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Last Updated August 7, 2006

Mikhail Gorbachev Speech

Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave a lecture about "International Cooperation in a Post September 11th World" on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2003, in Bender Arena at American University.

Gorbachev led the Soviet Union from 1985 – 1991. During his tenure he improved the country’s relationship with the United States, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his contribution to easing East-West tensions. The Kennedy Political Union, sponsored Gorbachev's visit.

**The speech below is a transcription of the English translation of Gorbachev's speech, delivered in Russian.

Good evening. Each time when I come to the United States of America-and I've already visited 35 states of the United States; and during this visit I will be visiting three more states which I've not yet been to. Each time on the program, I have appearances at American universities, both myself and Raisa, we are closely related not just to Moscow University from which we graduated, but because Raisa taught philosophy at various colleges for many years, our connection with young people is a tradition. It is something that is indispensable in our life. I would like to thank you all for coming here tonight. I would like to say to those who organized this meeting, with the students this was done at my request and you will understand why I found it so important to speak here.

I spent most of my life in politics. Out of 72 plus years that I have lived I have spent almost 50 years in politics. This is my life's project and that project includes a great deal. I started my political career in high school when I stood for elections as chairman of the council organization. There were seven candidates. At that time I did not nominate myself, that was not the custom at that time. But all of those who were nominated had to say a few words about themselves because each came from different parts of a big district and at that time we did not know one another very well. And so I stood up and said a few words about myself to introduce myself. But when I was sitting down the chair was pulled out from under me and I fell on the floor. And that was the beginning of my political career! Never-the-less during the secret ballot I was elected. You have your entire life ahead of you; you will be experiencing many things and there will be good and bad things. If you fall, always stand up and go ahead. That was the lesson that I first drew from that experience.

Now, let me now move on and go to my speech that I prepared for you, and I would like to say once again that I appreciate the invitation to speak at the American University in Washington, where 40 years ago, a little more than 40 years ago, President John Kennedy spoke on June 10, 1963. I remember that time very well and later I had a chance to think a lot about what he had to say on that occasion. His speech was heard here at a difficult and complicated and contradictory time. Perhaps that was one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War of the confrontation. Shortly before the President's speech the world had experienced the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time, the United States of America and the Soviet Union came very close, as close as ever, to the edge of a nuclear catastrophe and the top leaders of the two countries, John Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev bore a large part of the responsibility for what happened. Yesterday, I talked at Brown University with Nikita Kruschev's son, Sergei, who thought even as they bore responsibility for what happened the leaders of our two countries had the wisdom not only to step back from the edge of the precipice, they started the process of rethinking the situation in the world, the process of searching for a new relationship between great powers. They took the first steps toward the elimination of the nuclear arms race.

Both Kennedy and Kruschev had not much time remaining in the arena of history and their departure, the departure of both of these men was unexpected. What I would like to say is that it was not their fault that the process that they started, that the process did not evolve further after they left the political arena. And after they moved from the ruling establishments our two countries were not ready to build a truly new relationship. This task was fulfilled by a new generation of political leaders, who 20 years later, more than 20 years later, followed those ideas that were voiced on June 10, 1963, by President John F. Kennedy. I would like to remind you of the most important points made in that historic statement by President John Kennedy. I would like to recall those words because what he said, as you will see, with perhaps some surprise because some of you perhaps have not read that speech, but definitely the statements made by John Kennedy are relevant today.

So these are the statements that I would like to quote. "What kind of peace do I need?" asked John Kennedy. "What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax-Americana that we will force on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the brave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living. The kind that enables men and nations to grow and hope and to build a better life for their children not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women." And, then he went on to say, "Some people say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But, I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude as individuals and as a nation. For our attitude is as essential as theirs. Let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interest and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. While we proceed to safeguard our national interests let us also safeguard human interests. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation."

