Analyzing the canceled Trump-Kim summit: shades of Reykjavik ’86

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavík Summit in Iceland, October 1986.


President Donald Trump announced on Thursday that his planned meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was cancelled. The news is certainly a disappointment. Stock markets have pulled back and those who called for Trump to receive a Nobel Peace Prize are in retreat. But this cancellation might turn out to be for the best. Why? Remember the disastrous Reykjavik Summit in 1986.

The Reykjavik Summit was filled with fanfare. The American media expected the summit to proceed according to their plan: Reagan would propose missile reductions, Gorbachev would propose even more missile reductions, and finally both sides would agree to get rid of all missiles and missile testing — which meant that the U.S. could no longer build its missile defense system (also known as “Star Wars”).

But Reagan had other plans. First, Reagan took the offensive, arriving early to the summit so that he could feel at home. Then, he wanted to talk about human rights issues, especially those of Soviet Jews who wished to escape the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, with the American press on his side, stuck to missile reduction talks.

Every time Reagan brought up another issue that was critical of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev turned it against Reagan. If Reagan brought up human rights in Communist countries, Gorbachev brought up the U.S. homeless crisis (the homeless population had swelled in the preceding years due to a wave of deinstitutionalization of the homeless in many large cities, a problem that Democrats incorrectly blamed on Reagan’s policies). If Reagan brought up the war in Afghanistan or Soviet gulags, Gorbachev brought up Reagan’s policies in Central America.

When it came to the subject of ballistic missiles, Gorbachev surprised Reagan, and the world, by offering to eliminate all nuclear weapons in 10 years. However, Reagan had to agree to give up missile defense as part of the deal. Reagan countered by offering to share missile defense technology with the Soviet Union. Gorbachev responded by stating that he did not trust the United States to share all of its missile defense technology; left unspoken was that Reagan did not trust Gorbachev to keep his end of the bargain either.

The press put a lot of pressure on Reagan to accept the deal. Commentators thought that Reagan and Gorbachev would not only win the Nobel Peace Prize, but that their deal would allow the U.S. and the Soviet Union to peacefully coexist.

Reagan had other plans. His strategy for the Cold War was simple: we win and they lose. Reagan felt that he could get a better deal by walking away. His exit was called a lost opportunity. The summit was declared a failure — and Reagan’s failure contributed to surprising losses in the Senate four weeks later. The Democrats took back the Senate and seemed to spend more time talking about impeaching Reagan than working to end the Cold War.

However, Reagan was not done with Gorbachev. The two leaders met again in 1987 in Washington D.C., in early 1988 in Moscow, and in late 1988 in New York. The two leaders signed missile-reduction treaties, but thanks to Reagan’s pressure on the Soviet economy, the Cold War essentially ended in 1989, months after Reagan handed off the presidency to George H.W. Bush.

Reagan got his wish: the U.S. won and the Soviet Union lost. There was no need to worry about trusting Gorbachev, and there was no need to try to live peacefully with the world’s totalitarian superpower.

When President Trump announced that he would be meeting Kim Jong Un, I hoped that he would choose Reykjavik as the location. The city would, hopefully, remind him that the best deal is sometimes no deal. Trump ended up choosing a place that is almost geographically opposite of Reykjavik — Singapore. Nevertheless, Trump is pursing a similar strategy to that of Reagan. May it end just as well as it did 30 years ago.


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