Jack F. Matlock, Jr. Superpower Illusions. An expanded analysis

In his latest book drawing upon his experiences as key adviser to President Ronald Reagan on U.S. policy to the USSR then as ambassador to Moscow in the period of Perestroika, 1987-1991, Jack Matlock nurtures the false hope that educating the public about the real reasons of the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the USSR itself will help bring American foreign policy back to pragmatism and moderation.



Jack F. Matlock, Jr. Superpower Illusions


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



Jack Matlock emerges from his writings as the kind of American ambassador you wish we had posted in every capital of importance. Among his many strengths which come to mind are: a man of integrity and gravitas who was dedicated to explaining his nation’s interests to his hosts while remaining alert to the interests and the thinking processes of the country where he was stationed, linguistically gifted, energetic, knowledgeable and personable. It is a credit to President Ronald Reagan that he had the wisdom to keep Matlock close to him in the mid 1980s as his adviser on relations with the Soviet Union, author of draft letters exchanged with Mikhail Gorbachev and policy initiatives, as well as his trainer for summits before sending him on to the post of U.S. ambassador in Moscow, where he served from 1987 to 1991, during the critical years of Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, right up to the several months preceding the dissolution of the USSR itself. The Moscow ambassadorship was the culmination of Matlock’s 35 year career with the Foreign Service and he chose to leave government in August 1991 to busy himself with scholarship and writing books.


Superpower Illusions is Matlock’s third book to draw extensively on his experience during the Reagan and Bush years. Each work has sliced this autobiographical material in a different way and been written in a distinctive genre to further a specific and single-minded objective.


Matlock’s first and longest book, the nearly 800-page Autopsy of an Empire (1995) was a history of events in the USSR from the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev directed at answering one question: why the Soviet Union collapsed on his watch. Matlock included a good deal of firsthand reportage of what he saw, citing his diaries heavily as his narrative thickens in the critical years from 1989 to 1991. But he also introduced extensive material coming from outside sources, including the periodical press of the time, the later published memoirs of other major actors in the events described and interviews which he especially conducted with many of them early in 1992 with a view to pinning down causality and responsibility.


This was a scholarly book in which the author strived for a matter-of-fact tone and only occasionally made personal assessments of individuals. Though he was most laconic in describing his colleagues and superiors back home in the USA, in one of these rare instances he spoke of the frustrating inability of George Bush, Sr. to seize the moment and extend any substantive assistance to the Russians to ease the transition to a market economy. This he attributed to both a lack of vision and to lack of self-confidence given his uncertain electoral base. Matlock found more occasions in the book to explore the frailties – and the strengths – of the Russians he met. Though giving Gorbachev his due as the man who liberated Russia, Matlock repeatedly underlined the poor skills of Gorbachev in choosing his assistants and his vain dismissal of Boris Yeltsin’s clamoring to assist reform, feeding the animus which eventually gave a post-Soviet state its coup de grace.


The emphasis in Anatomy was on issues over people. This matched the leitmotiv of his advice to Washington during his years of service: to support Russian policies and actions rather than be committed to leading personalities. Matlock’s priority was setting down clear chronology and investigating major causal factors such as the centrifugal forces of nationalism, the different constituencies of economic versus political reform and the interplay of foreign and domestic pressures on the evolving power balance in the USSR as it teetered at the brink.

The task Matlock undertook in his second major work of pure history published in 2004 was dual, as is indicated in the two part title: Reagan and Gorbachev. How the Cold War Ended. The book describes in greatest detail the several summits which punctuated the relationship between the two leaders. It traces the personal and political dimensions which began shakily at Geneva in 1985, took a stormy turn in Reykjavik in 1986 after great hopes were dashed, and culminated in the breakthroughs of the Washington summit of 1987 with the treaty to remove intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe, followed by the celebratory Moscow summit of 1988. Matlock concludes with an appreciation of how important to achieving the end of the Cold War were the personal qualities of both statesmen, meaning their vision, willingness to take risks and persuasiveness with their own countrymen.

