by Michael Walsh
In the course of a high-stakes negotiation, the player who walks away from the table is the one with the least to lose. Ronald Reagan did it to Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986, and Donald Trump did it to Kim Jong-un this week in Vietnam. Good for the president.
A lot of people have brought up Reykjavik; I discussed the similarities on the Hugh Hewitt radio show with guest host Kurt Schlichter on Thursday. Reagan met Gorbachev in Iceland in the fall of 1986 and the two men were approaching an agreement that might have included the abolition of all nuclear weapons. But the Soviet premier wanted the Americans to drop the Strategic Defense Initiative, colloquially known as “Star Wars.” That was a bridge too far for Reagan, who abandoned the talks and went home.
Naturally, the hostile press was appalled—the abolition of all nukes! And this cowboy won’t give up a pet program that probably won’t work anyway! Warmonger! Reagan was widely viewed at the time as an “amiable dunce” who didn’t understand the first thing about the complexities of international diplomacy; why, the doddering old fool actually thought “We win, they lose” was a strategy.
As I wrote in my most recent book, The Fiery Angel:
Quick: would you rather read a think-tank white paper from around the time of the Reagan-Gorbachev Reykjavik summit in 1986, assuring the Boston-Washington corridor that the Soviet Union would remain the only other superpower indefinitely, and that its stability was vital to the balance of power, or watch “Rocky IV,” released in 1985? Which better predicted the events of November 1989?
Consider, for example, this review of Strobe Talbott’s 1984 book on arms control, “Deadly Gambits.” Talbott, then a writer for Time Magazine—he later left to join the Clinton administration as Deputy Secretary of State, and parlayed that into becoming president of the Brookings Institution—undertook in a widely unread book to contrast the arms-control policies of the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations, to the latter’s detriment, of course. This concluding passage from the contemporaneous New York Times review provides a flavor:
Mr. Talbott, who is diplomatic correspondent at Time, had previously written “Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II.” What is striking about the two books is that ‘‘Endgame’’ was about how President Carter and his top aides—Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, and Defense Secretary Harold Brown—were directly in charge of the arms control process. “Deadly Gambits” shows how President Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Mr. Weinberger, and the three different national security advisers, had little to do with making arms control policy because they lacked the intellectual tools or interest in the subject.
He is particularly mocking of Mr. Reagan, who, Mr. Talbott writes, liked to give speeches on arms control, “but behind the scenes, where decisions were made and policy was set, he was to remain a detached, sometimes befuddled character.” Mr. Talbott says that even though Mr. Reagan presided at 16 meetings of the National Security Council on strategic arms talks, “there was ample evidence, during those meetings and on other occasions as well, that he frequently did not understand basic aspects of the nuclear weapons issue and of policies being promulgated in his name.” (Emphasis mine.)
A year later, the Russians were back at the bargaining table, this time in Washington, the result of which was the INF treaty, which regulated intermediate-range missiles (and which Trump recently scuttled, complaining that the Russians had long been violating the terms of the agreement). Two years after the signing, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed and disappeared in 1991.
We won, they lost. And the media fell utterly silent.
The point is that Reagan’s refusal to give up the SDI was instrumental in helping topple the USSR of late, unlamented memory. Because, for all the scoffing in the American media about it at the time, it plainly terrified the Russians, and had been doing so for several years. In February 1985, I heard East German party chief Erich Honecker denounce it vociferously in an outdoor speech before the re-opening of the Semper Opera House in Dresden, which had been destroyed by the Allied bombing raids 40 years earlier. Honecker did nothing without the Kremlin’s approval, so you knew it was on their minds.
Signs of the imminent Russian collapse were everywhere. In April 1986, I was in Leningrad when Chernobyl—Soviet technology at its finest—blew up; I didn’t find out about it until a few days after I had left the country because the Russians blacked out the news from their own people. But my first visit to Russia taught me a lot about countries in decline: everyone was a criminal. Russian women freelanced as prostitutes, while the men could be bribed easily (and stay bought), and everybody trafficked in contraband to make extra money on the side. The unofficial unit of exchange was not the worthless ruble, but a pack of Marlboro cigarettes.
When your women are selling themselves and your men are offering boosted tins of Beluga from the trunks of their cars, you know your country is in trouble.
Most of the media missed that, of course, preferring to stick to the eastern establishment narrative that the Soviet Union was the other superpower, with military parity with the United States and superior socialist domestic benefits—hey, they had free healthcare, right? And yet it was gone in the blink of an eye.
Reagan sensed it; Gorbachev knew it. The fragility of the system, brought on by the moral evil at its core, could be rouged and mascaraed but underneath the makeup still was a diseased trollop on her way to becoming the cheapest whore in town. When Reagan walked, the Russians panicked. And in that moment, the Cold War was won.
Trump’s job is actually easier: to bring a negotiated end to the Korean War, which has been in limbo since 1953, when hostilities ceased and an armistice was signed. Ever since, North and South Korea have faced off over a heavily armed border, and while the south has prospered and grown rich, the north is a Stalinist basket case ruled by a family of Communist thugs. It won’t last because it can’t last: Kim’s embarrassment at the hands of the American president will only make him more eager for another summit. At the same time, though, it weakens him in the eyes of his countrymen, thus making him even more vulnerable to a revolution when the times comes, which it will.
So Kim, a dead man walking now, gets back in his armored train while Trump flies back to freedom aboard Air Force One, knowing that it’s just a matter of time before the phone rings again. And this time, his terms for what in effect will be North Korea’s final surrender will be even tougher than the ones he offered now.
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Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules.