The Geneva Summit of 1985: Pragmatism Realized

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The Geneva Summit of 1985: Pragmatism Realized

This essay describes the shift 1 in U.S.-Soviet relations that led to the Geneva Summit of 1985,
Geneva's contribution to a new Détente between the superpowers, and gains made in later summits, setting the stage to end the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan strolled with Mikhail Gorbachev, in Red Square, in 1988. Gorbachev lifted a young child into his arms: "Shake hands with Grandfather Reagan". Reagan shook the child's hand as applause filled the air. A reporter later asked Reagan about the change in U.S.-Soviet relations. Reagan noted, "Talk of the Soviet Union as an evil empire was in another time, another era."2 U.S.-Soviet relations changed dramatically from 1983, when Ronald Reagan gave his "evil empire" speech that condemned the Soviet Union as the "focus of evil" in the modern world.

From 1985 to 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev took part in four summits: Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington, and Moscow. At the Moscow summit, both nations formally exchanged the instruments of ratification for the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which banned all intermediate range nuclear missiles. In 1990, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that dramatically reduced long-range nuclear forces. In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended.

Historians study 1980's U.S.-Soviet summitry in order to understand its contribution to ending the Cold War. In order to understand the overall accomplishments of U.S.-Soviet summitry, one must address the implications of the first summit at Geneva. The Geneva summit of 1985 initiated a new Détente between the superpowers: Despite ongoing bilateral tensions, the summit improved American-Soviet relations due to careful preparations by participants, frankness in U.S.-Soviet talks, and adherence to a four-part agenda that would become the basis for advancements made in later summit meetings.

Reagan and "Peace through Strength"

Prior to 1985, U.S.-Soviet relations were the worst they had been in years. In September of 1983, the Soviet Union downed an unarmed Korean Airliner, KAL 007, which had ventured into Soviet airspace. Later in the fall, the United States deployed medium range missiles in Western Europe for the first time, under a NATO agreement, and the Soviet Union reacted by walking out of arms control talks.

Various factors contributed to the shift in U.S.-Soviet relations, toward a new age of diplomacy. Reagan began a military buildup during his first term, followed by attempts to establish negotiations with the Soviets. 1985 also saw the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev, who stressed the need for improved bilateral relations. Internal pressures pushed both leaders toward initiating a meeting.

From the American view, perceived Soviet aggressions could only be matched through military strength. Once American military deficiencies were corrected, the United States could then initiate discourse with the Soviet Union from a position of strength. Reagan writes in his memoirs:

During the first year [of my Administration], we embarked on a broad program of military renewal to upgrade our land, sea, and air forces. We would never accept second place in the arms race. Recognizing the hair-trigger risk of annihilation nuclear weapons posed to the world, I send negotiators to Moscow indicating that we were prepared for a winding down of the arms race if the Soviets were sincere about it. These policies were linked. Because we knew we would not get anywhere with the Soviets if we were in a position of military inferiority. If we were to get them to sue for peace, we had to do it from a position of strength.3


Reagan took a less aggressive tone toward the Soviets as the United States neared basic parity. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin notes the change in American policy in 1985. He writes:


The [Reagan] Administration gave no hint that it was abandoning its principles, though changes appeared in the thinking of Ronald Reagan about the Soviet Union. He began to depart from unconditional confrontation and displayed some sense of realism toward negotiations. Washington regarded the Geneva [summit] as the fruit of its military buildup, which underwrote its tough diplomacy. Reagan [demonstrated] a growing degree of pragmatism toward the Soviet Union; his main diplomatic principle became negotiation from strength.4


Reagan hoped to negotiate for arms reductions because of his sincere fear of nuclear war. He writes, "I intended to search for peace along two parallel paths: deterrence and arms reduction. I believe these are the only paths that offer any real hope for enduring peace."5


The New Soviet Leadership and "New Thinking"

The emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985, further aided the change in relations. From the Soviet perspective, the American military buildup had not forced the U.S.S.R. to the negotiation table. Ambassador Dobrynin notes: "The Reagan policy of a naked military buildup and diplomatic confrontation did not bring the desired results. It was never a realistic possibility that the new weapons could force the Soviet Union to surrender its national interests."6 Rather, Mikhail Gorbachev stressed a "new thinking" in foreign policy that sought to correct Soviet misconceptions about the West and work for greater international interdependence. He notes in his memoirs:

