As Putin’s confidence grows, Cold War concerns gain credibility

Editor’s note: This article first appeared at

Concerns about reigniting a Cold War gain credibility as Russian President Putin continues his militarism in Ukraine and draws his country into the ongoing crisis in Egypt. Thus, it is time to look back at the Reagan administration’s strategy that helped end the Cold War by breaking with long held policies enshrined in U.S.-Soviet détente of the 1970s.

President Reagan was joined by Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and six national security advisors, among others, in crafting a grand strategy that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991. For his part, William Patrick “Judge” Clark, Jr., national security advisor, oversaw the drafting of numerous National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs) that articulated the president’s principles and provided guidance to the bureaucracy in formulating foreign policy.

NSDD 32 (May 20, 1982), “U.S. National Security Strategy,” stated that the Soviet strategy would be based on credible deterrence. “Deterrence can best be achieved” the document states, “if our defense posture makes Soviet assessment of war outcomes, under any contingency, so dangerous and uncertain as to remove any incentive for initiating attack.” Deterrence would be “dependent on both nuclear and conventional capabilities,” even though the United States would undertake “equitable and verifiable arms control agreements, and … [prevent] the flow of militarily significant technologies and resources to the Soviet Union.” Deterrence also would entail substantial increases in defense spending, military-modernization programs, and a forward presence wherever vital interests were threatened. The credibility of U.S. deterrence would be buttressed by “a strong unified NATO” to protect Western values and interests.

One objective of these military efforts would be to “reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence throughout the world, and to increase the costs of Soviet support and use of proxy, terrorist, and subversive forces.”

Soviet reversal would come about by taking the fight to where Soviet military expansionism was particularly acute. Thus, many of the final battles of the Cold War would be fought in Southwest Asia: “The security of Southwest Asia is inextricably linked to the security of Europe and Japan and thus is vital to the defense of the United States.”  And the role of the U.S. there was clear:  “The U.S. will remain the primary military power for directly resisting the Soviet Union.”

NSDD 32 starkly stated the central challenge facing the United States. Limited resources would dictate the necessity to prioritize conflicts if multiple Soviet threats occurred simultaneously. Nevertheless, “in a conflict involving the Soviet Union, the U.S. must plan, in conjunction with allies, for a successful defense in a global war.”

Judge Clark revealed the overall U.S. strategic direction in a speech at Georgetown University on the day after President Reagan signed NSDD 32. Echoing the directive, Clark said that “the most prominent threat to our vital interests worldwide is the Soviet Union.”  To counter this threat, “conventional deterrence is now more important than ever” because the U.S. must be prepared for a range of unexpected overseas deployments. The nuclear arsenal was another central part of U.S. deterrence:  “The modernization of our strategic nuclear forces will receive first priority in our efforts to rebuild the military capabilities of the United States.”

Following NSDD 32, Judge Clark noted that “global planning is a necessity” but added, “This does not mean that we must have the capability to successfully engage Soviet forces simultaneously on all fronts.” The U.S. would have to prioritize and attempt “to limit the scope of any conflict.”

In addition to reversing Soviet policies, U.S. military preparedness was being undertaken for purposes different than the use of force. Clark said, “No one should mistake the main goal of American global strategy. The goal, of course, as the president has said over and again, is peace.”

Bearing major responsibility for checking Soviet expansionism, the Reagan administration used U.S. military and political strength to engage Soviet leaders in crucial negotiations on issues such as nuclear weapons and to achieve unprecedented bilateral and multilateral cooperation. None of that was predicted by political elites when Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in January 1981. By the time he left the White House, in January 1989, the first U.S.-Soviet nuclear disarmament treaty had been signed, the Soviets were shedding their imperial ambitions throughout the developing world, Eastern Europe was embracing political and economic freedom, and the last chapter of the Soviet Union was being written.

The Obama administration would do well to review U.S. grand strategy of the early 1980s in order to learn about the importance of a credible deterrent as a means of enhancing peace. It just may help Mr. Putin make better decisions.

About Kiron Skinner

Dr. Kiron Skinner, a Grove City College Trustee, is the founding director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for International Relations and Politics as well as a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. She is a columnist for

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