Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur | 04 September, 2022
Gorbachev Changed the World
Image: Denis Makarenko/Shutterstock
Most people have modest aspirations of being able to feed, house, clothe and educate their families, assist their children to climb one rung higher on the social ladder and spend their autumn years in comfortable retirement. Some aim a little higher and strive to make a mark in a chosen field of human activity. There are very few of whom it can be said: they changed the world.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (1931–2022) was one of those exalted few. He was revered abroad for having ended the Cold War without a shot fired as Warsaw Pact countries regained independence, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and Germany was reunified in 1989–90. Soviet forces left Afghanistan. He reversed the arms race and dismantled tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Henry Kissinger told the BBC: ‘the people of Eastern Europe, and the German people, and in the end the Russian people, owe him a great debt of gratitude for the inspiration, for the courage in coming forward with these ideas of freedom’. He had ‘performed a great service to humanity’.
Yet he was reviled at home for the policies of glasnost and perestroika. Designed to liberate the people from the yoke of totalitarian oppression (both his grandfathers were imprisoned under Stalin’s repression) and initiate structural economic reforms, they destroyed the sclerotic Soviet Union, dismembered the two-continent Soviet empire, diminished and shrunk the Russian nation, and immiserated and demoralised the Russian people. Igor Girkin, a former colonel in Russia’s intelligence service, described him as a ‘traitor’ who deserved ‘eternal shame’.
Still, all things considered and as acknowledged in the many glowing tributes from world leaders, in a brief reign of under seven years (1985–91), the Soviet Union’s last leader was the world’s most consequential political leader of the second half of the 20th century. One of the most tragic might-have-beens of our times is the West’s failure to seize his offer of full partnership to forge new European, nuclear and global orders.
The notion of a new world order was first used by Gorbachev in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 7 December 1988, more than a year before US President George Bush. Once an optimistic formulation that embodied the hopes and aspirations of a better post-Cold War world for all, it has now fallen on hard times as a discredited attempt to impose the rule of the technocratic-managerial-financial global elite on the masses, shrink the middle class and hollow out sovereignty. The impact of Gorbachev’s speech was well captured in a lengthy analysis in Time magazine on 19 December 1988 by Walter Isaacson. Gorbachev’s inspiring vision – ‘both compelling and audacious’ (Isaacson) – was of an international community of states anchored in the rule of law, the obsolescence of security alliances like NATO and the Warsaw Pact, a pan-European security framework based on Europe as the common home of Russians and Westerners, and a ‘swords-into-ploughshares’ transfer of resources and priorities from military armaments to domestic needs.
Gorbachev met with US President Ronald Reagan at a second historic summit in Reykjavik on 11–12 October 1986. In the State of the Union address in January 1984, Reagan spoke directly to the Russian people: ‘The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then, would it not be better to do away with them entirely’?
In a handwritten letter to Gorbachev in November 1985, Reagan recommitted to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Gorbachev responded in January with ‘an unprecedented program to completely eliminate nuclear weapons’ by the end of 1999. This could be followed with ‘a universal agreement... that these weapons shall never be resurrected again’.
Both leaders faced strong resistance to their radical nuclear arms control agenda in Reykjavik from senior aides, officials and military brass. Yet they agreed to a de facto programme of global zero. The discovery of a shared sentiment on the principle of nuclear abolition proved to be a hinge moment in history. However, Reagan would not budge on Strategic Defence Initiative (‘Star Wars’) because he viewed it as critical to achieving progress on reductions leading to elimination of all nuclear weapons. Despite the lack of a concrete outcome at the summit itself, the Reykjavik meeting ‘paved the way’ for the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987 (abandoned by President Donald Trump in 2019) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) in 1991.
Signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in December 1987 following years of negotiations, INF prohibited the development, testing and possession of nuclear and conventionally armed ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles in the 500 – 5,500km range. At the signing ceremony, Reagan and Gorbachev jointly affirmed that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. They noted that INF was ‘historic both for its objective – the complete elimination of an entire class of US and Soviet nuclear arms – and for the innovative character and scope of its verification provisions’. By the implementation deadline of mid-1991, 2,692 US and Soviet missiles had been destroyed. INF made a significant contribution to the security of Europe as the frontline of the Cold War divisions and also underpinned broader international security for 30 years. As the first nuclear disarmament agreement, it was a tangible contribution – by the world’s two biggest nuclear weapon states by far – to the implementation of their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT.
Notwithstanding the collapse of the Soviet Union and alongside the denuclearisation of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, the implementation of START I was completed by December 2001, reducing the delivery vehicles to 1,600 carrying no more than 6,000 nuclear warheads: an 80 per cent cut in the existing number of strategic nuclear weapons. It lapsed in December 2009 and was replaced in 2010 by New START for ten years that has now been extended for another five years.
Was this son of peasants and a Nobel Peace Laureate a fool, the West’s ‘useful idiot’ in the Kremlin, a naive visionary who lost control of the process he had set in motion to lift the coercive apparatus of the state from the public sphere, or a prisoner of destiny, tripped up and destroyed by events that were simply unavoidable owing to the accumulating pathologies of the Soviet state? By now it’s hard to dispute the thesis that no one could have prevented, averted or rectified the multiple problems-cum-crises that caused the Soviet Union to implode on its own contradictions and weaknesses. In the end, his own nation and people were not prepared to follow Gorbachev through the chaos and turmoil of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Consequently, his attempted walk to freedom, much lonelier than Nelson Mandela’s, fell well short of the destination.
This leads to an intriguing intellectual puzzle by way of a conclusion. Is Russia’s spiritual reawakening a precondition to Russians’ acknowledgment of Gorbachev’s essential humanism, or the other way round?
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.