We realized that it was vitally important to correct the distorted ideas we had about other nations. These misconceptions had made us oppose the rest of the world for many decades. We understood that in today's world of mutual interdependence, progress is unthinkable for any society, which is fenced off from the world by impenetrable state frontiers and ideological barriers. We could not ensure our country's security without recognizing the interests of other countries, and that in a nuclear age we could not build a safe security system based solely on military means. This prompted us to propose an entirely new concept of global security, which included all aspects of international relations.7

Accordingly, Soviet "new thinking" worked to end U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry. Gorbachev writes, "As a first step we had to alleviate [the Cold War] pressures that had borne down on us due to our involvement in conflicts all over the world and in a debilitating arms race."8 The "new thinking" of Gorbachev converged with Reagan's hopes for pursuing negotiations.


Internal pressures in the United States underlined Reagan's desire for improved relations. Popular fears of war fueled public opinion against Reagan. Francis FitzGerald notes, "The public was evenly split on whether Reagan's handling of the Soviet Union was increasing or decreasing the chances of war. At the beginning of 1984, Gallup polls showed the public rated the threat of war and international tensions as, by far, the most important problems facing the country."9

Reagan curtailed his anti-Soviet rhetoric after the 1984 polling. After his reelection, Reagan announced the need for better relations with the Soviets. In doing so, Reagan improved his political position with both the American public and nervous NATO allies. Lou Cannon writes, "[Reagan] had nothing to show for his first term in U.S.-Soviet relations. By dealing with Gorbachev, Reagan enhanced his political standing at home and in Europe."10

Internal pressures in the Soviet Union further drove Soviet "new thinking". Economic stagnation convinced Gorbachev to improve bilateral relations as a prerequisite to internal reforms. Cannon notes:

Gorbachev arrived on the scene when the failure of the communist experiment could no longer be concealed from the Soviet people. He hoped to open up Soviet society and restructure its economy. To attain these goals, he sought a reduction in Soviet spending and international tensions. He had much to gain and little to lose by dealing realistically with the president of the United States.11


In the face of ongoing bilateral tensions, participants carefully worked for a summit. Following the death of Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko, Reagan and Gorbachev initiated dialogue through written letters. Despite dialogue, mistrust remained. Inflammatory U.S. speeches seemed to undermine discourse. U.S.-Soviet officials met in various meetings to discuss strategies for the summit, yet American adherence to a controversial new interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, and U.S. advocacy for a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), frustrated pre-summit arms control talks. Still, participants prepared for the actual summit meeting through extensive briefings and research. Furthermore, each phase of the summit was carefully planned to facilitate frank, constructive, talks.

On May 5th 1985, Reagan announced publicly his hope to establish a dialogue with the Soviets. His Strasbourg speech before the European Parliament outlined his new phase in foreign policy. Reagan urged a foreign policy based on "realism, strength and dialogue." Military parity, not superiority, had been the intent of the American buildup.12 From a position of strength, the United States could now make "a steady, sustained effort to reduce tensions and solve its problems with the Soviet Union."13 Reagan hoped to work with the Soviets for "an extended agenda of problem solving."14 He surmised that the Soviet Union "had much to gain through arms reductions and greater cooperation with the West."15

Reagan implemented this strategy by establishing dialogue with Gorbachev through a written letter on March 13th. Reagan believed any approach to dialogue should realistically take into account the divergent and common interests of both the United States and the Soviet Union: "Our differences are many, and we need to proceed in a way that takes both differences and common interests into account in seeking to resolve problems and building trust."16 For Reagan, the basis of this trust could be realized through ongoing dialogue and diplomacy: "I believe our differences can and must be resolved through dialogue and negotiation. The international situation demands that we redouble our efforts to find political solutions to the problems we face."17 Accordingly, Reagan hoped open dialogue would work "toward the goal of ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons."18 Reagan concluded his letter by inviting Gorbachev to a summit meeting in Washington.

