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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Ignoring Gorbachev’s Warnings

In the wake of his death, the former Soviet leader has been given warm tributes in the US. But there’s precious little discussion of Gorbachev’s strong criticisms of US foreign policy or his warnings about the danger of US arrogance.

When a major political figure dies, it’s always significant what’s singled out for forgetting. That’s the case with former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, who’s been lionized in the Western press since his death last week, lauded for his efforts to democratize and bring new freedoms to the former USSR, and whose legacy has now been reduced to tatters by Russian president Vladimir Putin. 

World leaders praised him. U.S. president Joe Biden feted Gorbachev as “a man of remarkable vision.” UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said he was “one of the great figures of the 20th century.” The president of the European commision said he was someone whose legacy is “one we will not forget.” Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul called him “a figure who made the world better” and urged us to “learn from his legacy.” “Putin seems to view himself as the anti-Gorbachev,” writes David Remnick of the New Yorker, expressing his hope that “around the world,” Gorbachev’s belief in “democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful and orderly transfer of power” would  “prevail.” Putin’s pointed refusal to attend Gorbachev’s funeral became something of a mini-scandal in the West since his death.

This is largely in line with how the Western press has treated Gorbachev over the last ten years especially, when the former Soviet minister had offered mounting criticism of Putin’s authoritarianism at home. There’s no shortage of coverage of Gorbachev slamming the Russian president, warning of the return of Stalinism and totalitarianism, or his criticisms of dubious Russian elections, points the former Soviet president has made again and again over the years

But there’s another, overlooked element of Gorbachev’s legacy, one that’s as absent from today’s eulogies as it was ignored by officials when he was alive. That’s Gorbachev’s harsh criticism of U.S. foreign policy after the end of the Cold War, particularly toward Russia, along with his frequent warnings that the decision-making in Washington was destabilizing the world, and his urgent demands that the United States and Russia engage in robust diplomacy. It’s not hard to see why this has been erased: many of Gorbachev’s points are today dismissed in the West purely as Putin apologism and pro-war excuse-making.

“They Declared Victory”

The man exalted as the “anti-Putin” has often assailed U.S. hubris in foreign policy after the Cold War. In one of his final interviews before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Gorbachev criticized the “triumphant mood in the West, especially in the United States” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“They grew arrogant and self-confident. They declared victory in the Cold War,” Gorbachev complained. 

This wasn’t an outburst from an elderly statesman in the twilight of his life, but an echo of criticisms he’d been leveling for years. All the way back in 1998, Gorbachev, writing in Time magazine, lightly admonished Bill Clinton’s talk of making the 21st century “the next American century,” asking how such “rhetoric rings in the rest of the world.” A disappointed Gorbachev noted that when the Soviet Union collapsed, “the West could not resist declaring victory in the Cold War, and the U.S. saw an opportunity to extend its influence to the former Soviet bloc.” He cautioned that the U.S. tendency to see itself as having “a right to decide for others, to impose American institutions and to promote the American way of life” was not a style of leadership conducive to “world peace and stability.” 

But as the years wore on, the tone of these criticisms became more stern. “Americans have a severe disease—worse than AIDS. It’s called the winner’s complex,” he said in 2006, before attacking then Vice President Dick Cheney and then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as “hawks protecting the interests of the military—shallow people.”

“The American media trumpeted … about the victory in the Cold War, that socialism is down,” he complained three years later. “This disease of extreme self-confidence led to it—the [belief] that things would always go on this way. And it did last long … I think that now everyone is learning a hard lesson.” Two years later, he again complained about the “euphoria” and “winner’s complex” that emerged in the “American political elite” after the end of the Cold War.

“The United States could not resist the temptation to announce its ‘victory’ in the Cold War. … The ‘sole remaining superpower’ staked a claim to monopoly leadership in world affairs. That, and the equating of the breakup of the Soviet Union with the end of the Cold War, which in reality had ended two years before, has had far-reaching consequences.”

“They were rubbing their hands, saying, ‘How nice! We had been trying to do something about the Soviet Union for decades, and it ate itself up!’” he said in 2016, complaining that the West failed to embrace the possibilities for cooperation he believed his reforms had opened up. 

The “Mistake” of NATO Expansion

Gorbachev often criticized this mentality with particular reference to the U.S.-led policy of NATO expansion, widely criticized at the time as unnecessary and destabilizing, and which officials and commentators today deny has played any role in either the ongoing war in Ukraine, or deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations more generally. 

