A Cold War Approach to Future US-Russia Arms Control

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High strung tensions of a possible nuclear war were a major fear portrayed throughout the Cold War. Cooperation between Americans and Soviets seemed inconceivable and many believed the constant conflict would never end. When relations looked like a turn for the worst, a monumental change occurred in 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union and the unimageable became possible. Gorbachev would take control of a dying political and economic state of the Soviet Union. In response, he implemented a dual policy of “perestroika” and “glasnost” for domestic issues and a “new thinking” for foreign relations. Gorbachev’s ideas provided textbook example of GRIT and spurred a cooperative relationship with the United States. U.S.-Soviet relations would be turned around by new policies and eventually lead to the end of the Cold War.

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What is GRIT? U.S. psychologist, Charles E. Osgood, proposed a strategy called “Gradual Reciprocation in Tension Reduction”[footnoteRef:1] in 1962. His strategy consisted “that if one state could make significant unilateral concessions, this might trigger reciprocation by the other, leading to a virtuous cycle of tension reduction and confidence building.”[footnoteRef:2] It begins when a state publicly announces a series of unilateral concessions where the intent is clear. Purposely, being transparent and straightforward will hopefully lead to the goals of GRIT. The first objective is to reverse the conflict spiral and begin de-escalation. Second is to reduce tensions and ease hostility into a détente and repair strained relations. Lastly, the most important aspect is to create mutual trust in order to make negotiations easier. Without trust the strategy will not have any hope of success and must take carefully executed steps to ensure it is not jeopardized. GRIT is a patient action and it does not need to wait for a real policy to be implemented in order to give into concessions. It may take several small concessions to make an impact on the other side.

GRIT will always follow by the initiating party announcing an intention to cooperate with the other side and make a unilateral concession. Additionally, they must communicate an expectation that the concessions will be reciprocated by the opposing party. This will allow the parties to open deliberations until an agreement is reached. GRIT will only work if there is a clear, credible, and consistent actions. Multiple unilateral concessions will be needed over an allotted time. In response, good behavior will be rewarded, and the norm of reciprocity will be acknowledged by the other side. Public opinion will be evoked and eventually lead to a changed relationship. Overall, GRIT has the ability to change relationships and allow opponents to seek friendship and a path of cooperation. [1: Booth, Ken, and Nicholas J. Wheeler. The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation, and Trust in World Politics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 90. ] [2: Booth, 90.]

Osgood’s strategy of GRIT foreshadowed the thinking of Gorbachev’s policies towards the United States from 1985 – 1989. After taking the reins in 1985, Gorbachev called for a “fresh start”[footnoteRef:3] as the Soviet Union encountered many challenges. Internationally, the Soviets faced a tragic war in Afghanistan and a period of isolation with a hostile U.S. administration, political unrest in Soviet Satellites, and rising tensions with China. Domestically, the crisis at home was stagnating as the standard of living was 40% of the American level and faced starvation[footnoteRef:4]. Military overextension, mismanagement of a planned economy and lack of competition lead to a political and economic state of near collapse[footnoteRef:5]. In an effort to recover from this situation, Gorbachev began by initiating new policies at home with perestroika and glasnost which were restructuring and openness ideas. His most important change was the “new thinking” policies abroad as it launched a monumental change in the Cold War. Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union would not be able to compete with the U.S. in an arms race as they drastically fell behind technologically and financing the race would collapse their economy. A highly developed economy would be needed and that was not a feasible option for the Soviets. Gorbachev decided to pursue arms control agreements in an effort to allow peaceful relations to focus on reviving and restructuring the economy. [3: Lauren, Paul Gordon, Gordon Alexander Craig, and Alexander L. George. Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Challenges of Our Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 112. ] [4: Larson, Deborah Welch. Anatomy of Mistrust: U.S.-Soviet Relations during the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997, 200. ] [5: Lauren, 111. ]

On 8 April 1985, the Soviet Union would begin their cooperative path as they initiated conciliatory policies. Gorbachev enacted on the strategy of GRIT and publicly announced a freeze on the development of intermediate range missiles which was also extended to the U.S. and was in favor of a summit in Pravda. This concession was the first step in seeking cooperation as the freeze was rejected by the U.S., but it opened a door that has been shut since the start of the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev began a series of letters discussing different proposals and concessions. In July 1985, Gorbachev agreed to a summit at Geneva and publicly announced that Eduard Shevardnadze would be replacing Andrei Gromyko as prime minster. Gromyko was an inflexible communist hardliner who served for twenty years[footnoteRef:6]. Shevardnadze’s taking over reflected new and unconventional soviet foreign policy. In the same month of Shevardnadze’s appointment, Gorbachev announced he was unilaterally suspending nuclear test until the end of the year and was willing to extend the moratorium if the U.S. followed suit.