The time frame of this book spans Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office, i.e., it goes back four years before Gorbachev came to power. Matlock’s intent is firstly to overturn the commonplace view that Reagan was just a simplistic fellow who stood up to the ‘evil empire’ and brought it down by his unswerving toughness. Instead Matlock reveals a much more nuanced approach to the Cold War adversary, in which the President tried earnestly to interest Gorbachev’s three predecessors, Brezhnev, then Andropov and lastly Chernenko in finding a common solution to halting and then reversing the arms race, particularly the nuclear arsenals, but met with crude rebuffs from an aged, infirm and intellectually petrified Soviet leadership. This also brings out the second objective: to show exactly what a difference the accession to power of Gorbachev made for Reagan in his search for a receptive interlocutor ready to consider fundamental changes. Over time the Soviets accepted and contributed to an expanded agenda which included mutually withdrawing from proxy wars in the Third World, ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and improving respect for human rights.

During much of the period covered in this book Matlock was based in Washington working as the lead Soviet and European affairs specialist within the National Security Council. Accordingly compared to his first book which was set in Russia, Reagan and Gorbachev devotes greater attention to key personalities and political forces on the American side. There are vignettes, assessments of Alexander Haig, George Shultz, Robert Gates and other high officials along the way. And yet the author’s sketchy characterizations are cautious and, in the end, unsatisfying. Matlock remained very much the diplomat.

We are told repeatedly that there were ‘hardliners’ within the Reagan administration. Sometimes they are identified as ‘propagandists.’ At other times Matlock calls them ‘ideologists.’ They tried to stymie the President’s disarmament initiatives, opposed dialogue with the enemy and, when overruled, spread rumors that the President did not mean what he said about ending the arms race.

Matlock names Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, a close personal friend of Reagan’s, as one of the prominent figures in this camp. CIA Director William Casey was another. Otherwise they are identified as the ‘second echelon civilians in the Defense Department.’ It is a safe assumption that many of these same individuals went on to become first echelon officials in the Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. administrations. Accordingly it would be helpful if Matlock had been less close-lipped about them in this book.

We also read occasionally in Reagan and Gorbachev about resistance to the President’s policy of arms reduction on Capitol Hill, in particular among Republicans in the Senate. This side of a political establishment entrenched in Cold War simplifications deserved greater analytic attention from the author, if only to set off better the achievements of the presidential team in working the political levers at its disposal.

About his colleagues within the NSC, we are told that they were merely spokesmen for the government bureaus they came from rather than independently acting thinkers on affairs of state. But that begs the question of why their government silos were so resistant to the policy changes President Reagan was trying to implement with the enlightened help of advisers like Matlock and Shultz. And apart from the generalization that none had spent much time living in the USSR or even at postings to other U.S. embassies abroad, we are given no information about the people whom Matlock saw every day in his government work.

On the other hand, Matlock’s honesty about himself is at times disarming. We read at the very start of the book that he resisted the idea of moving to Washington for a position on the NSC, telling his caller when the offer was made: “..I’m not sure about the job. My place is in the field. I like to work in embassies. I detest the Washington bureaucracy, and I am sure the feeling is reciprocated.”

There is a paradox here which must be exposed, without in any way detracting from Ambassador Matlock’s dedicated patriotism: he just happened to feel very comfortable living abroad. It could be valuable to learn what about the Washington bureaucracy he found so repugnant other than the kind of pettiness and inertia which come with large organizations anywhere. Indeed, Matlock speaks at the end of this book about the resistance in their bureaucracies which both Reagan and Gorbachev had to overcome to see their transformation of international relations through to success.

The goal of Jack Matlock’s latest work, Superpower Illusions (2010) is of a different kind. He appears before us not as a history professor or chronicler but as a citizen activist. He seeks to take a political stand and influence the course of American foreign policy in the new administration.

Matlock opens the book with an account of his deep disappointment over the post-Cold War presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush which prompted him to abandon his affiliation with the Democratic Party and to pass up the Republicans for registration as an independent. Having thrown down the diplomatic mask, Matlock explains himself in great detail in later chapters.


With respect to Clinton, he tells us a grand opportunity to forge a genuine partnership with Russia that would result in sharing security burdens, reducing the arsenals of weapons of mass destruction and raising barriers to nuclear proliferation was lost when the President succumbed to the temptations of transient domestic political advantage and opted for an expanded NATO as well as for other policies which Russians perceived as hostile to their national interests. In the case of Bush, America lurched towards unilateralism and invaded Iraq in a war of choice which was unleashed without international sanction. Matlock believes that during both presidencies the genuine challenges facing the nation in the new post-Cold War age were not addressed and vast resources were squandered on missions which did not improve security.


Matlock attributes much of what went wrong to the mistaken but widespread idea that America’s status as sole remaining ‘superpower’ could be used to remake the international landscape as it wished. In turn, this dangerous illusion derived from an erroneous interpretation of how the Cold War ended which has been fanned by the Neoconservatives: namely the belief that the Soviet Union collapsed under the pressure of U.S. military, economic and political pressure, with Reagan’s tough line and Star Wars program giving the critical push. In fact, Matlock tells us, the end of the Cold War was a negotiated settlement which served both parties, and the Soviet Union disintegrated due to largely domestic factors once Gorbachev undertook fundamental political reforms that ended the monopoly of power of the Communist Party and attempted poorly conceived economic reforms which brought on a sharp downward spiral in production and living standards. Both were made possible by the breathing space in international relations.

What he is saying here is largely a repetition of points he made at the end of Reagan and Gorbachev. However, it is directed now more explicitly against those political forces, namely the Neoconservatives, which appeared to be guiding foreign policy under George W. Bush.

In a way, it is really a great pity that Ambassador Matlock waited so long to exploit the political capital of his own authority as key contributor to policy formulation and implementer for Reagan during the period which brought the Cold War to an end. Matlock’s points about the real nature of Reagan’s policy towards the Soviets, indeed all things necessary to combat the falsehoods spread by the Neoconservatives, were grasped by some American political scientists who were outside the process already in the early 1990s. I refer the reader to Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry’s splendid article “Who Won the Cold War” in Foreign Policy, No. 87 (Summer, 1992). What was missing from their statement was the insider’s stamp of approval that Matlock possessed.

So why is Matlock taking a stand now? He tells us he hopes to facilitate public acceptance of the turn to pragmatism, cutback on military spending and more modest foreign policy which he expects from a new president elected on a platform of change.

The first problem with this approach is Matlock’s reading of Obama, which is wishful and not supported by the facts. By his choice of close assistants in the security and foreign policy posts from before he took office and by his policy decisions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since, the sitting president shows little proof of having abandoned the ‘superpower illusions’ in deeds, even if his rhetoric has been less abrasive than his predecessor’s. Secondly, educating the public in general is at best a long term mission which will have little bearing on the present conduct of policy. Moreover, Matlock is ignoring the fact that the arbiters of public opinion, the national security establishment, remain fixated on the need for the American global hegemony and global projection of military power which Matlock would like to see curbed. They stand arms locked against naysayers to the Pax Americana. Though the review article posted in the May-June 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs was kindly to the Ambassador, the prospect of a reduced American global presence such as Matlock is seeking was not regarded with pleasure.


It is an interesting coincidence that another conservative-minded political analyst also coming from a long career of U.S. government service (in this case, the Army) and holding rather similar notions to Matlock’s on what American foreign policy and military posture should look like, Boston University Professor of U.S. Diplomatic History Andrew Bacevich, has this year published a book (Washington Rules) which drills down deeper into a society which tolerated egregious abuses of the past two presidencies. Bacevich believes that the definition of being a good citizen in today’s America has become too painless for our own good. He calls out two correctives which might well turn the ship of state around by breathing life into civic responsibility: re-instituting the draft and re-instituting a balanced federal budget. At least here we have issues around which political action can mobilize, eventually calling the excesses of the Clinton-Bush years to heel. It appears that Bacevich made a greater effort to understand his compatriots, whereas Ambassador Matlock applied his powers of concentration more to understanding Russia and the world.


Nonetheless, even if Superpower Illusions disappoints in the terms which its author set for himself, it does present us with some very interesting new insights into the momentous events to which Jack Matlock was both witness and participant.


