Questions for the candidates

International Herald Tribune
July 4, 2008
by Mikhail Gorbachev

There has been unusual interest throughout the world in the U.S. presidential race.

Skeptics, of whom there are quite a few, say the campaign is just a marathon show that has little to do with real policymaking. Even if there’s a grain of truth in that, in an interdependent world the statements of the contenders for the White House are more than just rhetoric addressed to American voters.

Major policy problems today cannot be solved without America – and America cannot solve them alone.

Even the domestic problems of the United States are no longer purely internal. I am referring first of all to the economy. The problem of the huge U.S. budget deficit can be managed, for a time, by continuing to flood the world with “greenbacks,” whose rate is declining along with the value of U.S. securities. But such a system cannot work forever.

Of course, the average American is not concerned with the complexities of global finance. But as I talk to ordinary Americans, and I visit the United States once or twice a year, I sense their anxiety about the state of the economy. The irony, they have said to me, is that the middle class felt little benefit from economic growth when the official indicators were pointing upward, but once the downturn started, it hit them immediately, and it hit them hard.

No one can offer a simple fix for America’s economic problems, but it is hard not to see their connection to U.S. foreign policies. Over the past eight years the rapid rise in military spending has been the main factor in increasing the federal budget deficit. The United States spends more money on the military today than at the height of the Cold War.

Yet no candidate has made that clear. “Defense spending” is a subject that seems to be surrounded by a wall of silence. But that wall will have to fall one day.

We can expect a serious debate about foreign policy issues, including the role of the United States in the world; America’s claim to global leadership; fighting terrorism; nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the problems caused by the invasion of Iraq.

Of course I am not pretending to write the script for the presidential candidates’ debates. But I would add to this list of issues two more: the size of America’s defense budget and the militarization of its foreign policy. I am afraid these two questions will not be asked by the moderators. But sooner or later they will have to be answered.

The present administration, particularly during George W. Bush’s first presidential term, was bent on trying to solve many foreign policy issues primarily by military means, through threats and pressure. The big question today is whether the presidential nominees will propose a different approach to the world’s most urgent problems.

I am extremely alarmed by the increasing tendency to militarize policymaking and thinking. The fact is that the military option has again and again led to a dead end.

One doesn’t have to go very far to find an alternative. Take the recent developments on nonproliferation issues, where the focus has been on two countries – North Korea and Iran.

After several years of saber-rattling, the United States finally got around to serious talks with the North Koreans, involving South Korea and other neighboring countries. And though it took time to achieve results, the dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program has now begun.

It’s true that nuclear issues in Iran encompass some unique features and may be more difficult to solve. But clearly threats and delusions of “regime change” are not the way to do it.

We have to look even deeper for a solution. “Horizontal” proliferation will only get worse unless we solve the “vertical” problem, i.e. the continued existence of huge arsenals of sophisticated nuclear weapons held by major powers, particularly the United States and Russia.

In recent months there seems to have been a conceptual breakthrough on this issue, with influential Americans calling for revitalizing efforts aimed at the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have now endorsed that goal.

I have always been in favor of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction. On my watch, the Soviet Union and the United States concluded treaties on the elimination of a whole class of nuclear weapons – Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) missiles – and on A 50 percent reduction of strategic weapons, which led to the destruction of thousands of nuclear warheads.

But when we proposed complete nuclear disarmament, our Western partners raised the issue of the Soviet Union’s advantage in conventional forces. So we agreed to negotiate major cuts in non-nuclear weapons, signing a treaty on this issue in Vienna.

Today, I see a similar and even bigger problem, but the roles have been reversed. Let us imagine that 10 or 15 years down the road the world has abolished nuclear weapons. What would remain? Huge stockpiles of conventional arms, including the newest types, some so devastating as to be comparable to weapons of mass destruction.

And the lion’s share of those stockpiles would be in the hands of one country, the United States, giving it an overwhelming advantage. Such a state of affairs would block the road to nuclear disarmament.

Today the United States produces about half of the world’s military hardware and has over 700 military bases, from Europe to the most remote corners of the world. Those are just the officially recognized bases, with more being planned. It is as if the Cold War is still raging, as if the United States is surrounded by enemies who can only be fought with tanks, missiles and bombers. Historically, only empires had such an expansive approach to assuring their security.

So the candidates, and the next president, will have to decide and state clearly whether America wants to be an empire or a democracy, whether it seeks global dominance or international cooperation. They will have to choose, because this is an either-or proposition: The two things don’t mix, like oil and water.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, is president of the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies in Moscow.

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