As wave after wave of photographers swept through the 12th-floor penthouse party room in the United States mission to the United Nations in New York, the five Western leaders present for a working lunch with President Ronald Reagan seemed subdued. Only Prime Minister Brian Mulroney—fresh from his well-received UN maiden speech—attempted to crack the ice. Bantering with journalists, he laughingly said that Reagan had refused to respond to some questions on the World Series in the interests of “alliance solidarity.” Taking place just three hours after Reagan had delivered a sternly worded speech to the UN General Assembly accusing the Soviets of expansionism in five Third World regions, Mulroney’s baseball reference provided a note of labored, levity.
Four weeks before Reagan’s widely heralded first meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Mulroney’s remark also indicated the determination of the leaders of Britain, West Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada to demonstrate a united front. Even Italy’s Bettino Craxi declared that, despite his recent disagreements with Washington over the Achille Lauro hijacking affair, he too will support Washington’s position at the meeting. And West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl lightly declared that he would not hold a grudge after he was nearly run down in the wake of Reagan’s lengthy motorcade while he was strolling outside the UN on Thursday.
But behind that public display of unity there was a more varied range of positions. Many European diplomats said privately later that many of their governments were disappointed by the President’s unwillingness to use his platform as the keynote speaker in the UN’s 40th-anniversary celebrations to respond concretely to recent Soviet arms-control proposals. In the process, they said, he may have lost the chance to gain an advantage in the battle for world opinion.
Indeed, other world leaders attending the UN birthday event —under no constraints to support Washington —said that Reagan’s attempt to shift the Geneva summit’s focus from arms control to regional trouble spots may not succeed. They added that instead of heralding the “fresh start” in U.S.-Soviet relations that Reagan’s speech urged, his attempt to link arms control to progress in solving disputes in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua may sour the atmosphere at Geneva. Declared Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, a leader of the non-aligned nations: “Regional conflicts can be sorted out at other levels. Disarmament cannot.”
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze—who had just flown in from a two-day Warsaw Pact summit in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia-refused to join in the polite but extended applause for Reagan’s 29-minute address. The previous night, after a U.S. military helicopter whisked Shevardnadze from his Aeroflot jet to a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Secretary of State George Shultz provided the Soviet minister with an advance copy of the President’s text. But addressing the General Assembly only two hours after Reagan, Shevardnadze shifted attention back to arms control with an attack on the U.S. spacebased strategic defence system popularly known as Star Wars.
Shevardnadze acknowledged the suffering caused by numerous “small wars.” But he indirectly cited U.S. involvement in the Middle East, South Africa and Nicaragua, adding, “The bullets of hired assassins, the ‘dushmans’ [Afghan rebels] and the ‘contras,’ are killing thousands of people.”
Even leaders of states not directly involved in the superpower contest said that Reagan should have taken a more balanced approach. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, for one, said that Reagan had failed to name regional conflict where U.S. troops were engaged, and he said the President should also have referred to the conflicts in El Salvador and South Africa.
Other leaders welcomed the President’s uncompromising statement. President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan said that Reagan’s speech was one of the finest he has ever heard.
And Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang applauded the President’s proposal for resolving regional conflicts—a three-point plan that would begin with direct talks between the combatants and lead to superpower support for peace settlements.
For the White House, Reagan’s address represented a major opportunity to regain the initiative in influencing world opinion. Recently, both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West Germany’s Kohl had told the President that Gorbachev’s propaganda campaign had effectively depicted Moscow as more willing than Washington to reach an arms accord. In a private meeting Wednesday Thatcher urged Reagan to unveil a new arms control proposal of his own.
Instead, Reagan and his advisers chose to broaden the focus of East-West tensions beyond disarmament. Behind that approach was a concern among some Reaganites that, because of inflated public hopes for the Geneva sum-
mit, a failure to produce substantive agreement on arms control could harm the President. For the UN occasion the White House called in former presidential speechwriter Kenneth Khachigian, who had drafted Reagan’s politically risky address at the former BergenBelsen concentration camp site during his controversial German visit last May.
But the real signature upon the UN speech belonged to former president Richard Nixon, who was consulted extensively by the President’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane. In a current article in the journal Foreign Affairs, Nixon said that Geneva’s summit agenda “should have as its priority not arms control but the potential flashpoints for U.S.-Soviet conflicts. Arms control and political issues must go forward together.” Added a senior administration official: “There’s more to Geneva than just arms reduction.”
Some critics said that the linkage of arms control to Third World crises and human rights is an attempt by Pentagon hard-liners to prevent a disarmament agreement, which could jeopardize Star Wars research. In fact, part of Reagan’s
failure to articulate an arms control position at the UN may have been a result of serious divisions on fundamental arms control issues within the administration. Responding to allied pressure, Reagan said he would set out new proposals before his trip to Geneva. And the White House announced that he will fly to NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief Western leaders immediately after his meetings with Gorbachev on Nov. 19 and 20.
Currently, some administration aides say that Reagan himself seems not to have decided which of the factions in his administration to support. The schism —which emerged earlier over contradictory administration interpretations of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty —surfaced again last week. On Tuesday Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said that Moscow was deploying its new SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missile, in violation of the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT lí). He added that the breach called the validity of any such arms agreement into question. Within 24 hours the State Department’s senior arms control adviser, Paul Nitze, declared that Washington was studying with interest a Soviet proposal for an interim freeze on medium-range nuclear forces in Europe and Asia. The conflicting voices have caused unease among Western allies. Not only that, they have allowed the Kremlin to pursue propaganda attacks virtually unchallenged.
As the world leaders at the UN anniversary meeting prepared to leave New York, the superpowers seemed as polarized as the United Nations itself. After a two-hour breakfast meeting with Shevardnadze on Friday, Shultz announced that he would fly to Moscow on Nov. 4 for more presummit planning. Conceded Shultz: “There remain major differences that need to be resolved.”
Still some major national leaders did use the forum to call for peaceful change. One of the most moving pleas came from Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan, the only nation to have experienced the devastation of an atomic bomb. Urging the superpowers to remember their “grave responsibility in determining the fate of the world,” Nakasone called for a comprehensive ban on testing nuclear weapons. At almost the same time, France—the one Western ally invited by Reagan which had declined to attend the New York summit —exploded a nuclear device at its underground Pacific test site on Mururoa Atoll. That display of disregard for the UN illustrated just how difficult it remains to reconcile political action with the peace-loving rhetoric that last week issued from speakers along the General Assembly’s green-broadloomed aisles.
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