Accessibility links

Gorbachev's Foreign Policy Changed Map of Europe

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, February 21, 2011

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, February 21, 2011

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, just celebrated his 80th birthday. In the second part of the series our correspondent looks at the fundamental changes he made in the foreign policy arena.

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. At 54, he was the youngest member of the ruling Politburo, which voted him into power. For the next six years, he instituted policies that would alter the course of history and ultimately lead to the demise of the Soviet Union.

On the domestic front, those policies were known as “glasnost” - or openness - and “perestroika” - or restructuring. In foreign affairs, Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms were known as “new thinking.”

Robert Legvold, with Columbia University, says it was not simply that Mr. Gorbachev changed Moscow’s behavior.

“It was this new political thinking as the representation of a fundamental, new conceptual notion of what the Soviet Union was or could be in international politics, how it should play its role, what the fundamental mistakes had been in the past," said Levgold.

Legvold says Mr. Gorbachev understood that the Soviet Union could no longer increase its influence in the outside world by using its military force. And he says in order to create a new foreign policy that could be sustained economically, Mr. Gorbachev realized that Moscow would have to - in some areas - retrench.

One of those areas was Afghanistan, where Soviet troops had been fighting mujahedeen guerrilla forces since December 1979.

Archie Brown, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oxford (Britain), says Mr. Gorbachev had strong views about the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.

“At the time the invasion took place [December 24, 1979], Gorbachev met with [Eduard] Shevardnadze [Georgian Communist Party leader, future Soviet Foreign Minister under Gorbachev]," said Brown. "They were both members of the Politburo, but this decision was taken without their participation. It was taken by a very narrow group in the top leadership of the party, and they both thought it would be a disaster. And so from very early in his general secretaryship, Gorbachev wanted to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. But he had the same problems that other leaders have when troops are there and a lot of people have been killed - it’s very difficult to say all these lives were wasted, the Afghan lives and the lives of Soviet soldiers. You want to get out with some dignity and some kind of agreement.”

Brown says the process took longer than Mr. Gorbachev expected. The last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989.

But as Marshal Goldman from Harvard University says, not everyone welcomed that decision.

“There were others who said that this is Russia backing down - once you start backing down, you are just going to back up all the way and show that you’re just a paper tiger," said Goldman. "But I think this was essential and Gorbachev understood that fighting this war was a drain for which there was really no end in sight. But it also led to statements in the sense that Russia really had lost it and lost its ability to intimidate - they suddenly fell from being a superpower to being no power whatsoever.”

Mr. Gorbachev’s “new thinking” on foreign policy spread to Eastern Europe, where people were clamoring for an end to Communist Party rule.

In July 1989, the so-called “Brezhnev Doctrine” was replaced by what one Gorbachev adviser described as the “Sinatra Doctrine”, based on the singer’s popular song “My Way.” In other words, the adviser said East European countries were now able to go their own way - politically and economically - without fear of invasion by Soviet troops.

Once again, Archie Brown:

“Once it became clear that there would be no Soviet military intervention to put a stop to demands for national independence, then I think one could simply assume - I certainly assumed at the time - that this would follow quickly, because these countries would have become non-communist years earlier, even decades earlier, but for their perfectly realistic expectation that if they got rid of their own local communist leaders, this would lead to a Soviet intervention, as it did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968," he said.

Columbia University's Robert Legvold says historians will argue about why the Cold War ended or why the Soviet Union collapsed.

“My own view is that when you look at the story, especially when you try to explain the timing, that is why it occurred from 1985 to 1989 as opposed to 10 years later, 15 years later, when you try and explain the timing, I think it is very difficult to do that without giving a lot of credit to Gorbachev and what he did during that period," he said.

In October 1990, Mr. Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his many and decisive contributions to peace. Fourteen months later, he resigned as Soviet president, experts say a victim of forces he unleashed but ultimately could not control.