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 serious dialogue with Moscow—a return to strength. There also seemed to be a peculiar ambivalence in the President’s mind: his firm and fixed views about the “evil empire” somehow coexisted with a belief that Soviet misbehavior might in part result from a misplaced suspiciousness of Western intentions; his cheerful faith in America’s moral superiority made him confident both about America’s inevitable victory in a peaceful contest and about his capacity to convince his Soviet counterparts.

The American shift was made easier for two reasons. One was the considerable prudence shown by Reagan in the conduct of foreign affairs: the most daring “successes” have been the invasion of Grenada and the seizure of the Egyptian plane that carried the hijackers of the Achille Lauro. Rarely has so extravagant a rhetoric of might been associated with such practical avoidance of risks (as the fate of both the American Marine force in Lebanon and the President’s peace plan for the Palestinian issue has shown). The rhetoric has been applied where the costs were low and the public-relations benefits high (at the expense, say, of UNESCO, the International Labor Organization, or New Zealand), but not otherwise. Only General Haig failed to understand that he was supposed to be the vicar of prudence, not the high priest who would enforce the preelection dogmas.

The second reason was the discovery, which even this administration could not fail to make, that most of the troubles it faced around the world were not caused by the Soviet Union: Libya, Syria, and the Lebanese faction that had fought the American presence were not mere satellites of Moscow. The one country, Nicaragua, that the administration treated as Moscow’s puppet, has moved closer to Moscow in what tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; but Nicaragua received only tepid support from the USSR. Two of America’s biggest headaches came from its own friends Marcos and Botha; a third came from the debt crisis of the developing nations. The Soviets’ own prudence in the third world made a resumption of low-level diplomatic conversations about regional disputes possible.


As for the Soviets, they had excellent reasons to welcome a thaw. Gromyko’s bluster, during the crisis over intermediate-range missiles, had utterly failed to splinter the Western alliance. Détente had never been repudiated by Moscow: the Soviets denounced the Americans for having abandoned it, and (unlike the victorious Reaganites of 1981) never adopted a different policy. Perhaps this was because a deliberate choice for a renewed cold war would have been highly unpopular at home and in Eastern Europe, and because a new policy that would have given priority to relations with Western Europe or the third world was never plausible. Once the succession crisis was finally resolved, Gorbachev clearly seems to have given priority to the formidable domestic economic problems of his regime—something that entailed a modicum of retrenchment abroad. And there was, of course, the need to try to move the US away from the SDI program before huge amounts of rubles had to be sunk into Soviet countermeasures.

None of these shifts entailed anything like a return to the détente of the early 1970s. The Soviets have lost their hopes, or illusions, about the economic rewards Americans might give them in exchange for restraints in Soviet behavior abroad. During the early 1970s the Soviets also wanted to exploit the West European desire for détente. They discovered that the road to a full-fledged accommodation with Western Europe passed through Washington, thanks to Kissinger’s imperious vigilance. Paradoxically, the considerable success of that accommodation, which has withstood the collapse of the Soviet-American détente and the intermediate-range missiles crisis, also made the Soviets’ desire for a better relationship with Washington less intense.

On the American side, both the public and, above all, the administration are more distrustful of Moscow than in the early 1970s. Kissinger, while never willing to concede full equality in fact to the Soviet Union, had been eager to concede it in words, in the hope of exploiting the Soviets’ ardent concern for recognition and respectability in order to change their behavior and reduce their influence. The Reagan administration saw the USSR as equal only in military power—i.e., as a threat; anything that smacked of an acknowledgement of “moral equivalence” was even more anathema than a recognition of de facto equality. The détente of the early 1970s, moreover, was part of a “grand design” (one reason why its architects could not resign themselves to admitting that détente had failed, until just before the 1976 election campaign). The pragmatism and disconnected nature of Reagan’s foreign policy both excludes great schemes and makes a recognition of failure in dealings with Moscow easier. But it also explains why a summit meeting with the new Soviet leader was not out of step. Only those supporters of Reagan who had believed that his dogmas were actually meant to become a policy felt cuckolded and anxious. Within the administration, the more moderate officials, such as Secretary Shultz, could not fail to be pleased; and the hard-liners around Secretary Weinberger realized that public relations both at home and abroad required at least a semblance of a dialogue.


The meeting in Geneva was the logical outcome of these trends and the widely different tactics of the two sides.

