Courtesy Reuters

After the Summit: Reykjavik and Beyond

The late summer and autumn of 1986 were a busy, confusing and dramatic period in Soviet-American relations. Within four months, the tone and substance of communications between Washington and Moscow oscillated sharply between conciliation and acrimony. At issue was whether there would be a second meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. If summitry futures had been traded like commodities, fortunes would have been made and lost. The two leaders themselves engaged in a kind of arbitrage, trying to make quick political profits from the swings of the market.

In July and August Reagan and Gorbachev exchanged letters, and each dispatched delegations of arms control experts to the other’s capital. Momentum seemed to be building toward a summit in Washington at the end of the year. Then an American journalist was arrested in Moscow. Suddenly the mood soured, and the momentum slowed. But in the midst of what turned out to be a minor crisis, Reagan and Gorbachev made clear first to each other and then to the world that they were determined to proceed with the business between them. They agreed to hold a meeting, which quickly became one of the most extraordinary encounters in the history of relations between their countries, perhaps in the annals of high-level diplomacy.

The two-day meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, on October 11-12, 1986, broke with virtually all the precedents of U.S.-Soviet relations. There were scarcely any preparations. The meeting that took place was entirely different from the one the Americans had expected. They had anticipated not a full-fledged summit but, in President Reagan’s words, "the last base camp" on the way to a Washington summit. Yet the agenda turned out to be much broader, and the issues discussed far more consequential, than even those the Americans had envisioned for the anticipated full summit itself.

In some obvious ways the Reykjavik meeting was a failure. At least in the short term, it derailed the summit process and dramatized the fragility of the U.

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