TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

The Berlin Wall: Measuring Present Leaders Against Gorbachev



Nov 10, 1999

LONDON- When Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Secretary General of the Soviet Union, the idealistic leader from within who accepted the end of communism, arrived in Berlin earlier this week he said "Now, ten years after, we see the world does not appear as we had hoped".
Commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall compells us to notice the extent to which the high hopes and raised expectations its demise generated have not been realized. The Clinton and Yeltsin administrations, who received a mandate from their Cold War-weary electorates, to navigate their respective superpowers, with the rest of the world in tow, into a safe harbour, have been found bitterly wanting.

As both regimes reach their finale we can judge practically the whole performance- a re-birth of mutual antagonism and mistrust, an almost total lack of new initiatives and progress on nuclear disarmament, a reactivation of nuclear posturing and, worst of all, an acceptance by both Washington and Moscow that violence is an acceptable tool of diplomacy- with Russia internally in Chechnya and with the U.S. externally in Serbia and Iraq. As for creating a re-invigorated United Nations where law could replace brute force neither have shown either commitment or perseverence. The Cold War was fought to defeat communism but, from the vantage point of the end of this blood-soaked twentieth century, it can only be termed a grave historical tragedy that both sides having agreed to a Western victory- what the destruction of the Berlin Wall symbolised- then geared up for hostilities under other guises.

If Gorbachev had only remained in the saddle how would the world be different today? And if America had been led by a president that would have abjured such provocation as the expansion of Nato, the single act that did more than any one thing to destroy the pro-western tendencies of much of the post Soviet elite, how different would not just day-to-day Russian-American relations be, but the progress made on nuclear disarmament and the re-building of the UN?

Alan Cranston, the former majority whip in the U.S. Senate, once shrewdly and correctly observed that Gorbachev had one consistent principle in all his actions - a turn away from violence as a political instrument. This was as true of his decision not to use force to keep the Warsaw Pact countries under Soviet hegemony as it was to agree the re-unification of Germany. It infected his attitude to the break up of the Soviet Union (pushed by Boris Yeltsin to his great chagrin) as it did his distrust of nuclear weapons.

Jonathan Schell has caught the paradox at the heart of the man perhaps better than anyone else. In an article in The Nation he noted that Gorbachev "aimed merely to reform the Soviet Union, not abolish it. On the other hand he DID want to abolish nuclear weapons. It is one of the ironies of the Cold War that he reached the unintended goal but fell short of the intended one".

Gorbachev recounted to Schell how he felt when the military put him through rehearsals for the launch of nuclear weapons. He sat there with his computor and the codes to feed it in front of him while the military passed him reports of a nuclear attack coming from the west, followed only minutes later by one from the east. "I never touched the button" was his simple comment. And he went on to explain how the likelihood of an intended war never occurred to him and that therefore he knew he would never have to confront the grave moral dilemma of ordering their use. What did bother him and still does is that "nuclear weapons might be used without the political leadership wanting it, or deciding it, owing to some failure in the command and control systems. They say if there is a gun one day it will shoot".

Gorbachev does not stop there. His time at the top pushed him to reflect more profoundly both on the limits of power and the limitations of violence as its instrument. "You can destroy your enemy", he observed, "You can destroy your ideological foe. You can actually destroy many, many people or send them to camps, or anything you want. But historically this does not win". This was his observation on life in the Soviet Union, but it might as easily be applied to Yeltsin's war in Chechnya, a war that Gorbachev, whatever the provocation, would surely have overruled.

Gorbachev, I doubt, if he sat in Clinton's shoes, would have resorted to bombing Serbia or, today, bombing Iraq, where the U.S., with Britain's help, has culmulatively dropped more high explosive than during all of the Vietnam war. "Yes", says Gorbachev, "You can achieve some temporary successes by using violence. But cooperation, interaction, partnership, trying to harmonise your interests with the interests of others- these are what really works. We cannot reject the interests of others, but need to balance our interests with their interests. And of course you cannot do that with war. You can only do it through political methods".

At the time when Clinton and Yeltsin at the end of their terms look, with allowances for the differences in their ages and their health, two utterly spent forces, this must be the moment for the electorates in both their countries to start asking more pointed questions on what went wrong and how the present drift towards renewed hostilities can be reversed.

Looking back, it seems that we were unprepared for the end of the Cold War - or perhaps as long as nuclear weapons were held in such profusion we didn't deep down inside us believe that it had ended. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that Gorbachev was the only major politician who had mentally prepared himself for it. He had this capacity to understand that the society he headed was a failure and had to be recast. And from that he reasoned further to conclude that our international system with weapons of mass destruction at the fore and broken down international institutions at the rear also had to be totally rebuilt.

U.S. presidential candidate, Bill Bradley, recently remarked that Gorbachev is one of his three heros. Ten years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, could it be that its real message may be beginning to percolate where it counts?


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 385 351172 and e-mail:













The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512   E-mail:

Contact the Webmaster at:
Created by Maria Näslund      © 1997, 1998, 1999 TFF