The tendency, in Western countries, to be on one’s guard against Soviet blandishment and “peace offensives” is so strong that the ability to recognize a serious change when there is one (a rare event indeed) seems lost. Commentators wrote about the Gorbachevs’ “new style” in public relations. They often failed to pay sufficient attention to the new Soviet approach to foreign policy, symbolized by the removal from the foreign ministry of the stolid and unimaginative Gromyko. Whether the new approach means a new set of goals in foreign policy is doubtful—the competitive relationship with Washington is clearly still the primary concern of Moscow. But there is more than a hint of a shift in emphasis—a shift from the expansion of influence abroad (a frustrating effort for both superpowers, in fact) to internal reform. Recent Soviet–American conversations about the future of Afghanistan may be one still fragile example of this.

And Soviet tactics have changed in three important ways. First, instead of merely waiting for and reacting to American arms control proposals, the Soviets have presented a comprehensive scheme of their own. Secondly, it is a scheme for drastic reduction in offensive weapons—something that they had rejected in the past, and that many Western observers deemed unlikely only a few months ago. Thirdly, they have shown considerable flexibility, both with the West Europeans and with the US, on matters where rigidity had long prevailed: on reducing the intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, and on possibilities of inspection. This and other novelties, such as Gorbachev’s acknowledgement of the European community as a legitimate political presence, show a remarkable and redoubtable understanding not only of public opinion but of political processes of decision in Western countries. (Georgi Arbatov’s grasp of American affairs can be felt in much of this.) Certainly the Soviet proposals had their full share of self-serving points and traps—Moscow’s permanent concern with protecting Soviet weapons developments and stopping new American ones was evident once more. But after all, these were proposals meant for bargaining.


Clearly, these innovations signaled the choice of a fairly fluid and long-term strategy: a desire to engage the US in a process where the very thing that Reagan had so often demanded—deep reductions in offensive weapons, rather than a mere cap on the arms race—would be obtainable by Washington, but in exchange for a drastic curb on SDI. How far Gorbachev could succeed in throwing a harness on Ronald Reagan at Geneva depended on circumstances beyond Gorbachev’s control. But the shift in the Soviets’ approach was sweeping enough to suggest that it was not meant to be a now-or-never attempt—that a failure to get Reagan hooked now would be treated not as a fiasco but as a first step. (The Soviet strategy was very similar to Gorbachev’s proposal to Mitterrand for separate talks about the French and British nuclear forces and the Soviet missiles aimed at Western Europe.)

The failure to reach an agreement at Geneva was caused, essentially, by two factors. The first is the disarray of the foreign policy and defense team of the administration. Its members were taken by surprise by the new Soviet skills, and not only did it take them a long time to react, but their divisions made them react with singular clumsiness. Five telling episodes marked this presummit internal battle. One was the long hesitation over whether to reply to the Soviets’ proposal for a 50 percent reduction in nuclear weapons with a comprehensive counter-proposal; it was resolved in the form of a plan that offered very little that was new. A second episode was the diversionary attempt at shifting attention from arms control to those issues of regional conflict such as Afghanistan that were thorns in the Soviet side; but the President’s UN speech was so blatantly one-sided and tactical that it fell flat. The third episode was the quarrel over the interpretation of the 1972 Soviet–American treaty limiting ABM systems—which the more hawkish US officials wanted to interpret as giving a green light to American SDI efforts, against the advice of the negotiators of the treaty and of the secretary of state.

The fourth episode was the famous Weinberger letter, summoning the President on the eve of his trip not to commit himself to observing the SALT II treaty or to any limitation on SDI. The fifth was the last-minute American proposal to ban mobile land-based missiles. This was a distinct victory for the hawks. It not only reversed the promise made by the President to Congress on the basis of the Scowcroft Commission report of 1983 (Congress would approve a limited number of huge, vulnerable MX missiles; the President would start constructing the mobile and therefore invulnerable single-warhead Midgetman). The proposal also could only be interpreted by the Soviets as an attempt at preventing them from developing invulnerable land-based missiles, and at providing a new justification for an American antiballistic missile defense system (since, without Midgetman, all American land-based missiles would be vulnerable unless defenses were set up).

