Three questions can be raised about the meeting between President Reagan and Secretary-General Gorbachev in Geneva between November 19 and 21, 1985. How did the superpowers move from the deep freeze of their relations in 1980–1983 to the brief but intense encounter of their leaders? What did it accomplish? What is likely to happen next? Only the first question can be answered with any degree of certainty. The reason why the second and above all the third are so troublesome is that we are in the middle of a drama with three characters who are highly complex for quite different reasons: a new Soviet leader with a thoroughly original style who faces difficult choices; an aging American leader whose mind and direction are—after all these years—still stakes in a battle fought by advisers with discordant policies; and a Frankenstein monster, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), that holds the key to the future but seems, at present, not only beyond anyone’s control but even beyond definition.
If there is any “law” governing or guiding the superpowers’ contest, especially since the end of America’s nuclear monopoly, it is a law of oscillation. The two rivals are too far apart, too much obsessed by their competition, for joint management of world affairs to be possible, and for any détente to be stable and solid; but the common interest in avoiding a nuclear war obliges them to try to damp down their contest and to keep it within limits. The Reagan administration came to power after the collapse of the détente of the 1970s, and with an ideology of confrontation and national strength. The Soviet leadership, at the end of 1983, had clearly come to the conclusion that Mr. Reagan would not be another Eisenhower or Nixon. It walked out of the main arms control negotiations that were all that remained of the network Henry Kissinger had wanted to build around the superpowers, and where the rivals had, in fact, only hurled incompatible proposals at each other for two years.
Nevertheless, the pendulum started to move in the opposite direction—that of rapprochement—only a few weeks later, when Reagan, in a speech in January 1984, first spoke of the USSR in softer language. His reasons for the shift were many. As the strength of the nuclear-freeze movement had shown, much of the American public was worried by the new cold war, and the President, who had (as all presidents must) shown himself to be a “man of strength,” had to prove before the election in November that he was also a “man of peace” (as all presidents have to be). There was pressure from America’s allies, many of which had had to spend considerable political capital in order to carry out the NATO plan to deploy American missiles in Western Europe. The victory of the pro-NATO forces there, the huge and indiscriminate American armaments program, the launching of the SDI in March 1983, the domestic economic recovery, fulfilled the Reagan administration’s precondition for a…
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