his speech to the Ukrainian parliament on August 1, 1991. The breakup of the Soviet Union raised the possibility of nuclear proliferation and possible civil war. The U.S. government also worried that as independent states, reform would be blocked in many of the Soviet republics, still under the control of Communist bosses. "The break-up happened because of pressures from the inside, not from outside the Soviet Union. The way it happened was not favored by U.S. or Western European policy," said Matlock.

Ultimately, these illusions contributed to multiple missteps in U.S. foreign policy since the mid-1990s and particularly after September 11, 2001, said Matlock. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 damaged alliances and the international organizations the United States had created to supplement its power. According to Matlock, the second Bush administration was "asleep at the switch" when warned by the CIA that Al-Qaeda was planning an attack on the United States, and any national security advisor he worked for would have "turned the government inside out" to prevent the hijackings that occurred. Matlock lamented that the metaphor of the "war on terror" was sold to the public as requiring the sort of military effort appropriate to a "real" war between the military forces of sovereign countries.

Matlock welcomed the policies expounded by the Obama administration, which—if pursued successfully—will do much to correct what he considers the mistakes of the past two administrations. However, he warned that entrenched interest groups will resist change and that an outcome that would preserve American primacy in the world is far from certain.

By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


  • Jack Matlock

    Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union