- One of the world’s most powerful leaders decided that aggressive posturing and ideological differences shouldn’t matter anymore.
- He was of the opinion that leaders who seek peace should be seen as strong, not weak.
- Mikhail Gorbachev moved from politics to forming a green “Red Cross” to help solve environmental issues.
- To meet future challenges he suggested we take down the “wall” that separates us from our future – much like the Berlin Wall at the end of the Cold War – and confront our problems frankly.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth president of the USSR, took control of one of the world’s two superpowers, a state that encompassed one sixth of the earth’s surface with 148 million citizens and then preceded to do the unthinkable: dismantle it.
One of the perks of running a superpower country is that you develop a worldview unlike few others. It comes with a need to expand your interests beyond a geographical border: something that can be used for good or bad. When Gorbachev became president of the Soviet Union in 1990 he’d already developed a healthy concern for the wellbeing of the planet, from lessons he’d learnt growing up as a peasant farmer. He had a vision of leveling the global economic playing fields, and it looked nothing like communism at all. First though, he needed to challenge a political system at home that had taken an ideological stance against half the world – and was causing a global conflict that sometimes threatened to destroy us all.
As General Secretary, and then President, of the Communist Party of the USSR from 1985 to 1991, Gorbachev introduced a radical turnaround of his country’s foreign and internal policies that led to a complete transformation of Eastern Europe, and caused world leaders to frantically realigning themselves with the principles of a new world order. It became known as “perestroika” (restructuring), yet it took until 2010 before polls showed that the majority of Russians actually acknowledged this as a good thing. Sometimes the sign of a great leader is that they see a solution to a problem long in advance.
The Soviet Union that he inherited rested on an obscene economy, dedicated to armaments production and aggressive global posturing. Gorbachev told his generals that the show was over and began dismantling 70 years of ideological make-believe and secrecy, telling his citizens that they had to take charge of their own salvation. He was also shocked by the size of the environmental degradation he saw around him; that even he hadn’t grasped before taking power. When he resigned as president he put his energy into examining how we can all make a positive difference in the world.
His transformation from national leader to concerned international leader was swift. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, resigned from political office in 1991 and founded Green Cross International in 1992, an organization that now works for peace, justice and the environment in over 30 countries. “If we neglect ecology then all our efforts to create a fairer world will be doomed to failure,” he says. “Our descendants will then find themselves for centuries, if not millennia, having to pay for our thoughtless addiction to wasting nature’s resources.”
His idea for Green Cross International was that it would adopt the same medical emergency response model of the International Red Cross – but for ecological issues – and speed up solutions to environmental problems. His founding of Green Cross was a red light to the world that if we continue our relentless consumer culture we’ll one day find ourselves in trouble.
“It must start with changes in the human spirit,” he explained. We must reprioritize our value system, including relations between people and the interrelationship between humanity and nature.” Gorbachev called for a Global Glasnost (Russian for “openness”) on the part of nations and governments to formulate a solution to these challenges. “We need a policy of ‘preventative engagement,’ so that military force ceases to be an option,” he said.
In the 1990s the cold war confrontation had degenerated into a type of official hostility looking for a purpose and Gorbachev was a brave leader indeed to have called its bluff and shown the world that there were peaceful alternatives. Most people consider leaders weak and ineffectual when they stand down in the face of adversity, missing the point that sometimes a personal sacrifice is needed to achieve a greater good.
The Nobel Committee gave Gorbachev the main credit for ending the Cold War between East and West, a remarkable achievement for one man. He embarked on negotiations with his former adversary, Ronald Reagan, and sought to downscale defense spending – having it rather transferred to civil society. He told satellite communist regimes around the world that they needed to find their own way in the world. It was a form of tough love that looked like abandonment, but was actually helping the world become a more peaceful place. In 1985 he proposed that America and Russia cut their nuclear arsenals by half and a year later outlined his strategy for eliminating all nuclear weapons by 2000.
In the same way that Gorbachev saw the political system of the USSR as being unsustainable, we should all realize that hiding behind comfortable ignorance or ideological beliefs will not make the world’s problems disappear by themselves. Today, where ecological crises, poverty and military conflicts have become our biggest challenges, Gorbachev urged us to stop seeing these problems in isolation.
“Let us hope that the twenty-first century will usher in a period of new thinking for humanity,” he said “A humanity that already knows deep down that it must live in a united world and is responsible for future generations. It would be naive to think that the problems plaguing mankind today can be solved with means and methods which were applied, or seemed to work, in the past.”