Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev called for a renewed commitment to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons Tuesday (Dec. 4), saying the current generation of world leaders cannot coast on disarmament treaties of the past.
“There’s a law of politics that if you don’t move forward, you begin to move backward,” Gorbachev said. “We cannot live on old capital for an indefinite period of time.”
Gorbachev said the world missed an opportunity for greater global cooperation in the Cold War’s wake, describing the past 18 years as ones of “stagnation and regression,” where even avoiding a war in the middle of Europe was beyond the world’s leaders.
“After the Cold War, we lost our way, the world lost its way,” Gorbachev said. “We should be moving toward the goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.”
Gorbachev spoke to a packed John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He delivered the Albert H. Gordon Lecture as the kickoff to a conference Wednesday, sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, that drew 45 arms control experts to Harvard to discuss the future of nuclear disarmament.
Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood and Belfer Center Director Graham Allison introduced Gorbachev, hailing his role in ending the Cold War and in crafting the 20-year-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which abolished an entire class of intermediate-range weapons from U.S. and Soviet arsenals. In response to U.S. moves to put missile defenses in Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently said that the treaty is outdated and Russia should consider pulling out of it.
Gorbachev became the Soviet Union’s leader in 1985 when he took over as general secretary of the Communist Party. He began a series of reforms at home and abroad that ultimately led to the breakup of the Eastern Bloc and then to the Soviet Union itself. Under the reformed political system, he served as the only president of the Soviet Union from 1990 to 1991, surviving a coup attempt before the Soviet Union’s final dissolution. In 1990, Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War. He said Tuesday that it is still too early to judge the impact of those reforms.
In a 50-minute speech delivered in Russian and translated into English by an interpreter, Gorbachev reviewed the events that led up to the INF treaty and discussed possible future directions for world leaders. When he first took office, there had been no contact between U.S. and Soviet leaders for six years, a period during which mistrust had built up between the world’s superpowers. The arms race was in full swing when Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan met in Geneva for a series of one-on-one talks.
The talks subsequently led to the signing of the INF treaty and the destruction of thousands of nuclear warheads. But Gorbachev said he and Reagan viewed that treaty as just a start toward the ultimate goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Further progress stalled over the United States’ insistence on pursuing its “star wars” missile defense system, and Gorbachev said the slow, difficult work of eliminating nuclear weapons still remains.
Gorbachev acknowledged that the world has changed significantly since the Cold War’s end, but said the recent re-militarization — particularly that of the United States — is puzzling.
“I really don’t know who the U.S. wants to go to war with, nobody wants to go to war with the U.S.,” Gorbachev said.
Gorbachev was critical of the United States’ go-it-alone approach since the Cold War, calling it a “winner’s complex” that led the nation to believe it could solve any problem on its own. That approach has been very costly, Gorbachev said, not only to the world, but to the United States as well. In the Cold War’s wake, several intractable transnational problems, such as terrorism, poverty, and environmental degradation, have come to the fore that will require international cooperation to address.
Gorbachev called on the leaders of the United States and Russia, together with the leaders of other nations, to begin talks about how to solve some of these problems. Russia, he said, is eager to be a partner with the United States, but will never accept the role of “kid brother,” merely doing the bidding of the United States.
“I think the United States of America has the potential to be a world leader, but it should be a leadership based on cooperation rather than force and imposition,” Gorbachev said. “The world will not be a follower to the United States, but just about every country wants to be a partner with the United States,” Gorbachev said.
During a discussion with reporters before the talk and in answering questions from the audience afterward, Gorbachev cited several examples of the United States and Russia becoming more closely intertwined — such as the establishment of operations in Russia by Ford, General Electric, and Boeing — despite the sometimes frosty relations between the two nations’ political leaders.
Gorbachev said the recent landslide parliamentary victory for the Putin’s party was not surprising, given recent improvements in the Russian economy, but he added that Putin’s increased power means he has the responsibility to deliver on campaign promises to the Russian people. Despite speculation that Putin will find a way to remain in power after his second term expires in the coming months, Gorbachev said he takes Putin at his word that he will step down as the Russian constitution requires.