On Thursday, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by the former leader of the non-free world to hear his perspective on the current state of world affairs.
I must admit, my expectations were high. This was, after all, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Glasnost, the birthmark himself. This man presided over the reconciliation of two giants living a Clash of Civilizations that threatened the destruction of the whole world. An architect of the non-proliferation movement that prioritized disarmament as a fundamental protection of global security. A leader who successfully chose diplomacy on a grand scale to avoid war and save countless lives. Yes, my expectations were high.
Perhaps that was my first mistake, because the reality was quite sobering. An old man speaking rather awkwardly in the third person (“They try to stop Gorbachev, but Gorbachev won in the end”), he proved himself quite out of touch with the realities of geopolitics in the twenty-first century.
Taking the opportunity to promote his new book, Gorbachev spoke of his philosophy of “New Thinking,” one that I could succinctly describe as “old thinking.” The core idea, that rational dialogue can solve all conflicts, may have worked when dealing with a rational counterpart like Ronald Reagan, but considering the present context of terrorism and Al-Qaeda, it just looks naive.
Unfortunately, things today are more complex. Terrorist cells working independently of a central leader, warring factions within fundamentalist movements, and pseudo-political organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah that cannot control their own militants make for a radically different set of rules. I am not saying that diplomacy is no longer an option, but when you don’t even know who to sit down and negotiate with, and if that person is not even able to deliver the results of such negotiation, then these efforts are merely a smokescreen that allows violence to continue undeterred.
Talks with North Korea did nothing to prevent Kim Jong-Il from developing a nuclear bomb. Talks with Iran have done nothing to deter Ahmadinejad’s pursuit of the same goal. This old thinking is just not working.
So what is the solution? If diplomacy fails, is conflict the only option? George Bush may operate on that principle, but experience has shown that it is not sustainable. Just like a popular bumper sticker I have seen says, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” I think there is room for a third option, as unrealistic as it may be, that leaders (states AND heads of state) hold THEMSELVES accountable for irresponsible foreign policy.
Instead of waiting for your opponent to recognize Israel, for example, YOU can end your occupation and unilaterally withdraw from a deteriorating time bomb. Sure, Palestinians continue to fire rockets, but it is only a matter of time before they are forced to look at themselves and find a solution to their inability to govern themselves.
Now, the risks of just running away and leaving nations to solve their own problems are high, and with the amount of oil-rich states to influence how those problems are solved, they are potentially very dangerous. But those risks must in part be passed on to the populations of these crisis areas so that Western countries are not providing such easy targets to fundamentalize at.
The problems of the world are spiraling out of control, and despite what anyone says, nothing has really worked. I was hoping that Gorbachev would have some new insight. Turns out he has nothing but hindsight.
My alternate, published account of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Iceland can be found online at: http://www.reykjavik.com