For my America and the World course I’ve been reading We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis. The twentieth century isn’t really my thing, but I’ve really enjoyed this book.
One of the themes running through We Now Know is that the Soviet Union operated with a number of disadvantages. Its authoritarian structure could not create and maintain alliances as well as the democratic U.S., which was more accustomed to compromises and building coalitions. The USSR therefore had to coerce its “allies,” whereas allies of the U.S. enjoyed more flexibility and initiative. And since there was nobody in a position to say “no” to a Stalin or a Khrushchev, nobody could stop them when they pursued a course that was misguided, as they tended to do often. (Gaddis notes that “there seems to have been something about authoritarians that caused them to lose touch with reality.”)
One of the few things the USSR had going for it was the appearance of military strength, which brings us to this delightful metaphor:
The end of the Cold War made it blindingly clear that military strength does not always determine the course of great events: the Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with its arms and armed forces fully intact. Deficiencies in other kids of power—economic, ideological, cultural, moral—caused the USSR to lose its superpower status, and we can now see that a slow but steady erosion in those non-military capabilities had been going on for some time.
To visualize what happened, imagine a troubled triceratops. From the outside, as rivals contemplated its sheer size, tough skin, bristling armament, and aggressive posturing, the beast looked sufficiently formidable that none dared tangle with it. Appearances deceived, though, for within its digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems were slowly clogging up, and then shutting down. There were few external signs of this until the day the creature was found with all four feet in the air, still awesome but now bloated, stiff, and quite dead. The moral of the fable is that armaments make impressive exoskeletons, but a shell alone ensures the survival of no animal and no state (p. 284).