The Return of Gorbachev

Remember Mikhail Gorbachev?

These days, Gorbachev runs a foundation, based in San Francisco, which runs well-meaning conferences about world affairs. In a few weeks the Gorbachev Foundation will hold a particularly lavish event: speakers will include everyone from former US President George Bush to chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall -- and, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, me. I am a bit ashamed because I can predict in advance that it will be a very silly event: pretentious, bombastic, and forgotten within days. I agreed to attend only because it is taking place in my neighborhood and I thought it might be fun.

Although the Gorbachev conference will undoubtedly be a fairly ridiculous event, however, the program is in a way interesting. Fancy international conferences are almost never of high intellectual quality, but they do give you an indication of what is on the minds of influential people. In this case the assembled group is quite broad in political orientation: it contains people as conservative as George Bush, but it also contains quite a few leftists. Yet there is a common theme that clearly appeals to all of these people. The official themes are things like "Expanding the boundaries of humanness'"; but the real theme, as I read it, is nostalgia for an earlier time.

A generation ago, it was a simpler world. East was East, West was West -- and also North was North and South was South. That is, there were two rival economic systems, communism and capitalism; and there was a seemingly permanent division of the world into rich and poor nations. In that divided and in a way static world, international meetings had a strangely comfortable tone. Because market and command economies seemed to be at opposite poles, it did not require much imagination to pontificate about future economic systems: all you had to do was sagely recommend combining the best features of each. Because the poor nations would, it seemed, always be with us, there was a permanent role for proposals to share the wealth through some kind of New International Economic Order. Participants in the solemn conferences organized in various vacation spots around the world were able to feel wise and noble, secure in the secret knowledge that nobody would ever take their proposals seriously.