Gorbachev, still solidifying his new position as General Secretary, waited until March 24th to respond. Gorbachev also believed U.S.-Soviet relations could improve. For Gorbachev, previous conflicts had been based on misunderstanding. Ideology should not be a basis for conflict. He writes, "Our countries are different in their social systems. But we believe this should not be a reason for animosity."19 Gorbachev hoped for a "peaceful competition" with the United States based not on the military might of Cold War rivalry but based on the "right to life". Gorbachev hoped relations would not deteriorate to the point of nuclear war "which would inevitably have catastrophic consequences for both sides."20 While stressing the importance of "contacts at the highest level", he politely sidestepped Reagan's invitation to a summit in Washington. Gorbachev hoped for a summit in Moscow, or at least in a neutral place like Geneva.

Before receiving a reply from Gorbachev, Reagan initiated a petition to Congress for increased military spending: "I kept pressing Congress to fund the MX missile program so we could make Gorbachev see the wisdom of bargaining in good faith."21 Dobrynin notes that while Reagan was looking forward to Gorbachev's reply, "his irrepressible anti-Soviet sentiments had reasserted themselves."22 In a speech given in Quebec, Reagan condemned Soviet exploits in Central America and Afghanistan and called for resistance to Soviet encroachments. Yet, in the same speech, Reagan also expressed his willingness to work constructively with Soviets to improve relations.23

Reagan's inconsistency stemmed from his misconceptions about Gorbachev. He had only just initiated dialogue with the General Secretary. After receiving Gorbachev's March 24th letter, Reagan wrote in his diary, "Gorbachev will be as tough as any of their leaders. If he weren't a confirmed ideologue, he would have never been chosen by the Politburo."24 In a veiled response to Reagan's intermittent actions, Gorbachev subtly noted in his belated letter that talks would not be "enhanced if one were to talk as if in two languages: one for private contacts and the other for an audience."25

Uncertainty about Gorbachev continued well after the summit had been scheduled for November. In a speech given in August, National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane argued that Gorbachev should prove his commitment to change by demonstrating acts of contrition, such as removing Soviet troops from Afghanistan. McFarlane argued against premature optimism: "We cannot know whether a process of comprehensive change [in the Soviet Union] is underway or not. In the past, the appearance of change has been no more than a mask behind which systematic rigidities endure. Each [Soviet] leader, however strongly he might favor change, has found that having risen to power by following the rules of the system, he becomes captive to it."26


Reagan began to see the futility of ongoing mistrust. Only candid and frank talks could resolve this mistrust. By late October, in an address to the United Nations, he noted, "The only way to resolve issues [with the Soviet Union] is to better understand them. We must have candid and complete discussions of where dangers exist and where peace is being disrupted. Therefore, at Geneva, we must review the current level of mistrust."27 Initial dialogue worked toward realizing a summit meeting, but preliminary dialogue proved unable to resolve longstanding mistrust. Trust could only be established through frank talks between Reagan and Gorbachev at the summit. Gorbachev concurred: "We viewed Geneva realistically. It was important that we discuss issues to ease tension and normalize relations."28

Arms Control, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and SDI

U.S. and Soviet diplomats meet numerous times in preparation for the summit. Arms control talks had resumed in March and continued up until the eve of the meeting. Secretary of State Schultz met with the new Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, in August, and grappled with Gorbachev's moratorium on nuclear testing.29 Gorbachev had further proposed a 50 percent reduction in previously installed long-range strategic missiles. Since the United States was still deploying their own missiles, the proposal would have cut forces largely in favor of the Soviets. Americans counter proposed a 50 percent reduction in strategic forces to equal levels only. In turn, the Soviets objected to American definitions of classified reductions.30 The Soviets wanted to include French and British forces in the proposed reductions. The United States disregarded Soviet objections.

