Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made a near-endorsement of President Barack Obama on Monday, speaking to Chicago high school students prior to the World Summit of Nobel Laureates.
Then he joined former President Jimmy Carter, former Polish President Lech Walesa and other Nobel winners on a stage at the University of Illinois at Chicago urging high school and college students to take up the cause of world peace.
At Von Steuben High School earlier Monday, Gorbachev recalled two young men pressing him in 2008 on whether they should vote for Obama. He was unaccustomed to Americans asking him for advice, he said.
“Of course, there are many people who don’t like what President Obama is doing,” Gorbachev told students in an Advanced Placement class, speaking through an interpreter. “But, my opinion of him is very [favorable]. I will support him. However, there are still vested interests who want another Cold War, another arms race, weapons trade, interventions. They will not succeed.”
Gorbachev said he thinks it’s healthy for Americans to him for advice.
“America does need advice,” Gorbachev said at UIC. “America does need to listen to what people are saying throughout the world. This should concern America. We must unite.”
Turning to Walesa, 68, Gorbachev, 81, said it is time for their generation to step aside and see if the younger generation can do a better job tackling the problems they have not been able to solve.
“As Lech Walesa said, we’re not getting any younger,” Gorbachev said. “We must rid the world of nuclear weapons, of other kinds of weapons,” Gorbachev said. “There are tremendous migration flows . . . a conflict between man and the rest of nature. A billion people do not have access to good drinking water. Two billion people have no access to sanitation. Our rivers are polluted. What is happening to our oceans, the climates of the world.”
Asked how to get people to care more about these problems, Walesa laughed and said, “If I knew the answer to that, I would win another Nobel Prize.”
At one point during a roundtable, Gorbachev dozed off and was given a glass of water to help him revive.
Former South African President F.W. de Klerk, 76, said that Americans had followed President Teddy Roosevelt’s suggestion to “carry a big stick” long enough and now should spend some time speaking softly, he said.
The summit will last three days. with the Dalai Lama scheduled to join on Wednesday.
Carter, 87, told attendees at the forum that he wanted to take “a frank look at my own country” and how it was doing on peace.
Not so good, Carter said.
“For the last 60 years, our country has been almost constantly at war: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others,” Carter said. “And now we are contemplating going to war again, maybe in Iran.”
As a former naval officer who served tours on battleships and submarines, Carter said, he did not oppose “just wars” and necessary conflicts.
But, he said, “Most of the wars, failed to meet these criteria. And, I would say, some of them were completely unnecessary.”
Carter also took a slap at the administration for not closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
“Since 9/11 . . . we are now in violation of seven of the 30 paragraphs in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Carter said, “including the permanent detention of people who are not given the right of being accused of their crime or legal representation.”
Carter and other speakers aimed their remarks at university and high school students, urging them to change the world by speaking out even if it makes them unpopular.
“You have to power to advance human rights, to speak out against injustice,” Obama, also a Nobel laureate , said in a videotaped message. “All it takes is one voice. Let that voice be yours.”
Former President Bill Clinton, keynoting the opening dinner late Monday, said peace isn’t just an absence of bad things, but people doing good things. “You also have to find a way to step into the gap of where we are and where we ought to be,” Clinton said.
With Gorbachev at Von Steuben was actor Sean Penn, who will receive a humanitarian award during the summit. To meet both men, class valedictorian Manal Saleh said, “blew my mind. I’m still in shock. I never thought I’d meet either. So to meet both on the same day at the same hour, it’s mind-blowing.”
Gorbachev told the students he’s proud of his country, and he knows the students are equally proud of theirs. But, national pride should never be boastful, he said.
“There was a time when Americans and some Europeans and British were looking condescendingly at people from other countries. I think America today is different. America today is ready to open up to work with other countries,” he said.
During a 31-minute address to AP students in a jam-packed Von Steuben classroom, Gorbachev recalled his difficult upbringing in a “totally isolated” village with no roads, radios or electricity that was more like the “hinterland” than the heartland.
The village was so remote, Gorbachev’s entire family had to pack up and move during the week – and return to their home on weekends – so he could go to high school.
He talked about his 10th grade decision to join the Communist Party, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and about graduating with honors from Moscow University.
“Without Moscow University – without that experience – my life would have turned out differently. This really changed my life. No one ever had to force me to study. That’s what you should do as well. People who you need to push or pull to study really can’t succeed in life,” he said.
During a question-and-answer session with the students, Gorbachev was asked how he mustered the courage to champion glasnost and perestroika – openness, democracy and the restructuring of the former Soviet Union’s social and economic system – in the face of intense criticism.
He said his greatest motivation for reform was the fact that his country, despite all of its vast resources, was, at a “dead end” with a fraction of the industrial and agricultural productivity of the West.
“In order to buy a nice pair of shoes or a shirt or even a pair of pantyhose for women, one had to stand in line, and those lines often broke into fights . . . . To address that problem of producing enough pantyhose, they organized a special government commission . . . headed by a secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party. We younger people were very bitter about that. We felt humiliated,” he recalled.
“Old people, young people, people everywhere were demanding change. So, I had to start change. But of course, in launching the process of change, we took enormous risks. The country at that time was, frankly, a police state. There was no freedom [or] very little of it. No freedom of enterprise, no economic freedom. . . . The list goes on and on. You will cry if I tell you. So, one had to muster courage to start change.”