Today's date:
Winter 2004

Pre-empt Global Warming

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, now heads Green Cross International. He sat down with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on Oct. 7 in New York to discuss Russia's position on the Kyoto Protocol and US President George W. Bush's renewed push for nuclear non-proliferation.

NPQ | In his speech to the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, United States President George Bush called for a renewed emphasis on stopping nuclear proliferation -- especially in North Korea and Iran -- to ensure the bomb doesn't fall into the hands of terrorists.

Yet, the US is planning a new generation of small, "more usable" nuclear weapons. And in its agreement with Russia to reduce warhead stockpiles, it has agreed only to "decommission" its weapons, not "demilitarize" them -- in other words, store them, not destroy them.

Doesn't this US posture undermine the credibility of the non-proliferation agenda?

Mikhail GORBACHEV | Much progress has been made between the US and Russia in reducing our nuclear arsenals. But, yes, this US posture is troubling. Since the US has refused to ratify the treaty to prohibit nuclear testing, it is clear it intends to go on perfecting its nuclear weapons. It is clear it is not thinking of abolishing nuclear weapons over the longer term. On the contrary, there is a new concept of American doctrine, as you mention, that foresees the "battlefield use" of nuclear weapons. This does away with the idea that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is as a deterrent.

It prompts other nations to ask, "Why must we abide by the non-proliferation treaty when the No. 1 member of the nuclear club continues to perfect and develop its own weapons?" That is a double standard.

If the US only thinks about its interests instead of the global good, other nations are asking why they, too, shouldn't be putting their own interests first as well?

These questions cannot be wished away. And they are not just being asked by authoritarian or terrorist states. Challenging this double standard is precisely what democratic India had in mind with its nuclear tests.

For now, the US doctrine has sown mistrust and suspicion among the world community.

NPQ | In the absence of a superpower competitor, what can be the aim of America trying to perfect a new generation of nuclear weapons?

GORBACHEV | That is a question, it seems to me, that the American democracy with its open debate about everything else ought to be discussing. It is, after all, a far more significant issue than Monica Lewinsky. Democracy doesn't seem to be working on this particular issue.

It is very important for America to understand how the only remaining superpower can act responsibly in the world. Why isn't it taking the lead, for example, on ratifying the Kyoto Protocol instead of withdrawing from it and trying to kill it?

NPQ | Well, the US doesn't seem to be the only power that doesn't like the Kyoto Protocol. When the US withdrew from the process, it was denounced as unilateralist. Now, Russia -- the critical industrial power whose ratification will make or break the treaty -- is balking. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin says he questions it. And his economic advisor said: "The Kyoto treaty will doom Russia to poverty, weakness and backwardness. If the US and Australia can't afford it, how can Russia?''

GORBACHEV | There is no doubt that reducing greenhouse gases will have costs -- it will take spending money, products may be more expensive, and it will affect competition. That can't be denied. But what is the alternative? Climate change is real, and its costs for the whole planet will be very real. These problems can be solved, especially as we modernize industry with environmental concerns in mind.

Leadership is about making hard choices, taking into account the long view. Let's hope that Russia does not stand on the sidelines on this issue of global warming. Let's hope it doesn't let the international community down. Whenever we have talked about this, President Putin said he will ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the end. I trust him on this, but as President (Ronald) Reagan used to say, "Trust, but verify."

NPQ | What do you think of the American doctrine of preemption?

GORBACHEV | Those who talk about leadership of the world all the time ought to exercise it. Rather than develop strategic doctrines of military preemption -- as we've seen in Iraq, where no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found -- let's act where the intelligence is clear: on climate change and other issues such as water, where today 2 billion people in the world don't have access to clean water. Let's talk instead about preempting global warming and the looming water crisis.

NPQ | In your time in power in the Soviet Union, we used to talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Now, more than a decade after the Cold War, we have something new -- a dictatorship of the consumer.

The mass market and political system give them what they want, when they want it, which is now. But the consumer calculus is self-interest; his horizon is short term. In the consumer societies, there is thus no constituency for the future -- for the long-term issues we've been discussing, from climate change to water.

How can a constituency for the future be built?

GORBACHEV | All of us, but particularly in America, consume too much for the planet's well being. Americans are less than 5 percent of the world population, but use 30 percent of all the energy. Gradually, we need to abandon the model of consumer society. If we continue with this model, we will surely undermine nature. And that, in turn, will undermine the stability of our societies.

Building a constituency for the future is, as I said, a task for political leadership. But it also requires an active civil society because, as we know and as you suggest, political leaders in today's more democratic world look most often to the next election, not the next generation.

To add to this problem, the great gap between rich and poor that has grown with globalization is already undoing the accomplishments of the democratic wave of the early 1990s. More and more, there is a trend toward authoritarianism as a way to cope with the dislocations of globalization.