Studies explaining the end of the cold war and change in Soviet foreign policy tend to emphasize the role of the international system: decision makers “learned lessons” about the international system, and this learning brought about Soviet accommodationist policies. Such systemic and cognitive learning approaches tend, however, to mask the political and highly contingent nature of the policy changes. To understand these changes, one must explore how certain ideas got placed on the political agenda and how others were forced off.
This essay stresses the role of ideas about both the foreign and the domestic scene, as well as the role of a network of specialists that helped put these ideas on the national agenda. Ideas alone cannot explain any one outcome. They must be understood in terms of the political process by which they are selected. Ideas are more likely to be implemented and epistemic communities are more likely to be influential under three conditions: (1) access to the leadership, (2) salience of the ideas to the leadership, and (3) the ability of the leadership to control the political agenda.
One critical example of great change in foreign policy was the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. This study examines the interplay of ideas and politics over time and explains how the decision to withdraw was implemented and why it occurred when it did. It focuses on (1) the mobilization of an epistemic community before Gorbachev came to power, (2) massive personnel changes within Soviet institutions in the 1980s, and (3) the empowerment of the epistemic community once Gorbachev had consolidated his power.