When, in the course of addressing the United Nations General Assembly on December 7, 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that the time had come to “de-ideologize” relations among states, he was stating the obvious. Gorbachev’s rise to the top position in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union marked a major turning point in international relations. While his initial steps towards opening the previously repressive totalitarian system (over which the political party he represented had ruled unchallenged for 70 years) were met with a mixture of elation and suspicion in the United States, his continued movement towards “glasnost,” or “openness,” proved both sincere and apocryphal. By the time of his accession to the top position in the Soviet political hierarchy, Gorbachev had been the fourth general secretary of the Communist Party in three years. The 1982 death of longtime leader Leonid Brezhnev and the subsequent deaths of his two successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, within months of each other marked the end of the Soviet Union as it had been known since the Russian Revolutions of 1917. The sight of repeated funerals to bury aged, sickly autocrats served as something of a metaphor for the state of the Soviet Union. The regime was falling apart from within and pressures from the policies of the Reagan Administration to expend limited resources on an arms race resulted in the Soviet Union’s rapid decline. The Soviet Union’s failed ideological doctrine—communism—had been discredited across Eastern and Central Europe.
This was the context in which a younger, more physically and intellectually vibrant leader ascended to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy: Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev inherited an ossified economy and a social and cultural environment increasingly impatient for change. The contrasts between East and West could not be ignored. Gorbachev knew that opening Russia and its empire to Western influences was both inevitable and necessary. And he knew that part of his strategy for success had to entail the minimization, if not outright elimination, of any continued perception in the West of a threat from the Soviet Bloc and its totalitarian ideology. In short, doctrinaire approaches to governing and to international relations had to be discarded. It was with this in mind that he stated the following in his address before the United Nations:
What we are talking about, therefore, is unity in diversity. If we assert this politically, if we reaffirm our adherence to freedom of choice, then there is no room for the view that some live on Earth by virtue of divine will, while others are here quite by chance. The time has come to discard such thinking and to shape our policies accordingly. This would open up prospects for strengthening the unity of the world. The new phase also requires de-ideologizing relations among States. We are not abandoning our convictions, our philosophy or traditions, nor do we urge anyone to abandon theirs. However, neither do we have any intention of being hemmed in by our values, which would result in intellectual impoverishment, for it would mean rejecting a powerful source of development—the exchange of everything original that each nation has independently created.
Gorbachev’s emphasis on “de-ideologizing” international relations would be repeated several years later when he presented his lecture before the Nobel Committee on June 5, 1991, when he stated:
The information environment has changed beyond recognition throughout Europe and in most of the world, and with it, the scale and intensity and the psychological atmosphere of communication among people of various countries.
De-ideologizing relations among States, which we proclaimed as one of the principles of the new thinking, has brought down many prejudices, biased attitudes and suspicions and has cleared and improved the international atmosphere. I have to note, however, that this process has been more intensive and frank on our part than on the part of the West.
Not only had the Soviet Union been bankrupted by failed economic policies, it was further drained financially by the willingness of President Reagan to expend American treasure on a major arms buildup to which the Soviet military and political leaderships felt obligated to respond. The Soviet Union had already devoted enormous resources to its military; the pressures from the new American president compounded the pressures on its already fragile economy. Additionally, and of great importance, the information revolution was underway and the ability of communist regimes to insulate their populations from outside information was rapidly degrading. The Internet was new and its impact enormous. The contrast between the freedoms and prosperity evident in the West and the impoverishment and repression in the East was increasingly visible. Gorbachev knew that he had to move his country away from strict adherence to communism and towards increased engagement with the West. De-ideologization was his effort at winding down a Cold War that the democracies of the West were winning. The war between competing ideologies was over.