Let me say that none of those points that were expressed at that time 40 years ago by the President of the United States has lost its relevance today. Even today, I can sign on to all of those statements. The challenge that was faced by my generation of political leaders was the arms race, the nuclear arms race that was going on at an enormous pace and also the severe confrontation between the great powers and practically lack of dialogue or any interaction between those great powers. Sometimes it seemed that the bandwagon of the nuclear arms race could not be stopped. But here again, I recall the words of John Kennedy, "Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable and willingly they can do it again." The person who had gone through a nuclear crisis, through the possibility of nuclear war; and who did his best to avoid that crisis was very credible, when he said that one year after the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Through the joint efforts of our two countries -- and here I would like to pay tribute to the role of President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush -- through our joint efforts, we were able to stop the logic of the confrontation and to conclude first agreements of the induction of nuclear arsons to develop a new level of mutual understanding and trust in relations between our nations. The end of the Cold War was the result of a breakthrough. This breakthrough was not the result of the actions of one person or one group of people, nor of one state or one group of countries. It happened because of the understanding of the interconnectedness and the interdependence of the world became apparent. Also, the importance of the common universal human interests and values and the need for all countries to completely address the global problems of mankind. The new thinking in world politics proclaimed by the Soviet leadership in the very beginning of Perestroika expressed this imperative need.

Today, I believe we need a new intellectual breakthrough that will follow up on the ideas of the new thinking in the post Cold War period, when we are facing new unexpected challenges, challenges that we have not yet fully understood. The situation that we are facing today is complex and contradictory. On the one hand the Cold War ended, and for the first time in many decades it created conditions for real and productive cooperation of great powers. Between these great powers today there are no irreconcilable differences. In terms of economic might, political influences and military potential, the United States is a world leader capable of having a tremendous impact on the course of world events. Europe, which is the cradle of democracy, is uniting and it is becoming an increasingly important player in the world arena. China and India are becoming important power centers and Japan has tremendous potential as well. Russia has preserved its potential and is currently overcoming a long crisis. Whatever the inevitable differences and problems in those countries, they have generally proven their ability to conduct responsible and serious policies to avoid confrontations and to seek reasonable solutions. It is not easy to find reasonable solutions as I know from my own experience. This is probably the most difficult task.

The non-confrontational character of relations between the major powers is a new development, and I would say an unprecedented development in international relations, and we can say that it is holding out very favorable prospects to the world. But that is all in the realm of possibility. You know that between the possibility and a reality there is often a great distance. A distance that is difficult to cover. It is not a walk on Broadway. It is not a walk on Nevsky Avenue in Saint Petersburg. And recently, it has become clear, that the structure of world order is being tested. We were not able to fully use the possibilities that opened up at the end of the Cold War in order to solve the most difficult crisis, particularly the Middle Eastern crisis. And we did not use those possibilities in order to end poverty and backwardness in the world. When we, all of us, were discussing our various positions and developing a common position in order to reduce nuclear weapons, to end the nuclear arms race, we were saying, all of us were saying, that the resources at least as a result of that would be used in order to fight backwardness and poverty in the world. The teachers and their students probably know that the Soviet Union and the United States during the years of the arms race spent for those purposes ten trillion dollars each. That is truly an astronomical number. All of that money was used to stoke the arms race.

What we expected did not happen because we were not ready to respond to the new challenges and the new threats that we saw in a terrible way in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. We saw that states were not able to effectively counter the dangers of the non-state entities that threatened the life of our countries. And recently, we have also seen major difficulties in the dialogue and interaction among great powers and this was particularly obvious during the Iraqi crisis.

What are the reasons of these alarming developments in international affairs? I believe that what I have just mentioned are just symptoms of more serious phenomena and tendencies. We already live in a global world, but very often we are trying to live and to solve problems on the basis of old rules and that is why many mistakes are made in world politics. And those mistakes are very costly. We all pay the price for those mistakes. Hence, the alarming trends such as the rollback of democracy of the democratic momentum that we saw particularly during the second half of the 1980's. At that time many countries took unprecedented steps toward democracy. But recently we have seen that many of them have reverted to authoritarian rule. Some others are stuck somewhere between democracy and authoritarian. In some countries we have seen the breakdown of the political system and such failed states have become the hotbeds of extremism and violence. World politics is lagging behind the processes unfolding in the world. It is stalling. It is not ready to act in a world globalization. And therefore attempts are being made to solve the problems of the world according to simplistic recipes in particular, just like in the past. The reliance is on force, on the use of force so we are indeed experiencing a crisis of international politics. It is a fact that the Cold War has been followed by many conflicts and hot wars. It is a fact that violence, particularly in the form of terrorism, is destroying international relations. It is a fact that war is still being used as a tool in international politics. We see that international organizations that were conceived as arbiters in the relations between the states as authoritative representatives of the world community are now in crisis. We see that instead of preventative diplomacy or instead of dialogue aimed at preventing conflicts, preemptive wars are being launched in order to address perceived threats.