Gorbachev criticized expansion in the harshest terms from the very start. “I believe it’s a mistake. It’s a bad mistake,” he said in a 1997 speech he made in Washington, as the plan was set into motion. “And I’m not persuaded by the assurances that we hear that Russia has nothing to worry about.” 

Gorbachev warned—presciently, as it turned out—that the move would spark backlash in Russia, hardening the hardliners and empowering political conservatives. “I feel that if the same kind of games continue to be played, if one country plays some card against the other country, then all of those problems, all of those issues that we have been mentioning today, will be very difficult to resolve,” he said. 

Despite receiving a standing ovation in the U.S. Capital, Gorbachev was ignored. Twenty-four years later, his opinion had only hardened. 

“The ‘winners’ decided to build a new empire,” he said in 2021. “Hence the idea of NATO expansion.”

“The Americans promised that NATO wouldn’t move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War but now half of central and eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises? It shows they cannot be trusted,” he told the Telegraph in 2008. 

In the same interview, Gorbachev complained that “we had 10 years after the Cold War to build a new world order and yet we squandered them,” because “the United States cannot tolerate anyone acting independently.” The conservative newspaper noted that Gorbachev’s statement “mirrors the most belligerently anti-Western speeches of Vladimir Putin,” and that he “sounded like the ageing hardliners he struggled against in the Kremlin during the 1980s” for railing against the military-industrial complex.

“Whereas American interests extend thousands of miles, and to many continents, let’s accept that Russia has natural interests in the former Soviet states. Let’s have a dialogue about this,” he had said four years earlier. He elaborated on the importance of taking Russia’s interests into account years later in a 2016 interview: “The relations between us are so important and concern everyone else, so we must take the interests of others into account.”

This critique extended right up to the escalating crisis over Ukraine. In the very same 2009 interview in which Gorbachev gave the harshest criticisms of Putin he had offered up to that point, he echoed Putin and his officials’ long-held objections to Ukraine’s potential membership, questioning the wisdom of the idea. By 2016, seven years later, he was more strident. 

“NATO has begun preparations for escalating from the Cold War into a hot one,” he warned, in the context of deteriorating diplomatic relations and intensifying military exercises in Europe by Russia and NATO members, the United States in particular. “All the rhetoric in Warsaw just yells of a desire almost to declare war on Russia. They only talk about defense, but actually they are preparing for offensive operations.” 

Today, these words—which suggest that even though Moscow bears primary responsibility for the war it chose to launch, we need to understand the role Western foreign policy choices played in triggering such an appalling decision—are anathema in a political climate where everyone from the Pope to Noam Chomsky is attacked as being a war supporter or even a fascist sympathizer for so much as noting the existence of Western provocations.

That same year, in 2016, Gorbachev suggested that a neutral Ukraine was a solution to the worsening crisis, stating that “a democratic and unaligned Ukraine is in the interests of the Ukrainian people,” and that this be codified in the country’s constitution. Instead, three years later, it was Ukraine’s future entry into NATO that was enshrined in the document. 

For Gorbachev, this was no doubt a particularly sore point. Both documents and the recollections of the players involved have firmly established that he was assured by U.S. and NATO officials that the alliance wouldn’t move east if a reunified Germany became a member, a promise he failed to get in writing. It wouldn’t be surprising if Gorbachev held a special bitterness over the fact that he’d been misled. 

But he also made clear the issue was about something bigger. As a committed multilateralist, Gorbachev viewed NATO’s expansion—along with its transformation from a defensive alliance to a vehicle for proactive military force—as a blow to a budding world order where problems would be resolved via international law, diplomacy, and institutions like the United Nations. 

“The United States and its allies instead decided to expand NATO eastward, bringing that military alliance closer to Russia’s borders while claiming for it the role of a pan-European or even a global policeman,” he said in 2011. “This usurped the functions of the United Nations and thus weakened it.”

“International organizations, particularly the United Nations, crippled by the unilateralism of the United States and NATO, are still faltering, unable to fulfill their task of conflict settlement,” he concluded.  

Even before the turn of the century, he had made this point, quoting John F. Kennedy’s vision of a peace that wasn’t defined by “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war,” but was a “product of many nations.” This meant prioritizing working through the UN rather than through NATO, he had said.

