If John Kerry ever gets to spend a day back home, the US secretary of state might wish to meet James Graham Wilson, a young scholar in his department’s Office of the Historian. Wilson’s recent book, The Triumph of Improvisation, offers a fresh and valuable look at the end of the cold war. Good histories do not offer policy recipes, but they can suggest ideas for policy makers.
As a participant in the closing days of the cold war, I recall telling the FT’s then diplomatic correspondent in Washington that in a few years young people would have a hard time grasping how it felt to live under that threat – in part because the end came so smoothly and peacefully. I am heartened that Wilson, who came of age after that era, wanted to understand how Presidents Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and George HW Bush orchestrated an amazing end to the fearful and seemingly perpetual superpower confrontation.
The title of The Triumph of Improvisation reflects that Wilson is writing against the backdrop of studies in “Grand Strategy”, as typified by Yale’s popular programme. The author seems surprised that leaders do not operate according to a “master plan”. But he describes artfully the practitioner’s reality of how policy is devised, tried, questioned, reconsidered, adjusted – and continually reargued. Moreover, it is encouraging that Wilson – and his mentors at the University of Virginia – are reviving the discipline of diplomatic history and the study of leaders and events. With headings such as “Individuals and Power” and “Individuals and Strategy”, Wilson offers a refreshing exploration of the human qualities of leadership.
Wilson recognises that Reagan’s diplomacy was based on fundamental beliefs, if not a detailed plan. Reagan felt he needed to restore America’s economic dynamism, military strength and belief in itself. After the dismal 1970s, the revival of capitalism in the 1980s offered a striking contrast with the stagnation of the Soviet Union. When oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s, Soviet decline became crisis. Reagan’s optimism – his faith in American genius, ideas, power and goodness – also made him willing to engage and even negotiate with Soviet opponents. Many of his advisers, in contrast, were too pessimistic or hostile to work with the Soviets.
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