When Leaders Learn and When They Don't: Mikhail Gorbachev and Kim Il-Sung at the End of the Cold War

By Fiori, Antonio | North Korean Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

When Leaders Learn and When They Don't: Mikhail Gorbachev and Kim Il-Sung at the End of the Cold War


Fiori, Antonio, North Korean Review


When Leaders Learn and When They Don't: Mikhail Gorbachev and Kim Il-Sung at the End of the Cold War Akan Malici. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008, 194 pages, ISBN: 9780-7914-7303-0, $65

With this book Malici has made an excellent and original contribution to the discipline of international relations in the broadest sense. He observes international relations not from a "common" perspective but rather from the standpoint of leaders;or, more precisely, "how leaders represent themselves and their enemies" (p. 3). In Malici's opinion, leaders must be seen as agents of change and continuity in the international system. In order to demonstrate this basic assumption, the author analyzes-comparatively-two leaders who have been fundamental for the process of change and continuity of the nations they represented: Mikhail Gorbachev and Kim Il-Sung. The former, last head of state of the USSR and protagonist of the chain of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party itself, has linked his name to important reform processes like perestroika and glasnost; the latter, originally prime minister and then president of North Korea, has established a pervasive cult of personality and-above all-in a sense he has contributed to the extreme isolation of his country.

Malici is not entirely new to this sort of comparative approach, having already published a similar analysis comparing the Cuban leader Fidel Castro with the two Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. He wrote the present book, he says, for three main reasons. First, he wished to augment what he sees as the unsatisfactory answers provided by modern scholarship with regard to the two personalities under analysis here. Second, he believes in the inestimable contribution that analysis of these two actors may provide to the study of foreign policy and strategic interaction in world politics. Finally, above all, he chose the innovative methodological approach based on the examination of beliefs considered as "unobservable" variables.

The book is divided into three main parts. The first one is devoted to the elucidation of the theoretical approach. These pages must be read very carefully, since they are crucial to understand the following cases. The author employs sophisticated measurement in order to scrutinize the beliefs of the two leaders taken into account, their learning patterns, and-as already mentioned-"their impact on change and continuity in the strategic interactions of the Soviet Union and North Korea in the international system" (p. 20). If making beliefs and learning patterns observable through the study of political leaders' public statements is the first methodological task of the book, the second-and most demanding-is "to systematically trace their influence on behavioral dynamics, especially strategic interaction" (p. 23). In this regard Malici utilizes the interesting "theory of moves" introduced by Steven Brams in Brams's book of the same name. This framework, which may be used to capture the dynamics of a wide range of real-life non-cooperative negotiations, is significantly based on the classical theory of games, although proposing considerable variations in its rules to render it a dynamic theory. Very roughly, in the Theory of Moves framework, agents have knowledge of the starting state of the game and make sequential and alternate moves. The model employed in this book specifies 2x2 games with the possible outcomes of settlement, domination, submission and deadlock, formed by the intersection of cooperation and conflict choices by one or the other player.

The second part of Malici's book mainly analyzes empirical cases. The first two chapters in this part offer an insightful account of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union. These two parts are necessary to understand the transformation in Gorbachev's attitude towards the United States. …

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