By Jonathan Powers

Michael GorberchevThe last head of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, the idealistic leader who accepted the end of communism, arrived in Berlin in November 1999 on a private visit to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In one of the speeches he gave at the occasion, Gorbachev’s voice was full of sadness.

"Today ten years after, we see the world does not appear as we had hoped".

The high hopes and the raised expectations the fall of the wall generated were not realized. The government of Bill Clinton and that of Boris Yeltsin, which received the mandate of their cold war-weary people to navigate their respective superpowers into safe waters and pull the rest of the world along, have been found wanting.

As both regimes were reaching their final days, we could see clearly what they had achieved. 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. Russia in Chechnya and later Ukraine. The U.S. in Afghanistan, Serbia, and Iraq.

As for creating a re-invigorated United Nations where law could replace brute force, neither showed commitment or perseverance. At the defeat of Communism with the end of the Cold War, both sides geared up for a fresh round of hostilities.

If Gorbachev had remained in the saddle, how would the world be different today? And, what if America had been led by a president that would have abjured such provocation as the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders? How different would Russian-American relations be today?

There would have been continuous progress 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 to the re-unification of Germany. It influenced his attitude to the break-up of the Soviet Union. As it did his distrust of nuclear weapons.

Jonathan Schell caught the earnestness at the heart of the man perhaps better than anyone else. In an article in The Nation, he noted that Gorbachev "aimed to reform the Soviet Union, not to abolish it. But he did want to abolish nuclear weapons”.

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 computer 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.

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 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’s 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".

That was his observation on life in the Soviet Union. But it might as easily be applied to Yeltsin's war in Chechnya and Putin’s war in Ukraine. Wars that Gorbachev, whatever the provocation, would surely have overruled.

 I doubt if Gorbachev had he been in Clinton's shoes, would have resorted to bombing Serbia. Or in President George W. Bush’s case, bombing Iraq, where the U.S., with Britain's help, cumulatively dropped more high explosives than during the Vietnam war.

"Yes", said Gorbachev, "You can achieve some temporary successes by using violence. But cooperation, interaction, partnership, trying to harmonize 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".

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, our international system with weapons of mass destruction at the fore also had to be rebuilt. But the West undermined him by refusing the Soviet Union financial help. The kind that was given to Germany after its defeat in World War 2.