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Andrew Sullivan points us to Conor Friedersdorf, who thinks the revelation that Thatcher asked Gorbachev to slow the fall of the Berlin Wall is reason to mistrust politicians in general. I was also amazed by the Thatcher revelations. But more for how explicit her statements were, than for the general thrust of the content. We knew even at the time, as Eastern Europe was falling, that the Bush administration was strangely slow to embrace these developments. At the time, this seemed to be a phenomenon similar to the Reagan administration’s slowness to accept the reality of Gorbachev’s reform agenda, the idea that it was all some kind of “trick”. It seemed like Bush was still getting bad intel from anti-Communist Kremlinologists at CIA who still didn’t get what was happening before their eyes. What we know now is that the caution reflected anxiety over the potentially dangerous consequences of a too-rapid collapse of the Warsaw Pact regimes. And that anxiety was not misplaced; there was no way to know with certainty that the German-Polish border would not turn out the way the Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian borders did when Yugoslavia unraveled a couple of years later.
Another point that hasn’t been sufficiently factored in here is that it was wise for the West to reassure Gorbachev that it did not take events in Eastern Europe as an opportunity for security gains at Russia’s expense. Thatcher spends a lot of time reassuring Gorbachev that the West will do nothing to threaten the security of the USSR. That was a very smart thing to be saying to a nuclear-armed rival watching its near empire fall apart. The last time Eastern European regimes started going all gooey on the Russians, you got Prague, 1968; Gorbachev seemed unlikely to order such a move himself, but who knew how firmly he was in control, or whether rightists might not engineer a coup if it looked like he was letting things go to pieces? Which is, in fact, what happened two years later. As it turned out the rightists were senile buffoons and the coup lasted about three days before turning out the lights on the Soviet Union, but no one could know that in advance. In sum, regardless of how ardently you desired the end of Communism, there were good reasons for Margaret Thatcher to be telling Mikhail Gorbachev in late 1989 that the West did not want a reunification of Germany and did not plan to do anything to destabilize the USSR.
In sum, I don’t think the revelations should lead one to mistrust politicians in quite the way Friedersdorf does. It’s true that politicians’ most simplistic public statements and slogans will not always be adhered to in the details of their diplomatic maneuvering. But I don’t actually think Margaret Thatcher thought it was okay for Communism to persist indefinitely in Eastern Europe. It’s just that she also didn’t really think the Soviet Union was a rabid totalitarian dictatorship bent on invading Western Europe, and whose leaders could never be trusted; and apparently, in late 1989, she thought there was more risk in a sudden collapse of Communism, with Eastern European countries ripping away from the Soviet orbit, than in a slower evolutionary transition. Her public political pronouncements were a camera-friendly, lowest-common-denominator version of her somewhat more sophisticated actual anti-Communism. And the same was true of George H.W. Bush. Both were capable of tempering their ideological preferences with a healthy dose of realism. That doesn’t mean we should mistrust politicians in the sense that they may often literally do the opposite of what they claim to believe in; Thatcher didn’t actually support Communism. It’s just that the world they live in is not as simple as they make it seem to us in order to get elected. My recommendation would be that we lessen the electoral pressure on them to make it seem as though the world is black and white, so that we don’t feel betrayed when it turns out they see it in shades of gray.
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