The political legacy of Gorbachev : The death of balance of power
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, died on Tuesday at the age of 91 in a Moscow hospital, without confirming or denying whether he was an agent for the Western bloc led by the United States. As the head of a superpower in a bipolar world, he let the communist citadel collapse and handed over the victory of the Cold War to the US-led power bloc without a fight.
The geopolitical tectonic shift his action caused and the dramatic events that followed from 1989 to 1991 to the elation of the US were too surreal to be true. The West hailed Gorbachev’s dissolution of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on December 25, 1991 as the triumph of the liberal world order over the socialist system that Karl Marx dreamt of and Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and other leaders of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution fought to set up.
Although armed with nuclear weapons and all types of missiles, and self-sufficient in food and energy, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev capitulated to the West after getting trapped in a costly arms race and a worldwide campaign to prop up socialist governments and communism in Third World countries. The first sign of weakness was evident in the Soviet Union’s military defeat in Afghanistan in 1988. Later its inability to prevent the German reunification in 1990 and to stop the fall of communism in Eastern Europe indicated that the Soviet Union was no more the great power that sent tanks to Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to ensure Communism’s triumph.
Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) policy was a prescription for disaster. Implemented in the 1980s till the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, it brought about economic chaos instead of the expected prosperity and social justice. The replacement of the centrally controlled economy based on the Marxist slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” with a liberal economic system threw the Soviet economy and society into disarray. In the 22.4 million square kilometre nation – which spread over 11 time zones in two continents — perestroika only made the people poorer while a political class connected to the party became richer.
Dissent followed. The nation became unstable. Demand for independence grew in the periphery. The Soviet Union broke into 15 new states. Eastern Europe’s Communist states which came under the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet defence umbrella embraced capitalism, the West’s economic mantra, and gradually obtained membership in the US-led military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
While the Soviet Union was plunged into chaos by Gorbachev’s reckless reforms, its communist rival across the border, China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping was more circumspect with economic reforms. With one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brakes, Deng in the 1970s and 1980s rolled out his economic reforms with the setting up of special export promotion zones, paving the way for gradual liberalisation.
Gorbachev’s surrender disturbed the balance of power in the world order. The bipolar world was replaced by a unipolar world. The developing countries represented by the once powerful Non-Aligned Movement were left in the lurch. Most of them rushed to embrace the sole superpower, the US. Others tried to remain neutral, only to fall victim to powerful nations that emerged later as superpowers or regional powers.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international order has been in a state of flux. The unipolar world led by the US became more chaotic, more dictatorial, and conflict-prone. Instead of acting with responsibility and ensuring the birth of a just global order, the US tried to promote its geopolitical interests through military means — as has been seen in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places.
Perhaps the end of the cold war was the closest the world came to establishing the heaven of freedom that Rabindranath Tagore dreamt of on a global scale. It’s worth filling this space with the words of Tagore’s thought-provoking poem:
Where the mind is without fear; and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words come out from the depths of truth; where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action; into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!
We may add: Where the world’s resources are shared in a fair manner; where international law is held supreme and disputes are sorted out through peaceful means instead of war; where human rights are upheld, where nations are not led by greed and self-interest; where nations work together to minimise the effects of climate change, into that global order, our Father, let our world awake!
Idealism apart, what we need today in the absence of responsible superpower conduct is the establishment of the balance of power or a power equilibrium that ensures relative peace. At different stages of history, a balance-of-power world order in one form or another has kept nations away from major wars. During the Cold War that followed the end of World War II, the balance-of-power system bolstered by the savage destructive power of nuclear weapons prevented a direct war between the Soviet Union and the United States. However, they fought proxy wars in Asia, Africa and Latin America and even militarily got involved in places like Korea and Vietnam (in the case of the US) and Afghanistan (in the case of the Soviet Union) to economically and militarily drain each other of their economic resources. In the end, the loser was not only the Soviet Union under Gorbachev but the non-aligned countries as well.
But, in a post-unipolar world order where the United States’ dominance has been seriously challenged by China and Russia, to establish a balance-of-power system that will not see wars, not only big powers such as the US, China and Russia but also second-tier powers such as India, Japan and the European Union must respect one another’s geopolitical objectives and cease interfering in one another’s internal affairs. The Ukrainian war broke out largely because of the failure of the US and its western allies to respect Russia’s security concerns in its backyard and reciprocate Russia’s policy of respecting US security interests in areas Washington considers non-violable.
It is said the international balance of power as a regulatory system ceases to exist, when one or more great powers seek world dominance, intervene in the internal affairs of other great powers, undermine the security concerns of other powers, or wage proxy wars. It is largely because of the absence of a balance-of-power system that the Ukraine war broke out and tension prevails in the Taiwan Strait. The political legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev is the death of the balance-of-power system.