On this day, Nov. 19, in 1985, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attended their first summit meeting together in Geneva. The two produced no earth-shattering agreements, but it was a clear signal of their desire to mend relations and keep the nuclear arms race under control.
“Summits” of world leaders are still happening today, attempting to address issues on a global scale. President Obama just returned from the G20 Summit in Australia, where he met with leaders from 20 major economies. After cuddling with koalas for a bit, leaders created action plans for issues like poverty, Ebola, increased GDP, trade, youth unemployment and global growth.
Though different in size and manner, there is at least one major similarity between the Reagan/Gorbachev meeting and last week’s G20 Summit, and it has to do with our Cold War friends over in the Tundra. President Putin’s presence was a dark cloud at the Summit, with leaders criticizing him and calling on him to back down in Ukraine. Although tension with Russia isn’t anything new, I’m predicting that any resolutions achieved with Russia will unfold quite differently than they did in the ’80s.
The difference between the two gatherings is that at Reagan and Gorbachev’s meeting, there were no major treaties signed or agreements made, while the G20 Summit resulted in the Brisbane Action Plan, a package containing more than 800 reforms. But maybe the number of resolutions produced isn’t the best measure of which meeting achieved more.
Reagan’s meeting was not seen as a breakthrough at the time. But as he stated at the summit’s conclusion, “The real report card will not come in for months or even years.”
They succeeded in building trust and opening a dialogue, which made future breakthroughs possible.
It was the very beginning of a conversation that would lead to other significant achievements, such as Gorbachev’s 1986 commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons by 2000. And of course, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
None of the 800 reforms passed at G20 were directed at Russia or included the sanctions that have been threatened against Putin. And they shouldn’t have been. I’m glad they focused on strengthening the world’s financial systems and workforces.
But I don’t think there was a positive dialogue addressing tensions with Russia, even ones that indirectly help out later down the road like Reagan intended with Gorbachev. It was reported that Putin had cold, blunt encounters with Obama and other leaders, and that he left the summit early, hopping on his plane ahead of schedule.
Reagan didn’t have koalas at his meeting like the G20, but in a few years, we will see if the things said, or not said, at G20 made an impact comparable to that of 1985.