Kissinger on SDI and the Soviet Collapse

I’ve been reading Henry Kissinger’s “summation” of international relations, World Order, which is as interesting and insightful as people have said.

He says of SDI that

[Reagan] challenged the Soviet Union to a race in arms and technology that it could not win, based on programs long stymied in Congress. What came to be known as the Strategic Defence Initiative – a defensive shield against missile attack – was largely derided in Congress and the media when Reagan put it forward. Today it is widely credited with convincing the Soviet leadership of the futility of its arms race with the United States.

He says later,

…without Reagan’s idealism – bordering sometimes on a repudiation of history – the end of the Soviet challenge could not have occurred amidst such a global affirmation of a democratic future.

By “Reagan’s idealism“, Kissinger explicitly means the idea of the “shining city on a hill“, which he says “was not a metaphor for Reagan; it actually existed for him because he willed it to exist.

Kissinger uses the “key people in positions of power” theory of the mechanisms of international relations while explaining the continuity of US foreign policy from Nixon through Ford, Carter and Reagan. Such an assertion of continuity might surprise those who were actually present during the period, but Kissinger’s argument for it is coherent, as one might expect.

Kissinger hedges his point about SDI by not actually appropriating it – he says “widely credited“, and that is correct, I think. But that doesn’t mean it’s fact.

Let me propose an alternative view, in which it was one of two major factors (amongst a plethora of others).

George Kennan foresaw how things would progress in 1947. It might be said that his view, more widely spread, established the Cold War and predicted its denouement. It had been clear for a long time by the mid-1980’s that US productivity, when channelled into military spending, could outrun that of the Soviet Union in the long term, but no one knew how long that term would be. I seem to recall some reports that the Soviets were putting 40% of their productivity into military kit, and for all anyone knew maybe they could raise that to 60%, because it could have been seen as more important than feeding people. Whereas there was no appetite in the US for even 20% spending on the military, after the Vietnam war.

SDI was in the first place an escalation of resource consumption. It wasn’t based on a Reagan decision alone; it was based more generally on fantasy in the US military, of which there was a plentiful supply. I remember an eminent colleague in the mid-80’s recounting a meeting with a USAF general officer whose vision consisted of a helmet which could read and execute the thoughts of a fighter pilot: “fly there, do that, shoot that; I just THINK about it and it happens“. Thirty years later, bits of that have been implemented. Whereas the SDI vision is having trouble achieving even a 50% success rate in one-on-one anti-ICBM-missile trials, according to the table in this 2014 article. Now, I suspect well-grounded Soviet military technologists knew as well as well-grounded US military technologists that SDI at that point in the 1980’s was fantasy. The arguments are not hard; they were, as expressed by David Parnas, convincing, true and public. Some people in the Soviet Union surely must have known that SDI was bluff.

So what was SDI’s role in the Soviet collapse? I suggest it may have been half of it. The other half was Reagan suggesting directly to Gorbachev that both sides could just scrap their nuclear missiles, and meaning it. The Soviet leadership realised they were playing with someone who was far wealthier, who could more or less bet anything he pleased at any point in the game, at whim. If you’re on welfare, and you’re playing poker with a millionaire who has just spent €10,000 in front of you on a tie because he didn’t like the one he was wearing, and he’s offering at the same time to stop the game, it’s not clear what you should best do but stopping right now must seem an attractive option.

And, of course, if Kennan was right, which apparently everyone now thinks he was, then the collapse would have happened anyway, with or without SDI. But it might have taken a bit longer. Then of course there was that bit about taking down a wall in Berlin that might have had something to do with it.