Hopes for acquiring a formal START treaty, ready for signing at the summit, were greatly diminished as Soviet and American diplomats argued over the proper interpretation of the 1972 ABM treaty. Soviets maintained a traditional, or restrictive, interpretation of the treaty that forbid research and deployment of anti-ballistic defense systems. Americans announced a broader interpretation, appealing to ambiguities in Title V of the treaty, which suggested research and deployment were allowed. This view aided Reagan's goal of creating the SDI or "Star Wars" defense system.31 In theory, this system would protect the United States from nuclear attack through a defensive missile system that intercepted and destroyed incoming missiles. Gorbachev had argued that the program would lead to an arms race in space, as Soviets would engage in a massive buildup in order to overwhelm the Americans' defense system. The Soviets maintained that SDI would, in effect, nullify Nixon's M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine. The United States, Soviets argued, might consider a nuclear "first strike" due to the protection SDI offered from counter-attack. These concerns allowed participants to realistically anticipate what could be accomplished at the actual summit and work for broad areas of consensus.

Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and other hardliners feared Reagan might compromise the SDI program at Geneva. Soviet objections to SDI were spurious, Weinberger argued, for the U.S.S.R. had been building defense systems around Moscow for twenty years.32 Although, Soviet defense systems around Moscow had been allowed under the AMB treaty, a radar station in Krasnoyarsk did violate the agreement.33 Weinberger feared surrender of SDI would lead to a Soviet monopoly on defense systems. Reagan had already committed not to "trade SDI off for some Soviet offer of arms reductions."34 Weinberger openly criticized the Soviets despite Administration efforts to ease relations. He later leaked to the press an outline of Soviet treaty violations. In order not to endanger negotiations, Reagan agreed that Weinberger not be allowed to participate at Geneva.35

A Summit Agenda

In early November, Secretary of State Shultz met with Gorbachev in Moscow. Mistrust lingered. Gorbachev proceeded to list a litany of American "illusions" about the Soviet Union.36 He maintained that Americans were under the illusion that the United States military buildup had forced the Soviet Union to the bargaining table. Gorbachev continued that Americans believed that the Soviets could not keep pace in a new arms race in space brought on by SDI. Furthermore, SDI, Gorbachev argued, was nothing more than a conspiracy on the part of "the American military complex" to increase the input of a sagging American economy.37 After returning arguments of like kind, Schulz moved to establish a strategy for the approaching summit. Shultz argued for American goals through appealing to the self-interests of the Soviets. Shultz maintained that Soviet concessions in human rights issues, a longstanding concern for Americans, would aid the Soviet goal of establishing greater international interdependence. He notes:

I was determined to engage [Gorbachev] on the subject of the information age, its pervasive impact and its implications. At the center of the problem for the Soviets was their attitude toward the rights of individual human beings. A society that is closed and compartmentalized cannot take advantage of the new technology. This line of thought was designed to tie the importance of human rights to the Soviet concern over globalization. In this way, I hoped to lead the Soviets to realize that improved human rights were in their own interests.38

Shultz's pressure succeeded. He established a formal agenda that would be the basis for all four summits: "Gorbachev agreed to discuss in Geneva bilateral and regional issues as well as arms control and by this time he knew we would bring up human rights. Our four-part agenda was on the table."39

Extensive Preparations

Participants prepared for the actual summit meeting through extensive briefings and research. Furthermore, each phase of the summit was carefully planned to facilitate frank, constructive, talks. Reagan sought the advice of former presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.40 He also attempted to learn as much as he could about Gorbachev and carefully practiced prepared talking points. Francis Fitzgerald notes: "[Reagan] watched a CIA produced film on Gorbachev, memorized facts about the Soviet leader he could bring up in private conversations and rehearsed his lines with [Ambassador Arthur] Matlock and other experts playing Gorbachev."41 Reagan also studied Russian history extensively under the tutelage of Suzan Massie. The President met with Massie over a dozen times and credited her for enabling him to see a different Soviet reality from the one he read in secret briefing papers.42 Gorbachev also prepared himself for his meetings with Reagan. He carefully went over talking points with aids and attempted to prepare responses to any objection Reagan might raise during talks. He even watched Reagan's 1942 movie, "King's Row", to better familiarize himself with the old actor.43

A subsequently agreed upon schedule carefully allotted time for meetings and outlined themes of discussion. A cozy fire in a preselected pool house awaited the two leaders after Reagan "spontaneously" invited Gorbachev to a walk near the end of one meeting.44 The Soviets hoped for a joint statement summarizing the accomplishments of the summit even before it took place, but Reagan rejected this idea for fear that such a document would stifle potential progress that could be accomplished during the talks.45 Thus, preparations worked to ensure that participants could better understand each other in a structured, yet fluid environment.

