Geneva Summit of 1985

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A summit meeting of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took place in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 1920, 1985. It was the first summit meeting of the two men, and indeed of any American and Soviet leaders in six years. Relations between the two countries had become much more tense after the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 1979, and the election a year later of an American president critical of the previous era of détente and disposed to mount a sharp challenge, even a crusade, against the leaders of an evil empire. However, by 1985 President Reagan was ready to meet with a new Soviet leader and test the possibility of relaxing tensions.

Although the Geneva Summit did not lead to any formal agreements, it represented a successful engagement of the two leaders in a renewed dialogue, and marked the first step toward several later summit meetings and a gradual significant change in the relationship of the two countries. Both Reagan and Gorbachev placed a high premium on direct personal encounter and evaluation, and they developed a mutual confidence that helped steer national policies.

Gorbachev argued strongly at Geneva for a reconsideration of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or Star Wars), but to no avail. He did, however, obtain agreement to a joint statement that the two countries would "not seek to achieve military superiority" (as well as reaffirmation that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought"). This joint statement was given some prominence in Soviet evaluations of the summit, and was used by Gorbachev in his redefinition of Soviet security requirements. Although disappointed at Reagan's unyielding stance on SDI, Gorbachev had come to realize that it represented a personal moral commitment by Reagan and was not simply a scheme of the American military-industrial complex.

The Geneva summit not only established a personal bond between Reagan and Gorbachev, but for the first time involved Reagan fully in the execution of a strategy for diplomatic reengagement with the Soviet Union, a strategy that Secretary of State George Schultz had been advocating since 1983 despite the opposition of a number of members of the administration. For Gorbachev, the summit signified recognition by the leader of the other super-power. Although it was too early to predict the consequences, in retrospect it became clear that the renewed dialogue at the highest level would in time lead to extraordinary changes, ultimately contributing to the end of the Cold War.

See also: cold war; strategic defense initiative; united states, relations with


Garthoff, Raymond L. (1994). The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Shultz, George P. (1993). Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Raymond L. Garthoff