This approach, the reliance on wars, ignores the enormous complexity of conflicts. It reflects a simplistic perception of the complex reality and as a result many people look rather pessimistically on the world today. And this could be a bad disservice for us, in a search for a new world order. And I would say that we already find, and are already seeing that. The military action in Iraq that reflected those outdated approaches to international affairs did not bring us closer to the solution of the real and very severe problems of today's world. Instead, it struck a very severe blow against international law against the United Nations and in particular the UN Security Council. It also has brought discord in relations between states and between nations on whom a lot depends in the world today. In this regard a lot has been said about the ineffectiveness of international institutions. The need for their reform, the need to make those institutions more effective is very real. As president, I participated in a number of commissions that would command in order to develop proposals to reform the United Nations.

But this kind of reform can only be achieved if states cooperate on the basis of partnership. We will fail totally if one state or a group of states acts on the basis of hegemonic pretensions, if the democratic principals that lie at the basis of international institutions are violated. A matter of great importance is the position of the United States, which is the only superpower whose world role should be combined with tremendous responsibility to the people of the United States and to the world community. The role of the United States should be leadership and the international community recognizes that, but the leadership should be fulfilled through partnership with the entire international community. Any repetition of the attempt to impose a political utopia on the world is unacceptable. And, I am referring here not only to the Communist utopia but also the utopian idea of creating a perfect world order that would mean the end of history. Attempts to impose democratic regimes through the use of force is another utopian project for the international community. Ultimately, any utopia is very costly - I know that from our own experience. We must look for answers to the challenges of the world today. While taking into account the complexity of political and cultural diversity of the world. This is the most important thing. This is of key importance.

You cannot wish away that diversity. You cannot steamroll that diversity. You cannot ignore that diversity. It would be hard if while we are trying to preserve the diversity of the biosphere of plants and animals, and while we are trying to preserve the endangered species, plants and animals, we at the same time, try to ignore the diversity of, or steamroll, the diversity of humankind. That would be extremely dangerous. And what we have seen is the recent massive protests against globalization was caused by two things. People believed that the way globalization was proceeding was not addressing the problems of the poorest countries, of the backward countries, and also people saw that globalization, the way that it was being pursued, meant that it was an attack on their culture, on their mentality, on their history, on their language. Today, the most important task is to restore dialogue and interaction of the major powers, to restore the authority of international law and the role of the United Nations.

My favorite professor at Moscow University, the teacher of criminal law, once said when he saw that there was no water, no jug of water, and he had a throat problem…I must say that I too have a throat problem and I can see that jug of water. Finally the assistant came over with a jug of water, and, we were at that time fourth year students, the professor looked at us, he understood and he said to us very respectfully. "Colleagues, dear colleagues, even the best lecture has to be watered down." And that is true. [Takes a sip of water]

So, as I understand this is the most important task for all nations and in this regard I would like to once again to recall the words of John F. Kennedy in that same speech, on June the 10th, 1963. He said, "We seek to strengthen the United Nations, to help solve its financial problems, to make it more effective instrument for peace, to develop it into a genuine world security system. A system capable of resolving disputes. On the basis of law. Of ensuring the security of the large and the small and of creating conditions under which arms can finally be abolished. I believe that these words are the agenda for the coming years. These are prophetic words of John F. Kennedy. But we know from history that we never really learn and this law is unfortunately still true. Nevertheless, let us learn. Let us learn the lessons, and draw conclusions. So again, those words of President John F. Kennedy represent the agenda for us, the living, to continue what he started and to use all possibilities that we have and all institutions, international institutions and international law to achieve that objective. We have to use those mechanisms that help us unite efforts rather than divide us.

I'm convinced, that among the nations, a key role could be played by Russia despite the hardships that it went through during the past decade. The constructive possibilities of Russia should not be underestimated. And judging by everything, the leadership of the United States of America understands that and we saw that during the summit meeting of the leaders of the United States and Russia last week. I believe that the very fact of this meeting at this time is more important, even that the agenda of this summit, I believe that dialogue should continue particularly at a time when the situation is difficult and therefore I welcome the commitment of our leaders. They were also able to reach certain agreements at that summit and I will mention that. Therefore, overall my evaluation of that meeting is positive. The present Russian leadership has made the foreign policy of Russia more definite. And it is now better understood both in our country and in the world. This has brought results. This has helped create new conditions and a new level of cooperation between the United States and Russia and also with European countries, China, India, Japan and other countries.

