When a figure like Mikhail Gorbachev dies, there is a temptation to focus on the man himself – his unique strengths and weaknesses, failures and achievements. But in our current geopolitical climate, perhaps the most valuable lesson we can learn from Gorbachev’s life is that even the strongest and most influential leaders never change history alone.
n the case of Gorbachev, none of the retrospectives written about him today would have been possible without his American counterpart, President Ronald Reagan. It was the two men’s unique partnership and willingness to confront even the bitterest enemy that enabled them to turn the tide of the world.
Reagan took office in 1980 as a declared enemy of the Soviet Union. He called it “the evil empire” and predicted that it would end up on the “ash heap of history.” His rhetoric was so inflammatory that it made people nervous, including his wife Nancy. In 1985, that rhetoric changed with the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Before Gorbachev, there was no indication that the Soviet Union would ever be anything but the godless menace of Reagan’s speeches.
When Gorbachev became Soviet leader, there was no pretense that the USSR—with its failed expansionism, shabby facades, and empty coffers—was the miracle of governance that Russia’s original revolutionaries envisioned.
Gorbachev had the courage to change, and he took the lead at a time when his counterpart in the United States was ready to talk. And they talked.
Gorbachev and Reagan began working together with a shared sense of urgency in the face of the threat of nuclear war. And they enjoyed a rare chemistry. When they first met at a conference near Geneva, Reagan Gorbachev told a joke: “An American and a Russian meet. “My country is the best,” says the American, “because I can go into the White House and tell the President he’s doing a lousy job.” “Big deal,” says the Russian. ‘I can go to the Kremlin and tell Gorbachev the same thing – Reagan is doing a lousy job’.”
Gorbachev smiled slightly and didn’t know what to answer. But he soon got used to Reagan, who was determined to meet Gorbachev on a human level, man to man.
Reagan could also be tough, and in years of conferences the two men clashed over their nations’ differing worldviews.
Gorbachev stubbornly stuck to the party line on important issues, and negotiations sometimes stalled. At a 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Reagan was so frustrated by Gorbachev’s intransigence that he walked away.
But that wasn’t the end. The two sides regrouped and kept the peaks going. Agreements to reduce the nuclear threat were slowly approaching.
In December 1987, Gorbachev and his wife Raisa traveled to Washington, where he and Reagan signed a treaty to reduce intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
For Americans, Gorbachev was a rock star, a westernized Soviet leader with a lot of charisma. But as popular as he was in the US, he didn’t receive the same accolades at home. (He and Reagan used to joke that each was more popular in the other’s country.)
By May 1988, Gorbachev was on the ropes, his domestic reforms met with fierce resistance. Ronald and Nancy Reagan got caught in this whirlpool for an unprecedented visit to Moscow.
The lasting image of the visit was Ronald Reagan walking in Red Square with Gorbachev – unthinkable just a few years ago.
Behind the scenes, Reagan Gorbachev pushed hard for human rights and other things not worth mentioning. Gorbachev balked; There were limits to both his acceptance of Western principles and his authority.
Nonetheless, he allowed Reagan to make a public speech to a crowded hall at Moscow State University, where the President tormented students with images of the freedom that could be theirs.
People slowly began to find a way out of what Gorbachev later acknowledged as “a political impasse.” But he was running out of time.
Reagan had always known that half measures would not save the Soviet Union from corruption at its core. By the time he left the White House and George HW Bush took office, the Soviet empire was already crumbling.
Russian President Vladimir Putin never accepted the end of the Soviet Union. As a young KGB officer in Gorbachev’s time, he made it his mission to restore the empire to its glory.
Its current aggression has all the hallmarks of the old Soviet Union – the way it would roll over weaker nations, risking their economies and future stability to expand their tentacles and control.
When Reagan died in 2004, Gorbachev was emotional at the loss of his old partner. He wrote: “I think the most important lesson of these years is the need for dialogue, which must not be broken off, no matter what challenges and complications we face.”
In times like today – when dialogue seems impossible, when conditions for discussion seem to have deteriorated too much – the best tribute to Gorbachev might be for leaders to take this lesson to heart.
Bret Baier is Fox News’ political anchor and author of Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/mikhail-gorbachev-could-teach-todays-leaders-a-lesson-about-the-importance-of-dialogue-41957905.html Mikhail Gorbachev could teach today’s leaders a lesson about the importance of dialogue