This Week: Reykjavik 25 years

It was cold, wet and windy but it was uniquely exhilarating. The Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, which I covered 25 years ago as a reporter, produced 24 hours of adrenalin-fuelled highs and lows as the Soviet and US leaders raised hopes of a historic agreement on a nuclear weapons free world only to spectacularly dash them.

The 25th anniversary of the summit on 11-12 October 1986 is being marked tomorrow and Wednesday by the Global Zero movement which has convened 100 international leaders to the Reagan Library in California. They will call on heads of government to revitalize this vision and initiate multilateral negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Perceptions of Reykjavik have changed immensely since the final moments of the Reagan-Gorbachev talks at the clapboard Hofdi house which left a palpable sense of disappointment in both the US and Soviet delegations, even though Gorbachev put a positive spin on the outcome. Their Icelandic hosts feared at the time their island nation would forever be associated with the “failed summit.” In fact, Gorbachev’s assessment proved correct. Reykjavik spurred disarmament talks that led to the elimination of an entire category of nuclear weapons in the INF treaty the following year. The two countries went on to sign the START I treaty in 1991. Gorbachev has even said that the Cold War ended at Reykjavik.

Coinciding with the Reykjavik anniversary, George Washington University scholars Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, who first unearthed in 2006 the original documents of the Soviet and US negotiators, have revisited the summit for the October edition of Arms Control Today. “To read the transcripts from the October 11-12 meeting in Reykjavik is to marvel at how high the stakes were and how close Reagan and Gorbachev came to a landmark agreement on nuclear abolition,” they write.

The summit foundered over Reagan’s beloved Strategic Defense Initiative for a ballistic missile shield to protect the United States from attack. The US president held out on the testing of SDI even as he offered repeatedly to share it with the Soviet Union, which was insisting on laboratory testing only. Reagan offered continued testing while eliminating all ballistic missiles over 10 years, leading to the eventual abolition of all offensive nuclear weapons. According to the transcripts, Soviet expert Georgy Arbatov told US negotiator Paul Nitze: “Accepting your offer would require an exceptional level of trust. We cannot accept your proposals.”

Twenty five years on, this assessment remains true today. The persistent lack of trust between the US and Russia makes bold initiatives unlikely. Russia is still building an anti-missile shield around Moscow against US or NATO attack. The US and NATO are going ahead with plans for ballistic missile defense which they say is not aimed at Moscow, but the Kremlin demurs. Just as in Reagan’s time, arms control experts say that the billions of dollars spent since the 1980s have been wasted on an unworkable system. Even if the ballistic missile defense system did work, it could easily be deterred by cheap decoys.

What remains also though is the vision of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The two leaders, who looked beyond their enemy status and a crippling arms race to see an alternative to mutual assured destruction and glimpse a world without nuclear weapons, are an inspiration to us all.

You can also read an OpEd by Mikhail Gorbachev published today:


These are the personal views of the author.


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