Address to the participants of the conference by ex-President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev

Dear conference participants,

First of all, I want to welcome you—the veterans of politics and diplomacy, eminent academics, and authoritative experts—who have gathered within the framework of the Luxembourg Forum in connection with an important and serious date: the thirtieth anniversary of the meeting of the heads of the USSR and United States in Reykjavik.

This date is not just a reason to recollect that historic event, but also to contemplate seriously on both the present and future. I think that this is especially important in the present, troubled time. And I want to share my worries and thoughts about what can and must be done now in order to return to the objectives that were set in Reykjavik.

I remember well both the meeting with President Reagan itself and the events which preceded it. In the summer of 1986, I had been feeling increasingly disturbed over the course of events. The “spirit of Geneva” had somehow disappeared, i.e. the spirit of our first summit at which the United States president and I had declared: a nuclear war is impermissible; there could be no winner of such a war; and our countries would not strive for military superiority.

You see, if all that had been true, then that declaration should have been followed by decisive steps to end the nuclear arms race and brisk progress in negotiations. But that did not happen. Our countries’ respective delegations continued to negotiate in Geneva as a matter of routine, but they were getting bogged down in technical details.

The stagnation in the talks on nuclear disarmament also impacted our relations as a whole. We were getting the impression that they were falling back into the rut of the Cold War. We saw that there were quite a lot of people in Washington who wished to test our patience and endurance.Thus, we saw American ships entering our territorial waters, hostile rhetoric, etc.

Neither the letter I had received from President Reagan, nor the draft response prepared in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave grounds for optimism. The talks needed a strong impulse from the highest level.Such an impulse could only have been given jointly. A meeting of the heads of the two countries was necessary.

Thus, in the letter I sent in response, I offered to meet with the president somewhere halfway between Moscow and Washington, in London or Reykjavik. And it was good that the reply to that offer was fast and positive. But just agreeing to meet is not even half of the work. The important part was to come to the meeting with proposals that could open up the way to a breakthrough. Such was the task assigned to our experts. The Politburo supported such an approach. After discussing the situation, we adopted a certain concept that was enshrined in the directives with which I went to Reykjavik.

The main idea was to simplify the structure of the agreement and reduce all components of the strategic arms triad by 50 percent. Among other things, we were prepared to reduce heavy land-based missiles by 50 percent. The United States had viewed those missiles as “the most destabilizing” from the very beginning. We were prepared to reduce intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles to zero.

But it should be obvious that by stopping the race for strategic arms, we were assuming that this was not to be the beginning of an arms race in outer space and in missile defense.

I will not go into detail about how the talks with the president went. The records of those talks were made public. You know that the experts led by Akhromeyev and Nitze worked through the night and found many points upon which they could agree on the basis of our constructive position.

It impressed me that during our discussions, President Reaganspoke decisively, and, I believe, sincerely, of the need to save the world from weapons of mass destruction and from all types of nuclear weapons. This is where we found ourselves on common ground.

But we did not manage to execute an agreement on these issues. The president wanted not only to continue the SDI program, but also to get our approval for the deployment of a global missile defense system. I could not agree to that.

I will admit that when President Reagan and I parted, we were not in the best of moods. But Secretary of State Schultz was nevertheless jumping to conclusions when, just before the flight departure from the airport, he called our summit unsuccessful, a failure. I knew that he had said this when I entered the hall where a press conference was to be held. Looking a hundred journalists in the eyes, I told myself that we do not have the right to disappoint people and deprive them of the hope for an end to the arms race. That is why I said that we not only had been able to agree on many specific issues, but we took a look beyond the horizon and set the goal of destroying nuclear weapons on the practical level. This is the position that I maintain to this day.

Much has occurred since then. The unprecedented agreements on intermediate-range and shorter-range nuclear weapons and on tactical weapons made it possible to reduce and destroy thousands of units of nuclear weapons—over 80 percent of Cold War arsenals. That process is continuing in the framework of the New START treaty.

But we cannot be satisfied with the current situation. The window to a nuclear-free world, first opened in Reykjavik, is being shut and locked before our eyes.

New types of nuclear weapons are being created. Their qualitative specifications are expanding. Missile defense systems are being deployed. “Prompt conventional strike” capabilities, which compare to weapons of mass destruction in terms of the risks they present, are being developed. The nuclear powers’ military doctrines have been changed for the worse. They expand the “acceptable bounds” of the use of nuclear weapons. The danger of nuclear weapons proliferation has grown to a large extent for this reason.

Worst of all is that a collapse of trust has taken place in recent years in relations between the leading powers. These are the powers which, according to the UN Charter, bear primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. These powers, as before, possess immense stores of nuclear weapons and must reduce them, all the way to the point of their destruction. No one ever canceled this commitment in the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is with great alarm that I must speak of the militarization of international relations.It was not yesterday, or even two years ago, that this alarm began. It was a retreat from the principles we had formulated together and which had made it possible to put an end to the Cold War.

The problems and conflicts of the past two decades could just as well have been resolved through peaceful, political, and diplomatic means. But the chosen means for their resolution has been the use of force. This has happened in the former Yugoslavia, in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. I want to emphasize that it did not lead to a resolution of the problems. It resulted in a weakening of international law, the undermining of trust, the militarization of politics and thinking, and a cult of force.

In these conditions, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of movement toward a nuclear-free world.We must acknowledge this honestly. Until world politics return to a course of normality, until international relations are demilitarized, the goal that we set jointly in Reykjavik will be drifting away rather than getting closer.

A dialogue is needed to change this condition.The practical rejection of dialogue over the past two years was the chief mistake. It has long been time to renew it across the agenda without restricting ourselves to the discussion of regional problems on which differences exist.

In the years when we terminated the Cold War, we recognized that besides national and other interests, there are common interests, and primarily the prevention of nuclear war. We set our priorities according to those interests. At present, our common interests and tasks are a further reduction of nuclear weapons, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, the struggle against terrorism, the prevention of environmental catastrophe, and the overcoming of poverty and backwardness. Those tasks should be advanced to the forefront once again. Moving forward in the resolution of those tasks will change the atmosphere and make it possible to begin to reestablish trust.

I would not like my words to sound pessimistic. I am convinced that the leaders of world politics have a chance to return politics to a constructive course and thereby clear the way to a nuclear-free world. That is how we—veterans of politics, civil society, academics, and everyone who is not indifferent—should pose the question today. This is what we must call our leaders to.

I wish for your discussion to be fertile and for it to facilitate the shifts toward the better that are so terribly needed now and which, I am sure, are possible.

Mikhail Gorbachev
June 1, 2016