In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party, the de facto leader of the Soviet Union. He came to power following years of ineffective leadership, economic decline and growing restiveness within the so-called Communist bloc. Although not initially a self-avowed agent of change it was clearly the hope of those who elevated him to supreme leadership that this new face, a man with strong technocratic credentials, could revitalize the Soviet Union and, at least indirectly, save Communism. Seven years later, due almost exclusively to Gorbachev’s actions, the Soviet Union collapsed.
How ironic that the Communist Party’s hope for change and the would-be architect of change that would bring about a new Soviet Union became the agent of its demise. To this day, from his writings and commentaries it is clear that Gorbachev does not understand his role in destroying the very system he sought to preserve and enhance. He could never appreciate the difference between reform and revolution. He failed to understand that his essential mandate was to preserve and improve the existing order, not to transform it. Gorbachev decided that to preserve Soviet Communism it would be necessary to undermine the pillars that preserved the existing order — control over the media, the absolute authority of the Communist Party and the primacy of the military-industrial complex. When the pillars fell, so too did the whole system.
Many of Gorbachev’s personal characteristics and approaches to reform can be found in a modern day agent of hope and change, Barak Obama. Both men thought they were outside the system, above it and could change it without having to be part of it — getting their hands dirty, so to speak. Gorbachev’s campaign of moral reform in the Soviet Union, starting with an anti-alcohol campaign in one of the hardest drinking countries in the world, is echoed in candidate and then President Obama’s calls for reforming how business is done in Washington. The Obama Administration now has more than thirty former lobbyists in senior positions.
Gorbachev fundamentally undermined the Soviet Union’s economic order while cynically cutting deals with key interest groups to maintain their priority positions. He sought to end the system of collective farms that dated back to the Stalin era, dismantle state economic plans and open the USSR up to foreign investment. At the same time, he continued to spend half the annual budget on the military.
Gorbachev’s instinct was to free his people and the economy from government controls. Obama seeks to do the exact opposite. Where the two leaders are the same is in their misunderstanding of the people they lead. Gorbachev failed to appreciate that after seventy years of communism the Russian people were not ready for a free market system. President Obama did not appreciate the American peoples’ commitment to a free enterprise system and their fundamental distrust of government.
Both men were myopic regarding the role of their respective nation’s military power in protecting the state. For Gorbachev, the problem was that he failed to understand that both the Soviet empire and Soviet state were held together solely by the threat of force. Remove coercive pressure and the system collapsed. Obama does not appreciate that the current world order exists because of the central role played by American military power. Remove the protective umbrella of American military power and chaos may very well ensue.
Both men displayed enormous arrogance and egocentrism in their belief that foreign leaders would succumb to their charms and the promises of a new foreign policy. Neither bothered to try and understand their enemies. Gorbachev failed miserably to improve the Soviet Union’s security situation. We must wait to find out if President Obama can improve on the Soviet Union’s sorry record in Afghanistan. His lack of progress on Mideast peace, Iran, North Korea and arms control doesn’t give one cause for optimism.
Neither Gorbachev nor Obama ever thought of themselves as ideologues. Gorbachev became radicalized by the failure of his initial reform efforts. Since the political system would not respond to his orders he undermined it in the effort to create one that would be more obedient. If his State of the Union Speech is any indicator Obama has interpreted his failures of the past year to be the fault of the system and not his doing.
Gorbachev’s combination of arrogance, ignorance and myopia destroyed the very system he was attempting to save. We will have to wait to find out if President Obama will be America’s Gorbachev.
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