Appraising Mikhail Gorbachev
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 12 Sep 2022
6 Sep 2022 – My responses to questions by independent journalist Daniel Falcone two days after Mikhail Gorbachev’s death on 30 Aug 2022.
1. Can you briefly comment on Gorbachev’s life? What do you suppose is his historical legacy, especially as it relates to the Cold War?
I think it is safe to say that Mikhail Gorbachev had the greatest historical impact of any public figure since the end of World War II. To be sure, it is a bitterly polarized legacy. One of unbounded admiration and historical achievement in the West and one of contempt and almost total disrepute in Russia, holding Gorbachev responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union as a Great Power and its loss of political relevance beyond its territorial borders. It has taken Vladimir Putin, a political figure reviled in the West, to undue Russian irrelevance by launching an aggressive war against Ukraine, but whether the cost is worth it even for Russia, only time will tell.
As far as the Cold War is concerned, it was not Gorbachev’s original intention to bring it to an end, but rather to reform the Soviet internal political and economic system so that it would deliver a better life to ordinary people. There is little doubt that Gorbachev was affected by his travels as a young Communist functionary to Europe where he was deeply affected by the vastly higher living standards enjoyed by the peoples of these countries with comparably developed economies to that of the Soviet Union. I remember being told in Moscow by one of his close associates that Gorbachev’s aim in the first years after he assumed national leadership was to do for socialism in the Soviet Union what FDR had achieved for capitalism in the United States, nothing more nothing less. His public tactics were to encourage glasnost (freedom of expression) and perestroika (structural reform). I remember a Soviet security specialist in Moscow in the late 1980s telling me somewhat cynically that “we have lots of glasnost, but no perestroika.” It was a widespread critical sentiment expressive of the view of impatient Soviet reforms that Gorbachev was all talk and no action. As he proceeded with this domestic agenda, Gorbachev himself came to realize the depth of corruption and dysfunction throughout the Soviet bureaucracy, making the system almost non-reformable and on the verge of financial and political bankruptcy, and once challenged by a reformist leader, unraveling in an uncontrollable manner that rendered Gorbachev himself helpless to slow down the spiral ending in collapse.
Gorbachev was also affected by the cruelties of the Stalin period, being personally touched by the arrest and prison abuse of both of his grandfathers as political dissidents. In this sense, it seems he was attracted to the values and practices of liberal democracies as a model for a reformed Soviet Union. Undoubtedly. feeling blocked at home he sought to wind down the tensions with the West and the costs of the arms race in well-publicized 1986 meeting with Ronald Reagan, the so-called, ‘Reykjavik Summit,’ which led to significant progress in reducing the stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons and gave public opinion the temporary illusion that nuclear disarmament might actually happen on his watch. These talks with Reagan in Iceland went so far in the direction of embracing disarmament that the American bipartisan nuclear establishment and compliant media showed its true colors, uniting to undermine Reagan’s diplomatic credibility when it came to global security, calling him ‘unprepared’ to conduct such delicate negotiations with a wily Soviet leader. This display of nuclearist bipartisanship with respect continues to haunt U.S. foreign policy more than 40 years later, persisting despite an atmosphere of extreme political divisiveness on all issues bearing on the daily lives of Americans.
It is also notable that Gorbachev remained a strong advocate of total nuclear disarmament after 1991 when he became a public intellectual active in Western civil society debates. His sophisticated approach to achieving a world without nuclear weapons was coupled with an insistence that in latter phases of nuclear disarmament it would be essential to also initiate a process of conventional disarmament with the goal being one of peace and security based on a demilitarized form of geopolitics. He correctly feared that getting rid of nuclear weapons without addressing the whole spectrum of weaponry would have the unintended effect of making the world ‘safe’ for major warfare, that is, ‘safe’ in this sense of removing apocalyptic fears but still enabling the repetition of ‘world wars’ of the sort that caused such devastation in the 20th Century, and were now enhanced by more powerful weaponry with greater precision and explosive potential, as well as various forms of cyber warfare.
As the Cold War was centered in Europe it was there that Gorbachev’s innovative approach to international relations most clearly manifested itself. Perhaps, challenged by Reagan’s famous taunt in Berlin, “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev!”
Gorbachev proceeded to loosen Moscow’s grip on the Warsaw Pact’s bloc of East European counties, respecting their sovereign rights to claim political independence, and making clear that under his leadership there would be no Soviet interventions of the sort that occurred in East Europe dating back to Hungary in 1956 and forward to the Czech Republic in 1968. This process did indeed culminate with the dramatic breaching of the infamous Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the unexpectedly rapid reunification of Germany, which epitomized the emerging realities of a post-Cold War Europe.
It was in Europe that Gorbachev advocated a hopeful end to the ordeal of a divided continent, proposing security for ‘our common European home.’ Had these ideas been acted upon by the West, it might have avoided the nightmarish aftermath of the Cold War now being experienced in Ukraine and threatened in relation to Taiwan, and early preceded by a predatory form of economic globalization that opened the floodgates to autocracy around the world. It may be that historians will someday come to acknowledge that if Gorbachev’s vision of future East-West engagement in Europe had prevailed rather than the neoconservative thirst for American geopolitical expansionism, anchored in a revitalized NATO with a much more expansive and flexible mandate, recently highlighted by the inflammatory phrase ‘Global NATO.’ This may be the time to remember that NATO was brought into being in1949 as a strictly defensive alliance, supposedly the centerpiece of the containment policies so persuasively advocated at the time by George F. Kennan as a response to the threat of Soviet military expansionism in Europe. Given the failure to heed Gorbachev on Europe over the decades, despite ending the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev’s legacy is primarily being depicted as bringing the Cold War to an end in ways that allowed the West to pronounce itself ‘the winner,’ not so unlike the spoiled aftermath of World War II. It is obvious after the three big botched experiments in ‘peace diplomacy’ over the course of a little over 100 years that the liberal democracies of the capitalist West are better at waging war than making sustainable peace arrangements.
