If Only We’d Listened: Mikhail Gorbachev

When Western history sings its own song, it tells the tale of triumph over the Soviet Union bringing the Cold War to an end. But that is never what happened, and the events went the other way around.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away on August 30, was a visionary who first negotiated the end of the Cold War and then piloted the nearly bloodless internal closing of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev negotiated the end of the Cold War with no winners or losers, contrary to the doctrinal Western tale. When the Cold War ended, Gorbachev said, we all won the Cold War. And that was not just Gorbachev’s face saving version of history. President Reagan would write in his notes, “Let there be no talk of winners and losers.” And when Gorbachev compelled the countries of the Warsaw Pact to adopt the reconstructionist reforms of his perestroika and informed them that the Soviet army would no longer protect their communist regimes, George H.W. Bush promised him that if those countries chose to replace their communist regimes, the US would not claim victory.

Having negotiated the end of the Cold War, Gorbachev brought about the self-engineered close of the Soviet Union. In Super-power Illusions, Jack F. Matlock Jr., who was the US ambassador to Russia during this transformative time, says that “pressure from governments outside the Soviet Union, whether from America or Europe or anywhere else, had nothing to do with [the Soviet collapse].” Russia scholar Richard Sakwa says Gorbachev brought about the “self-willed disintegration of the Soviet bloc.”

Gorbachev was a rare character in history who offered up the opportunity to alter the world paradigm. He was a visionary who wanted to pull the plug on the Cold War world of blocs and alliances and bring to birth a world with neither alliances nor lines drawn across the globe. Gorbachev tried to usher in a world that transcended alliances. He wanted to replace the Soviet Union that belonged to a world of Warsaw Pacts and NATO alliances with a Russia that could join a transformed international community made up of equal partners.

But Gorbachev lacked whatever it takes to succeed in the world of politics. He lacked the political acumen to bring his visions to reality. In a world of politicians and officials who maneuver and deceive, Gorbachev was defeated. He lacked the cynicism to joust with political figures like US Secretary of State James Baker who promised NATO would move not one inch to the east while simultaneously planning the massive movement of NATO right up to Russia’s borders.

Gorbachev, in the end, failed to realize any of his goals. He offered us a new world, and we chose to keep the old one.

Gorbachev was a visionary who was a little lost when it came to building his blueprint in the real world. Instead of taking advantage of him, manipulating and deceiving him, we could have helped him and partnered with him. The world might have been a little bit better if we did.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.