2020 - 2021 Modern Volume 14

Reykjavik 1986: The ‘Doomed Summit’ that Ended the Cold War

By Anna Cooper

The legacy of the summit that defined a political ideology that still influences our present.

Both the United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR) deemed the 1986 Reykjavik summit an immense failure. Negotiations broke down in the final hours, which prevented the removal of all nuclear weapons from the two superpowers and continued to allow the presence of missiles in Europe. The leaders of the two nations left Hofdi House in Reykjavik looking bitterly disappointed; Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the USSR, described the meeting as “a failure. A failure when we were very close.” However, this ‘doomed summit’ was actually a moment of hope in the long-term as it was crucial to the end of the Cold War. The agreements led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in December 1988, and was the first time when serious peace discussions occurred between the US and USSR. Therefore this summit, whilst feeling hopeless at the time, was the first step in ending decades of fear and hope for a new era of peace. 

The Reykjavik event was a watershed moment for how international relations were accomplished worldwide. It was the first time that the two largest superpowers in the world discussed international issues with diplomacy and a real desire for improvement. “Reykjavik has become a symbol of sorts – an example that nuclear disarmament is within reach as long as political leaders have courage to make such a decision and break through bureaucratic politics and the maze of arcane nuclear balance theories,” declares Nikolai Sokov, who worked at the USSR Ministry of Foreign Relations. The summit was the first example of a new way to discuss international relations, even between opposing nations. Reykjavik was the keystone in a series of anti-nuclear talks between the US and USSR. These summits were significant examples of a new era of cooperation between nations; “[T]he summits will stand forever as models of cooperation and accomplishments,” states Rosanne Ridgeway, who was US Assistant Secretary for European Affairs.

Furthermore, Reykjavik immensely changed the way the two superpowers could discuss global issues. It created a line of communication that allowed discussion of all sorts of issues without the need to wait for a summit meeting. This was a momentous change that allowed many issues to be solved more quickly and efficiently. The nations also agreed to a total exchange of data, which had been in the works since 1969. Therefore allowing much more open and efficient discussion between the two countries, and their two spheres of influence, granting honest discussion between nations across the globe.

The conference marked a significant change in policy for both countries that allowed successful future negotiations. Human rights issues, such as the restrictions on Soviet Jews from emigrating to Israel, were solved. As were debates on the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. As Ridgeway argues, “there were many issues discussed and agreements reached in Reykjavik, which have never been given much attention.” 

The Reykjavik summit also highlighted the significance of Gorbachev as a reformist and global leader. Gorbachev is often referred to as the man who ‘destroyed the Soviet Union’, or who failed to reform his country and allowed it to fall into an oligarchy. Yet, Gorbachev was truly an influential reformer and politician that helped to create global politics as we know it today. This can be seen in his actions in the Reykjavik summit. 

Reykjavik showcased Gorbachev’s intense desire to end the Cold War tensions and bring global peace. Gorbachev had been pushing for nuclear disarmament since early 1985, as soon as he came into power. He was the driving force behind the Reykjavik conference occurring, and publicly called for a world free of nuclear weapons by the year 2000, demonstrating his priority of bringing peace. These aims were particularly difficult to get through the leadership in the USSR, and Gorbachev’s resilience on ending the Cold War is often underestimated, when he had to push much harder than Reagan due to the Soviet system. “I think Gorbachev, at every step, had to hold off people who did not agree with where he was taking the Soviet Union”, mentions Ridgeway, signifying the intense opposition to Gorbachev’s foreign reforms. Moreover, Reykjavik ignited a hope in the USSR that Gorbachev’s reform policies would become reality. He had successfully changed the USSR’s foreign policy to accommodate peace talks with the US, after decades of bloody battle. Therefore, Gorbachev allowed the population of the USSR to finally believe that true democratisation and economic growth could be achieved also. Jonathan Steele, a British journalist, describes Gorbachev as “the man who did more than any other to change Europe and the world in the last half of the 20th century.”

The Reykjavik summit of 1986 seemed like a painful disappointment by the end of the negotiations, as no definitive agreement had been reached. Yet, its influence brought hope across the world at an end to the Cold War and a new era of international cooperation. It was the first, pivotal step in securing peace and protection from nuclear war.