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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.


Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Speaking the unspeakable

Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to abolish nuclear weapons. Yet out of that failure they built a new order.

Their body language said it all: two men, dejected, drained, unable to look each other in the eye. Cameras flashed as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev left Höfði House in northern Reykjavík on the evening of 12 October 1986. These were the images that the media beamed around the world. Time magazine headlined its cover story “NO DEAL: Star Wars sinks the summit”.

That is also how it went down in history. An enormous missed opportunity. The chance to abolish nuclear weapons thrown away because the two leaders wouldn’t budge on the small print of Reagan’s “Strategic Defence Initiative” (SDI). And a spectacular instance of the roller coaster of summitry at the highest level, where high hopes collide with harsh realities.

Thirty years on, the time is ripe to review this negative verdict on the Reykjavík summit. With the transcripts of the meetings now available, as well as other documents from both the Russian and the American archives, we can explore what happened behind closed doors and also reflect on the summit’s historical significance. It is a chance to evoke the drama of those 36 hours, when human beings were stretched to their physical and mental limits – and, in the light of history, to show how the “no deal” proved to be a springboard for one of the most important nuclear arms agreements of the Cold War in Washington just a year later, when Reagan and Gorbachev signed away their cruise, Pershing II and SS-20 missiles. As Britain faces years of Brexit haggling, Reykjavík also offers possible lessons in how to engage in what Winston Churchill called “parleys at the summit”.




Such parleys had been rare during the “New Cold War” of the early 1980s, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at Christmas 1979 prompted President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. All superpower arms control negotiations were consigned into a deep freeze. In March 1983 Carter’s immediate successor, Ronald Reagan, damned the USSR as an “evil empire” and outlined his vision for SDI, which the Soviets (and much of western Europe) saw as a threat to put the arms race in a new technological spiral and spin it into outer space.

In the USSR, these years were the “era of stagnation”, in which a cohort of old men in Moscow had run out of steam and ideas. Leonid Brezhnev, who for years had been in very bad health, died in November 1982; his successor, Yuri Andropov, died in February 1984. After attending his second Soviet state funeral in 15 months, Vice-President George H W Bush bade a jocular farewell to US embassy staff: “See you again, same time next year!” Bush was wrong – but only by a month. Konstantin Chernenko, aged 73, wheezed his last on 10 March 1985.

At this point, the Kremlin gerontocracy got the message and jumped a generation, appointing as Soviet general secretary an energetic, university-educated reformer in his early fifties. Mikhail Gorbachev had ­already caught Western eyes as a new breed of Soviet apparatchik – lively and articulate, keen to argue freely rather than read from prompt cards. Margaret Thatcher had declared as early as December 1984 that they could “do business together”. But Gorbachev was unquestionably a product of the system. He advocated economic and social reform in order to make the USSR more competitive in the East-West global contest. His first slogan was uskorenie (“acceleration”), soon followed by perestroika (“restructuring”).

Gorbachev’s willingness to talk to Reagan was initially utilitarian in motive. He wanted to curb the arms race to reduce the burden of the military-industrial complex on the Soviet economy, thereby allowing him to concentrate on domestic reform. Against all the odds, however, the two men found at their first summit in Geneva in late 1985 that they really clicked. After several frank but often stormy sessions on 19 November, they parted company in the car park that evening with a handshake that Gorbachev called “a spark of electric mutual trust”. Afterwards Reagan muttered to his chief of staff, “You could almost get to like the guy.”

Despite the barriers of language and ­ideology, the two men got on very well, particularly during an informal “fireside chat” at a pool house by the lake. They also discovered that they were kindred spirits on nuclear politics. Each was convinced that the doctrine of mutual assured destruction – often abbreviated to “Mad” – was ­literally mad and that nuclear weapons should be abolished. In short, they were Cold War heretics.

By January 1986, Gorbachev was calling for 50 per cent cuts in superpower nuclear arsenals, and his nuclear-phobia became all-consuming after the Chernobyl disaster that April. The meltdown at the Ukrainian power plant was the worst civilian nuclear accident of the Cold War era, releasing over 400 times more radioactive material than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, with fallout spreading across much of eastern Europe, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. “Just a puff,” Gorbachev told a sombre politburo, “and we can all feel what nuclear war would be like.”