Clearly, the administration remained divided, and the President did not resolve the contentious issues—either because there was not enough time between the Soviet offers of September–October and the summit or because he could not make up his own mind. Indeed, the second and decisive factor at Geneva was his own reluctance to curtail the SDI. Given this unwillingness, the apparent alliance between Reagan and his hard-liners to keep the SDI program intact frustrated his own desire for large cuts in offensive weapons, and frustrated those among his advisers who were willing to accept at least some hint of a bargain on SDI in exchange for such cuts.

The result of all these maneuvers was the Geneva exercise in deliberate ambiguity. Both sides wanted the appearance of success. Reagan knew he could obtain little on issues such as human rights or regional conflicts, and he interpreted the absence of any retreat on SDI as a victory. Gorbachev must have known since Shultz’s visit to Moscow that he would get nowhere on SDI and interpreted the resumption of dialogue as the beginning of a process. American commentators considered the summit a success for Reagan, because they concentrated on his own short-term, negative goal. But the Soviets are playing a longer game, whose outcome remains fascinatingly uncertain.


Where then do we go after Geneva? Two optimistic versions are not very convincing. Some believe that the long conversations between the two leaders must have been sobering and enlightening for both. Maybe—we shall see whether the shrill rhetoric of the past years fades away or not, and whether the administration chooses to sharpen or moderate regional conflicts in which the Soviets and their allies are involved. It is entirely possible that each man came away with a miscalculation. Reagan has several advisers who tell him that the Soviets came to Geneva because he “hung tough” on intermediate missiles and on SDI, and that further toughness would bring even greater concessions on their part. Unfortunately, this could be a non sequitur. The threat of SDI may—for the first time—have led the Soviets to offer reductions in existing forces against a promise by the US not to develop future systems of defense, but it does not follow at all that the Soviets will accept such reductions if we proceed with SDI.

Conversely, Gorbachev could have come away from Geneva believing that, between now and 1986 or 1987, “reality” will have penetrated Mr. Reagan’s mind, and the lure of an agreement on reductions in offensive systems would prevail over the Star Wars fantasy. This is far from certain—especially since the President’s fantasy is fed by advisers who do not in fact share it, but who use it as a clever way of preventing arms control, which they deem to serve only Soviet interests.

Another optimistic projection emphasizes the pressure that the deadline of June 1986—Gorbachev’s visit to Washington—will put on the arms negotiators of both sides. The trouble is that if they are left to themselves, without new instructions, they are unlikely to accomplish anything; and new instructions require high-level decisions. It may be that the Soviets will make further offers on offensive weapons that even the toughest American negotiators will have to find acceptable. Moscow’s new leaders may believe that should this happen, America’s allies, Europe, and the American public will force Reagan to bargain on SDI at last. Still, the decision to do so, ultimately, is Reagan’s—and it will require both a change of mind and a shake-up of the administration.

Thus one always returns to that remarkable concoction, SDI. Nobody knows what it really means. Some present SDI as an indispensable reply to Soviet progress in strategic defenses, even though it appears not to have gone much beyond traditional anti-aircraft defenses, the modernization of the antiballistic missile defense system around Moscow authorized by the 1972 treaty, and military research on new technologies, much of which seems to lag behind that of the US. Others see in SDI research mainly a hedge against Soviet exploitation of an eventual scientific or technological breakthrough. (The Soviets undoubtedly have the same concern.) Some see SDI as America’s trump card, the key to the superiority over Russia that has eluded us ever since the loss of the nuclear monopoly. Others see it as a program that both superpowers will and should ultimately develop. Mr. Reagan, almost alone, apparently sees in it a miraculous way of making nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence obsolete, of going back to the good old days of defense (which means American invulnerability). Many others see Reagan’s SDI as a locomotive that will stop at a much more familiar place—a system to defend landbased missiles, banned in 1972.

The vision put forth by the enthusiasts of SDI seems beyond science fiction—seven layers of defenses, a host of directed-energy and kinetic-energy weapons in space, rocket interceptors, clouds of pellets, electromagnetic guns, space satellite tracking sensors, etc. 1 And all of this, for what?

A few points appear irrefutable. First, nobody knows how effective such systems—untestable in anything like realistic wartime conditions—can be. Counter-measures can be conceived and developed for practically any variant, and the more limited versions (ballistic missile defenses) are those that appear most vulnerable to a mere increase in offensive weapons.

