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The Reagan Administration and the Cold War endgame in the periphery: the case of Southern Africa

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference paper

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication"Ronald Reagan and the Transformation of Global Politics in the 1980s" (Austin, AT&T Hotel and Conference Center January 19-21, 2017)
Unpublished21 Jan 2017

King's Authors


In 1985 the first meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva opened the doors to one of the most innovative aspects of the “Transformation of Global Politics” of the 1980s. The unprecedented relationship developed between the two leaders rapidly became the symbol of the end of the Cold War, as well as one of the most important features of Reagan’s foreign policy. Besides the negotiations on the core issue of arms control, another important topic was constantly discussed in all the summits between American and Soviet leaders: the regional conflicts and proxy wars in the Third World. Indeed, in the second half of the 1980s these conflicts played a quite significant role in Washington’s relations with Moscow. However, while the US-Soviet negotiations to stop the arms race have received a lot of scholarly attention, the “regional aspect” of the Reagan-Gorbachev dialogue has remained more in the shadow.
Drawing on documents from the South African Archives of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the National Security Archive and from the Reagan and Bush Presidential Libraries, this paper offers a contribution to the topic by focusing on US policy in one of those Third World battlefields: Southern Africa. Indeed, the Reagan Administration invested in this region a considerable political capital through the “constructive engagement” policy, implemented for eight years by Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Chester Crocker. Under this policy and through the dialogue with the Soviet counterparts, the US brokered a complex negotiation that eventually led to the 1988 Tripartite Agreement, which settled the chain of conflicts and proxy wars in Southern Africa.
This paper provides an analysis of the dynamics leading to this settlement, and of American policy in the region until the Soviet collapse in 1991. By looking at these two aspects, the paper has a twofold aim. Firstly, it shows how the Reagan Administration’s management of the Cold War endgame in the Third World was strongly influenced by the lessons learned from the failure of Détente during the 1970s. Consequently, the “regional aspect” of the dialogue with the USSR, which was fuelled by the fear of “burying” again the talks on arms control, became the main framework to understand US effort in conflict resolution in Southern Africa. Secondly, the paper offers an assessment of how this framework, together with the peculiar dynamics which marked the end of the superpowers’ confrontation in Southern Africa, left a complex legacy to the following Bush Administration’s involvement in the region.

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