Unilateralism “Unworthy of a Great Power”

These critiques of U.S. foreign policy weren’t limited to NATO expansion. Echoing numerous experts and even Putin himself, Gorbachev was scathing about a host of instances of Washington unilateralism that dented relations between the two countries, starting with NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. 

“The United States is conducting itself irresponsibly on the world stage,” he charged that year, in an early criticism of what he called Washington’s “superiority and victory complex.”

Gorbachev called the Bill Clinton administration’s decision to resolve the Kosovo crisis through a unilateral bombing campaign “uncivilized” and “unworthy of a great power.” 

“The argument that you intervened in Yugoslavia ‘because you could’ only encouraged nuclear-threshold countries to do everything possible to arm themselves with nuclear weapons,” he warned. 

The same year, he told Larry King that NATO’s air strikes, done without UN authorization, were a “mistake.” 

“I believe that instead this will boomerang and they will certainly rue this and the view of the people, not just the Yugoslav people, but the people throughout the world, is very negative,” he said. Meanwhile, he urged the Russian government to “not lose our heads,” and “stick to the position that it is for a political settlement.” (The later deployment of Russian troops to the conflict nearly triggered war between the two nuclear powers). 

The NATO bombing was arguably the most pivotal early episode in the decline of U.S.-Russian relations, even more so than the alliance’s first eastward expansion. The pro-Western president Boris Yeltsin announced he was “deeply angered,” cut Moscow’s ties to NATO, and recalled his chief military representative to the alliance, while a Russian man shot up the U.S. embassy in Moscow with a submachine gun. Decades later, Putin himself pointed to the bombing as the starting point of deteriorating relations, as well as to justify his illegal annexation of Crimea. 

Gorbachev continued to inveigh against Washington foreign policy as the years went by. 

“While America’s role is acknowledged throughout the world, her claim to hegemony, not to say domination, is not similarly recognized,” he wrote in 2000 in an open letter to the newly elected George W. Bush. He accused the United States of continuing “to operate along an ideological track identical to the one it followed during the Cold War — but now without a cold war,” pointing to “the expansion of NATO eastward, the handling of the Yugoslav crisis, the military theory and practice of U.S. rearmament,” and said that responsibility for worsening relations “must be shared between Russian and American leadership.” In one particularly prescient passage, he wrote that:

“For 10 years, U.S. foreign policy has been formulated as if it were the policy of a victor in war, the Cold War. But at the highest reaches of U.S. policy-making no one has grasped the fact that this could not be the basis for formulating post-Cold War policy. In fact, there has been no ’pacification.’ On the contrary, there has been a heightening of inequalities, tension and hostility, with most of the last directed toward the United States. Instead of seeing an increase in U.S. security, the end of the Cold War has seen a decline. It is not hard to imagine that, should the United States persist in its policies, the international situation will continue to deteriorate.”

Calling for finding “mutually acceptable” solutions as U.S.-Russia relations seemed to warm a year later, Gorbachev chided those in the United States who wished to deploy a missile defense system and enlarge NATO over Russian objections. “The subtext is: if, to achieve these goals, we must sometimes talk nice to the Russians, let’s do so,” he wrote. “The same pundits and politicians are equally blunt about consultations with American allies and partners: we can talk, but in the end we shall do what’s good for us.” (Gorbachev’s words eerily anticipated Clinton’s deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott’s later explanation for the U.S. push to expand NATO: “We do what we can in our own interest.”).

“One would have to be very naïve to think that such a strategy would not be resisted,” Gorbachev warned. 

Ten years later, Gorbachev charged that “as long as the West insisted on its purported victory in the Cold War, it meant that no change was needed in the old Cold War thinking … such as using military force and political and economic pressure to impose one model on everyone.” Pointing to the 1999 NATO bombing, the Iraq War, and U.S. military threats against Iran, he lamented that, especially in the United States, “policy-making and political thinking are still militarized,” and that this mindset had made the UN and Security Council “expendable or at best an impediment.” 

A few years later, he laid out his hypothetical advice to Putin—who had by then returned to the Russian presidency for a third term over Gorbachev’s public objections—for managing U.S.-Russia relations: 

“I learned that you can listen to the Americans, but you cannot trust them. When they get an idea to do something, they’ll turn the world onto a different axis to get it done.”

