REYKJAVIK – and why it still matters

Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev and former US President Ronald
Reagan were on the verge of abolishing nuclear weapons


Opinion by Dr James Wilkie


Scottish News: Reykjavik - and why it still matters


Imagine a world without nuclear weapons. Where there is no more fear that bombs on hair-trigger alert might be launched by accident or miscalculation.  Or that the thousands of arms stored in global nuclear arsenals might be used, unleashing forces powerful enough to destroy our planet many times over. The threat of terrorists obtaining these weapons of mass destruction no longer exists. And while the term Nuclear Superpower is now redundant, the trillions of dollars formerly spent on maintaining nuclear arsenals have been diverted to education, health and development.  Impossible?  Well, a quarter of a century ago that dream nearly became reality.

In October 1986 at the Reykjavik summit in Iceland, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came close to abolishing all nuclear weapons.  Although the highest goal was not achieved, the Reykjavik summit led to the abolition of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and helped put nuclear disarmament back on the agenda. 

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A year after meeting for the first time in Geneva, Reagan and Gorbachev met informally for two days in Reykjavik to prepare the way for a full summit meeting in Washington the following year.

The Reykjavik meeting, however, turned out to be far more momentous than Reagan had anticipated. Gorbachev, who was a year into reforming the Soviet Union following his election as General Secretary, brought to Reykjavik a full portfolio of proposals. He hoped to limit and even end the nuclear arms race that had threatened the world since the 1950s, and which was draining the Soviet Union of the money Gorbachev needed to instigate urgently needed reforms.

In two days of passionate debate in Reykjavik, the leaders of the world’s two superpowers, both of them men from outside the inner circles of their governments, came close to agreeing to pursue the total abolition of all the nuclear weapons in the world. They failed to reach the highest goal, but their one-on-one “pre-summit” at Reykjavik is remembered as their most historically significant meeting.

Today, that iconic meeting of the world’s two most powerful men is regarded as pivotal in disarmament history.  At United Nations HQ Vienna (the largest of the four main UN HQ complexes) the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is now turning the spotlight once again on the Reykjavik summit in its ongoing campaign to re-energise the drive for the total elimination of all the world’s nuclear weapons.  The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans nuclear explosions anywhere in the world, is an important part of that process, because it halts the further development of atomic weapons. Ambassador Tibor Tóth, the Hungarian diplomat who is Executive Secretary of the CTBTO, says:

“In the current political climate, which is still clouded by nuclear threats, revisiting Reykjavik is a reminder that strong leadership, with political will and vision, can act to make nuclear disarmament breakthroughs.  It is time for the world’s leaders to heed Reykjavik’s message.  In particular, those of the eight remaining countries whose ratifications are needed to bring the Treaty into force.”


To that end, the CTBTO organised a staged reading of the play “Reykjavik” on 27 September 2012 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York.

 Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes, “Reykjavik” is a dramatic reconstruction of those two intense days of debate, drawing extensively on the actual transcripts of the Reykjavik meeting as well as on the memoirs of both Reagan and Gorbachev.  The play distills their conflict, their unlikely friendship and their visionary hopes into one hour of compelling theatre.

Rhodes says that, while he was researching the Reykjavik files for the third of his four volumes of nuclear history, Arsenals of Folly, he was struck by the drama of the meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev.  He decided to try his hand at converting the transcripts into a stage play.  His researches brought up some very revealing historical facts:

“Besides the inherent drama of the dialogue between the two leaders, I was surprised to discover significant discrepancies between the Soviet transcript in Russian (which I had translated) and the U.S. transcript in English. President Reagan's aides were not at all happy that he raised the question of nuclear abolition with Secretary Gorbachev, and someone among them actually deleted the President's references to abolition from the transcript. Fortunately, the President's words remained in the Russian version, which was a more literal transcription of what was said,”

With the files on the Reykjavik negotiations now declassified, those associated with the summit are able to speak freely, which they did after the play in a panel discussion before an invited audience of senior diplomats and political leaders. 
Mikhail Gorbachev himself opened the discussion with a video message from Moscow: 

“Twenty-five years ago many believed that it was impossible to put an end to confrontation, to stop the arms race and to begin eliminating the huge stockpiles of weapons of war. Yet the leaders of the two nuclear powers had the political will to act, and the process got under way despite all obstacles.”

[Watch Gorbachev's interview ]

So, what happened, and why did the results of the Reykjavik summit not go the whole way to at least a decision in principle to phase out all nuclear weapons instead of just intermediate-range carriers?  The answer is that there were people on both sides who would have been large-scale losers by it.  The Americans in particular were investing billions in their new Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) colloquially known as “Star Wars”, for the interception and destruction of incoming missiles, a project that was bidding fair to alter the entire balance of power.