As he drew away from his diary entries and has re-considered the period from greater perspective, Matlock appears to have shifted his estimation on the balance between great leaders and circumstance in determining the course of history. In particular, Matlock is much kinder to Gorbachev than he was 15 years ago in Anatomy or even 6 years ago in his last history. More generally, he tells us that ‘international relations are ultimately controlled by people, not by impersonal forces.’ And people can and do make a difference. They can and do rise above their surroundings. He pays tribute to “the autonomy of mind and judgment of people.”


One of the more interesting questions which Matlock deals with in Superpower Illusions is the decision taken in Bill Clinton’s first term to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries and not to invite Russia into the Alliance. Matlock places this fateful call in the period just prior to the 2004 mid-term elections and he explains it as one more token of Clinton’s under-appreciation of foreign policy, which he passed off to subordinates, and lack of strategic vision. The decision, says Matlock, was taken in the same way as many other foreign policy choices, to win electoral support from Polish-Americans and others of East European descent.


Though he brings up the issue of promises made to Gorbachev not to move NATO into the region and allows the reader to understand American policy in the Clinton and Bush Jr. presidencies as a breaking of trust with the Russians in this regard, he has chosen to ignore some critical facts dating from the Yeltsin period, namely the Russians’ expectation that their acquiescence in Poland’s joining NATO expressed during Yeltsin’s visit to Warsaw in 1993 would be rewarded with an invitation to the Russians. He also fails to mention the strong opposition to Russian membership of Henry Kissinger in public testimony in 1994 and the equally determined voice of Zbigniew Brzezinski in the same spirit. And these two most experienced statesmen and foreign affairs specialists were only saying what the vast majority of the establishment otherwise felt. In this context, it is misleading for Matlock to blame the missed opportunities on an uninformed and shallowly opportunistic president.


Matlock does not specifically delineate the changes in foreign policy between Clinton’s first term when Warren Christopher headed the State Department and his second term, when Madeleine Albright occupied the post. But he takes the time to cut the still admired Albright down to size, indicating that she was more impressive for stridency of language, for display of hubris than for strategy. I beg to differ: Albright took the indecisiveness out of NATO expansion under Clinton and oversaw a whole series of measures that were intended to ensure there would be no resurgence of an imperialistic or any other kind of Russia. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline project was successfully negotiated under U.S. guidance at this time. The bombing of Serbia over Russian objections and without U.N. Security Council approval took place then. Indeed the trajectory of U.S. policy was better pointed in the direction that the Bush-Cheney team continued than Matlock lets on. And surely the intellectual godfather of many of these initiatives was Albright’s former mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose 1997 book The Grand Chessboard provided a spirited roadmap and who personally participated in the implementation of the policy to circumvent Russian energy control of the Caspian basin which Albright approved.


I understand that it was not Matlock’s purpose to write a detailed history of the Clinton or Bush years, but these and similar facts put in question his blaming Neoconservatives and a misguided interpretation of the end of the Cold War for all the missed opportunities under Clinton and the adoption of positively dangerous policies under Bush-II. It might be more helpful to think of the hegemonic aspirations of the entire U.S. foreign policy and security establishment as something that was lurking in the background from well before the end of the Cold War. Bacevich argues that global presence, global power projection and global military interventions have been a feature of all US administrations, Democratic and Republican, from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama.


Jack Matlock’s Superpower Illusions devotes great attention to the fallacies which the Bush Jr. team promoted as it led the country into its illegal war in Iraq and perpetrated a host of misdeeds which discredited the country, including the widely publicized violations at Abu Ghraib, the scandal of Guantanamo detentions, outright torture of suspected terrorists, secret rendition of captured enemy combatants to states where there mistreatment was certain, illegal wiretapping domestically. All of these facts have been described elsewhere in the mainstream media, but it is reassuring when a confirmed patriot with impeccable credentials sets down his condemnation for the record. Bravo!


Jack Matlock has seen a great deal of important Americans and epochal events in his years of government service. It would be very illuminating if in a future volume he were to turn back to his own archives and recollections to tell us more about his colleagues, his bosses, his interlocutors back home in Washington. If he applied himself more in this domain, he might also end up looking deeper for the solutions to our present foreign policy cul-de-sac. I, for one, doubt that asking the President to listen more closely to his seasoned Foreign Service officers, as the good Ambassador does at the very end of Superpower Illusions, will provide much cure.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010

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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.