Mikhail Gorbachev died in Moscow last week at the age of 91. Once the world’s most celebrated politician, he had quite the rollercoaster ride.
First, what was dubbed Gorbymania swept the western world and the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize credited him with ending the Cold War. Then he was rudely relegated to political obscurity.
What Gorbachev wanted and what he achieved weren’t – for the most part – the same thing.
Yes, he aspired to wind down the Cold War, thus mitigating the risk of a nuclear confrontation. And he played a major role in making that happen. You could even argue that he was the most important single player.
But Gorbachev never intended to preside over the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of Eastern European communism. He wanted to reform the system, not destroy it.
American journalist/historian Anne Applebaum has a pithy take: “Almost nobody in history has ever had such a profound impact on his era, while at the same time understanding so little about it.” The situation got away from him. He was overwhelmed.
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Gorbachev was highly intelligent, but he didn’t grasp the depth of resentment in Eastern Europe or, indeed, within many of the constituent Soviet republics. Given half a chance, they were eager to escape from Moscow’s grip.
Nor did Gorbachev reckon with the degree of confusion and alienation that inevitably attended his famous glasnost – the policy of opening up public discussion. For many, the resulting revelations shook their faith. It was as if much of what they’d been brought up to believe was now revealed as fraudulent.
These difficulties were compounded by the percolating aspirations for democracy and economic transformation in a society with little history of either. Where even the savviest leader would’ve struggled, Gorbachev was out of his depth.
So he was eased from power at the end of 1991. And when he attempted a return in the 1996 presidential election, he polled less than one per cent of the vote. He’d become persona non grata for much of the Russian population.
Still, there’s no gainsaying the wind-down of the Cold War. It was a blessing.
Gorbachev’s partner in this endeavour was Ronald Reagan, then the U.S. president. Acknowledging Reagan’s role grates on many commentators, but facts are facts.
Critics on both left and right fervently believed that Reagan would be badly overmatched in any negotiation. Richard Nixon expressed his trepidation bluntly: “There is no way he can ever be allowed to participate in a private meeting with Gorbachev.” These critics were convinced that Gorbachev’s superior intelligence and vast command of detail would permit him to eat Reagan alive.
Except that didn’t happen. If anything, Gorbachev moved towards Reagan’s position rather than the other way round.
Reagan was holding the stronger hand. Whatever problems the U.S. had, it was a much more dynamic society than the Soviet Union, particularly with regard to technological innovation. It always helps to hold more cards than whoever you’re negotiating with.
Reagan also had an unconventional – almost heretical – perspective on the Soviet Union. Although recognizing it as militarily powerful and thereby dangerous, he believed it to be much more fragile than most observers thought. Perhaps a judicious mix of pressure and persuasion would generate interesting results.
Besides, there’s more to negotiation than being the guy who can correctly answer 20 tricky questions.
Considerations like knowing your own bottom line, reading the emotional temperature of the room and being able to assess the character of your adversary also come into play. Having cut his negotiating teeth decades earlier while representing the Screen Actors Guild in contract discussions with Hollywood moguls, Reagan wasn’t a novice in this regard.
Gorbachev later identified the turning point as the October 1986 Reykjavik summit. The meeting itself broke up without an agreement, but something important happened.
It was, Gorbachev said, “the first time the two leaders talked directly, over an extended period in a real conversation, about key issues.” This was precisely the sort of situation that Reagan’s detractors had been so anxious to preclude!
After Reagan’s death, American journalist Fred Kaplan put it this way: “The end of the Cold War may be the most oddball chapter in the history of the 20th century. How fitting, then, that the two most oddball leaders, Gorbachev and Reagan, made it come to pass.”
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.
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