Cohen differs sharply from the traditional conservative school of Sovietology. Conservative Sovietologists such as Richard Pipes see the Soviet Union as being ruled by a monolithic oligarchy, whose commitment to Communist ideology overrides any minor differences among its members and compels the oligarchy to follow a policy of repression at home and imperialistic expansion abroad. Professor Cohen, on the other hand, finds a persistent reformist-conservative split within the oligarchy between proponents of decentralization and those of centralization in economic matters, and between advocates of detente and cold warriors in matters of foreign policy.
Similarly, in contrast to common opinion in the United States, Cohen views most Russians as being satisfied with their political and economic system. The liberal dissidents’ stress on civil rights, the author argues, has little appeal either to the Soviet establishment or to the average Russian; he regards Roy Medvedev, with his emphasis on appealing to reform-minded Soviet bureaucrats rather than to the Western press, as more practical than most other Soviet dissidents.
Although Cohen’s travels to the Soviet Union, and his years of scholarly study of Soviet history do lend him a special perspective, some of his recommendations seem questionable. America’s hard-line policy has, indeed, brought neither the collapse of the Soviet Union nor a more accommodating Soviet foreign policy; there is, however, no guarantee that American sweet reasonableness would ensure an equally reasonable Soviet foreign policy. The author does not adequately discuss the question of ideological roots for Soviet expansionism. Furthermore, one should not necessarily take comfort from the existence of a reformist-conservative split within the Soviet establishment: Nikita Khrushchev, a reformer within the Soviet political context, brought the world to the brink of war in 1962 by planting missiles in Cuba.
Despite some flaws, this book is a valuable contribution to an understanding of American relations with the other great nuclear power. Although individual essays may be somewhat outdated, the appearance of this book in print is timely: It coincides with President Ronald Reagan’s new efforts to seek a middle way between a naivete that ignores real differences between the Soviet and American systems and a rigid Cold War mentality that refuses to recognize genuine common interests. Cohen’s insights will be helpful in shaping such a new policy.