Second, while it is true that such defenses would—theoretically—provide a remedy for the vulnerability of America’s land-based missiles (and thus enhance deterrence), there are less expensive and dangerous ways of achieving this result (such as developing a mobile, single-warhead missile). And the fact that the destruction of America’s land-based missiles would not suffice to limit significantly the destruction that America’s retaliatory forces, including its nuclear submarines, could still inflict on the military or civilian targets in the Soviet Union makes the scenario of a Soviet first strike aimed at our land-based missiles highly unconvincing. Indeed, if we chose to abandon the 1972 treaty, the Soviets could probably more quickly provide defenses (of uncertain value) for their land-based missiles than we could for ours. This would complicate our ability to carry out a strike on their ICBMs more than we would complicate their own strategic plans (especially since more than three fourths of their arsenal still consists of ICBMs, but only about one quarter of ours).

Thirdly, any defensive system that would go beyond the protection of land-based missiles would make crises between the superpowers far more dangerous, for each side might fear that the other would be tempted to strike first, in the hope of overwhelming the enemy’s defenses and of blunting retaliation by use of its own defenses. Each side would have an incentive to “preempt” by attack on the other.

Fourth, even partially effective defenses would narrow the range of limited nuclear strikes each side might be able to carry on against targets in the other country. The very thing the President seems to dread most—planning for all-out nuclear war—thus becomes more rather than less likely. The loss of the more limited options would hurt the US (which has envisaged them in case of a Soviet conventional attack on NATO) more than the Soviets, who seem to have no plans for limited nuclear strikes against the US.

Fifth, there is no doubt that the pursuit of SDI would lead to a double arms race—in defensive systems, and in offensive ones—since the Soviets will do what we have done ourselves to protect our offensive capacity against their defensive efforts: they will increase and diversify their stock of offensive systems.

Sixth, even if we should develop, for the sake of the Europeans, defenses against medium- and short-range Soviet missiles, SDI risks undermining NATO’s strategy. The US would be unable to protect its allies and its own nuclear installations in Europe against Soviet bombers and cruise missiles while the Soviet defenses could protect Soviet targets against limited uses of nuclear weapons by the US (or by the French and British). The result would be the worst possible combination of forces to deter or limit conventional war in Europe. Seventh, as the British foreign secretary remarked in his remarkable speech of March 15, 1985, SDI would leave the security of mankind even more at the mercy of sensors and computers than do the nuclear forces of today.2

The fact is that nuclear deterrence has proved to be far less “delicate,” far more sturdy, than critics have been predicting. There are, to be sure, serious reasons for worry about deterrence. One is the vulnerability of part of the nuclear forces; but, as I have said, there are other ways of coping with it than building vulnerable defenses. Another is the possibility that a major conventional war would turn sour for one of the superpowers and thus lead to “limited” but uncontrollable nuclear strikes. Another is the fragility of civilian control of nuclear weapons in times of crisis.

The way to deal with these risks, and indeed with all the threats to the stability of deterrence, is through politics—through efforts at preventing crises and at negotiating arms control agreements that would both eliminate, should a crisis break out, any incentive for a preemptive strike and provide the rivals with the kind of forces that allow civilian leaders to delay possibly fatal decisions. Star Wars itself is a major threat to stable deterrence—it is neither a reinforcement of such deterrence nor a replacement. It is a technological delusion, one more attempt to avoid the uncertainties and complexities of politics by taking refuge in a simple, radical fix. It is the worst kind of escapism—the dream of substituting the “science” of computers and laser beams for the agonizing decisions leaders currently have to make in times of trouble.

Of course it can be argued, as the recent report of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment put it, that

ballistic missile defense deployments at any level would be very much less likely to destabilize the strategic nuclear competition if they could be coordinated in advance by explicit agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union.3

But there is a vicious circle here: these deployments will be stabilizing only if the two sides also agree not to increase the offensive forces that could overwhelm the defenses. But an agreement on such a halt (or reduction) in offensive forces seems possible only if they give up the defensive race. An agreement to defend the remaining vulnerable land-based missiles after a reduction in offensive forces could, as the congressional report says, lead to a more stable relationship between the superpowers if this agreement could specify the ballistic missile defense system designs for each side that “would not exceed the BMD capabilities agreed to.” But “no one has as yet specified in any detail just how such an arms control agreement could be formulated” and verified.

