Twenty years ago this month, Mikhail Gorbachev stood before the UN General Assembly and said, "The compelling necessity of freedom of choice is also clear to us. The failure to recognize this . . . is fraught with very dire consequences, consequences for world peace." At that time, as Soviet general secretary, Gorbachev was the ruler of hundreds of millions of people, both in the Soviet Union and in Central and Eastern Europe - a population that had no freedom of choice. The government over which Gorbachev presided had long made sure that was the case. Freedom of choice would get you killed. That is why his declaration stunned the world. "Freedom of choice is a universal principle to which there should be no exceptions."
To make sure his listeners understood that this was no mere flourish of rhetoric, the Soviet leader went on to announce the dismantling of the military occupation of Eastern Europe, the force that had prevented that freedom. "Today I can inform you of the following: The Soviet Union has made a decision on reducing its armed forces . . . by 500,000 persons, and the volume of conventional arms will also be cut considerably. These reductions will be made on a unilateral basis." Six tank divisions would be promptly withdrawn from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, he said, and the rest of the Soviet military presence would be reconfigured as purely defensive. Not only would the Soviet gun be removed from Warsaw Pact nations, it would no longer be pointed at the rest of Europe.
All of this, Gorbachev said, was "aimed at the demilitarization of international relations," the changing of the world economy "from an economy of armament to an economy of disarmament," and "the movement toward a nuclear-free and nonviolent world." He saluted Ronald Reagan, whose term was just ending, and with whom he had already agreed in principle to abolish nuclear weapons. He hoped to continue, and promised that the "newly elected President George Bush will find in us a partner . . . It seems to us we have the preconditions for making 1989 the decisive year."
Gorbachev was correct about that - from his side. In 1989, because of that UN speech, the satellite nations decisively claimed their freedom. The Soviet Union itself began to dissolve, a process that climaxed in 1991 - 17 years ago this week - when the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin, and when, with Gorbachev's resignation, the USSR ceased to exist. But from the side of the United States, 1989 had been decisive in an opposite way. Only weeks after the Berlin Wall was peacefully breached by Gorbachev-licensed dancers instead of tanks, the new American president ordered tens of thousands of US troops to invade Panama - Operation Just Cause. That wholly unjustified action amounted to America's answer to Gorbachev, a declaration that this nation was a long way from the "demilitarization of international relations." Other unnecessary American wars would follow, and so would Washington's refusal to dismantle its Cold War military economy.
The "decisive year" for which Gorbachev called two decades ago may now be here - for our side. Americans stand today, as the last Soviet dictator put it then, "on the threshold of a year from which all of us expect so much. One would like to believe that our joint efforts to put an end to the era of wars, confrontation and regional conflicts, aggression against nature, the terror of hunger and poverty, as well as political terrorism, will be comparable with our hopes."
Is it too much to expect Barack Obama to change history? Make peace? Transform an economic system? Rescue the Earth? Build a political program around the truth? Restore a great nation's decency? Are we kidding ourselves to place such hopes in him?
On the cusp of this decisive year, it will do Americans well to recall that just such a transformation took place once before, even if we declined to respond with transformation of our own. By the grace of God, it is not too late to match the greatness with which Gorbachev acted 20 years ago, an overdue acceptance of his historic invitation. "This is our common goal," he concluded, "and it is only by acting together that we may attain it. Thank you."