Reagan’s administration did not find it valuable to pursue this as more intensive testing could take place after it expired. It was remembered that the moratorium of 1958-1961 followed with the “Tsar Bomba”[footnoteRef:7] which was the largest nuclear weapon ever constructed and tested. In response, the U.S. wanted to make a statement to make sure they wouldn’t be lulled to sleep by Gorbachev’s public relations. Reagan decided to test an antisatellite weapon which violated a previous precedent of not to target satellites as they were essential in, “arms verification and prevention of surprise attacks.”[footnoteRef:8] Up to now, Gorbachev’s GRIT strategy has been uneventful in securing a détente and creating mutual trust. Much of the distrust resulted from the U.S. belief that Gorbachev’s efforts to mitigate were solely based on Soviet’s failing economy and were unable to compete militarily with the U.S. [6: ‘Andrei Gromyko: Veteran Soviet Diplomat.’ UPI. September 23, 1984. Accessed February 27, 2019. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1984/09/23/Andrei-Gromyko-veteran-Soviet-diplomat/9735464760000/.

] [7: ‘The ‘Tsar Bomba’ on 30 October 1961 – the Most Powerful Man-made Explosione Ever.’ 1 March 1954 – Castle Bravo: CTBTO Preparatory Commission. Accessed February 28, 2019. https://www.ctbto.org/specials/testing-times/30-october-1961-the-tsar-bomba.] [8: Larson, 202. ]

“For trust is an especially sensitive thing…”[footnoteRef:9] Gorbachev is quoted on how well he understood the importance of trust. He became frustrated when he failed to reach any agreements with the U.S. He would argue to his party that the “most serious challenge the soviets face was no longer the class struggle against capitalism, but rather the immense danger of the arms that threatened humankind itself with mutual destruction”.[footnoteRef:10] He also declared that the Soviet Union no longer sought to maintain exact numeric parity in strategic armaments but instead would shift to new and less threatening policy of “Strategic sufficiency”[footnoteRef:11]. On 27 September 1985, the Soviets proposed a reduction of 50% of nuclear missiles that could strike the other’s side territory[footnoteRef:12]. This resulted in a key cornerstone of Gorbachev’s GRIT strategy as it opened up negotiations. Reagan’s administration was pressured with making compromises as the Soviets’ offer was warrant on the agreement to not deploy ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’ (SDI)[footnoteRef:13]. Gorbachev feared the SDI would give the U.S. a “first strike capability”[footnoteRef:14]. Reagan was not willing to give up SDI for Soviet arms reduction and the debate would continue to headache both parties. [9: Larson, 201.] [10: Lauren, 112. ] [11: Lauren, 112.] [12: Larson, 203.] [13: Larson, 194.] [14: Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. ‘First Strike.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. January 02, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/first-strike.]

“We have a historic opportunity to free the world from the uncivilized doctrine of assured destruction”[footnoteRef:15]. Reagan told this to Gorbachev at their first summit meeting in Geneva on 19 November 1985. Both parties were in serious negotiations of disarmament and SDI would be become the focus point of the meeting. Gorbachev would be unsuccessful in accomplishing a deal that would prohibit SDI, but he would gain a greater victory in his GRIT strategy. The Geneva summit restored regular meetings between the parties as they both agreed on a second and third summit in which it would be held in the host’s country (Washington and Moscow). [15: Larson, 204.]

It also opened communications between the parties that was shut off previously in the war. At the end of the conference, Reagan and Gorbachev both stated, “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought”[footnoteRef:16]. Additionally, the parties agreed on a “50% reduction in nuclear arms and an interim agreement of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF)”[footnoteRef:17]. After the meeting, Gorbachev started to build mutual trust with Reagan and realized he could use American public opinion to sell his idea of nuclear disarmament. Reagan was very keen on a nuclear free world, but the Department of Defense believed heavily in the idea that nuclear weapons, “maintained the peace in Europe for more than forty years. In a world without nuclear weapons the Soviet Union would have the world’s largest conventional military”[footnoteRef:18]. Gorbachev proposed a three-stage program of disarmament on 15 January 1986. Reagan spoke very prominently on the proposal as it was the first indication the U.S. received that the Soviets were willing to work towards zero nuclear weapons. The deal would not be made, and the U.S. lost out on an opportunity to on-site inspections, zero option for INF’s, and destroy chemical production facilities and weapons.[footnoteRef:19] [16: Larson, 205.] [17: Larson, 205.] [18: Larson, 207.] [19: Larson, 208.]

