“We are reaping the consequences of a strategy that is not conducive to cooperation and partnership, to living in a new global situation,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, to a crowd of 3,600 on Oct. 19 in the Allan P. Kirby Field House and many others via a live streaming broadcast in 13 locations from coast to coast, including northern Mexico. “People are asking ‘why do our leaders want to decide everything at the expense of the people?’”
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Gorbachev was referring to the series of uprisings around the world including the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations here in the United States. “The world needs goals that will bring people together,” he said. “Some people in the United States were pushing the idea of creating a global American empire, and that was a mistake from the start. Other people in America are now giving thought to the future of their country. The big banks, the big corporations, are still paying the same big bonuses to their bosses. Was there ever a crisis for them? . . . I believe America needs its own perestroika.”
Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss introduced Gorbachev, noting that his visit was a celebration of the new Oechsle Center for Global Education made possible by the support of Walter Oechsle ’57 and his wife, Christa. “I cannot think of a more fitting way in which to mark the creation of this vibrant new academic hub on our campus than with an address by the distinguished global leader who will present the center’s inaugural lecture, ‘Perspectives on Global Change.’”
Gorbachev was welcomed with a standing ovation.
“We have invited such a renowned international figure to address us tonight because what he has to say is enormously important,” continued Weiss, “…he exemplifies the type of visionary, transformative leadership which we hope the Oechsle Center will inspire – and prepare – our students to emulate as they engage with the world throughout their own lives and careers.”
In the opening of his lecture, the 80-year-old Gorbachev, who ended Communist rule in Eastern Europe and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, reflected on the years of preparation and negotiation that led finally to the end of the Cold War. “When my people asked what I thought of Reagan, I said he is a dinosaur, and when Reagan’s people asked him what he thought of me, he called me a diehard Bolshevik.”
Nevertheless, progress was made over that first three-day meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1985 and others that followed, with the final result that both countries agreed that a nuclear war cannot be won “and must never be fought,” and that “our two nations will not seek military superiority.”
Gorbachev then described the difficult situation faced in Russia at the time. “We needed changes in our own country; the people were demanding change, saying ‘we can no longer live like this, we can no longer live as before.’ This required us, the leaders of the country, to propose something bold.” He said this led to perestroika, to an effort to push forward and end the totalitarian system, “to move toward democracy and freedom…and step by step towards a new economy, toward market economics. But the most important thing was freedom and glasnost.”
With posed demeanor and steady gaze, Gorbachev pressed on with his historical reflections. The translator kept pace with the even-toned Russian voice. Gesturing occasionally with his wide hands, Gorbachev’s presence as a world statesman was unmistakable.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Gorbachev said it was disastrous economically and socially, that nearly two-thirds of the people were in poverty, and that Americans did not realize it was not a good thing. “Americans came to Russia to celebrate our hardship.” He noted that many opportunities opened up “by glasnost, by freedom, by democracy were not used properly,” and the country is still in transition and has faced a lot of problems.
“The entire world situation did not develop properly,” said Gorbachev. “We saw deterioration where there should have been positive movement. My friend the late Pope John Paul II said it best. He said, ‘We need a new world order, one that is more stable, more humane, and more just.’ Others, including myself, have spoken about a new world order, but we are still facing the problem of building such a world order…problems of the environment, of backwardness and poverty, food shortages…all because we do not have a system of global governance.”
Gorbachev said it looks like the United States needs its military-industrial sector for the economy to prosper and if that is so, then it is a sick economy. “I do not say this to rankle anyone,” he explained. “I say it to my own people as well. We need to build a society where human beings are at the center. A lot of brain power is concentrated in the military-industrial sector; we need to shift that to other goals.”
In commenting on whether the objectives of Vladimir Putin, prime minister of Russia, who has announced he will run for a third term as president in the 2012 elections, are heading in the right direction, Gorbachev said the model that should be pursued is an association of nations, a union of nations that remain sovereign and politically independent and not a subjugation of nations.
“The Gorbachev Foundation has been working on this issue…we conducted a poll on the anniversary of the breakup of the union…70 percent said they regretted the disappearance, but only 9 percent said they wanted a restoration.
“Cooperation has to be based on equality and respect for the sovereignty of independent neighbors,” he continued, adding that if Putin and others who follow him develop a policy that respects this approach, then he will get support.
He commented on the changing world: “We cannot leave things as they were before, when we are seeing that these protests are moving to even new countries, that almost all countries are now witnessing such protests, that the people want change,” he said. “As we are addressing these challenges, these problems raised by these protest movements, we will gradually find our way towards a new world order.”
Gorbachev added, “I understand that you are inaugurating a center that will result in the kind of education and knowledge needed for these situations, and I congratulate you.”
“History is not preordained,” said Gorbachev. “We can influence history if we understand the most important things.”