The hard lessons of Reykjavik

Henry Kissinger October 27 1986

The hard lessons of Reykjavik

Henry Kissinger October 27 1986

The hard lessons of Reykjavik


Henry Kissinger

Predictably, the Reykjavik summit has unleashed an intense debate about its wisdom and its outcome. But the most important need is to draw the appropriate lessons for the future. Too many Reagan administration spokesmen are extolling the “agreement” they claim was all but consummated, thereby supporting the Soviet fiction that the President’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) was the princi-

pal obstacle to an historic breakthrough.

As a veteran of four summits, I get a sinking feeling when I read of fundamental agreements being drafted overnight on subjects never explored in preliminary conversations. Nor do I think the United States and the Soviet Union were anywhere close to a completed agreement, much less a useful one.

My view of Reykjavik can be summed up in two propositions. The President to his eternal credit was right and courageous in walking away from Gorbachev’s propositions. The tentative agreements at Reykjavik were not breakthroughs; some of them indeed were traps. The need to think through the American position therefore remains urgent.

At Reykjavik the Reagan administration paid the price for never resolving its deep internal divisions over arms control and East-West relations.

And the country paid a price for the relentless domestic pressures that led the Soviets to believe they can appeal over the head of the President, as Gorbachev had the gall to state publicly.

The administration has partially invited these pressures by trying to paper over fundamental disagreements by slogans. The so-called zero option—the removal of U.S. and Soviet intermediaterange missiles from Europe—is a good example. The relentless Soviet strategic buildup over the past two decades raised

the question of whether the United States would commit national suicide by using nuclear weapons based in the United States against threats to Europe. And hundreds of Soviet mediumand intermediate-range missiles aimed at Western Europe placed America’s allies under a direct threat. American missiles were deployed in Europe to reassure Europe and to remove ambiguity from Soviet calculations.

President Reagan’s first term witnessed an intense debate between those who wanted to negotiate limits to deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe, mostly in the state department and among the NATO allies, and those who considered the project nonnegotiable, mostly in the defence department. To pull the teeth of these controversies, the administration put forward the zero option. Ironically, it was first suggested by the defence department, which calcu-

lated that the Soviets would reject it. In the end a tactical ploy wound up developing a life of its own.

The acceptance of the zero option is a major political event. Removing Soviet intermediate-range missiles from Europe reduces the Soviet nuclear threat to Europe only marginally, if at all, because the removal of hundreds of medium-range American missiles would destroy the direct link between the nuclear defence of Europe and of the United States. It would also mag-

nify the psychological disparity between the two sides of the Atlantic and enhance the Soviet ability to subject Europe to nuclear blackmail.

The very offer to remove intermediate-range American missiles from Europe will have a significant domestic impact on Britain and West Germany. For years their governments have fought courageously against often violent domestic opposition to American missile deployment. Before the deployment is even completed they now find the United States declaring it dispensable. The upshot must be a weakening of allies and a strengthening of neutralist trends in Europe.

“Deep cuts” is another consensus slogan that unites liberals eager for arms control and conservatives seeking a popular platform for their opposition to arms control. The phrase obfuscates the fundamental dilemma. In

the absence of SDI—the key Soviet condition—the 50-per-cent reduction of each category of strategic nuclear weapons that was discussed at Reykjavik will ease significantly neither the danger of surprise attack nor the danger of civilian extermination. So long as each missile carries up to 10 warheads, one launcher can simultaneously attack several retaliatory missiles. Unless the number of warheads per missile is reduced, the danger of a first strike will remain at almost any negotiated total of launchers.

Even more worrisome is the matter of the next stage, which envisages the

complete abolition of ballistic missiles at the end of 10 years. The negotiations defining what weapons are to be destroyed, the rate of destruction and the verification of the process would be so complex that they could easily consume much of the 10 years and might break down at any point.

I do not understand how administration spokesmen can present such a vague statement of objectives as a nearly achieved agreement. And it is astonishing that it was presented without any discussion with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Administration spokesmen do no service to public understanding by falling in with the Soviet pretence that eliminating nuclear weapons is either realistic or realizable. No conceivable verification scheme could account for the tens of thousands of warheads in the arsenals of both sides. A reserve force would therefore have to be left to protect against possible violations. Finally, I find it incomprehensible how an alliance dependent on nuclear weapons could agree to the principle of their abolition without at the same

time agreeing to a massive increase in conventional forces to meet the massive Soviet conventional threat.

As for SDI, I consider the so-called Star Wars program one of the seminal decisions of the Reagan presidency. SDI provides at least a partial way out of a nihilistic strategy based on mutual extermination. The same weird coalition that supported the zero option and deep cuts formed also on SDI. Groups that wanted to kill SDI combined with groups seeking to sustain it in a compromise that gave the critics a powerful lever, especially in Congress. SDI was transformed by critics from a strategic pro-

gram into a bargaining chip to be given away for arms reductions.

America’s allies have encouraged these tendencies. They have seen in U.S. nuclear strategy a means to limit their own defence expenditures; they have urged arms control to placate essentially implacable domestic critics. Arms control in Europe is on the verge of making agreement an end in itself.

Perhaps the most interesting question about Reykjavik is what induced Gorbachev to exploit American domestic ambiguities. And why instead of agreeing to study the proposal the U.S. delegation permitted itself to be rushed into using what had been announced as a presummit to try to conclude a comprehensive arms control agreement within 36 hours.

A remarkable opportunity for fundamental negotiation with the Soviets still exists. A new Soviet leadership faces nearly insuperable domestic problems. It badly needs a respite from international tensions and seeks to purchase it by retaining all options: for nuclear blackmail; for a first strike; of a superiority in conventional

weapons; of splitting the United States from its allies. But in the end, if the President remains firm, Gorbachev will adopt more equitable positions. The Soviets will not easily give up their goal of committing the most conservative and most popular president of his generation to arms control. Waiting for a successor is too timeconsuming and too risky for them.

When negotiations resume—probably after the West German elections in January—it must be in a different context. A way must be found to explore U.S.Soviet relations so that the misunderstandings that led to deadlock at Reyk-

javik are avoided and a conceptual discussion before numbers are tossed around can take place. Specifically:

• The President’s proposal of eliminating all ballistic missiles is important. But the stages of reaching it must be made precise if it is not to backfire. The first goal of arms control must be to reduce the proportion of warheads to vulnerable launchers. The next step must be to reduce the number of launchers to the lowest possible level.

• The political significance of American missiles in Europe must be recognized. Reductions must not be to a level that decouples the nu-

clear defence of Europe from that of the United States.

• SDI must be given a strategic rationale. The pretence that we are dealing with a research program must be abandoned. The 10-year moratorium on deployment proposed at Reykjavik by the United States would spell the end of SDI.

• Verification is another slogan in search of a program. It is not a substitute for meaningful agreements. It depends on three factors: the intrinsic importance of an agreement; the margin within which violations are possible; the strategic importance of the violations and the degree to which countermeasures have been prepared.

• America must recognize that in a difficult period it is essential to unite. Gorbachev is clearly counting on the divisions and disagreements in America and in the NATO alliance to hand him his goals on a silver platter. It is clearly within the power of free peoples to prove him wrong.

Henry Kissinger was U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President Richard Nixon.