The Road to Another Versailles

Gorbachev’s condemnations of U.S. foreign policy were often paired with warnings about humiliating or ignoring Russia, and the deleterious effect it would have both on public opinion and political sentiment within the country, as well as global stability more generally. 

“I think we have a unique chance to create a new quality of relations with the West,” he said in 2004, at the tail end of Putin’s early attempts to ally Russia with the United States, viewed within Russsia as one more unreciprocated bit of outreach by another pro-Western president. “But we don’t want to be beggars. We don’t want to be treated by the EU or by the United States like we are down; that is something we will not accept.”

Seven years later, Gorbachev would bemoan that that despite “numerous declarations of cooperation and even strategic partnership,” post-Soviet Russia “is still being treated as an outsider,” and had not been “given a voice in resolving key problems, and obstacles were put in the way of its integration into the European and global economy.” Shortly after, in 2014, Gorbachev again cited this treatment to explain the emergence of a New Cold War. The West had “tried to turn us into some kind of backwater, a province,” and tried to “push us out of politics” instead of treating Russia like an equal partner. 

“Our nation could not let that pass,” he said. “It’s not just about pride. It’s about a situation where people speak to you however they want, impose limitations, and so on. It’s America calling the shots in everything!”

By 2008, the U.S.-Russia relationship had again reached a nadir, owing to a confluence of factors. On the Russian side, there was Putin’s increasing authoritarianism at home and his meddling in Ukrainian politics, and his anger at U.S. criticism of both. On the U.S. side, there were a series of foreign policy decisions Moscow had stressed were contrary to its foreign policy interests, including Bush’s controversial announcement that he would pursue neighboring Ukraine and Georgia’s membership into NATO.

“Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts,” Gorbachev protested in a New York Times editorial in 2008, four months after Bush’s declaration. “Here’s the independence of Kosovo for you. Here’s the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here’s the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?”

Pointing to talk about rethinking the U.S. approach to Russia, Gorbachev urged officials to rethink one thing in particular: “the habit of talking to Russia in a condescending way, without regard for its positions and interests.” 

“The politicians in America sometimes act in a way that seems disrespectful toward our country and our people,” he cautioned a month later. “The Russians are people who value their dignity. You better not mess with that.”

In Gorbachev’s warnings, we can see the shadows of the road not traveled after World War One. After that conflict, the Allies embarked on a short-sighted attempt to contain a future resurgent Germany, treating the nation as a defeated power, imposing on it a harsh reparations regime, and generally implementing measures felt by Germans to be a national humiliation—all of it feeding into a dangerous upsurge of German nationalism that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and, ultimately, a second World War. 

Gorbachev himself had explicitly brought up this comparison in 1997, warning the West not to impose the kind of peace that the Allies had on Germany after World War One. 

“You may not humiliate a nation, a people, and think that it will have no consequences,” he said. 

Dialogue At All Costs

But arguably Gorbachev’s most important words—just as ignored and unspeakable in today’s political climate—were his warnings about nuclear war and his urgent calls for peace. Despite his brutal assessment of U.S. foreign policy, Gorbachev simultaneously spent the past thirty years urging cooperative U.S.-Russia relations, and calling for dialogue between the two governments without delay, in spite of their deep mutual mistrust and what he viewed as serious oversteps by U.S. administrations.

Writing for the Times in 2001, Gorbachev celebrated what seemed to be warming relations between the two powers under Putin and Bush, who had recently convened a summit in Ljubljana. He praised the two leaders for “understand[ing] the importance of the relationship” between their nations and defying “the hawks in Washington and Moscow who would like to put Russian-American relations on the foreign policy back burner.” 

“Something else was said at the summit: Russia and the United States are not enemies,” he wrote. “Continuing to emphasize this truth is of crucial importance.”

This was a theme Gorbachev would stress again and again over the coming decades: that, as he put it in 2004, dialogue between the two nuclear powers must “not be broken off whatever the challenges and complications we have to face.” Even as U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated and ultimately fell apart, Gorbachev continued to insist, to the leadership of both countries, that the two could still “develop a serious agenda” for cooperation, that they should rebuild trust through dialogue and the lifting of sanctions, and hold a summit “with a broad agenda, without preliminary conditions.” He urged the same approach from Europe, calling for the same kind of summit between Russia and the EU, and for European powers to “defrost relations” with Russia. 

“We shouldn’t be afraid that someone would ‘lose face,’ or that someone would obtain a propaganda victory,” he wrote. “This should all belong to the past. We should think of the future.”