The Summit

The Geneva summit took place from November 19th to November 20th. Participants emphasized the need for candid, frank, talks as a basis for enduring peace. Reagan engaged Gorbachev in three private meetings and four plenary, or official, meetings. The two leaders addressed issues set forth in the formal summit agenda. Participants discussed causes of bilateral mistrust and struggled with conflicting approaches to regional and human rights concerns. Reagan and Gorbachev disagreed over the purpose of SDI. Although, arms reductions were not realized, Reagan and Gorbachev established a personal rapport that would prove useful in future summits.

Reagan and Gorbachev understood that not all the problems between the United States and the Soviet Union could be resolved in only two days.46 Rather, each hoped to help establish a foundation for an enduring peace. Frank talks between the two leaders could do away with mutual mistrust. Reagan expressed his hopes for the summit during a presidential address to the nation on November 14th: "My mission, stated simply, is a mission for peace. It is to engage the new Soviet leader in a dialogue for peace that I hope will endure as long as my presidency and beyond. It is to sit down across from Mr. Gorbachev and try to map out together a common causeway over the no man's land of mistrust and hostility that separates our two nations."47 Gorbachev similarly writes, "[At Geneva] we hoped to lay the foundations for a serious dialogue [for] the future."48

Frank Talks

On November 19th, Reagan met Gorbachev at Chateau Fleur d' Eau for a private meeting before the commencement of the first plenary meeting of the morning. Causes of bilateral mistrust became a central theme. Reagan made a personal appeal to Gorbachev at their initial meeting. He remarked about both their humble origins, the power they now had to start a third world war, and the power they had to prevent such a war.49

Reagan believed ending U.S.-Soviet mistrust could only be done through a one on one encounter, in which both leaders forged trust through building a constructive relationship.50 For Reagan, "countries do not mistrust each other because of arms, but rather countries build up their arms because of mistrust between them."51 Gorbachev, while affirming Reagan's reasoning, came to an opposite conclusion. Gorbachev acknowledged that the private meeting was important in itself, yet believed mistrust stemmed from a buildup in nuclear arms.52 Their conflicting premises would become the basis for impassioned disagreement over SDI in later meetings.

Aside from this notion, Gorbachev affirmed his hope that relations would improve. The theme of creating mutual trust developed during the first plenary meeting later that morning. Gorbachev proposed that interdependency could be a basis for improving relations.53 The United States could demonstrate its intentions to the Soviets first through developing stronger economic ties.54 For Gorbachev, economic interests coincided with political interests. He noted, "We cannot hope that a strong peace and understanding will emerge without active links and relationships. Economic and commercial ties are important, not only in themselves, but also as a political link. There needs to be a material basis for political progress. Commercial ties can be a mechanism of trust."55

Trust could, Gorbachev continued, be established at other levels. At a second level, Americans and Soviets could engage in various cultural and educational exchange programs. At a third level, foreign dignitaries and embassies could work for better relations. Finally, "High level summits should fit in this and be the centerpiece of our mechanism for building trust."56 Gorbachev argued that changing realities demanded the development of this new policy. Countries should not be held captive to outdated approaches. He feared if progress was not achieved at the summit, "people will maintain this meeting gave birth to a mouse."57 He concluded, by noting, that there were "no permanent enemies but only permanent interests."58

Reagan believed both men should find the basis of mistrust, and from that point, work to reduce nuclear weapons. He appealed to the U.S.-Soviet alliance in the Second World War. Reagan argued the United States had access to nuclear weapons before the U.S.S.R. did; and had refused to use them against the Soviet Union. Reagan could not understand what the basis of mistrust could have been. For Reagan, the Soviet Union must show its intentions through positive gestures and deeds. He noted, "Deeds can relieve mistrust, if we can go on the basis of trust, than those mountains of weapons will shrink quickly as we will be confident that they are not needed."59 President Reagan noted the responsibility the United States and the Soviet Union had to this issue. He speculated to what could be accomplished through cooperation and again made the linkage of trust to deeds: "When [I] think of our two great powers and how many areas we could cooperate in helping the world, [I] think about how we must do this with deeds. This is the best way to assure both of us that [we] have no hostile intent."60

