Foreign Policy Blogs

Reykjavik: What Almost Was


This past Friday, October 7th, was the 25th anniversary of the summit meeting of then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was a meeting that now-famously almost led to an agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to completely abolish nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, that did not come to pass. Since that time, the Reykjavik summit meeting has become emblematic of what almost was, and what could have been. It also reinforced something most did not acknowledge at the time: that, despite all the saber-rattling, President Reagan really did believe in nuclear disarmament.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of that historic event, Thomas Blanton and Svetlana Savranskaya of National Security Archive at George Washington University have written a fascinating piece for Arms Control Today on the Reykjavik summit. They write that “Transcripts show that the actual positions and aspirations of the two leaders were very close. In fact, their ultimate dreams, the total elimination of nuclear weapons, were identical.” The authors note that the irony of Reykjavik’s failure – disagreement over limits on the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – is that SDI had been proven not to work. It was a paper tiger. “What were they so worried about? The SDI still does not work, more than 20 years and tens of billions of dollars later.”

By way of background, Arms Control Association director Daryl Kimball provides a couple of previous ACA pieces on Reykjavik in his press release on the article.

As an aside, I had the opportunity to visit the modest cottage where the two Cold War leaders met, along with Soviet Foreign Minister and later, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George Schultz, while running a small program on nonproliferation several years ago. An exhibit has been set up by the Icelandic government to commemorate the summit meeting. A small-ish table ringed by several well-worn leather chairs was one of the few physical testaments to its occurrence, along with some photos and other remembrances. Unfortunately, Reagan and Gorbachev left the world some less innocuous memories from that meeting: a somewhat reduced yet still extant nuclear weapons arsenal. But the more important “leave behind” from Reykjavik is that, with vision and political will, getting to zero can become a reality.

 

Author

Jodi Lieberman
Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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