At the Highest Levels

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One of the most fascinating aspects of At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War is the book’s total fulfillment of its promise to provide readers with an insider’s view of what happened at key policy meetings, superpower summits, and supposedly secret conversations at the end of the Cold War. In their direct quotes and uncannily close descriptions of the talks, actions, and plans of leaders such as George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, James Baker, and Eduard Shevardnadze, historian Michael Beschloss and former journalist Strobe Talbott reveal their amazing access to the world players who have made recent history.

Written in part during the crucial years 1989 to 1991, At the Highest Levels tells its remarkable story in roughly chronological fashion and headlines each chapter with a personal quote by one of the statesmen involved. This method establishes a strong sense of immediacy, if not suspense, and allows the reader to live again through those influential times when a world order was suddenly overturned. An outline of the events under discussion, which is printed in front and back of the book, greatly helps the reader to keep track.

At the Highest Levels opens with a quick succession of state funerals in Moscow, as Ronald Reagan’s vice president George Bush attends these ceremonies occasioned by the demise of one superannuated Soviet leader after another. When fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev assumes command in the spring of 1985, the course of Soviet foreign policy changes dramatically: This relatively young, fresh leader seems determined to end the old enmities between the Soviets and the West which had given the Cold War its name.

Once George Bush is inaugurated as president in January, 1989, Beschloss and Talbott chronicle in great depth how the leaders of the two superpowers try to establish a political and, soon enough, personal relationship through which to set the tone and pace of their wide-ranging negotiations. The authors are careful not to let hindsight cloud their description of Bush’s initial reluctance to maintain the breakneck speed at which Gorbachev and Reagan had come to operate in their mutual efforts to change superpower relations. Right from the beginning, and indicative of things to come, the reader is given a front-row seat at the newly elected American president’s first private policy seminar on relations with the Soviets, which Stanford professor Condoleezza Rice organized at Bush’s vacation home in Kennebunkport.

On the Soviet side, At the Highest Levels provides a similar level of intimate knowledge, as its pages reveal in vivid detail Gorbachev’s anger at Bush’s overly cautious proceedings. Almost a year passes before the two meet face-to- face at the “seasick summit” in Malta in December, 1989. By this time, as Beschloss and Talbott show, the world has changed dramatically. Gorbachev’s decision to release the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe results in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the astonishingly quick and relatively bloodless collapse of virtually every Communist regime in the region during the annus mirabilis, or “wonderful year “of 1989. Suddenly, the authors demonstrate, statesmen and diplomats in the East and the West see their hands forced by unforeseen, rapidly unfolding external events.

Yet pressure on foreign policy also arises from domestic difficulties. On the American side, there is George Bush’s lingering vulnerability to charges of betrayal from the Republican right; in the Soviet Union, a deteriorating economy together with an increasing desire for independence in the Baltics and a nascent civil war in the Transcaucasus hamper Gorbachev’s freedom of action and severely erode his popularity at home.

Given the domestic troubles of the two leaders, it is easy to see why, as Beschloss and Talbott reveal, Bush privately assures Gorbachev that he will overlook some Soviet actions against opponents within the Union, as long as violence is avoided. As a result, a close relationship develops between the two men, and the world sees a reunified Germany which is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the forging of the remarkable anti-Saddam Hussein alliance, which succeeds in throwing the...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)