Patients and consistency would be Gorbachev’s strongest traits throughout his efforts to reach agreements with the U.S. In 1986, Gorbachev would not give up on making unilateral concessions and would later meet with Reagan at the summit of Reykjavik. On 11 October 1986, the gentlemen would further discuss elimination of nuclear weapons. Gorbachev would have a historical breakthrough proposal of complete nuclear disarmament by the year 2000 but an obstacle stood in his way that could not be hurdled. “Reagan’s instance that nuclear disarmament proceed in tandem with the development of SDI”[footnoteRef:20]. The SDI would be the biggest factor in why Gorbachev could not ultimately reach a deal with the U.S. Reagan had the military advantage over Gorbachev and could not let the Soviets have a chance at nuclear superiority. Trust was needed to keep GRIT strategy afloat and “Gorbachev insisted that there was no alternate but to make further conciliatory moves”[footnoteRef:21]. “Two months after the summit, Moscow sought to further improve relations by releasing many prisoners of conscience”[footnoteRef:22]. This was a major step in acquiring trust and also promised to leave Afghanistan in what would be a build up to the INF Treaty of 1987. [20: Booth, 150. ] [21: Booth, 151.] [22: Booth, 151.]

On 8 December 1987, Gorbachev’s hard work finally payed off and earned a major victory in his strategy. The INF treaty was signed and signified the first treaty to eliminate an entire category of weapons. Gorbachev was successfully able to create a détente and people began to start trusting him. “The American people overwhelmingly favored both the INF Treaty and Gorbachev himself…62% expressed approval of the treaty”[footnoteRef:23]. Gorbachev gained Reagan’s trust and his announcement of withdrawing from Afghanistan signified a great accomplishment for Gorbachev’s strategy. In March 1988, Reagan met at the summit of Moscow, which he once called, “the evil empire” and replied to Gorbachev in Moscow with “That was another time, another era”[footnoteRef:24]. One of the greatest turning points in Gorbachev’s GRIT strategy began with a serious friendship with Reagan and created successful cooperation with the U.S. [23: Larson, 220.] [24: Booth, 152. ]

To further strengthen his relationship with Reagan, Gorbachev made more unilateral concessions to accelerate and ensure his trust. He announced that the Soviet Union, “would work as partners in cooperation with the international community.”[footnoteRef:25] This led to Gorbachev’s announcement of reducing soviet conventional weapons and troop strength. “cutting Soviet military forces unilaterally by 500,00.”[footnoteRef:26] Additionally, in July 1989, Gorbachev publicly announced he would not use force to preserve soviet influence. “the exclusive affair of the people in that country and is their choice.”[footnoteRef:27] Renouncing their influence on eastern Europe and supporting freedom of choice for all nations would lead to the demise of the Cold War. This was very surprising and costly news as the Communists states behind the Iron Curtain, “either changed its political orientation or was overthrown by popular uprisings.”[footnoteRef:28] A new era was beginning to form, and Gorbachev’s GRIT strategy worked. [25: Lauren, 112.] [26: Larson, 223. ] [27: Larson, 227. ] [28: Lauren, 112.]

Ultimately, Gorbachev’s GRIT strategy succeeded as his main motion was to improve the Soviet’s image and end the Cold War peacefully. His concessions were very costly to communist hardliners, but he knew how important it was to repair relations and create a new Soviet image with the West. George H. W. Bush met with Gorbachev in December of 1989 at the Malta Summit. Gorbachev told Bush, “We don’t consider you an enemy anymore”. Bush Replied, “We stand at the threshold of a brand new era of U.S.-Soviet relations”.[footnoteRef:29] This signified that the Cold War was over and Gorbachev was successful in restructuring the old ideas of soviet relations with the U.S. “Rarely in history, has such a sweeping reorientation of political, economic, and military power taken place so swiftly without military conquest or bloodshed.”[footnoteRef:30] Mikhail Gorbachev would continue to flash his unprecedented reforms and win Time’s Man of the Decade. In conclusion, Gorbachev is the reason behind the peaceful end of the Cold War and diminished the idea of a nuclear holocaust. [29: Booth, 156.] [30: Lauren, 113.

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A Cold War Approach to Future US-Russia Arms Control. (2022, Sep 11). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from

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