Although, substantive progress was not made on regional issues, Gorbachev and Reagan discussed new ways of viewing regional concerns. During the first and second plenary meetings, Gorbachev hoped to convince Reagan that Soviet support of communist revolutions was not based on designs for world conquest. Reagan affirmed his support for national determination. Searching for consensus, Gorbachev argued that communist revolutions were largely nationalistic in nature.61

At the second plenary meeting, Gorbachev expanded this theme: "the Soviets reject a 'primitive approach' toward the world - that is that everything can be traced to some Soviet plan for supremacy or world domination."62 Gorbachev noted American arguments about "Soviet expansionism" in Afghanistan, Angola, and South Yemen. "If the United States", he continued, "bases policy on this mistaken view it is difficult to see a way out of these problems."63 Gorbachev proposed an alternative "principled approach". In Gorbachev's view, the Soviet Union promoted the self-interests of emerging nations. He continued: "We have no monopolies in these countries, which exploit their manpower and resources. We seek no commercial concessions. Therefore, we have no selfish interest or expansionists aims."64 Gorbachev noted the many countries that desired independence after World War II. The Soviets sought to aid nationalists who wanted freedom through "progressive" movements. Gorbachev's arguments, while presented from within a Marxist perspective, did emphasize his emerging doctrine of self-interest and interdependency, and the desire for peaceful solutions.65

Gorbachev hoped to work for a neutral government in Afghanistan, and an eventual Soviet withdrawal, but stressed the need for "cooperation from all groups involved."66 He hoped to use the Afghanistan war issue as an opportunity to improve U.S.-Soviet relations through allowing both nations the opportunity to work together to end the conflict. Reagan affirmed bilateral efforts, though he interpreted Gorbachev's verbiage to mean a settlement that actually favored Afghan communists.

During a private conversation with Gorbachev at the Soviet Mission on November 20th, Reagan attempted to link improvement in human rights issues with Soviet self-interests.67 Reagan expressed his desire not to encroach on the internal affairs of the Soviet Union. However, he noted, if the Soviet Union wanted the support for economic concessions from the U.S. Congress, the U.S.S.R. must take into account the various ethnic groups that made up congressional constituencies in the United States: "There is a large Jewish constituency in the United States, which has influence on Congress."68 Reagan noted that the recent release of several detained [Jewish] men and women from the Soviet Union had made a big impact on the people in the [United States].69

Reagan illustrated another example in the Soviet Pentecostals who had been living in the U.S. embassy. Soon after their release from the Soviet Union, the U.S. Congress enacted "a long-term grain agreement [that] was concluded without difficulties.70 Gorbachev countered that the United States must first improve bilateral relations with the Soviet Union. If the United States initiated the four-part strategy for "material trust" proposed in the first plenary meeting, then Soviets would move to help dissidents. This conversation demonstrated the conflicting approaches of the two men. In essence, Reagan linked economic concessions with Soviet "deeds" while Gorbachev linked human rights concessions with economic remuneration.


Contention over SDI stalled arms control talks. At the first afternoon plenary, Reagan questioned the basis of Soviet concerns over SDI.71 He maintained that the arms race was the result of the Soviet buildup. Gorbachev argued that Soviets had merely met the American challenge and would meet it again in response to SDI. He warned Reagan of the consequence of moving forward with SDI:

There will be no reduction of offensive weapons and the Soviet Union will respond. The response will not be the mirror image of your program, but a simpler, more effective system. What will happen if you put your seven layers of "defense systems" in space and we put in ours? It will just destabilize the situation, generate mistrust and waste resources. It will require automation, which will place important decisions in the hands of computers. This could unleash an uncontrollable process. If an agreement on this point is not possible, [we will] have to rethink the current situation.72

In the face of this tension, Reagan invited Gorbachev for a walk to a pool house below the summit chateau. After arriving at the pool house, Reagan handed Gorbachev an envelope that contained an arms control proposal. It proposed a 50 percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons with the intent to clarify definitions of reduced categories, the eventual removal of intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe, and a gradual escalation in research for nuclear defense systems (SDI).73

Gorbachev seemed receptive to the first proposal but noted "arms reductions must be viewed through interrelationship to space weapons".74 In other words, Gorbachev demanded START and INF reductions be linked to a ban on SDI. President Reagan noted that he "could not see these space weapons as constituting part of the arms race".75 SDI, Reagan argued, was a defensive rather than a offensive measure. Reagan offered to share SDI research with the Soviets. If the Soviets accepted the sharing of SDI technology, both sides could than move for more serious arms reductions.