By September 1986 Gorbachev feared that the “spark” of Geneva had been extinguished. He told Reagan, “I have come to the conclusion that the negotiations need a major impetus . . . They will lead nowhere unless you and I intervene personally.”

The Soviet leader proposed “a quick one-on-one” in Iceland or London to “demonstrate political will” and to galvanise their respective bureaucracies to prepare agreements for them to sign during his planned visit to the United States in 1987.

Reagan agreed, but there was a fundamental mismatch in expectations on each side. We know from Soviet documents that Gorbachev instructed his staff to prepare a position with “breakthrough potential”, based on his earlier proposal for 50 per cent cuts. Yet, on the American side, a senior staffer on the National Security Council claimed that the president would have to “smoke out” a “coy” Gorbachev to find out what exactly he wanted. The then secretary of state, George Shultz, told Reagan that they should avoid “permitting the impression that Reykjavík itself was a summit”, rather than just a useful preparation for what he called “Summit II” in the US. The Americans were not prepared for the gale that would hit them in Iceland.

What was supposed to be the “base camp” for the US summit took place at Höfði – an elegant, wooden government guest house on the coast. Although the ­location seemed suitably remote (it was also roughly equidistant from Moscow and Washington), the building was inadequate. The two leaders held their tête-à-têtes in a small room downstairs. Each delegation had working quarters upstairs – the Americans in two holding rooms and a bathroom on one side of the house and the Soviets similarly accommodated on the other side, with a large common room in between. For one presidential briefing, American staffers had to use their tiny bathroom, with three senior aides standing in the bath. When Reagan walked in, he said, “I’ll take the throne,” and perched on top of the toilet.

The two leaders had rejected London as a venue because, as the US president remarked, “It is too large a city, with too many distractions.” Reagan hoped that they could “discuss everything calmly” in Reykjavík, away from the limelight. Yet, in the event, the media circus was frantic: thousands of journalists descended on the small city of 90,000 people (roughly the same size as present-day Bath), desperate for new angles and local colour, however fanciful. Some papers peddled stories about Höfði being a haunted house; even the Washington Post resorted to headlines such as “A supernatural summit”. Amid such hype, the encounter at Reykjavík was not going to be the low-key “non-summit” that Shultz had envisaged.





Nor was there any need to smoke out a coy Soviet leader when the first session opened on Saturday 11 October at 10.40am. Reagan began in a slow and formal manner, talking from his briefing book, but Gorbachev – pumped up for the occasion and much more expansive – soon unveiled a comprehensive three-point disarmament plan. First, he suggested a 50 per cent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons: in other words, those of intercontinental range. Second, the elimination of all intermediate-range nuclear forces (INFs) in Europe, excluding the British and French “independent” nuclear deterrents – in what he called “a great concession”. His third proposal was to extend the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 for another ten years and to confine any testing of space weapons to what he called “laboratories”. All three proposals, he insisted, had to be taken as a single integrated package.

The ABM Treaty was the most sensitive issue. It served to reinforce the doctrine of mutual assured destruction by limiting the right of either superpower to build defensive systems against enemy missiles. Reagan’s SDI project threatened to upset this “balance of terror” by creating a missile defence shield in space – hence the Soviet desire to prevent US testing of such hardware. Reagan’s approach was diametrically opposite. The president claimed that once defensive systems had been tested, he would share this technology with the Soviets as a protection against “some maniac like Hitler”. He likened this to abolishing poison gas after the First World War but keeping gas masks “in case of unforeseen situations”.

At 12.30pm they took a break for lunch, so that the US could absorb what Gorbachev kept emphasising were his “entirely new” proposals.

When they reconvened at 3.30pm, the rhythm was similar, with Reagan ­plodding and Gorbachev impatient, at times explosive. “You went into Europe with your missiles, and you don’t want to leave it,” he barked at one point. Although anxious not to have his “package” unpicked, lest the Americans gain an advantage in “space weapons” if the USSR reduced its missile stockpiles, Gorbachev agreed that, in the evening, groups of experts from each side should try to thrash out disputed issues in the two critical areas of arms control and human rights.

