By Jonathan Power*
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the Soviet Union, the idealistic leader from within who accepted the end of communism, arrived in Berlin in November 1999 on a private visit to mark the fall and destruction of the Berlin Wall ten years before. The Cold War had ended a year later. In one speech, with a tone of great sadness in his voice, he said, “Now, ten years after, we see the world does not appear as we had hoped”.
The high hopes and raised expectations of the demise of the wall generated have not been realized. The governments of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, which received a mandate from their Cold War-weary electorates to navigate their respective superpowers, with the rest of the world in tow, into a safe harbour, have been found bitterly wanting.
As both regimes were reaching their final months, we could judge practically the whole performance—a re-birth of mutual antagonism and mistrust, an almost total lack of new initiatives and progress on nuclear disarmament, a reactivation of nuclear posturing and, worst of all, an acceptance by both Washington and Moscow that violence is an acceptable tool of diplomacy—with Russia internally in Chechnya, and later Ukraine, and with the U.S., externally in Afghanistan, Serbia and Iraq.
As for creating a re-invigorated United Nations where the law could replace brute force, neither showed either commitment or perseverance. The Cold War was fought to defeat communism but, from the vantage point of 2022, it can only be termed a grave historical tragedy that both sides having agreed to a Western victory—what the destruction of the Berlin Wall symbolised—then geared up for hostilities under other guises.
If Gorbachev had only remained in the saddle how would the world be different today? And if America had been led by a president that would have abjured such provocation as the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders, the single act of President Clinton that did more than any one thing to destroy the pro-western tendencies of much of the post-Soviet elite, how different would not just day-to-day Russian-American relations be, there would have been continuous progress on nuclear disarmament and the re-building of the UN.
Alan Cranston, the former majority whip in the U.S. Senate, once shrewdly and correctly observed that Gorbachev had one consistent principle in all his actions—a turn away from violence as a political instrument. This was as true of his decision not to use force to keep the Warsaw Pact countries under Soviet hegemony as it was to agree the re-unification of Germany. It infected his attitude to the break-up of the Soviet Union (pushed by Yeltsin to Gorbachev’s great chagrin) as it did his distrust of nuclear weapons.
Jonathan Schell caught the earnestness at the heart of the man perhaps better than anyone else. In an article in The Nation, he noted that Gorbachev “aimed merely to reform the Soviet Union, not abolish it. On the other hand, he DID want to abolish nuclear weapons”.
Gorbachev recounted to Schell how he felt when the military put him through rehearsals for the launch of nuclear weapons. He sat there with his computer and the codes to feed it in front of him while the military passed him reports of a nuclear attack coming from the west, followed only minutes later by one from the east. “I never touched the button”, was his simple comment.
And he went on to explain how the likelihood of an intended war never occurred to him and that therefore he knew he would never have to confront the grave moral dilemma of ordering their use. What did bother him is that “nuclear weapons might be used without the political leadership wanting it, or deciding it, owing to some failure in the command-and-control systems. They say if there is a gun one day it will shoot”.
Gorbachev did not stop there. His time at the top pushed him to reflect more profoundly both on the limits of power and the limitations of violence as its instrument. “You can destroy your enemy”, he observed, “You can destroy your ideological foe. You can actually destroy many, many people or send them to camps, or anything you want. But historically this does not win”.
This was his observation on life in the Soviet Union, but it might as easily be applied to Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya and Presidents Vladimir Putin’s and Volodymyr Zelensky’s war in Ukraine, wars that Gorbachev, whatever the provocation, would surely have overruled.
Gorbachev, I doubt, if he had sat in Clinton’s shoes, would have resorted to bombing Serbia or, in President George W. Bush’s case, bombing Iraq, where the U.S., with Britain’s help, cumulatively dropped more high explosives than during all of the Vietnam war.
“Yes”, said Gorbachev, “You can achieve some temporary successes by using violence. But cooperation, interaction, partnership, trying to harmonise your interests with the interests of others- these are what really works. We cannot reject the interests of others but need to balance our interests with their interests. And of course, you cannot do that with war. You can only do it through political methods”.
Looking back, it seems that we were unprepared for the end of the Cold War—or perhaps as long as nuclear weapons were held in such profusion we didn’t deep down inside us believe that it had ended. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Gorbachev was the only major politician who had mentally prepared himself for it. He had this capacity to understand that the society he headed was a failure and had to be recast.
And from that he reasoned further to conclude that our international system with weapons of mass destruction at the fore and broken-down international institutions at the rear also had to be totally rebuilt. But the West undermined him—refusing the Soviet Union financial help, as had happened with German after its defeat in World War 2, and later deploying NATO to the East, a provocation that in 1991 could not have been imagined, but which every president since Clinton, who started it, has connived with.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com