Ignoring Reagan, Gorbachev demanded clarification of the term "research". Gorbachev understood that basic research in laboratories was already underway but noted that such research should not include the "construction of prototypes or their testing".76 Reagan argued that laboratory research must include deployment of prototypes. Gorbachev argued that Americans would have "first strike" capabilities under their definition of laboratory research. Reagan argued for open laboratories to share SDI technology. Gorbachev countered, by proposing open laboratories to verify a ban on SDI weapons. Gorbachev heatedly concluded that he must proceed on the premise that an arms race in space must be prevented. Throughout these debates, no progress was achieved. Both refused to abandon their positions.

The two continued talks about SDI at the third plenary meeting held at the Soviet Mission. Jay Winik describes the meeting: "Gorbachev sat there, his eyes flaring like a leopard in the jungle, waiting to pounce at any second. He and Reagan agreed on the desirability of cutting offensive strategic weapons by 50 percent; they danced around the possibility of an INF agreement. Again, they went back to SDI."77 As the two battled back and forth, with increasing emotion, Gorbachev slowly came to realize that Reagan would not abandon SDI.78

Finding Common Ground

Despite this deadlock, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to hold two future summit meetings in Washington and Moscow. In the process of these frank talks, the two men developed a mutual respect for each other. Don Oberdorfer notes:

There were deep differences between the United States and the Soviet Union at [Geneva]. In an intensely personal fashion that few had anticipated, the two leaders grappled with intractable differences in policy, especially over Reagan's anti-missile defense plan [SDI]. Although these differences were not resolved, Reagan and Gorbachev found common ground on a personal level and, most importantly in the end, started a process of interaction that had lasting impact on themselves, their nations, and the global scene.79

At the final plenary meeting, participants worked for a joint statement. Secretary Schulz notes: "We were able to get Gorbachev to express agreement on some of the essential ideas for the joint statement, hopes for 50 percent reductions in strategic arms, the possibility of an interim INF agreement, the process of follow up meetings and the importance of an exchange of people and cultural agreement."80 Accordingly, the joint statement affirmed issues of concurrence: The statement called for a process of dialogue, regular meetings of foreign ministers, periodic discussions of regional issues, and the encouragement of greater travel and people-to-people contact. A start was made in the area of human rights. [Reagan and Gorbachev] agreed on the importance of resolving humanitarian cases in a spirit of cooperation.81 More significantly, the joint statement proclaimed, "A nuclear war could never be won and should never be fought."82

In essence, the joint statement affirmed that ongoing dialogue would become the basis for establishing longstanding peace. Reagan and Gorbachev agreed, in principle, that greater interaction would improve relations. Americans and Soviets could seek greater understanding of one and another through diplomatic discourse and cultural agreements. Improvements in bilateral, regional, human rights, and arms control issues could follow later.

Participants believed the summit to be a success. SDI had not been compromised, and from the American perspective, that in itself was a victory. Jay Winik notes, "The joint statement didn't mention SDI or the ABM; it didn't hem in the Americans in future arms control efforts."83

The Waning Hard Right

From the Soviet perspective, the summit demonstrated the waning influence of Weinberger and the hard right. Ambassador Dobrynin writes,"[The summit proved to be] a big plus because it meant a collapse in the policy advocated by extreme right-wingers around Reagan. Meeting Gorbachev at the summit amounted to an admission by Reagan that the policy of confrontation he had followed in his first term had not quite worked and had to be adjusted."84 Regardless of Dobrynin's misunderstanding of Reagan's long-term strategy, he was correct about the waning influence of Weinberger.

