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Thursday, October 16, 2003

By Steven Taylor @ 2:47 pm

The following was published in the Birmingham Post-Herald on Monday, October 13, 2003, page A7.

Gorbahev visit is blast from the past

Former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev made a trip to Alabama this week to speak to a crowd of about 5,000 at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum on the campus of Auburn University. Gorbachev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1985 until its collapse in 1991, is clearly one of the pivotal figures of the twentieth century, making an opportunity to hear him speak in person an opportunity of a lifetime.

One rarely gets the chance to see the makers of history live and in the flesh, and while the view is better from one’s living room via TV, there is still something special about getting the chance to witness history firsthand.

Certainly the visit was a coup for Auburn, as it was only one of a handful of schools that the former Soviet leader was visiting during his current trip to the United States. It was Gorbachev’s first visit to Alabama, his “38th state” as he noted twice during his speech. Certainly it was also a wonderful opportunity for students, faculty and the public at-large to get the change to encounter a key historical figure, and underscores the services that universities can play in enhancing public education in addition to the work they do in the classroom.

Several of my students from Troy State, along with members of the faculty, made the trip to hear the presentation. Events such as this provide ample impetus for thinking about politics and for fueling interest in the study of that field.

The speech itself, while interesting (especially to a political junkie such as myself), was hardly dramatic. There was some admonishment of current US foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis Iraq, as well as an exhortation to global communication and democratization. He further warned of the tendency of some people around the world to seek the “firm hand” of authoritarian rule. All of which are issue worth consideration as we move into the 21st century.

Mostly, however, the speech, and Gorbachev’s very presence, reminded me of how much the world has changed in the past roughly fourteen years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 to the fall of the statues of Saddam this year.

I am a child of the Cold War; I vividly remember a bipolar world where international relations were cast almost exclusively in terms of USA versus USSR, a world in which it wasn’t hyperbole to speak of devastating nuclear war. Indeed, the dramatic confrontation of these two nations, and their allies, were part of what interested me in politics, driving me to the study of political science. As such it is often amazing, and somewhat amusing, to discuss in my classes with students that period of our history, which to many is a vague memory at best.

That world started to fade when the Berlin Wall fell, and Eastern Europe began to assert its independence from Soviet domination, and it disappeared entirely in 1991, when a coup by hard-line communists attempted to take Gorbachev from power, but instead led to the take-over of radical reformists, such as Boris Yeltsin, and the dissolution of the USSR. Democracy and capitalism were the buzzwords of the day; the United States of America had won the Cold War.

It seemed, from roughly 1992 until September11, 2001, that the world, and especially the United States, had entered a Golden Era: we were the lone superpower (economically and militarily), our economy was booming, and there appeared to be peace in the land. Further, that period of time saw a significant growth in the number of countries governed by democratic means (granted, often imperfectly executed democracy, but democracy still).

International relations experts warned that the world was perhaps less safe than it appeared—yes, the specter of global nuclear war was gone, but the weapons still existed, and it was unclear how well they were controlled.

However, that Golden Era ended with a crescendo the morning of September 11th, 2001, with the surreal sight of those airplanes slamming into the World Trade Center. The attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon shook our perception of the world and thrust us into a new era, one marked by international uncertainty and a war on terrorism.

The ironic thing about this new era, which in many ways is less threatening in absolute terms than the Cold War Era (terrorist are rather unlikely to destroy large parts of the world), it is more threatening to us in specific, personal terms (the odds of being on a plane, or being in a building that might be bombed has increased). And, aside from a perception of enhanced personal risk, the world itself is more unstable.

One benefit of the Cold War was the ability of the two powers to keep, for the most part, their allies and client-states in check. However, that is no longer the case and smaller scale, yet potentially quite devastating, conflicts can more easily erupt. And certainly the United States is less constrained than it was during it time of conflict with the Soviets (the Iraq War would have been unthinkable when the Soviet Union still existed).

In short, it is remarkable how the world can change in a relatively short amount of time. Opportunities such as that which Auburn provided this week help to remind us of where we have been and perhaps to get us to think about where we may be going. Also, just as Mr. Gorbachev in emblematic of at least part of what inspired many of us in the 1960s, 70s and 80s to study politics, so to many are being inspired today by the current turmoil; to those who as so inspired, I say: “welcome aboard—you are in for quite a ride.”

  • Signifying Nothing linked with Gorby speaks
  • Eric Berlin linked with THE CARNIVAL OF THE VANITIES

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