It’s odd how the name of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union (chairman, general secretary of the Communist party, and president) fails to be included in the list of great statesman of the twentieth century. Nor has anyone comparable appeared on the international scene in the twenty-first century. In tandem with instituting glasnost and perestroika, he reduced the Communist party’s role in running the economy. Perhaps the chaos that followed explains the reluctance from giving him full credit for his accomplishments.
But from the standpoint of those to whom foreign policy, as well as nuclear weapons, is paramount, Gorbachev was incomparable. In their book We All Lost the Cold War (Princeton University Press, 1994), about which I recently posted, Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein explain how he attempted and, to a large part, succeeded in re-orienting Russia’s relationship with the West.
Gorbachev and his closest advisors rejected the traditional Soviet approach to security. In their view, it had helped to create and sustain the Cold War and had placed a heavy burden on the Soviet economy. Perestroichiks were especially critical of the domestic consequences of postwar Soviet foreign policy….
Gorbachev’s vision of Soviet security was cooperative rather than competitive. He … repudiated the class basis of international relations that had dominated Soviet thinking about security since the Soviet state was created. … “New thinking” about security was based on five related propositions: the primacy of universal “all-human” values over class conflict; the interdependence of all nations; the impossibility of achieving victory in nuclear or large-scale conventional war; the need to seek security in political and economic rather than military terms; and the belief that neither Soviet nor Western security could be achieved unilaterally. Gorbachev called for the development of “a new security model” based on “a policy of compromise” among former adversaries. National security was to be replaced by a “common, indivisible security, the same for all.” The goal of the Soviet Union was to join a “common European house” that would foster security and prosperity through “a policy of cooperation based on mutual trust.”
Then, of course, at the 1986 Reykjavik summit he went on to propose the elimination of all nuclear weapons over the course of a decade, though, for President Ronald Reagan that was a bridge — to peace — too far.