What became of Mookerjee,
Soothly, who can say?
–Rudyard Kipling, “What Happened?”
It was British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who observed that a week was a long time in politics. How true. To Barack Obama, one week brought a public rejection by an international awards committee at Copenhagen; the next delivered the Nobel Peace Prize from another international awards, committee, this one from Oslo. To his credit Obama seemed to take a page out of Kipling’s IF, not allowing himself to be knocked off-balance by either impostor.
In what now seems long ago although it is within living memory, another charismatic leader took the reins in another superpower, also following predecessors with a long, bloody, and inept track record. As he assumed power his country was engaged in a foreign war and involved in several small confllicts. Its economy was foundering. And there was an incipient unease among his people, who were beginning to wonder if many of their long-held beliefs and worldviews were valid any longer.
This leader, though, was focused on impressing all his country’s international adversaries, many even before he had assumed power. He succeeded splendidly. A modern style of leader had arrived, they chorused, one who could speak and understand the language of a changed world, “We can do business together”, was Margaret Thatcher’s benediction. His frequent interactions with the press following his ascension only served to reinforce this positive image.
This new leader brought too a new language, full of evocative themes like hope and change. Except he used Russian, with the result that ‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’ would soon become household terms across the world. And Mikhail Gorbachev became an early globalist, a world celebrity, a media darling whom broadcasters began hailing in little short of superlative terms, lavishing praise on his intelligence, expressing their awe at his naturally telegenic persona, his remarkable ability to articulate.
They were not alone. He was the toast of the United Nations, an envoy extraordinary from Moscow to the World, the new-generation of leader of a behemoth long languishing behind the times. Vision, thy name was Gorbachev. Aplomb, ‘twas thou personified. Coolness, thy calling card. World praise was deafening. The end, as John Kenneth Galbraith wrote of an financial wizard at the height of his career, was very near.
What happened? It was some five years into his rule that the last Red Army soldier finally exited Afghanistan. For this and for his non-action in the unraveling of the Eastern bloc, in 1990 Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Less than year later he would be briefly deposed. When he was restored to power he found himself, to borrow a phrase from Wodehouse, a mere shadow of his former self. A few months later he awoke one morning and found his country had disappeared. Strangely, he appeared unfazed that his Western media friends were among the most avid revelers in the celebration of the Soviet Union’s demise. They did always praise Gorbachev to the skies, though. A media doll to the end, he in turn would have ABC News and Ted Koppel tag along with him to film his last day in power, “an exclusive scoop of history”. Recently Pat Buchanan wrote that Churchill became a great man at the expense of his country’s greatness. He could have been writing of Gorbachev.
How did this happen? A man was so busy impressing the world that he forgot his own country was coming apart right beneath him. The toast of the world, but a much-despised man in his own land. Soon a brisk fire-sale of his country would begin, as the more pragmatic elements of the very powers whose media had lionized him all along pounced to get at its vast resources and markets. In the words of journalist P. Sainath, “The former USSR lost 42 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product in a spectacularly short period. A remarkable achievement. No country has ever done that without a famine or a war. Russia did it with just the help of Jeffrey Sachs and the IMF. Poverty in Russia skyrocketed, accompanying a rise in mortality rates and high levels of distress.”
Back in the USA. For much of this year the USS Apology Express has been crisscrossing the world, scattering beautiful words over the continents, here a confession, there a mea culpa, and over there a pensive recounting of past wrongs. At the same time, however, the USS Military Industrial Complex has been on a high-protein diet, with no sign of any relenting either in its appetite, or in the liberal (no pun intended) threats — and use — of force.
Back in the USA too, the unemployment rate is something like 15% in real terms, and there is a giant cultural unraveling (a “disassembling”, as George W. Bush might say) waiting in the wings, even as unabated free trade, outsourcing and illegal immigration continue to bleed American jobs. Obama’s reign has made not a dent on this front.
“This man, comrades, has iron teeth”, Andrei Gromyko once said of Mikhail Gorbachev. But there was no iron, only irony, in the picture of Gorbachev in the back seat of a limo, hawking some wares in a TV ad of recent vintage. A decent respect for the opinion of mankind was deemed appropriate by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence. They did not say anything about being beholden to world acclaim; and certainly not to media adoration. It is a difference Barack Obama will endeavor to appreciate if he wishes to avoid what has befallen Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of a once-proud country reduced to a mass-marketing tool, a real-life analog of Winston Smith in the last line of 1984, “He loved Big Brother”.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org