VIEW: Greening with Gorbachev —Saleem H Ali
When asked how they would like their country to be perceived by other nations, 48 percent of Russians said, “mighty, invincible, indestructible, a great world power”. Twenty-two percent wanted it perceived as “affluent and thriving” and a mere 1 percent as “law-abiding and democratic”. It is precisely this desire for national superiority, even at the expense of liberty, that so many countries continue to promote
Last week I had the privilege of meeting Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the USSR and a Nobel peace laureate. The venue of our encounter was the annual Earth Dialogues hosted in Brisbane, Australia, by Green Cross International, an organisation founded by Mr Gorbachev to promote environmental awareness and conflict resolution.
As a speaker at the august gathering, I was humbled by the positive energy that resonates from engaging with an informed public championed by a great leader. Gorbachev exemplifies the political courage exhibited by so few contemporary leaders to risk their own political future for a great global ideal. It was through his efforts that decades of reckless nuclear posturing between the USSR and the USA came to an abrupt end. His willingness to accept the follies of the Soviet Union and to relinquish power over so many other states and territories led to his political demise but it brought hope to millions. He knew that the outcome would be initially the harshest for his own country but that was the only way for lasting peace. The transition to democracy for Russia and the former Soviet republics has certainly not been complete and many challenges remain.
Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War has not brought lasting peace to the world since other leaders of governments, religious organisations and civil society do not appear willing to take similar political risks for the greater good. One critic of Gorbachev asked him at the conference: “don’t you think that the demise of the Soviet Union tilted the balance of power and made America the only superpower?” Mr Gorbachev responded by saying that being the balancing power was a fruitless ambition leading only to competitive frenzy. Rather, all states must instead focus on achieving progress and global norms of responsible conduct.
There is no denying the nostalgia Russians continue to feel for the Soviet era. In one poll taken by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion and directed by notable polling scholar Iurii Levada, 74 percent of respondents regretted the passing of the Soviet Union. Further details, revealed when such responses are ‘unpacked’, are even more disturbing. For example, when asked how they would like their country to be perceived by other nations, 48 percent of Russians said, “mighty, invincible, indestructible, a great world power”. Twenty-two percent wanted it perceived as “affluent and thriving” and a mere 1 percent as “law-abiding and democratic”. It is precisely this desire for national superiority, even at the expense of liberty, that so many countries continue to promote, and that is the root of our woes. I would not be surprised if a similar poll in Pakistan, India, Israel, Palestine or America revealed an outcome representing congruent visions of grandeur, self-glorification and cynicism towards social justice. Perhaps the allure many Pakistanis feel for the army is a result of the same bellicose branding of our political system.
Gorbachev’s main contribution was that he fought against such delusional manifestations of negative patriotism and advocated a more positive patriotism that values cultural connections and environmental concord. At the age of 75, he continues to work tirelessly to promote environmental cooperation between states. Pakistan was fortunate to have hosted one of the Earth Dialogue events a couple of years ago. It also has a country office of the Green Cross International. Given the growing movement of Muslim environmentalists, perhaps it would just as appropriately be labelled Green Crescent International! However, the environment still does not seen to be a priority with the Pakistani government. A letter to the Government of Pakistani sent by Mr Gorbachev on supporting a new international convention on the right to water for communities remains unanswered.
During the Earth Dialogues, I also got a chance to spend some time with two distinguished IraniansDr Shirin Ebadi (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003) and Dr Masoummeh Ebtekar (vice president from 2003 to 2005). These two remarkable women also exemplified how Muslim women can work constructively. They were willing to be self-critical just as Gorbachev had been and focus courageously on reform without disavowing their culture or creed.
What brought all these diverse luminaries together was a common concern for our planet and a willingness to engage with past mistakes and work towards a better future for the global society. If only our leaders could glean some lessons from such efforts and see how pointless their petty feuds and territorial rivalries are in the greater scheme of world affairs. The courage to compromise and commit our energy to lasting human development is what we so desperately need in these dark days.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org