What if Gorbachev had been president of the United States?

Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who died on Aug. 30, 2022, in Moscow, is shown in a March 26, 2002, portrait taken in Berlin, Germany.

Here is a thought experiment: Suppose Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR’s only president, had been president of the United States instead? Elevated to the Politburo in 1979 because of the rapid turnover and deaths of three geriatric general-secretaries (i.e. leaders of the USSR), Gorbachev was unanimously elected general-secretary in 1985 at age 54.

Because Gorbachev was given various responsibilities during those six years in the Politburo, he recognized that the political-economic condition of the Soviet Union was in extremis and could not be sustained indefinitely without fundamental reform. That became his goal. And he understood the resistance that reform faced but also that he had no alternative.

A confirmed Marxist-Leninist, Gorbachev set about fixing the USSR’s irrational political system with perestroika(restructuring) and glasnost (openness) with every intent of keeping the Soviet Union whole.  He spectacularly failed, and the Soviet Union imploded. But the Cold War ended peacefully.

Suppose Gorbachev had been born in the U.S. to poor parents who were contract farm laborers. Winning a scholarship, young Mikey Gorbachev graduated from one of America’s most prestigious universities and then from an equally prestigious law school.  Clerking for a Supreme Court associate justice, Gorbachev’s first job was working for a well-known Washington, D.C., law firm. 

Realizing that public service was his calling, Gorbachev returned to his hometown, and at age 30 was elected mayor. Attracting attention, Gorbachev was recruited by the state Republican Party to run for mayor of the state’s largest city. Gorbachev was a reformer and innovator. After two terms, Gorbachev won the governorship and later became head of the National Governors Association.

Under his leadership, and despite the economic distress that affected most of America, Gorbachev’s state became one of the most prosperous and innovative. His government provided excellent and responsive service to its residents. Nominated as vice president, Gorbachev’s running mate was elected president.

As vice president, Gorbachev was given a wide portfolio across government, both domestically and internationally. The elderly president suffered from ill health, adding further responsibilities to the vice president. Gorbachev became increasingly concerned by what he found was a government that clearly was not working for Americans.

Wherever Gorbachev looked, government agencies were failing. The list was almost as endless as the size of the government. And foreign policy was in poor shape. 

China, Russia, Iran and North Korea were clear-cut enemies. Relations had not been as bad since the Cold War. Tensions over Taiwan and Ukraine raised fears of war and escalation. What could a vice president do?

Then, the president suddenly died, and Gorbachev became president.  Gorbachev understood that about 75 percent of Americans believed the nation was headed in the wrong direction and that government was not working. Over half believed that a civil war was looming. 

And, with a divided Congress, Gorbachev knew that many of the programs and reforms that were needed would never gain sufficient votes to pass or were doomed by the filibuster. Yet, Gorbachev, despite not having been elected president, was determined to fix America.

Gorbachev called for a two-pronged approach. First, he was going to restructure the executive branch that was organized not much differently from George Washington’s original Cabinet. Education was to become the Department of Learning and Information; Commerce changed to Science, Industry and Technology; Agriculture was dissolved because the number of independent farmers was statistically insignificant; Transportation expanded to Infrastructure; Energy and Interior combined to form Energy and Environment; Homeland Security disbanded and its functions were assigned to the Departments of State, Defense and Justice; Housing and Urban Development was downgraded to an agency.

To bring the nation together, Gorbachev proposed putting in place national referenda on key issues to determine what Americans favored and did not. And he moved to universal voting, meaning that all Americans qualified and able had to appear at polling places on Election Day regardless of whether they voted.

Finally, he challenged Congress to reorganize, reducing its vast number of overlapping committees and subcommittees. And he proposed that before voting on any bill, all members would swear or affirm that each had read and understood the pending legislation. 

This is what it might take to fix America. But would an American Gorbachev have succeeded?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Mikhail Gorbachev Mikhail Gorbachev Mikhail Gorbachev Russia USSR collapse

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