An Icelandic Saga

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine

The Geneva summit of November 1985, held after months of preparation, turned out to be an exercise in deliberate ambiguity.1 The improvised meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik resulted in unprecedented confusion. It took more than a week to dig out what actually happened from under the public relations rubble accumulated by American officials, who moved, with breath-taking speed and an eye on the electorate, from unwarranted despair to unjustified optimism.

What happened in Iceland is a textbook case of careful planning on one side while the other side was taken by surprise and lost both initiative and perspective. The Geneva summit had reached a dead-lock over SDI. The Soviets had linked reductions on strategic nuclear weapons to American willingness to curtail SDI. On these issues, no progress was made in subsequent arms control negotiations. When Gorbachev, in the middle of the crisis over the arrest of Nicholas Daniloff, offered to meet the President in Iceland, the Americans decided that he probably wanted to clinch an agreement on the intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, a subject that the Soviets had untied from SDI and over which much progress had been achieved in negotiations in Geneva during 1986. A limited deal on reducing the scope of nuclear tests also seemed possible. However, in Reykjavik Gorbachev came back to what had been his strategy in Geneva: trading reductions on offensive weapons for sharp limits on SDI. And he tied both an agreement on intermediate forces and a deal on weapons testing to this trade. But he made such a package far more attractive than he did eleven months ago, by offering more detailed and in some cases bigger reductions than before.

The American team was taken by surprise because it had misinterpreted Gorbachev’s game. They thought he needed the guarantee of even a limited success before agreeing to come to Washington. But to him Reykjavik was simply Act II in a patient, long-term strategy aimed at eroding SDI in exchange for deep reductions. His concern is with the central front, so to speak, not with the sideshows. In Geneva, and in the negotiations that followed, Soviet offers had failed to produce concessions from Reagan on SDI, yet Reagan’s desire for an arms control success, and his dream of moving toward a nonnuclear world, clearly clashed with his drive for an uninhibited SDI. For Gorbachev, Reykjavik was a safe gamble. Aimed at smoking out Reagan, the Soviet plan would either lead to a breakthrough if Reagan finally accepted the deal, or make Reagan appear as an obstinate spoiler, and thus concentrate the world’s attention on SDI if he didn’t.

If this was a trap, as right-wing commentators put it, the best tactic for the American delegation would have been to refuse to fall into it and to move the meeting back to subjects of possible agreement,…

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