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What Gorbachev taught us about leadership

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President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev at a May 29, 1988, meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow.

Forty-seven years to the day after the United States suffered the then-bloodiest attack on our territory at Pearl Harbor, our nation exited an era of continuous fear of annihilation. From World War II through the Cold War, first the Japanese and German war machines and then the Soviet military had threatened to destroy the United States and its most vital partners around the world.

But on Dec. 7, 1988 a most unlikely hero, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, opened a new pathway to peace.

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, the heir to Joseph Stalin’s brutal empire transformed international politics. He already had begun by allowing more free speech and movement in Soviet territories that had before suffered oppression and tyranny. He had signed a treaty with the United States eliminating a whole class of intermediate nuclear missiles. Now, he did the unthinkable: He unilaterally slashed his forces in Central Europe — the crucible of the most fraught and terrifying conflict for the last half-century. Gorbachev announced the unconditional withdrawal of 50,000 soldiers and 5,000 tanks from the countries his predecessors had fought so hard to dominate: East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Overall, the Soviet Union would eliminate 500,000 soldiers from the fearsome Red Army. 

This was just the beginning of what would become a sprint for peace after four decades of arms races.

From the vast concrete hall of the General Assembly, the Soviet leader drove through a warm, boisterous crowd of once cynical, now euphoric New Yorkers to meet President Ronald Reagan and Vice President (and President-Elect) George H.W. Bush on a small island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. With the world watching, the current and future leaders of enemy superpowers embraced one another as friends.

Gorbachev had not acted alone; he had a vital partner in Reagan. The American president recounted that, despite their differences, he and Gorbachev had “walked a long way together to clear a path to peace.” Beginning with their first meeting more than three years earlier in Geneva, Reagan said he and the Soviet leader were “two men in a room together who had the capability of creating the next world war, or the capability of bringing peace to the world.” Reagan said “it was evident that they had decided to keep the world at peace.”

The Soviet leader responded that “he highly valued their personal rapport,” and although they faced many domestic and international difficulties, together they had begun “movement toward a better world” — the undeniable aspiration of his United Nations speech. Gorbachev explained that his country “had become a different one” — less tyrannical and threatening to those around it. “It would never go back to what it had been three years before,” no matter who was leading it.

As the last Cold War leaders bid goodbye, watched by thousands of stunned, joyous onlookers, the last half-century of Russian-American nuclear conflict was fading rapidly into history. The Soviet leader and his American partner had done more than negotiate treaties; they had restored trust between two long-suspicious societies. Gorbachev and Reagan modeled and promoted that trust, and it quickly spread.

Younger readers who came of age after the Cold War are spared the memories of what it was like to live in that four-decade stand-off: the fear of Soviet tyranny, the unrelenting terror of nuclear weapons, and the constant, gnawing knowledge that every day could be the last day of human existence.

This is why the Reagan-Gorbachev moment was so transformative. Now, Americans no longer believed the Soviet Union wanted to annihilate us. Soviet citizens no longer worried that a deranged American president was about to launch a nuclear strike. And soon enough, citizens of East Germany and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain no longer feared that Moscow would crush their aspirations for freedom as they tore down the long-hated Berlin Wall.

We were young witnesses to this incredible transformation. We both graduated from high school in 1990, one of us in New York City, the other in Tucson, Ariz. After an adolescence filled with Cold War fears, in our senior year of high school we felt the exuberance of a flowering of peace and the enormous promise of new freedoms. These changes were captivating and continued into our college years as we saw other visionary leaders such as Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Helmut Kohl, and Nelson Mandela lead their nations — and the world — into new moments of reconciliation, unity, peace and freedom. Together they helped inspire our decisions to become historians and policy scholars. They taught us that cooperation across deep divisions is possible, that longstanding problems can be solved, and that leadership is indispensable.

Now we are both professors. As we prepare undergraduate and graduate students to take up the mantle of leadership, we are fortunate to have the examples of Gorbachev and Reagan to show a new generation what is possible, even in the most challenging of times. We also share the obvious evidence that, despite Gorbachev’s prediction, the world has retreated to many of the old nightmares because of venal, misguided leadership, accompanied by craven complicity from so many who know better.

Too many voices now despair for the future. Too many leaders seem intent on fueling conflict, rather than preventing it. Too many citizens have lost hope in an intoxicating swirl of social media rage. Too many scholars have abandoned any belief in the power of leaders to overcome structural challenges and solve big problems.

This pessimism has good cause but it is self-defeating. It echoes the low points of the 47 years of conflict after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It neglects how individuals of enormous courage, commitment and integrity ran against the tide and brought warring sides together for mutual gains. It forgets how leaders set aside enmity and chose to make peace.

We need leaders who are willing to do the same today. We can try to encourage them, but the drive to abandon hate and encourage hope must come from within the people in power. There is no substitute for leaders who work to unleash what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” That was the true greatness of Gorbachev that we witnessed, despite his many flaws. That is the greatness a new generation of responsible citizens must find to build peace and partnership again.

William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, executive director of the Clements Center for National Security, and a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, all at the University of Texas at Austin. His previous government service includes senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. His latest book is “The Peacemaker,” forthcoming in November.

Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He is the co-host of the podcast This is Democracy. His latest book is “Civil War by Other Means.”

Tags collapse of Soviet Union Fall of Berlin Wall Joseph Stalin Mikhail Gorbachev Mikhail Gorbachev Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan

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