By Sudheendra Kulkarni
May 25, 2008
Fareed Zakaria, an illustrious Indian-American and editor of the international edition of Newsweek, is one of the most intelligent commentators on the state of the world. That he is the son of the late Dr Rafeeq Zakaria, a renowned Islamic scholar with whom I interacted closely, provides me an added reason to be an avid reader of his weekly column. Newsweek recently ran a cover story featuring an extract from his latest book, The Post-American World. Although its main theme is why the West needs to adapt itself to a new era marked by the “rise of the rest” — the growth of countries like China, India, Brazil, Russia, and many others — Zakaria’s one observation caught my attention.
“We are probably living in the most peaceful time of our species’ existence,” he affirms. “Wars of all kinds have been declining since the mid-1980s and we are now at the lowest levels of global violence since the 1950s.” The world has by no means become an abode of peace, but the relative absence of catastrophic wars at a time when several big powers still possess huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction is indeed an achievement.
Many disparate factors have contributed to this positive development. However, if one individual were to be singled out for having made the greatest contribution to peace in the world, it has to be Mikhail Gorbachev. It was he who brought the Cold War animosity between the US and the Soviet Union, which was the biggest threat to global peace in the post-World War II period, to an end — almost single-handedly. He did so by bringing the communist-ruled Soviet Union and the Moscow-led Soviet bloc to an end.
Rarely does history present leaders who played a constructive role by destroying the very throne on which they were ensconsced, who became victors by losing the power which they wielded. It was Gorbachev’s singular achievement that he brought about this historic transformation peacefully. Few in the pre-Gorbachev era thought it was possible.
A truly great leader is one who recognises the need for deep-going change in the society in which he lives and sets out to bring it about with courage of conviction and sincere adherence to non-violent means. Gorbachev, after becoming the chief of the Soviet communist party in 1985 at a remarkably young age (for his country) of 54, embarked on a mission that was hitherto unthinkable: introduce openness (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika) in a secretive, oppressive, inefficent and unsustainable system of governance.
He knew that the Soviet Union could not be restructured and democratised without giving a sound burial to the Cold War rivalry with the US and without a reconciliation with the West in general. Hence, he pursued his transformational goal, both at home and abroad, with the kind of dreamy idealism rarely seen in the international arena. By relentlessly championing the cause of peace, reconciliation and cooperation, he infused hope and mutual trust in global diplomacy which is otherwise notorious for the cynicism it generates.
True, the process of change that Gorbachev initiated did not follow the script he had in mind; it indeed culminated in his own loss of power in 1991. Nevertheless, in six short years, he left behind a legacy that had fundamentally altered the world, one in which wars and violence became considerably less, and cooperation became considerably more, than before. Thus, he demonstrated that a single man with a positive approach and strong conviction can make a difference to the world we live in.
Gorbachev did not cease to be active in world affairs after losing power. He is today one of the few world leaders who has quietly continued to articulate global concerns from a global perspective that is rooted in universal human values. He provides thought leadership to the world from various international forums on issues as wide ranging as environment-friendly and equitable development, energy security, protection of the diverse cultural resources of humanity and mainstreaming them in politics and governance, and reform of the UN system. He has never shied away from criticising the delusional triumphalism that continues to survive in a rapidly weakening United States, because of which the world has been deprived of the full dividends of the end of the Cold War. Truly, here is a man who cares for the future of our planet and for all its denizens.
I have a special reason to dedicate this column as a tribute to my hero. As the president of the Soviet Union he visited India in 1986 when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister. It was by far the grandest welcome that any visiting dignitary has received in recent decades. That visit, and Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to the Soviet Union, combined with the cultural festivals of India in the USSR and vice versa, are still cherished by those who have followed India’s diplomatic history. Although times have now changed, there is now an urgent need to revive the warmth of Indo-Russian ties. We are now observing 2008 as ‘The Year of Russia in India’. The government, or some non-governmental body, should invite Gorbachev to India again during this year, and thus re-establish a constructive dialogue among the best minds in our two friendly countries.