Whatever Gorbachev’s personal feelings may have been, when the SDI was thrown into the ring he was in no position to make a move if that project was likely to succeed.  In fact, the SDI never did work, but by this stage the military-industrial complexes on both sides were taking an acute interest in the proceedings.  There was no point in the SDI with its fat contracts if no enemy rockets were liable to appear over the horizon.  Professor Roald Sagdeev, expert on plasma physics and Gorbachev’s scientific adviser:

“I remember Gorbachev wanted to be confident that the SDI would never work. He accepted arguments in favour of this conclusion from the science side and from the military leadership. However, military industrialists kept trying to change his mind.  For me and many of my colleagues there was no surprise that SDI did not graduate from the laboratory. Even today those who hurry to move missile defences out of Research and Development to deployment are at risk of cheating their taxpayers.”

The grimace on Reagan’s face as he and Gorbachev finally exited the conference centre telegraphed disappointment, but it was not until US Secretary of State George Shultz's news conference that reporters understood how far the two sides had gone in their discussions, and how the talks had broken down in the end without the ultimate agreement.


Reykjavik:  Still waiting for a new tomorrow

Today, the Reykjavik summit is seen as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. When that day finally dawned in the early 1990s, much of the fear of a catastrophic global conflict disappeared amid hopes that nuclear weapons would now be abolished once and for all.

Morton H. Halperin, adviser on military affairs and arms control to the US Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations, saw the issues clearly:

 “The summit reflected agreement that nuclear weapons could not be used and that neither country needed them for its security.  It thus created the possibility for a world without nuclear weapons.”

But although huge cuts have been made to the more than 65,000 nuclear warheads that existed at the time of Reykjavik, in recent years negotiations have become mired in political stalemate, with the result that today there are still as many as 20,000 nuclear warheads in the world – an estimated 18,000 of them in the arsenals of the United States and Russia.  With some 4,000 warheads deployed on carrier missiles and ready to be launched at a moment’s notice, the threat to the world is critical.  At the same time, as global economies falter, the costs of maintaining these arsenals amount to billions of dollars.  As Mikhail Gorbachev says at the end of his interview:

“It is strange, really strange that some people still think about nuclear weapons in terms of deterrence – that the positive role of nuclear weapons is that they deter. I have to say that this is not serious, if you look at the big picture. So when we talk about nuclear weapons and what’s to be done about them, the answer is to get rid of them.”

Philip Taubman, who covered the Reykjavik summit for the New York Times, has no illusions about the present situation:

The public, by and large, has lost interest in nuclear issues, largely due to the mistaken perception that the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union ended the threat of nuclear attack.  That is far from so.  As President Obama has said, the risk of a global nuclear war has receded, but the threat of a nuclear attack has increased.  The biggest threat today is a nuclear 9/11, or a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India. Politicians and the press need to do a better job of informing the public about today's nuclear threats.” 

During the Cold War, the two superpowers could make important bilateral agreements and could persuade other states to join multilateral treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on which they reached agreement.  Now the consent of many more nations is required.  In addition, ratification of treaties in the United States has become much more difficult.  With President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton both having expressed themselves in favour of universal abolition, the US Senate remains the principal stumbling block to the ratification of the CTB Treaty, while others like the Chinese are awaiting the US ratification before making their own.

Max Kampelman, US diplomat, educator and lawyer, was chief arms control negotiator for all summit meetings between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, including Reykjavik:

“In my opinion the United States and Russia should jointly declare their willingness to eliminate their nuclear weapons as part of an effective commitment, via the United Nations.  The United States and Russia, together, have the capacity to rid the world of nuclear weapons and arrive at a world-wide zero.”

Reykjavik: The Epilogue

More than 25 years later, the drama of the Reykjavik summit and its potential to fundamentally change the course of history can reignite the human imagination and inspire hopes for a nuclear weapons-free future.  A starting point for that would be the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.  Morton Halperin puts it thus:

“Bringing the CTBT into force is the highest priority, because it will signal global acceptance of the notion that nuclear weapons cannot be used and are not necessary to provide security.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, the world’s Elder Statesman, is clear on what the priorities are:  

“Political will, new vision and new thinking. I don’t know how anyone, any country can plan for the future if it still envisions the possibility of the outbreak of nuclear war and the use of nuclear weapons. We have to say it loud and clear.”


Dr Wilkie is a retired Scottish diplomat and chairman of the Scottish Democratic Alliance.




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published this page in Blog 2012-11-13 14:20:24 +0000