Weinberger modified his views. He largely affirmed Reagan's diplomatic goals. Weinberger later wrote, "The President's determination to ensure that a nuclear war will never be fought is the mandate for our defense programs and arms reductions initiatives."85 Weinberger's affirmation of diplomatic negotiations signified his relative retreat from a hard-line position, which, accordingly, allowed the President to work with the Soviets unhindered.

Geneva's Contribution to a new Détente

Adherence to the four-part agenda established at Geneva became the basis for advancements made in later summit meetings. Progress was made in important negotiations in Reykjavik and substantive agreements in Washington. After securing the INF treaty, Reagan worked for progress on other agenda goals. The Moscow summit witnessed the realization of many regional and human rights objectives.

At the Reykjavik and Washington summits of 1986 and 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev worked toward substantive gains in arms reduction. Reagan writes of his agenda at Reykjavik: "On the first day of the summit [Gorbachev] accepted, in principle, our zero-zero proposal for the elimination of nuclear weapons in Europe [INF] and the elimination of all ballistic missiles over ten years. In addition to nuclear missiles, we said we would try to reduce and eventually eliminate other nuclear weapons as well."86

During the Reykjavik summit, Reagan and Gorbachev seriously considered doing away with all nuclear weapons. Reykjavik conceptually built off issues defined at Geneva, which worked toward the INF treaty in Washington: "From previous meetings [at Geneva] we identified issues. At the Reykjavik meetings, we agreed on the basic terms for what fourteen months later would become the INF agreement. During those ten hours at Reykjavik, we created a framework for the START agreement to reduce long-range strategic missiles on each side as well."87

Gorbachev would come to Washington, in December 1987, to sign the INF treaty with Reagan and provide "tangible proof that the two powers could accomplish things of great importance together."88 Reagan praised the accomplishments of the Washington summit, yet stressed the need to focus on other elements of the formal agenda. He writes: "This history-making agreement was not to be an end in itself but the continuation of a working relationship that will enable us to tackle urgent issues before us: strategic offensive nuclear weapons, the destructive, and tragic, regional conflicts that beset so many parts of our globe, and respect for the human, and natural, rights of all men."89 For Reagan, the Washington summit signified the first substantial result of a working relationship with the Soviet Union.

The Americans and Soviets had a clear agenda that was realistically possible from the outset of the Moscow summit. Reagan placed special emphasis on human rights and regional issues during the Moscow summit of 1988. Increasingly, more Russian dissidents were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The Soviets promised that Cuba would end its longstanding presence in Angola within one year, while the Soviets committed themselves to ending the war in Afghanistan.90 Despite an inability to conclude a START treaty, the world could not deny the change in U.S.-Soviet relations.


Various factors contributed to the shift in American-Soviet relations. Ronald Reagan implemented a long-term strategy to initiate negotiations from a position of American strength. After an extensive military buildup, he desired to establish dialogue with the Soviets, in hopes of reducing nuclear weapons. Internal pressures, such as the domestic fear of war and the desire to improve his political standing, also influenced Reagan's decision to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Similarly, Gorbachev pursued a "new thinking" in foreign policy that sought interdependence with western states. He hoped to lessen Cold War rivalry through reducing nuclear arsenals. Gorbachev also sought to improve U.S.-Soviet relations as a prerequisite for internal reform.

Despite the initial U.S.-Soviet dialogue, mistrust remained. Inflammatory American speeches seemed to undermine discourse. Gorbachev had various illusions about the United States. In hopes of improving bilateral relations, Americans and Soviets carefully planned for the Geneva summit. Both Reagan and Gorbachev extensively prepared for their meeting while aids planned every event of the summit. Frank talks dealt with causes of mistrust, regional concerns, ways to address human rights issues, and heated disagreement over SDI. Despite conflicting approaches to these issues, Reagan and Gorbachev established a rapport with one and another. Both agreed that a nuclear war should never be fought. The Geneva summit formalized a four-part agenda for future meetings that worked for substantive accomplishments. As U.S.-Soviet relations gradually improved, it became evident that the Geneva summit had initiated a new Détente between the superpowers. The stage was set to end the Cold War.

cited works, the Geneva Summit: here.