In both Russia and the United States, the “reset” in US-Russian relations, to which the leaders of both countries first declared their commitment more than 18 months ago, is now being assessed.
Some, often for reasons of domestic politics, are trying to belittle any achievements. Others are wondering whether a new stage in the relationship has truly begun, or whether this is just another pendulum swing in a positive direction, to be followed inevitably by a swing backward. In assessing where we are today, it is useful to look back at the history of our relations. Even more importantly, we must consider those relations in a broader context, as part of the changes in our globalised world.
In the early 1990s, Russian expectations for cooperation with the United States were so great, the mood was euphoric. Some of that euphoria was based on illusions and on an idealised view of America — a sense that was particularly widespread among the intelligentsia. Yet, those expectations also reflected a sound belief that our two nations could indeed achieve a great deal together, both in their own interests and for
Euphoria soon gave way to disillusionment. Later in that decade, when the Russian economy was undermined by inept reforms and while millions of Russians were plunged into poverty, many Americans applauded Russia’s leaders. Many Russians could not help wondering if a weak, cornered Russia was what the United States wanted. Also in the 1990s, NATO was expanded while the United States proclaimed its victory in the Cold War and its intention to maintain military superiority.
What, then, was the value of the pledge President Ronald Reagan made at the Geneva summit meeting in 1985, when he joined me in solemnly stating that our two nations would not seek military superiority? And how could a relationship of trust be built on the foundation set in the 1990s?
The period when the United States could regard itself as the sole remaining superpower and even a “hyperpower,” capable of creating a new kind of empire, turned out to be relatively short. The global financial crisis — which, this time, started in America itself rather than on the world’s periphery — spurred the process of global realignment in favor of new centers of power and influence. America has had to adjust to this shift, and it has not been easy.
The proposal to “reset” relations with Russia reflected the acknowledgement that previous policy had failed. It also recognised the great potential of a partnership between the two nations. Nevertheless, objections arose from the very start.
Naysayers stressed that our nations were too different to be able to build a sustainable, “organic” relationship for the long term. Moreover, in both Russia and the United States it became clear that some people still believe that our countries are potential adversaries.
Neither Russia nor the United States can afford another confrontation. Though quite different, both nations are going through a transition. They are trying to build new, often unpredictable relationships with emerging powers. The European Union, too, faces this challenge — a challenge made even more difficult by problems arising from a hasty EU enlargement and monetary integration.
The intercontinental area from Vancouver to Vladivostok confronts many similar problems, and many shared interests are emerging. Powerful forces of mutual attraction must emerge as well. The US-Russia “reset” and the declared EU-Russia “partnership for modernisation” should mark the beginning of the road toward a new intercontinental community.
Only by working together can the United States, Europe and Russia secure a position of leadership and influence in a rapidly changing global world.
Am I calling for an association of “the North” as a counterweight to “the South,” the Islamic world or perhaps China? Far from it. Such a plan would be a recipe for a real rather than a hypothetical conflict of civilizations — something that in today’s world is totally unacceptable. In relations with other countries, we must always seek cooperation, joint problem-solving and ways to overcome difficulties — both those that have already arisen and those that are bound to arise.
The Islamic world is grappling with the challenge of adapting to the modern era while trying to protect its cultural identity and unique civilization. As part of this painful process, extremist tendencies within political Islam are opposed by moderate tendencies and regimes that are not averse to modernisation and are ready for dialogue. A community of shared civilization, with common cultural roots and diverse experience interacting with the Islamic world, must be a party to such a dialogue.
Such a community could play an equally important role in a dialogue with China.
China’s political importance will undoubtedly increase with its population and economic power. This will be a serious test, for the international community as well as China, especially since the historic evolution of any nation is not always linear. There are forks in the road, when difficult decisions must be made. China, sooner or later, will face a political choice — the problem of democracy. Engagement and cooperation with a great nation that has become not just the “factory to the world” but also a giant economic and political “laboratory” will be another key task for the intercontinental community I am advocating.
How this community will emerge and what its final shape will be is still unclear. What is clear is that we must start by building a durable security architecture, first and foremost in Europe, with the United States and Russia as partners. Recent US policy statements suggest that at last even American leaders recognise that security cannot be achieved unilaterally; it requires partnership. The proposal by Russia’s president, Dmitri Medvedev, to conclude a pan-European security treaty applies to the same area, extending from North America to Europe and all of Russia. I am convinced that in the future an intercontinental association of nations with a common destiny will emerge. Big goals may seem overly ambitious or abstract, particularly at a time when Russia and the United States cannot agree on the issue of imported poultry despite their public commitment to a new relationship, and the European Union still denies Russian citizens visa-free travel. Yet I am convinced that my proposal is not a pipe dream. The scale of global change is so vast, and the potential contribution of nations across the intercontinental space of Russia, Europe and North America is so enormous, that their close association should be seen as imperative. We must move from “reset” and partnership toward a reconfiguration of global political relations.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the
Soviet Union from 1985 until its dissolution
in 1991. He is a founding member of Green Cross International and is on its board