The Human Factor

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From The Wall Street Journal:

In “The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister” (2006), the journalist John O’Sullivan asserted that the Cold War had been won by Ronald Reagan, John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher. “Without Reagan,” he stated, “no perestroika or glasnost either.” This belief, according to Archie Brown, emeritus politics professor at Oxford University, is nothing less than “specious.” In “The Human Factor,” Mr. Brown gives most of the credit for the Cold War’s end to Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he presents as almost a pacifist who voluntarily wound up the Soviet Union, albeit with a little assistance from Thatcher. So who is right?

The title of Mr. Brown’s last book, “The Myth of the Strong Leader” (2014), suggests that he might have a philosophical problem with the Great Man and Woman theory of history, and he certainly underplays the role of John Paul II during the last decade of the Cold War. The pope’s call for spiritual renewal and for freedom, not least for his native Poland, stirred the hearts of millions, but he rates only five anodyne sentences in 400 pages.

Mr. Brown was awarded a British honor in 2005 “for services to UK-Russian relations.” One Russian in particular—Mr. Gorbachev—gets lauded in the current work for his “bold leadership,” “new ideas,” “formidable powers of persuasion,” “embrace of democratization,” “emphasis on freedom of choice” and so on. At best, Reagan, George Shultz, George H.W. Bush and the others are praised for their “constructive engagement.” At worst, Reagan is criticized for introducing “complications” to an already begun process of Russian collapse.

At no point does Mr. Brown acknowledge that the primary reason that Mr. Gorbachev liberalized the Soviet Union was that Reagan, Thatcher and other Western leaders forced him to, by keeping Western defenses strong and mercilessly exposing the moral bankruptcy—and looming economic bankruptcy too—of what Reagan accurately called Russia’s “evil empire.”

For Mr. Brown, Reagan lacked sophistication, and his style was all wrong for high-minded diplomacy. It was a familiar critique at the time, though one would think that, with the end of the Cold War, it had lost its plausibility. Still, Mr. Brown hopes to revive it. “In his speeches, at every stage of his career,” Mr. Brown complains of Reagan, “he used stories and ‘quotations’ that came from very unreliable sources or from the recesses of his own mind, often drawing on films he had acted in or seen. . . . For Reagan, whether they were actually true or not appeared less important than the part they played in his narrative.”

A president who told unreliable jokes and unverifiable stories! Lincoln fits the description, as do a dozen other U.S. presidents. Showing a folksy informality and raconteur skill is thought to be an asset in politics.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

PG notes that TPV is a blog focused on the contemporary business of writing, not politics. He will also note that since much of the publishing world, indie and traditional appears to be sheltering in place, he sometimes casts his net a bit wider than he might absent the publishing commentary drought.

(Yes, PG does recognize a sort of mixed metaphor in the “casting his net” and “drought” combination.)

5 thoughts on “The Human Factor”

  1. Still fighting the “great man” war, huh?

    And still ignoring the obvious: what makes for a historically notable figure is a function of the person and the times. There have been plenty of competent leaders who have gone by unnoticed or as failures because they were operating at the wrong time while “lesser” figures got to shine with little effort.

    Going back to Mr Brown’s sniffles, it was broadly recognized at the time that whoever won in the US would inherit an economy on the rebound and a boost for “strong leadership” just for not being Carter. Reagan (and staff) turned out to be an excellent judge of what policies needed to be enforced and a good salesman. A perfect fit of skills and requirements.

    Thatcher’s case is stronger as she had a bigger mess to fix and did it against strong opposition. Strong action was needed and she provided it. The world would be a very different place without her and, too all lights, far worse.

    Gorbachev was a fairly competent leader but he rose to late to fix anything: he was too little, far too late. The time when Perestroika could have saved the Communist Party was immediately after Breznev. This too has been fully documented. By the time Andropov was fingered it was already too late and the Soviet Union was broadly recognized as “Upper Volta with Nukes”. Gorbachev was no more a pacifist than his predecessors, he just happened to realize he needed to negotiate away what he couldn’t keep and at least get something in return. But it is too easy to overvalue Gorbachev. Lets not forget he was shoved out of the way by Yeltsin; ample proof his time had passed by the time he arose.
    (To be blunt: Gorbachev ‘s biggest achievement was gracefully burying a corpse. He was a pacifist only to the extent he didn’t start a war he had no chance of winning.)

    The story fodder lesson here, for world building if nothing else, is that a match is needed between the society leadership and the times, whether the “leader” be HUNGER GAMES’ President Snow, FOUNDATION’S Cleon, or Orwell’s Big Brother. Or an intentional mismatch, if the story requires it. As to the latter…

    Larry Niven’s quasi SF fantasies about time-traveling Svetz (FLIGHT OF THE HORSE, etc) work because the inbred idiot Secretary General is both powerful and scatter-brained, leading to a regime of bureacrats eternally striving to curry favor to preserve their power. Niven’s aim was farce so he needed a farcical driving force rather than one even vaguely reasonable to maintain the contrast between the (apparently straight adventure) narrative style and the underlying silliness. The stories are at heart well-constructed, disguised jokes that depend on subverting reader expectations of genre conventions.

    (Spoiler: Far future Time Travel recovery specialist Svetz is dispatched to medieval times to capture a horse as a sample of the now extinct species for the Secretary-General’s personal zoo. Trouble arises because his society is so disconnected from its true past he doesn’t know what a horse is. Plus his personal transport looks a lot like a flying broomstick. He perseveres, survives, and succeeds. Sort of.)

    This is an effective but uncommon style of world building because, as always, effective farce is harder than playing it straight.

    The OP’s Mr Brown doesn’t quite master either. Or chooses not to. A lot of the latter is going around lately.

    • Agreed, Felix.

      Whether Gorbachev realized the Soviet Union would inevitably collapse because its economy had stopped working (or may have never worked in any sort of way that would not eventually end in collapse) or was fiddling with skill while the ship was sinking,

      Reagan was not the sort of person likely to please any career diplomat. However, as you mentioned, Reagan’s PR and persuasion instincts and skills were superb, perhaps the best of any president, and he understood both the opportunity presented by a sinking Soviet Union and the mood of the electorate.

      I would also point out that Reagan also won his second election with the second-largest percentage of the electoral vote ever, surpassed only by Roosevelt’s 1936 victory, so he was a clearly a popular guy with the voters during his first term.

  2. For Mr. Brown, Reagan lacked sophistication, and his style was all wrong for high-minded diplomacy.

    Thank God.

    • Carter was sophisticated and had the right style for high-minded diplomacy. As demostrated by the sign taped to his back reading “Kick me.”

      By the time his high-minded diplomacy had run its course, 56 americans had been held hostage for a year and any still-breathing Republican would’ve beat him.

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