Fifteen years after stepping down as leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, 75, remains an untiring voice in international relations. Besides continuing his efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons in the world (which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990), he’s active in many other initiatives, including the environmental group Green Cross International and World Awards International, an organization created by Austrian financier Christian Baha to celebrate the work of individuals who have made a difference. Gorbachev was in New York recently to preside over an outgrowth of the World Awards, the Women’s World Awards; among this year’s honorees were Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg and Queen Noor of Jordan. Between his public duties, the former Soviet leader took a few minutes off to chat with NEWSWEEK’s Karen Fragala Smith on a whole range of subjects, from the North Korean nuclear threat to alternative energy and the lessons of Afghanistan. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: In your opinion, how much of a threat to U.S. and international security is North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?
Gorbachev: I think right now the current threat is being somewhat exaggerated. Nevertheless, the North Korean regime is behaving irresponsibly. I think the resolution which was adopted [on October 14] in the Security Council is a balanced resolution. I hope that in implementing that resolution, it won’t mean a blockade of North Korea because I believe that a blockade would be a mistake. You have to take into account the interests of North Korea. If not, you’ll drive them into a corner. An animal that is driven into a corner could do anything. This is a good moment to develop some kind of the security guarantees for North Korea, and help it to address the entire set of problems that it faces.
Your nuclear disarmament initiatives back in the 1980’s helped end the U.S.-Soviet arms race and created a model for on-site weapons inspections. What do you think needs to happen now to prevent a standoff between the U.S. and rising nuclear powers such as North Korea and Iran?
One has to begin with simple steps: a meeting. So we met in Geneva, in November 1985. Two days later, we signed a very important statement that was the result of our dialogue, of our looking each other in the eye. It said, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” That was an amazing accomplishment. We covered the distance of a decade in just two days. From dialogue, you get trust. From trust, you get specific steps. Instead of playing games, you actually set policy. But today, one country cannot assure its security alone. We need to refocus attention on nuclear weapons working within the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council. This is something that affects all of us. The countries that are not members of the nuclear club are watching the members of the nuclear club, and it makes them think about acquiring their own nuclear weapons. America has to engage other countries and work together with them. Thinking that one country alone in the world can impose its concepts on others based exclusively on its own interests is totally erroneous.
The 1980’s were a time of great progress toward democracy all over the world. What is your assessment of the potential for the spread of democracy and the usefulness of democracy today?
In the final decades of the 20th century, in over 100 countries, dictatorial and authoritarian regimes were swept aside. The democratic process spread to every continent. But the feast was over soon. You can proclaim the democratic institutions but it is not easy to learn to live in a democracy. We saw setbacks toward democracy because the socioeconomic issues were not being properly addressed. People did not see any improvement and in many countries they said “We need not so much democracy, but we need to feed our children.” I cannot agree with that, but I can understand. Unless poverty and backwardness are addressed, democracy is worthless. You cannot impose democracy by using tanks and missiles. Democracy is not an instant package. Democracy should grow on national soil. It depends very much on the development level of the country on the culture and mindset of the people. The principles are the same but every nation develops its own model of democracy. Our friends in America do not fully understand that yet.
For many years, the Soviet Union was at war with Afghanistan, and it yielded no real advantages to either side in the end. Do you have any words of advice for the United States on dealing with Afghanistan?
It seems to me that in Afghanistan, we should make sure that the government can bring together the different sections of that society. No attempt should be made to impose a model of American democracy on Afghanistan. American democracy works well for America, but not for the kind of country that has the structure and the history and the mindset of Afghanistan.
How did you become involved with the Women’s World Awards?
On one of my visits to Austria, I was approached by a group of young people who had this interesting idea to do something to really encourage people, to give them examples from real life, from real heroes rather than fiction heroes. So I gave it some thought and I concluded that this was a serious project. I think that we did not make a mistake. First it was for men, and the idea was that there was something wrong with men today—they are very often at risk, some of them die too early, some of them get into trouble, many of them have health issues. The idea was to encourage and protect the men. But then after three such award ceremonies, which were very well received, we saw that women were jealous, that we should have women’s awards as well. That’s how the Women’s Awards came about.
In your opinion, what are the most critical issues facing women today?
The global challenges of security, poverty and backwardness and the global environmental crisis—those are the problems are facing the world, and they are facing every family everywhere. It is the women and children of all the people that bear the brunt of such crises. I [also] think that it important to say that there are problems that are specific to women—they find it difficult to break down barriers, to get into making important decisions that effect themselves and their families. They do not always get equal pay for equal work.
You have seen the potential dangers of nuclear technology firsthand with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. What is your view on nuclear energy today?
After Chernobyl, we closed down some of our nuclear power stations, and I think that at the time it was the right decision. But today, we see that our resources are limited, and we have not been able to develop alternative power. Of course, bio-resources—wind and solar energy—are available, but we cannot yet use them on the appropriate scale. So the question is whether we should resume large-scale nuclear power programs in order to solve the energy problem. We cannot avoid that in many parts of the world. But first of all, we need strict verification by the IAEA to make sure that under the guise of nuclear power they would not start a nuclear weapons project. And the most important thing we need to do with the time available to us is to finance research on the renewable and alternative power sources. As president of Green Cross International, I am calling for the creation of a fund, to the tune of about $50 billion, to fund the scientific and technological research into these alternative sources of energy. We know that it is easy to find, in a week’s time, $50 billion or $100 billion for another military conflict, as happened with Iraq. So why not set up a fund under international control that would finance this important research? And of course we should continue to perfect the safety systems in all nuclear power stations.
In your negotiations with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on nuclear arms reductions, she famously said that your idea of a nuclear-free world was a “utopian fantasy.” In the context of today’s world affairs, do you agree with her?
I replied to her the following: “I am surprised that the prime minister of a democratic country, a country where democracy first emerged, is quite comfortable to sit on the nuclear power cache, that could explode any moment.” This was a continuing debate between me and Thatcher. Why should I agree with the characterization of my ideas as utopian now that so much has been done to actually reduce nuclear weapons, to move toward its ultimate abolishment? Reagan agreed with me. So on that one, I believe that Margaret Thatcher was mistaken.