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Issue Date:  May 6, 2005

Gorbachev on U.S. global role

Former Soviet president cautions against 'leadership by domination'

South Orange, N.J.

The man who knew well the toll that military occupation takes in national treasure and talent drew applause from students and faculty at Seton Hall University when he urged the United States to vacate Iraq “as quickly as possible.”

Speaking Russian and aided by an interpreter, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev brought his views on democracy, U.S.-Russian relations and the legacy of Pope John Paul II to a sellout crowd of 1,800 that packed the university’s Walsh Gymnasium here April 19.

The 1990 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who headed the Soviet Union from 1985 to its demise in 1991, withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan after 16 years of occupation that took thousands of lives in both countries, drained Soviet coffers and led to Afghanistan becoming the training ground for international terrorists.

The 45-year-long Cold War that kept the United States and the Soviet Union locked in an arms race ended because both Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan “realized that a nuclear war can’t be won and must never be fought,” he said to sustained applause.

The process of reducing the number of nuclear weapons still held by both nations is the “most important” work facing the old enemies, now friends, he said. “This moment is as important as in the 1980s” for Moscow and Washington to “eliminate the number of strategic weapons” in both arsenals, he said.

Gorbachev’s Seton Hall visit was sponsored by the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. The school is the first of its kind established since the Cold War ended. Whitehead students laughed when Gorbachev revealed that relations with Reagan were anything but diplomatic initially.

At their first meeting in 1985, Gorbachev told his colleagues: “ ‘Reagan is a real dinosaur’ … and perhaps he was,” Gorbachev added 20 years later. The late president had insulted the Soviet leader, calling him “a diehard Bolshevik.” But two days later the pair was able to work together based on a mutual agreement about the futility of nuclear war.

Clearly Gorbachev wants close ties to continue between the two nations. He said, “The best is not in the past; the best is yet to come.” But he urged U.S. leaders to work in tandem with the Russians and others and not to act unilaterally. “The U.S. has tremendous economic, political and military power,” which puts it in a special role and gives it special responsibilities, he said.

Will America exercise “leadership by domination and imposing one nation’s will upon the others?” he asked, or will it lead by “cooperating” with other states? Gorbachev said, “The world doesn’t want America to be a global policeman; the world wants a stable and dependable partner.”

He noted the importance of democracy for the Soviets and for people worldwide, and said that democracy had imbued the policies of perestroika, with which Gorbachev introduced sweeping political, economic and social reforms to the Soviet system. “We needed to liberate our country. … Perestroika brought freedom to our people.”

However, he cautioned against trying to impose democracy on other countries or believing that one size fits all. The United States should not expect nations to transform their governments into democracies overnight, but should consider the culture and customs unique to individual lands, said Gorbachev.

“Let China be China,” he said, in answer to a question on the future of Russia’s Asian neighbor. “Let them do what they want to do in a Chinese way -- not a U.S. or Russian way. They have 5,000 years of history, Russia only 1,000.”

With the fall of the Soviet system, “everyone was predicting the collapse of communism everywhere. This is simplistic,” Gorbachev said, noting that China began “profound fundamental reforms in the 1970s. … I believe our colleagues in Beijing want democratic processes, but at the same time don’t want their vast country out of control.”

Gorbachev said he thinks China’s future will involve greater integration with and cooperation with other lands. Moscow strongly backs Beijing’s “One China” policy, he said. As for the future of Taiwan, “I don’t believe China will use its gunboats. It is smart enough and patient enough not to,” he said.

Would Russia use more force against its independence-seeking republic of Chechnya? Gorbachev conceded: “Some steps have to be taken that are antidemocratic.” He added that given “Chechnya’s special history and its special suffering -- especially in the last 10 years, we need to give Chechnya special status” while “not ousting it from the Russian Federation.” Gorbachev said he sought a process of mediation to meet this challenge.

He called for national and global efforts to heal the problems that feed terrorism, citing poverty and “the humiliation of nations or groups of people” as incubators of terrorism. “The fight against terrorism should not involve the denigration of Islam,” Gorbachev said. “Fundamentalism exists in all religions.”

Gorbachev was visiting New Jersey, New York and Canada as leader of Green Cross International, the group he founded in 1993 to encourage government, business and nongovernmental organizations to collaborate in seeking solutions to environmental ills. He gave a keynote speech to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development April 21, calling for a first-ever global water treaty.

Gorbachev’s Seton Hall talk came just hours after the College of Cardinals elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pope. While the former Russian leader did not comment on the new pontiff, he lauded the late Pope John Paul II for his “outstanding service to the church and the world.”

“The pope became a person of great influence because he stayed close to the people and was not at the service of any political group. … He criticized communism, but also the flaws in capitalism.” Gorbachev said he did not know John Paul well, but found him a most interesting person to talk to even when he was very ill.

“This holy person … was utterly faithful to Jesus and to his people. … The ideas of Jesus were basically socialist ideas,” Gorbachev said. “They were buried many times, but have never died. These are ideas of respect and social justice” -- ideas central to John Paul’s papacy, he said.

In welcoming Gorbachev to campus, Seton Hall President Fr. Robert Sheeran said: “People change history and great leaders change the world.” As he looked out across the sea of faces filling the court and bleachers where the Seton Hall Pirates play basketball, Sheeran mused, “Perhaps one of our students here today is such a leader in training.”

Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005

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