Mikhail Gorbachev and Barack Obama have radically different views on what is involved in doing away with nuclear weapons.
Reading Gorbachev’s new book, The New Russia, is a bit disappointing, but it contains some key insights. It may also be a cure for insomnia; it’s no page turner. It’s part decades-long diary and travelogue, part petty self-aggrandizement (by someone in no need), and part ill-informed conservatism.
Gorby claims that Obama “honoured his promise to withdraw from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.” In fact, both are still raging, the never completed withdrawal from Iraq fell wildly short of the campaign-promise schedule, and Obama actually promised to escalate in Afghanistan, which he did, tripling the U.S. presence and making that war primarily his own in terms of deaths, days, and dollars. The fact that smart well-informed people abroad, like Gorbachev, fall for common U.S. myths is an indication of how very difficult foreign relations can be.
Gorby thinks that Obama wants to eliminate nuclear weapons, and claims that Obama decided not to put missile systems into Poland and the Czech Republic. In fact, the people of the Czech Republic decided that. Obama put the missiles on ships, opened a base in Romania, and began construction in Poland.
Gorby claims that Russian diplomacy deserves the primary credit for preventing the 2013 U.S. bombing of Syria. This is indisputably false, as numerous chronologies, including Obama’s own statements in the Atlantic magazine last month, make clear that first public pressure resulted in Obama’s reversal of his decision to bomb, and second, he picked up the idea of removing the Syrian government’s chemical weapons. Yet it is true and important that the United States and Russia cooperated nonviolently on the project.
Gorbachev writes as a friend to and frequent visitor to the United States, a general believer in accepted mainstream wisdom, and a critic who, as seen above, is generous to a fault. So it’s worth paying attention when he writes from his own direct experience, and when he offers guidance on what might be done in the future.
Obama’s view, as expressed in Prague and Hiroshima, is that nuclear weapons are needed for defense and cannot possibly be eliminated for many years or decades to come, if ever.
Gorbachev’s view, as expressed in his book and elsewhere, is that history can be fundamentally shaped by politicians if they will only abandon their fatalism and set their minds to it. He says this, of course, as someone who worked with the United States to end the Cold War and to reduce nuclear weapons. He even tried to negotiate the total elimination of nuclear weapons, but Obama’s hero Ronald Reagan would not go along, refusing to give up the outlandish boondoggle that Obama is putting into Romania and Poland, as well as into Alaska, California, and a new site proposed for New York, Michigan, or Ohio. This weapon is misleadingly called Missile “Defense” or Star Wars.
Obama sees the big hurdle to eliminating nukes to be the “evil” that has supposedly been in the human species since the “rising of the first man.”
Gorbachev sees the biggest hurdle as something else entirely, something much more down-to-earth and reparable if the will can be found to act. The time has come to eliminate nukes, he writes, “but could it be considered realistic if, after ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction, one country would still be in possession of more conventional weapons than the combined arsenals of almost all the other countries in the world put together? If it were to have absolute global military superiority? . . . I will say frankly that such a prospect would be an insurmountable obstacle to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. If we do not address the issue of a general demilitarization of world politics, reduction of arms budgets, ceasing the development of new weapons, a ban on the militarization of space, all talk of a nuclear-free world will come to nothing.”
This is striking. Many U.S. peace groups, and at least many peace groups abroad that I’m aware of, think of overall demilitarization and abolition as rather dreamy diversions. First, they say, we should take a concrete step by eliminating nukes. Then we can move on to eliminating war and switching to alternative modes of foreign relations: aid, diplomacy, the rule of law, cooperation. But here is a world authority on nuclear disarmament negotiations, and a former president of the other main nuclear power, saying that unless the United States, the world’s dominant military, pursues major overall disarmament, nukes cannot be eliminated.
Gorbachev objects to the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy which commits the United States to global military superiority. He objects to the Clinton-Bush-Obama expansion of NATO — and he objects to it as a violation of the agreement that re-unified Germany. He objects to the use of NATO to wage wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya. He objects to U.S. exceptionalism and unilateralism. Yet he proposes cooperation and better approaches going forward.
Even in this self-defensive book, Gorbachev admits many shortcomings of his own and of Russia’s. He praises many things American. Primarily, however, he offers the tough love of an old ally: You won’t end war with more war. You won’t make friends with more weapons. You won’t make a better world by compounding the errors of the old one.