Jack Matlock Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the End of the Cold War: A Diplomat Looks Back; Conversation with Jack Matlock, 2/13/97 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by L. Carper

Page 7 of 10

Evaluating US Policy: Past, Present, and Future

Can I ask you to put on your George F. Kennan Professor hat and look back at U.S. policy, especially during this period where you were playing such an important role -- is there anything we got wrong or did we pretty much get everything right?

I think basically we got things right. One can argue that we didn't need as much a defense buildup as we did, that we put too much emphasis on SDI (popularly called Star Wars, the Strategic Defense Initiative), and you know, I don't think you can prove one way or the other. I would only say that if you are working with a policy which, if it goes wrong, can not only destroy your country but the world, you tend to over-insure. I think what we were trying to do ultimately worked. Maybe something different would have also, but that's an "if." If you take the SDI itself, Star Wars, without it I'm not sure that the Soviets would have moved as rapidly as they did to agree to reduce their heavy missiles. These are the ones we considered the most threatening. Without that, we could not have had the Strategic Arms Agreement. Their negotiators now say, "Well you know, it may have been a scam," and for some American officials it was a scam, in the sense that we were trying to give them incentive to reduce their heavy missiles -- most people who were close to it knew that this was far off in future and would probably never provide a totally impenetrable shield. Yet if we could develop a defense that would protect us from a lot of the heavy missiles, we didn't have to worry even theoretically about a first strike from the Soviet Union, and that was the big danger of the heavy missiles. Now in retrospect a lot of people may say, "Oh, this was theology that was not very relevant." But I don't think so. I think that any responsible president, responsible for the future of this country and its safety, had to take these things seriously. Maybe we put more in than we needed to but I would say that if we did, I would much rather pay a little higher insurance premium than cut things so close that you may fail. Because failure in this would have been incredibly costly, particularly if it resulted in a war.

Another thing that a lot of people forget is that right up until 1986, the Soviet high command thought that they could prevail in a nuclear war. This tends to be forgotten. They thought they could prevail, and Yazov, their last Defense Minister during most of Gorbachev's period, has said privately many times that until the Chernobyl disaster he thought they could prevail in a nuclear war. He said that after Chernobyl, it was clear that you couldn't, and you had to get rid of these damn weapons. So it was that accident that convinced him. As he said, you don't even have to use nuclear weapons to have nuclear destruction. Conventional weapons on nuclear power stations can paralyze a country, and therefore war is unthinkable between countries that have these things. He had a totally different psychology after that. But up until then we were dealing with a psychology in the military, not necessarily the political leadership, but the military which is highly influential, that if nuclear war came, they could win it. And that, I submit, is a very dangerous scenario. I'm thankful that we tended to pay for more insurance rather than trying to save and perhaps have an inadequate policy.

What you're saying, as we discuss these issues, is a number of things came together to end the Cold War: the Reagan policies, the Chernobyl disaster, the changing in the attitude of the Russian military, and then a set of ideas among Gorbachev's advisors which led to this new definition of the common interests of man.


Let's look ahead now. Russia is going through an extended transition. What would you like to see in a U.S. policy that would be effective, now that the Cold War is over, in our dealings with Russia?

Well, I would like to see first of all a major effort to bring Russia into an effective European security system. Though we have not defeated the Soviet Union in a war the way we defeated Germany and Japan in World War II -- the circumstances are quite different: we don't occupy the country and therefore don't have a fairly free hand in how we restructure it, or at least start restructuring as we did in Germany and Japan -- nevertheless we did win the Cold War and we won it on our terms, or terms acceptable to us, and Russia is feeling very much the defeated. Yet the victory in the Cold War was a joint one. I think that all the talk about "we won the Cold War" may have been useful politically (though it didn't do George Bush an awful lot of good in the second election!) -- it may have been useful politically at home but it was not useful politically internationally because the way we looked at it at the time, and the way Gorbachev looked at it, was that we all won the Cold War. We ended it. This was to the benefit of all of our countries. And it unleashed political processes that broke up the Soviet Union, but there are many positive aspects to that. Russia is now free to be itself in a way that it wasn't before. So to treat them as a defeated country, I think, is wrong psychologically and politically.

But there is another analogy with World War II. We did have the foresight, our leaders at that time, to see that if we were going to have a peaceful and strong Western world, we had to bring the defeated into the system, Japan and Germany, and we did and very effectively of course. Now I think the big challenge, particularly for security, is to bring Russia into that. I don't think we are making very good efforts to do so. In fact, putting an issue like NATO expansion, which is not necessary in security terms, which does not meet the real security requirements of the future, ahead of developing a working security relationship with Russia, bringing them into the system, I think is putting our priorities absolutely wrong. Now of course we say we want to do both, but that's a little like saying we're going to square the circle in mathematics. It sounds simple to the uninitiated but it turns out to be impossible. So I think in the security sense we have to bear in mind a very basic fact that unless Russia, which still has more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, 50,000 tons of chemical weapons, and we don't know how much in bacteriological weapons, either we have their cooperation and they're going to be a part of it or they're going to be one tremendous problem. Not from the standpoint that they're going to start invading other countries -- I don't think they can. They don't have either the political cohesion nor the military power to do that, but from the standpoint of becoming the source of great instability, particularly if these weapons get out. We need them in the security structure and we're forgetting that.

A second basic point is that, properly defined, our national interests are not in conflict. Of course they're not identical: no two countries have totally identical interests, but fundamentally U.S. and Russian interests are not in conflict and if we act as if they are, or if they act as if they are, we create unnecessary collisions and we begin to create much of the atmosphere of the past.

A third thing that we need to remember is that Russia is not the Soviet Union writ small. It is a totally different entity in terms of its polity. Many of the people are the same and yet you put them in a different context and you get a different situation. We are facing a different situation and shouldn't think of them with the stereotypes of the past, as some of our prominent people do. Henry Kissinger is one -- I think he's absolutely wrong in his analysis of what's going on in Russia, and his prescriptions would actually help create some of the mistakes of the past. In the future our security problems are going to be much more related to terrorism, to the rogue state, and so on, than to the sort of empire building, collision of empires of the past. I'm convinced of that, and if we look at history we will see that the Cold War was about ideology and about the Soviet system. It wasn't about Russia. When Russia was noncommunist, Russia was a friendly country on the whole -- sometimes distant, but we had a relationship beginning at the earliest stages of the American existence. In fact, our first diplomatic representative was John Quincy Adams, who later became one of our presidents. Russia was with the Union during the Civil War at a time when England sympathized with the Confederacy. So on the whole our relation with Russia has been good. We settled any territorial disputes we had peacefully; they sold us Alaska; they don't claim it now. We ended up with California instead of them and, though there may be a little nostalgia, they don't claim it. So we have no fundamental conflicts out there. We never fought a war with Russia. That tells us something because there's not another great power in the world except for France that we've never had a single war with. Wars are usually about very fundamental national interests.

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