The maintenance of intensive dialogue between the leaders of Russia and the United States of America is of enormous importance. Whatever difficulties we face within that dialogue, let me emphasize once again, the dialogue between our leaders, the dialogue has to be perceived tenaciously. During the past few weeks the Russian leadership made some serious steps in this direction. President Putin stated that he is ready to support a resolution of the UN Security Council that would endorse sending to Iraq international security forces acting under the UN mandate; He was the first of the leaders of countries who were critical of the military action of the United States. He was the first to suggest, very realistically, that those international forces could act under US command. This is a responsible position and in a way, I would say quite a magnanimous position. You know that Russia, together with Germany and France criticized the military action in Iraq without the appropriate international legitimization of that action. This legitimacy could be provided only by the UN Security Council. But as we know, there was no Security Council decision. And therefore the United States acted alone, together with Great Britain ignoring calls for prudence, for caution, and for international law.

The position has now been taken by the Russian president is not to the liking of many members of the Russian political establishment. Some of them think that since the Americans created this mess in Iraq, it is for Americans to sort it out. But this position, in my opinion, is unacceptable. It could only result in the perpetuation of a division among great powers on a problem that today is of key importance, to say nothing of the fact that the price will be paid by the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people who are not to blame. Therefore it is in the interest of the Iraqi people -- and also in the interest of stability in the region and in the world -- that the international community should assume a decisive role in rebuilding Iraq, and should provide guarantees of the internal political solution that will respect the will of Iraqi people. The draft resolution now being discussed at the United Nations will, I hope, make it possible to achieve a mutually acceptable compromise. I heard yesterday that Secretary of State, Colin Powell, my old friend, whom I know when we worked together during the first Bush administration said that it would be desirable to have elections in Iraq in the next six months and to start handing over the power to the people of Iraq on the basis of democratic procedure. I believe that this is a very important statement.

It is now also very important to resume the process of the Middle East settlement. Quite recently, we were told that military action against Iraq would make it possible to defuse the crisis in the Middle East. That it would make it possible to find a final solution. What happened was quite the reverse. Over the past few months we have seen an aggravation of the situation in the Middle East, and the tremendous efforts of the mediators, the United States, the UN, the European Union and Russia have been undermined. It is of course good that these four, the quartet, continue to work together. The position that it took made it possible to avoid an even worse scenario, an even more dangerous scenario. However, the loss of momentum efforts in the Middle East settlement has resulted in very severe consequences, new destruction and new victims. To me, it is quite clear that the mutual resentment and mutual mistrust between the parties in the Middle East conflicts will make it impossible for them to find a solution without vigorous and authoritative international mediation.

I have just visited Israel, I talked to their political leaders, media and people. Based on those impressions and based on my analysis, I draw the conclusion that mediation is necessary. What you need in the Middle East is political will going along peaceful lines. What is also necessary is efforts by both sides. In conflicts like this one, I believe that peace can only be achieved and the prospects for the future can be open, only if both sides win. If just one side wins, if only one side wants an advantage, you cannot have a long and lasting peace.

So we have a lot of difficult work ahead of us. We need it in order to overcome the consequences of differences on the problem of Iraq and in order to give the Iraqi people a chance to decide their political future themselves. We need this work in order to lead the Middle East out of this vicious circle of violence toward a solution whose outline has been obvious for many years -- Israel and a Palestinian state who would coexist as peaceful neighbors, this is the prospect. We need this work, in order through common efforts of nations of the world to find responses to the challenges of the 21st Century. To defeat terrorism and to address the problem of backwardness and poverty of hundreds of millions of people. Half the population of the world have to live on one or two dollars a day. You can imagine that this is not life, this is just survival, and this results in poverty, this results in disease, this results in the situation that we have to address. If we don't address poverty, this will be a bomb that will explode one day and we'll find it very difficult to cope with the consequences.

And finally, we need this common work in order to avert the threat of environmental disaster because of the current global environmental crisis. It is always more difficult to build than to break down. The pursuit of peace, John Kennedy said, is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war. My own conviction is that it is not through the use of force, it is not through preemptive strikes, that we will achieve security and stability. Only if we act together against the real forces of evil, it is only if we work together to address the real problems of the global world shall we be able to give the citizens of our countries the peaceful and secure future. The kind of future to which they are all fully entitled and for which they are hoping.

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Commencement Addresses

President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)

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