The Legacies of Gorbachev: East Asia and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

Much to the lament of the international community, the recent Tenth Review Conference (RevCon) of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons ended inconclusively, in no small part owing to the action of one particular state. It is telling that four days after this RevCon’s unsatisfactory conclusion, the world would lose a former leader of this very state, who was instrumental in ushering an era of nuclear peace, both vis-à-vis Moscow’s relations with Washington, and the complex ties between Moscow and Beijing, even despite a faltering relationship with Pyongyang.

The death of Mikhail Gorbachev will leave multifaceted legacies. It is well known that after his infamous resignation in 1991, and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, the leader was not going away quietly. In 1996, running for President of the then newly established Russian Federation, Gorbachev infamously acquired less than 1 percent of the public vote after announcing his intention to run; and was expectedly defeated in the first round. Yet as he once said to his disbelievers whilst embarking on his presidential campaign: “I will fight to the bitter end, even if you crucify me.”

Gorbachev: A Statesman Like No Other 

Though a communist at heart, Gorbachev would be an agent of change, and would fight to the bitter end on many fronts. His ascent to power came at a time when the Soviet Politburo recognized the need for reform, even if there was a far from unanimous vision as to what such reform entailed. Yet, his foreign policy ambitions would be constrained by the vicissitudes of great power politics. Although the North Korean economy was on the path of decline in the early 1980s, Soviet-DPRK ties continued to grow. Moscow supplied military and technical assistance, and Gorbachev’s initial ascent to leadership in 1985, seemed, initially, to suggest somewhat of a continuation of the status quo. Nevertheless, as the South Korean economy quickly became the Miracle on the Han River, the opportunity for the Soviet Union was too good for Gorbachev to resist. Coupled with Gorbachev’s now-famous slogans, whether uskoreniye (acceleration of socio-economic development), demokratizatsiya (democratization), or the most common and successful reforms of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), Moscow inched closer to Seoul.

So long as the Soviet Union’s existence continued – of which Gorbachev was a vocal advocate – the Cold War ideological bipolarity would remain. A lack of ideological coexistence, however, would not preclude peaceful coexistence between Western and Eastern blocs. Gorbachev’s broader ideology of “new thinking”, as he clarified in his 1988 address to the United Nations, was timely. In Seoul, that same year, then South Korean President Roh Tae-woo would outline his own “new thinking”, Nordpolitik, which served economic and political purposes: the former, manifest through widening South Korea’s trade; increasing inter-Korean humanitarian exchange; and, at its core, opening South Korea’s ties with communist states, including its northern counterpart. Roh’s visit to the Kremlin in December 1990 was a historic moment, following the opening of trade and consular offices in Moscow and Seoul in 1989, and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states in October 1990.

Peace between Adversaries and Allies 

Forging and maintaining friendships is never easy in international relations. Gorbachev’s leadership would be characterized by balancing relations with the Soviet Union’s traditional Communist brothers of China and North Korea, and those with Reagan, Thatcher, and other leaders of Western allies. Gorbachev’s pivot to Seoul expectedly enraged North Korea, particularly given how after inviting Kim Il Sung to the Kremlin in October 1986, the Soviet leader highlighted how bilateral cooperation had reached “a new high”. What is more, it was the Soviet Union which, in 1985, had pressurized North Korea to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state, thereby foregoing its right to develop weaponized nuclear capabilities in exchange for Soviet light-water reactors (LWRs). The reactors never materialized. To this day, North Korea blames the lack of LWRs as one reason for its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003. If there is one state that will not be dissatisfied with Gorbachev’s death, it is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Gorbachev faced an even bigger challenge in managing Moscow’s relations with Beijing, for all his supposed bonhomie with then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. After his death, the PRC’s Foreign Ministry gave muted praise to Gorbachev for making “positive contributions to the normalization of China-Soviet Union relations”. At heart, however, the relationship between the two common ideological partners was far from simple. The Sino-Soviet Summit of May 1989, which normalized Sino-Soviet ties, came at an unfortunate time, weeks before the Chinese Communist Party would brutally clamp down on student protestors in Tiananmen Square. Deng Xiaoping was also not enamored by perestroika, not least the effects on the Soviet economy, which China saw as a direct result of the loosening commitment to socialism. The political and economic changes for which the student protestors were calling in Beijing were not alien to Gorbachev: indeed, they were similar to those the leader was trying to instigate in Moscow.

Gorbachev’s death left a sour taste in the eyes of many Chinese netizens and analysts. Recent online responses have accused the late leader of “worshipping the Western system” at the cost of Soviet “independence”. As one article from the state-run Global Times mentioned: the Chinese Communist Party “upholds its own socialist path with Chinese characteristics, underscoring political maturity and sobriety.”

The Advocator of Nuclear Peace

Beyond the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and lack of military intervention as democratization took hold in the East European Soviet satellites, one of Gorbachev’s lasting legacies will be in relation to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Amidst the throes of détente, the founding fathers of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – which was established in 1968 and entered into force in 1970 – took further steps to consolidate the global nuclear order.

Following the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks of 1972, the Reykjavík Summit of October 1986 between Reagan and Gorbachev was perhaps most infamous for its collapse. Yet, these talks were instrumental in the creation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, when Washington and Moscow pledged to eliminate nuclear and conventional missiles, ballistic and cruise, ranging between 300 and 3400 miles.

Gorbachev was no fan of nuclear weapons: his camaraderie with Reagan saw the two leaders issue a joint statement in Geneva, in 1985, with the now famous line that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” What is more, Gorbachev challenged the mainstream: with rational deterrence theory gaining traction in academe and policy during the 1980s, Gorbachev made clear that “to say that nuclear weapons saved peace is tantamount to repeating a dangerous myth in a dangerous world.” Yet, at the time of his resignation, the nuclear stockpile of the USSR remained over three times as large as that of the U.S., even if it has since decreased five-fold.

Central to the ‘Gorbachev Factor’, as termed by the Soviet historian, Archie Brown, was that the man possessed a new foreign policy different to that of his predecessors. In the throes of détente, and aftermath of the Helsinki Accords of 1975, Gorbachev’s vision of international security was innovative. Within the conflictual relationship between the USSR and the USA, it was Gorbachev’s openness to forge personal ties with Western leaders that could arguably be described as simultaneously his greatest asset and weakness.

In an interview with the BBC in 2016, Gorbachev admitted how “stepping down was my victory.” The legacy of Gorbachev lives on, for all his recalcitrance – in his later years – to express his opinion on the actions of Vladimir Putin. U.S.-Soviet peaceful coexistence however, in which Gorbachev was instrumental, now seems increasingly distant.