Gorbachev’s calls for dialogue continued despite—or rather, because of—the ever-escalating crisis over Ukraine, and the steadily worsening U.S.-Russian relationship that came with it. A longtime proponent of arms control who called again and again for nuclear weapons to be abolished, Gorbachev cautioned that the ratcheting tensions had put the world on a “dangerous threshold.” 

“This is extremely dangerous, with tensions as high as they are now,” he wrote back in 2014, when tensions were nowhere near where they sit today. “We may not live through these days: someone could lose their nerve.”

Gorbachev’s calls to “return to the path we charted together when we ended the Cold War” were based not on idealism, but on experience. As Soviet president, he had, after all, forged a close working relationship with Ronald Reagan, a virulent anti-communist who had repeatedly branded his country an “evil empire,” and whose language was so extreme it sparked alarm even among European allies. It was at a nadir in U.S.-Soviet relations—after, among other things, Moscow had shot down a Korean airliner in 1983, killing a U.S. congressman and sixty-two other Americans—that Gorbachev and Reagan began their successful pursuit of diplomacy, ultimately signing a landmark arms control agreement and paving the way for ending hostilities.

As Gorbachev repeatedly stressed over the years, it was the very process of dialogue and negotiations, pursued in spite of the serious difficulties and mistrust in the U.S.-Soviet relationship, that helped reduce tensions and lay the foundation for peace. “The dialogue that president Reagan and I started was difficult,” Gorbachev later wrote. But, 

“in the final outcome, our insistence on dialogue proved fully justified. … While addressing these vital tasks, we changed the nature of relations between our two countries, moving step by step to build trust and to test it by concrete deeds. And in the process, we—and our views—were changing too.”

Gorbachev credits this painstaking diplomatic work for Reagan’s 1988 recanting of his “evil empire” label, and to his and George H. W. Bush’s joint declaration a year later that the Cold War was over. 

Forgetting At Our Own Peril

There’s so much more one could mention that’s been wiped clean from today’s tributes to Gorbachev, from his criticism of U.S.-led globalization and Washington’s decades-long blockade of Cuba, to his insistence that environmental degradation and growing inequality and poverty were the true security challenges of our time. But as the United States and Russia stand on the brink of outright war, it’s his tireless advocacy for U.S.-Russian cooperation—an appeal he made equally to the hawks in both countries—and his decades of warnings about the consequences of short-sighted Washington foreign policy choices that are most urgent today. 

Liberal commentators in the West have justifiably made much of Putin’s rollback of Gorbachev’s democratizing reforms at home, and the erasure of his legacy that it represents. But there’s next to no introspection about how that same liberal establishment has itself undermined the other major part of Gorbachev’s legacy: his work to normalize relations between the United States and Russia, his calls for restraint and strategic empathy in Western foreign policy, and his insistence on dialogue and diplomacy. There’s little of Gorbachev’s spirit among the leading liberal voices of today, who by and large mock diplomacy as appeasement or surrender, dismiss criticism of Western foreign policy choices like NATO expansion as irrelevant propaganda or even war-justification, and speak of inflicting defeat or even regime-change on Russia. 

More importantly, it should be a wake-up call that Gorbachev—a man lauded this past week as the antithesis of Putin, and valorized for his liberalism, his wisdom, and his foresight—shared many of the same complaints about U.S. foreign policy that have been cited not just by Moscow’s current leadership, but by a host of foreign policy thinkers who are today targeted in the crudest McCarthyite terms. 

Contrary to the Telegraph’s 2008 assessment, Gorbachev didn’t turn into a hard-liner or into Putin as he aged—in fact, his criticism of the Russian president only became harsher over time. The record shows that Gorbachev consistently made the same warnings and complaints, often prescient ones, from as far back as the 1990s, as he reacted with dismay to what he regarded as arrogant and foolish foreign policy decisions that ran counter to the spirit of U.S.-Russian cooperation he thought he’d forged in the Soviet era. 

It should all cause serious rethinking of the belief that simply replacing Putin, even with a liberal alternative, will solve current U.S.-Russia tensions, or allow the past decades’ direction of U.S. foreign policy in that part of the world to carry on unimpeded. And it should trigger serious self-reflection in the West: that maybe Putin, as bad as he is, is not the only thing that has to change for the sake of peace and stability. 

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