Historians love to argue about whether “great men” make a difference. Brown’s book suggests they do. Nobody but Gorbachev, he argues, would have set the Soviet Union on the path to reform after 1985. Similarly, almost any other Soviet leader would probably have tried much harder to keep eastern Europe within the communist orbit in the late 1980s. Probably any other leader would have used force, as Gorbachev briefly tried and failed to do in the Baltic states. In other words, that the Cold War ended so peacefully is down to one man and one man alone.
The overarching theme of The Human Factor is not that individual leaders are the driving force behind historical change, but that some leaders can make a big difference. In his final chapter, Brown makes another excellent point — namely, that insofar as western countries won the cold war through efforts of their own, it was not only because of their military strength but because they set good examples of democracy, liberty, law, prosperity and soft power. This is a lesson that needs relearning for the 21st century.
In 1997 Brown published The Gorbachev Factor, a pioneering work criticised by some for giving too much credit to the man with whom Thatcher could do business. His new book, lucidly written and scholarly, carries the argument further. Always interested in big ideas (he has written on the history of world communism and the myth of the strong leader), he is fascinated by the evolving interplay between three remarkable but very different people who presided over the ending of the Cold War.
As the author of a book on Mikhail Gorbachev, Brown is well placed to discuss the principal player on the Soviet side. He highlights Gorbachev’s relentless attempts to reform the USSR, his willingness to end the Cold War and withdraw Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and his refusal to open fire at the protesters who took to the streets of eastern Europe in 1989. Ronald Reagan comes out as a sympathetic figure, a sincere and essentially well-meaning leader, even though in his first term his administration became deeply dysfunctional.