Reagan and Gorbachev at the Geneva Summit, November 19-20, 1985.

Reagan and Gorbachev: Superpower Summitry

Forty years ago, U.S. nuclear power was indispensable in ending World War II. In the postwar era, American nuclear superiority was indispensable in deterring Soviet probes that might have led to World War III. But that era is over, and we live in the age of nuclear parity, when each superpower has the means to destroy the other and the rest of the world.

In these strategic circumstances, summit meetings between leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union have become essential if peace is to be preserved. Such meetings will contribute to the cause of peace, however, only if both leaders recognize that tensions between the two nations are due not to the fact that we do not understand each other but to the fact that we do understand that we have diametrically opposed ideological and geopolitical interests. Most of our differences will never be resolved. But the United States and the Soviet Union have one major goal in common: survival. Each has the key to the other’s survival. The purpose of summit meetings is to develop rules of engagement that could prevent our profound differences from bringing us into armed conflict that could destroy us both.

With this limited but crucially important goal in mind, we must disabuse ourselves from the start of the much too prevalent view that if only the two leaders, as they get to know each other, could develop a new "tone" or a new "spirit" in their relationship, our problems would be solved and tensions reduced. If history is any guide, evaluating a summit meeting in terms of the "spirit" it produces is evidence of failure rather than success. The spirits of Geneva in 1955, of Camp David in 1959, of Vienna in 1961 and of Glassboro in 1967 each produced a brief improvement in the atmosphere, but no significant progress on resolving major issues. Spirit and tone matter only when two leaders of nations with similar interests have a misunderstanding that can be resolved

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