It should not be forgotten that unlike any leader of a Great Power in his time, Gorbachev made memorable speeches at the UN and elsewhere calling for a more robust internationalism and a geopolitical approach rooted in the values of the UN Charter. This advocacy of responsible internationalism and demilitarization endeared Gorbachev to peace activists the world over, but was dismissed as nothing more than diplomatic fluff by Beltway and Pentagon gurus who didn’t even take Gorbachev’s global and reform agendas seriously enough to bother refuting them. This life journey of Gorbachev carried him to the peak of power in the Kremlin, and then following his seven years as head of the Soviet state made him a world citizen in the best sense. His civilian life after the end of the Cold War was more in spirit and substance with progressive civil society tendencies than with the continuing necrophilia of the Great Powers.
2. Over the course of your research and activism, can you describe your experiences or interactions with him? How did his life impact your studies and craft?
I did have the opportunity on two occasions to interact personally with Gorbachev in a rather extended manner that included time for social engagement. I felt it a great honor to do so as he was already a brave and sympathetic historic personage of great distinction, and although misleadingly lauded in the West partly because he paved the way for unipolarity and triumphalism, and possibly even Putin and Putinism, outcomes that he was neither responsible for nor wished to have happen. In an important sense Gorbachev’s international legacy of humane global governance is already all but forgotten by the mainstream. The West admired most his decisive role in loosening the Soviet grip on East Europe and unwittingly accelerating the process by which the Soviet internal empire of ‘captive’ nations was permanently shattered.. My two encounters with Gorbachev were after he ceased to be a leader, and devoted himself to sharing idea and activities with like-minded individuals
My first encounter was a day-long meeting in 1993 or 1994 at a men’s club in New York City of a contemplated foundation that he was to be co-Chair with James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s influential Secretary of State to support work toward a peaceful world undertaken by politically independent persons of the once antagonistic so-called ‘superpowers.’ To my astonishment, which has not lessened over the years, I was invited to serve as a member of the initial Board of Directors along with several more mainstream individuals. For undisclosed reasons, Baker was unable to attend the meeting, but Gorbachev, by way of an interpreter participated throughout the long day, including at a small luncheon. The meeting was devoted to what the Foundation might most usefully do, how it would operate, including its plans to establish a funding base. Gorbachev mainly listened, asked useful questions, and projected a demeanor of being one among equals. As it happened, nothing further took place, and the whole undertaking was discreetly abandoned. Nevertheless, it did give me a glimpse of this great man adjusting to his new role and status. Looking back, it was a time when Gorbachev continued to identify with the transnational ruling elites of Western countries but showed an intellectual interest in working with more independent individuals in global civil society. Above all, it demonstrated to me that as a private citizen Gorbachev was committed to a peaceful and human sequel to the tensions and antagonisms of the Cold War decades.
The second encounter was a couple of years later in Italy at a meeting on the future of Europe under the auspices of Gorbachev’s own foundation, bearing his name. The 25 or so invited participants were mainly European intellectuals and government officials. It went on for two days, revisiting Gorbachev’s ideas of a common European home and collective security structure. The debate was lively and stimulating although the pan-European consensus never got much further than the walls of the conference center. I had the feeling that Gorbachev now felt himself an independent voice of civil society, widely honored in the West yet ignored in his own country. He had returned to living in Moscow, and reported that Putin had respectfully received him and made him feel at ease about resuming Russian residence despite his continuing unpopularity in the country of his birth and later political prominence.
In my own work, I have been conscious of course of Gorbachev’s role as a transformative agent of change that made ‘the impossible’ happen in the Soviet context, although not altogether responsive to his agency, much that happened is best understood beneath the rubric of ‘unintended consequences.’. Given my interest in ‘the politics of impossibility’ I often mentioned Mandela in South Africa and Gorbachev in the Soviet Union as having validated this counter-intuitive belief that seems the most realistic hinge of hope given the present world situation, strange as that may sound..
It is always of great interest to meet with historic figures of global stature. In Gorbachev I found none of the moral radiance and existential charisma that I associated with my meeting with Nelson Mandela. Rather in Gorbachev I found a sense of purpose, of decency, of intelligence, and a seriousness about doing what he could to make his country, region, and world better than they were at present.
3. How do you suppose Russia will use the public memory of Gorbachev and his commemoration to suit their own political purposes?
I would suppose that Putin does not regret the passing of the Communist Era, but will fault Gorbachev on nationalist, Czarist grounds as allowing the territorial extensions of the Soviet Union to shrink, leading to the temporary eclipse of Russian greatness. With minor variations the Russian media will follow this line, reporting on the demonization that Gorbachev deservedly experienced, especially in the decade after the Soviet collapse.
It may take several more political earthquakes for Russia and Russians to arrive at a balanced assessment of Gorbachev. But in fact, the West has not done much better, showering him with honors and awards, while keeping their near exclusive focus on his roles in ending the Cold War with the West and in taking on the Communist Party elite of bureaucrats (nomenklatura) that had presided since the early days of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death. The fact that this precipitated the Soviet collapse was an outcome that almost no one in the West lamented.
Gorbachev memory will last, most celebrated outside of Russia, and subject to subtle reappraisals from within, in relation to Europe, and with regard to world peace. I would feel more comfortable contemplating the future of humanity if Gorbachev was running the global show than any other political leader currently walking about on planet Earth!
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London, Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.
Tags: Biography, Capitalism, Communism, Eastern Europe, Europe, History, Mikhail Gorbachev, Obituary, Russia, Socialism, Soviet empire, USSR
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