Archie Brown


On his book The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (Another four questions)

Cover Interview of April 01, 2021

Five of Eight:
You met Gorbachev personally after he left office. What would you say about the after-office life of ‘the human factor’? Do leaders out-of-office continue to influence international relations?

I’ve met Mikhail Gorbachev about ten times, starting in 1993, when I made the introductory speech (not that he needed much introduction) before he spoke in Oxford Town Hall. Subsequent occasions included my speaking at several conferences he chaired in Moscow and Turin and being at his 70th, 75th, and 80th birthday celebrations.

rorotoko.comArchie Brown speaking at a conference in the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow in March 2010. The others in the photo are Mikhail Gorbachev who was chairing the session and (between him and the author) Alexander Bessmertnykh who was Soviet Foreign Minister in 1991, following the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze.

It is impossible to measure how much influence a former leader wields or can wield. Gorbachev has not, unfortunately, had much impact in post-Soviet Russia. Both Yeltsin and Putin for different reasons have preferred to marginalise him. In the contemporary Russian mass media it is a bit easier to praise Stalin than to praise Gorbachev. Nevertheless, the censorship is not as comprehensive as it was in the pre-perestroika Soviet Union and some appreciative articles have been published in small-circulation papers and online journals. There is a minority of Russians who still have the highest regard for Gorbachev and value highly what he did to introduce a whole range of freedoms they had not enjoyed before and his laying the foundations of Russian democracy which have, however, not been built on in subsequent years. Some of the freedoms he initiated, including the freedom to travel, still continue, but others have been greatly attenuated.

I would say that Gorbachev has continued to have some influence on international opinion through his speeches around the world (which continued until very recent years), books, articles, and interviews. Probably, though, he has not had much impact on Western office-holders. They have to deal with their counterpart in the Kremlin, whoever that person may be. But Gorbachev, who was well ahead of most political leaders in the 1980s in taking ‘green’ issues seriously, has never stopped speaking out on his ecological concerns and on the dangers of scrapping arms reduction and arms control agreements. These included not only those which Gorbachev signed with Reagan and with Bush the elder, but even the ABM Treaty which put limits on the development of anti-ballistic missile systems. That Treaty was signed as long ago as 1972, but the United States withdrew from it in 2002, during the presidency of George W. Bush.

As recently as December 4th, 2018, Gorbachev and former US Secretary of State George Shultz (who died in February aged 100) published a joint article in the Washington Post warning of the dangers of abandoning the INF Treaty, signed by Gorbachev and Reagan in Washington in 1987. As Gorbachev and Shultz wrote in the Post, this eliminated an “entire class of nuclear missiles” and “opened the way to a process of real nuclear disarmament”. Respected international elder statesmen—a category which included Shultz as well as Gorbachev—can have some influence on the climate of political debate. But when we examine the actual policy choices made by their successors in government, there is not much evidence of their arguments having any real impact where it would make the biggest difference.