Confrontation and Cooperation from the West (1989, #2)

The first article in this series dealt with the peoples of Eastern Europe as the agents of change in 1989. Not all explanations for the collapse of Communism center on them, though. Especially in Western Europe and North America, the role of Western governments in the end of the Cold War has been surveyed thoroughly. Paradoxically, there are two diametrically opposed explanations how Western governments might have enacted the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe – by confrontation or by cooperation with the East. We’ll look at both in this article.


The basic argument of the confrontation theory is that Western pressure as manifested in the arms buildup of the Reagan administration in the early 1980s effected the end of the Cold War. According to this argument, the Soviet Union could not bear the arms race anymore, so the Soviets effectively surrendered, which left the United States the sole superpower and the countries of Eastern Europe free to pursue their own designs. In this form, the argument has multiple flaws. First, it ignores the more than atypical event of a major power just peacefully resigning from its mighty position instead of having to be forced out of it by war (like, for example, the Athenian Empire of the 5th century BCE) or at least clinging to its possessions and privileges (like the British Empire). Second, the argument also neglects the fact that Communism did not collapse during the years of tension in the early 1980s, but rather in the period of détente later in the decade, marginalizing how Reagan (in his second term) and Bush took up Gorbachev’s offers of negotiations and arms reduction. Despite these shortcomings in the argument, it is common in popular histories of the end of the Cold War – usually with the aim of lionizing Reagan, or, rather, a version of him that reduces him to a tough Cold Warrior only. 1989 does not employ this explanation at all – after all, it deals with events years before when the game sets in.

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Kohl’s move took German and international actors by surprise. Image ©GMT Games.

That does not mean that 1989 eschews bold moves by Western governments altogether: “Kohl Proposes Reunification” can give the Democrats a much-wanted VP boost (and cause additional trouble for the Communist player, should she draw the card). West German chancellor Helmut Kohl surprised his allies with the proposal (at least the British, and, to a lesser extent, the French were rather lukewarm towards the idea of having a reunited Germany in the heart of Europe) and infuriated Gorbachev who felt sidelined in the creation of the new European order. Kohl, however, secured American support for his idea and got the deal done in the short window of opportunity when the Soviet Union was both weak and cooperative enough to go along with it.
In any case, there is a more sophisticated version of the Western pressure argument than the Soviet Union faltering after America flexed her muscles. It has more to do with Reagan’s economic policy than with his military buildup. The tight monetary constraints Reagan put in place replaced the 1970s capital flood with a drought. This was a major problem for the entire global economy, but it hit the nations dependent on foreign capital in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe especially hard. As an unintentional consequence, it helped topple authoritarian regimes who had bought their populations’ allegiance with a stable economy and access to consumer goods. What made this so devastating to the economies of the Communist states was, however, the lethal combination with events outside of American control: The prices of oil and gas plummeted after the second oil shock of 1979 – and oil and gas were the Soviet Union’s only relevant exports. With revenue from these sources shrinking, the Soviet Union could not subsidize her East European satellites anymore. The desolate state of the Eastern economies is a pervasive theme in 1989’s card deck as well – think, for example, of the havoc “Foreign Currency Debt Burden” can wreak on the Communist player, especially if the Democrat can couple it with a scoring card.

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Foreign debts crippled most Communist countries in 1989. Only Romania was debt-free – at the expense of the most basic standard of living for its population. Image ©GMT Games.


We’ve seen before that Communism collapsed in a time of thawing East-West tensions. This thaw had not originally been a Western idea: Gorbachev had immediately started pitching one negotiation and arms reduction offer after the other when he took power in 1985, which were initially dismissed as Soviet ploys by Western leaders. However, Gorbachev and Reagan were able to find trust in each other despite the rocky start to their relationship. They even made breakthroughs in the always sensitive topic of arms control with the INF and the START treaties – for the first time, the superpowers reduced their nuclear arsenals (instead of just limiting further growth).

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Unilateral Western triumph or joint East-West success against the forces of confrontation? Bush and Gorbachev declared the Cold War to be over in December 1989. Image ©GMT Games

President George H.W. Bush, freshly inaugurated in 1989, continued this policy of détente, but added his own calm personality to it. During the tumultuous events of his first year in office, he showed remarkable restraint, not willing to endanger the larger strategic goal of freedom for Eastern Europe with a boastful show of victory – in his words, he was not willing to “dance on the [Berlin] Wall [for] three points in the polls”. Bush feared that the Soviets might intervene in the revolutions if they felt that they were humiliated or their vital interests threatened.[1] While this was disappointing to the dissidents in Eastern Europe who had hoped that the United States would forcefully commit to their cause in word and deed, Bush’s policy of prudence ultimately succeeded – Gorbachev kept letting the Eastern Europeans go their own way, and no major crisis between the superpowers arose. On the contrary, Bush and Gorbachev retained cordial relations and jointly declared the Cold War to be over at the Malta Summit in December 1989.

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1989 is skeptical towards a policy of caution. Image ©GMT Games.

1989 gives Bush some credit for his successes (as shown by the cards above), but “Prudence”, which Bush personifies, is a stand-in for the slowing down of events by excessive caution. A headline of this card – essentially the 1989 counterpart to Twilight Struggle’s much feared “Red Scare/Purge” – can be devastating. The sword of prudence however, cuts both ways – the Communist player can be struck by it just as well as the Democrat.

1989 – A Triumph of the West?

We’ve seen that Western governments feature on some of the cards – both for arguments of confrontation and cooperation, although the latter is more frequent since it fits better with the state of superpower relations in the year 1989. However, there are far fewer events dealing with that than with the dissident movements of Eastern Europe (see the first article of this series for those). In the mechanisms, Western governments don’t play any role at all. Ted Torgerson and Jason Matthews, the designers of 1989, have taken a deliberate stance not to present the revolutions as a story of Western triumph, but rather of the resilience and determination of the peoples of Eastern Europe. What, however, of the Communist governments of Eastern Europe? We’ll look at them in the next post.

Further Reading

A bestselling version of the popular version of the confrontation argument is Schweizer, Peter: Victory. The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York City, NY 1994. The more fiscally sophisticated version is succinctly put forward by Arrighi, Giovanni: The world economy and the Cold War, 1970—1990, in: Leffler, Melvyn P./Westad, Odd Arne: The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume 3. Endings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 23—44.
You’ll find a good overview of events at the end of the Cold War (that supports the narrative of cooperation as the force behind its end) as well as their connection to our times in Dockrill, Saki Ruth: The End of the Cold War Era. The Transformation of the Global Security Order, Hodder, London 2005.
For an account of how the German states and the victorious powers of World War II built the new European order (with special emphasis on West German chancellor Kohl’s balancing act in bringing about German reunification) see Sarotte, Mary Elise: 1989. The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ/Oxford 2009.


1. There is a striking difference between this approach of substance over show and the diametrically opposed policy the Eisenhower administration employed during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It is no coincidence that Eisenhower felt the need to have something to show in the presidential election only two weeks after the revolution began whereas Bush had the luxury of more than three years until he needed to face reelection.

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