As tensions between Washington and Managua escalated last week, U.S. and Soviet officials readied their warships. But the preparations were not for a naval clash over Nicaragua, where the Soviet-supported Sandinistas announced the suspension of a ceasefire with U.S.-backed contra rebels. Instead, they were for a December shipboard summit between presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Malta. In Washington and Moscow, simultaneous announcements stressed that the seaborne meeting would be informal and unstructured, leaving substantive issues for a fullscale summit next year. “This is to get to know each other,” said Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Moscow. And Bush told reporters in Washington that the “interim” sessions with Gorbachev—alter-
nating between U.S. and Soviet vessels—are a chance for the two leaders to “put our feet up” and exchange views on a number of subjects, including the state of their respective economies and the dramatic changes sweeping Eastern Europe.
In fact, Eastern Europe appears to be the driving force behind the Dec. 2 and 3 meeting. For Gorbachev, the talks provide an opportunity to press Bush for reassurance that Washington will not try to exploit growing democratization among Warsaw Pact nations for strategic advantage. For Bush, they are a chance to gauge Gorbachev’s sincerity in allowing his Communist allies to pursue their own political and economic paths. Bush, who visited Poland and Hungary last summer, said that he had called for the informal talks with the Soviet leader—contradicting his often-stated preference for formal summit meetings—because of “consultation with our allies” and his desire not to “miss something.” The move followed months of mixed signals from Washington. Some administration officials have hewed to a traditionally hard, anti-Communist line, while
others have insisted that it was in the West’s interest to help Gorbachev achieve genuine reform. In the end, Washington observers said that simple politics proved decisive: Bush does not want to be remembered as the man who bungled the chance to end the Cold War.
The President claimed that he had been secretly planning talks with Gorbachev since July. But that extreme secrecy left the Pentagon scrambling last week for a suitable ship for the floating summit. And the unusual choice of Malta as the summit site dictates particularly tight security measures: Libya, which lies just 220 miles to the south, has engaged in dogfights with U.S. warplanes over the area. But, for all the logistical headaches, the announcement of the saltwater summit has already buoyed the hopes for improved U.S.-Soviet relations.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.