Should we come close to such a deal, American hawks might warn against allowing the Soviets to safeguard most of their ballistic missiles. They would point out the contradiction between NATO’s strategy of threatening a first use of nuclear weapons to deter a Soviet attack on Europe and an agreement providing immunity for the Soviet Union’s most precious weapons. At present, the Soviets seem to fear that, given the unlikelihood that Washington would share its most advanced technology with Moscow, any such “agreement” could in fact give in the long run an advantage to the US, unless it is stringent and specific in what it allows and what it excludes. And if there is no agreement at all, they clearly fear: a) the general advantages the US could gain, even in civilian industries, from its huge scientific effort (just as the US feared the “Sputnik effects”); b) the specific combination of a huge first-strike offensive push going forward (including the MX, the new accurate warheads on the other ICBMs, the D5 submarines, the Stealth bomber, the Pershing II, etc.) while America’s defenses become capable of blunting Soviet retaliation. And so the high cost of Soviet offensive or defensive countermeasures would come just at the time when the other rival—China—is forging ahead through economic reform.

Are then those Americans right who see in the SDI a way to superiority? The Soviets—used to suffering, and particularly good at crash, single-goal programs for which a command economy is far better fitted than for consumer goods—are unlikely to decline the challenge and to give up the race. The ultimate costs are likely to be astronomical both for us and for them. Their long-term predicament may be worse than ours; but our shortterm constraints in carrying out such a vast and controversial project are serious too when we consider the budget deficit, the fears of our allies, the ambivalence of the American public. And for the American political system, it is the short term that matters.

This is probably what Gorbachev counts on, but he too will face formidable problems. A second summit meeting that ended like the first would put him in great difficulty: if SDI continues full speed, the Soviets will have to allocate more resources to the military in order not to fall behind. At a minimum, the June summit in Washington would have to provide clarification on the very points on which Mr. Weinberger wanted no bargaining: the future of the SALT II limitations (the treaty—unratified but observed—expires December 31, 1985) and the interpretation of the ABM treaty.


May we, then, look forward to a Washington meeting that accomplishes what Geneva could not, i.e., defining precise guidelines for negotiations, so that a set of agreements would be ready for the Moscow summit of 1987? Guidelines for agreements to reduce offensive weapons should not be difficult to lay down. But what about SDI? Two approaches are conceivable. The more ambitious one would instruct the negotiators to draw a detailed line between research and development. What is involved is either a ban on testing, or a definition of what can be tested and what cannot (at which point the thorny issues of anti-satellite weapons and of defenses against tactical ballistic missiles will reappear: there is no ban on them currently, but testing such weapons is an excellent way of preparing for strategic antiballistic defenses). Clearly, any such instructions would require an American willingness to curtail SDI quite drastically. A more modest approach would be to decide only which of the fifteen planned SDI tests and experiments are compatible with the ABM treaty.4 But even this entails a willingness not only to settle for a reasonably restrictive interpretation of the treaty, but to produce “interim” guidelines that would have a good chance of becoming definitive or of shaping the future that lies beyond these fifteen tests.

One can count both on the enemies of arms control and on the enthusiasts of the Star Wars scheme for its own sweet sake (or for its scientific and industrial spinoffs) to strengthen the President’s reluctance to part with his fantasy. And yet the choice is near: on the one hand we may have the first radical arms reduction agreement, one that could prepare for further deals restructuring the nuclear forces of both sides in more stable ways. Such an agreement would be made at the cost of giving up the wilder and more dangerous prospects of SDI but with the added benefit of improving relations between the superpowers at a time when both have strong incentives to act with more restraint abroad. On the other hand, we may have unlimited and ruinous arms races, in a deteriorating political climate—not only between Washington and Moscow, but between the US and its allies, which fear the ultimate strategic and political consequences of Star Wars at least as much as they relish the crumbs Washington is likely to concede to their companies in developing SDI.

Will President Reagan finally make a choice? And if he does not, or makes the wrong one, will Gorbachev be able to remain flexible and pretend, until after the end of the Reagan administration, that a positive trend is being followed? Reason makes one want to believe that a summit in 1986 will not repeat the standoff of Geneva in 1985, and so achieve worse results. Hope makes one want to believe that Gorbachev would in such a case play for time (rather than be guided by fear that the momentum of SDI could be unstoppable by 1989). The experience of the past forty years—when so many promising summits were followed by new crises—makes one skeptical. The question is whether, for once, the skeptics will be proved wrong.

This Issue

January 16, 1986