The Cold War was the main geopolitical conflict of the second half of the 21st century. The ideological and economic confrontation between the US and NATO against the USSR and the countries of the Warsaw Pact began in 1946 with Winston Churchill’s speech, where he condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe and declared that the iron curtain had descended upon the continent (“Churchill,” n.d.). In contrast, Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1988 UN Speech was heralded as one of the greatest diplomatic announcements of its time, as a message of friendship and cooperation among the nations, a message that brought down the Empire. For his efforts and willingness to promote peaceful coexistence, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the year 1990. However, the role of Gorbachev remains controversial as his role in shaping history can hardly be considered positive. The purpose of this paper is to review investigate Gorbachev’s 1988 UN speech in connection with the USSR’s political and geopolitical standing and determine the actual impact the speech had in shaping the world’s history.
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The Main Three Messages of Gorbachev’s Speech
Gorbachev chose the UN platform to deliver his message of peace to the world for a specific reason. The UN was the only institution where the diplomatic representatives of every nation were present, which meant that any word publically spoken here would send a signal to the entire world. The first president of the USSR wanted to share his vision of the future not only with the leaders but also with the general public in numerous countries around the world. Gorbachev’s speech involved three key points, upon which he was ready to act upon (“Gorbachev’s speech,” n.d.):
- The removal of the ideological factor from foreign policy relations between the nations of the western and the eastern bloc. This effectively meant the end of an ideological war between capitalism and communism. This also was a powerful blow against communism, which, for the last 70 years, was structured in opposition to capitalism. Without the ideological confrontation, it was destined to lose.
- The denouncement of the use of force to solve geopolitical issues. This idea had the potential of changing the nature of relations between the USA and the USSR by removing military and nuclear force out of the question. This, once again, weakened his country in a direct clash of interests, as USSR was economically-inferior compared to the USA.
- The UN was to become the primary body through which all economic and political disputes would be settled. The superpowers, such as the USA and the USSR, were meant to become the primary forces to drive the world change and ensure that every nation complies with the new world order, based on the prevalence of justice and law. Gorbachev had outlined the course for the USSR’s external politics for the next years. Its priorities were to establish understanding and trust between the USSR and the USA and a one-sided disarming of over 500,000 soldiers, over 8,000 tanks, 1400 mid-range nuclear missiles, and other armaments (“Gorbachev’s speech,” n.d.).
Gorbachev did not deliver empty promises and stayed true to his words. It was, indeed, the greatest act of generosity in foreign politics since the creation of the USSR. In one day, he gave the West what western diplomacy could not have hoped for after decades of hard work.
The Aftermath of Gorbachev’s UN Speech
The idealism and desire for change in his UN speech of 1988 were admirable, but also misguided. The main failure of Gorbachev’s oration was in his failure to realize that his goals, however noble, undermined his own country. USSR was in a difficult economic situation already by the end of 1988 due to failed liberalization reforms. The adherence to Gorbachev’s tenets he announced at the General Assembly undermined the three pillars of the USSR’s foreign policy – ideology, military, and sovereignty. These actions have undermined his support in the USSR and have divided the country, which greatly contributed to its fall (“Fall of the Soviet Union,” 2012).
Gorbachev’s system of the governance of international law was based on the concept of multiple centers of power. However, after the collapse of the USSR, the only superpower that remained standing was the USA. Without the USSR to oppose it, the country was declared ‘victor’ in the Cold War, claiming geopolitical domain by the right of the strongest. As a result, the de-escalation of power became one-sided. The collapse of the Eastern bloc was followed by the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe when the reason for the military bloc’s very creation ceased to exist.
The collapse of the USSR was followed by civil wars and unrest in its former republics. UN remained a powerless political entity, its resolutions treated as recommendations rather than orders, repeating the fate of the League of Nations – its predecessors. The USA, now considered the world’s police, involved itself in a series of destructive wars in the Middle East, turning relatively prosperous states into barren wastelands and giving rise to terrorism. Russia, the country-founder of the USSR, suffered the most from the state’s collapse, turning from a proud nation famous for its academic and scientific achievements into a fuel-oriented economy. Dreams of former glory and the rise of nationalism are fueling another arms race. A road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Gorbachev was ready to build a world of peace and supremacy of international law. He was honest in his desire. Unfortunately, the rest of the world was not ready for it.
Churchill delivers Iron Curtain speech. (n.d.). Web.
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Gorbachev’s speech to the UN. December 7, 1998 (n.d.). Web.