Looking back to the revolutions that shook Europe and the world 15 years ago this month, we should rejoice in what has been gained -- freedom, democracy, and transcendence of Europe's 40-year division. But we should also take stock of missed opportunities in the wake of the Cold War's peaceful end.
Ultimately, the end of the Cold War came because of the revolution underway in the Soviet Union. But the pro-democratic policies of glasnost and perestroika that I unveiled in the mid-1980s did not appear out of thin air. They arose from Nikita Khrushchev's reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, and from Alexei Kosygin's reforms later on.
Many people now view such efforts to "renew" the socialist system -- to make it actually work for the people -- as having been doomed from the start. But these earlier reforms were in fact more difficult to undertake than the ones that I launched in the 1980s and 1990s. During my presidency, we had to nurture a democratic atmosphere, but this was possible only because fear was no longer overpowering.
We also tried to curtail the arms race and address other areas of conflict between East and West. But the Berlin Wall remained, standing in the heart of Europe as a symbol of division. When German chancellor Helmut Kohl and I talked about this in July 1989, we thought that the time had not come to end the division of Germany. Dismantling the Wall, we agreed, would likely be an issue for the 21st century.
Of course, the German people decided otherwise; they took history into their own hands by insisting that the Wall come down. The rest of Eastern and Central Europe quickly followed, knocking down their own barriers to freedom.
My conception of my role as Soviet president compelled me not to intervene. I believed that I could not open our country while dictating to others. Indeed, from my first appearance as general secretary of the USSR, at the funeral of my predecessor, Constantine Chernyenko, I said that every country should be responsible for its own politics.
So the fall of the Berlin Wall less than half a decade later was a consequence of these thoughts. But, even here, my ideas and policies were not novel: in 1955 Khrushchev talked -- albeit in a very different context -- about uniting two Germanys. My task, as I saw it, was to ensure Central and Eastern Europe's peaceful return to full sovereignty with a minimum of Soviet interference. To the surprise and delight of the world, the changes did take place peacefully almost everywhere.
But did the Cold War's end merely make the world a more dangerous place -- one of terrorism, insecurity, uncertainty and growing disparities of wealth? My response is to remind people what terrors the Cold War held. The threat of nuclear Armageddon was real, with US$3 trillion spent on the arms race that could have been used to help the world's poor.
On the other hand, an opportunity to create a safer, more secure post-Cold War world was lost. In the 1980's, when the communist-capitalist confrontation ended, there was a chance to create a "new world order." But the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there was no negotiated settlement of this new order. As a result, the subsequent spurt of globalization has proceeded with no one steering the wheel -- and thus with no means to implement new thinking for a better world.