Just before the meeting ended at 5.40pm, Reagan put aside his notes to deliver an ­impassioned speech about how “we are two civilised countries, two civilised peoples”, whereas the strategy of mutual “mass extermination” was “an uncivilised situation”. He declared: “I think that the world will become much more civilised if we, the two great powers, demonstrate this example, create defensive systems and eliminate terrible modern armaments.” Once again, he offered to share SDI with the Soviets. This time Gorbachev blew his top. “Excuse me, Mr President, but I do not take your idea of sharing SDI seriously. You don’t want to share even petroleum equipment, automatic machine tools, or milking machines . . . Let’s be realistic.”

While the two leaders went to bed, their delegations went to work. The human rights group got through their agenda relatively quickly, finishing at 2am. Yet the group on arms control laboured through the night from 8pm to 6.30am, even waking the two foreign ministers at 2.30am for urgent consultations. After such a nocturnal marathon, everybody must have been exhausted by the time day two began.

The third session commenced at 10am on 12 October. This was supposed to wrap up the conference. Reviewing the conclusions of the working groups, the leaders agreed fairly quickly on moving towards a 50 per cent cut in strategic nuclear arsenals and discussed a “zero-level option” for ­intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe. After a further concession by Gorbachev, they accepted the idea of a ceiling of 100 Soviet INFs in Asia and 100 American missiles on US territory. So far, so good.

But then the discussions went around in circles over the balance between deterrence and defence. Gorbachev’s aim was to abolish offensive nuclear weapons within ten years, while retaining the ABM Treaty during that period as a protection for the Soviet Union against new “space ­weapons”. Reagan, however, kept hammering on about the right to develop a defensive “shield” in space, claiming that this would provide long-term protection against rogue states for all of humanity. The Soviet leader’s obsession with the ABM Treaty was now infuriating the president. “Damn it,” he shouted, “what kind of agreement are you defending? . . . Our defence today is the threat of retaliation against the other. That is not defence in the right sense of the word.”

Gorbachev was equally angry about Reagan’s fixation with SDI. “We said that President Reagan is a man who does not like to make concessions. I am now convinced of this. But, as the American saying goes, ‘It takes two to tango.’ And it takes two to control arms, to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons . . . Therefore I invite you to a male tango, Mr President.”

But Reagan wasn’t ready to dance with a partner on whom he felt he couldn’t rely. Citing historical examples of occasions when, he claimed, the Soviets had broken promises about nuclear arms control, he reminded Gorbachev of another American saying: “Once burned, twice shy.” Trust was the basic issue. “I understand that you do not trust us,” Reagan exclaimed, “just as we do not trust you.”

With tension mounting, Gorbachev raised the president’s “evil empire” rhetoric and his calls for a crusade to drive socialism on to the scrapheap of history. What did that mean, he asked: “War?” “No,” Reagan replied hotly. Then the president launched into a diatribe about the Soviet Communist Party having “a monopoly of power”.




The two men could easily have carried on point-scoring for the rest of the day, but then Gorbachev paused and said: “I am convinced that if you and I have different ideological ideas, that is not a reason for us to shoot at one another. On the contrary, I am convinced that, in addition to political relations, purely human relations between us are possible also.” He looked hard at Reagan: “Let us return to the wording.”

The two foreign ministers, Shultz and his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze – desperate to reach a compromise – tried to disentangle the three big issues. Even if SDI remained unresolved, they wanted at least to walk away with agreement on halving strategic arsenals and abolishing most of their INFs. But Gorbachev would have none of it. “I proposed a definite package and would ask you to consider it as such,” he said. They had reached an impasse. Reagan exclaimed: “How can we go away from here with nothing?” Gorbachev coolly countered: “Unfortunately, we in fact can.”

Pulling back from the brink, the two sides took time out to go over the findings of the working group on humanitarian issues. After a quick trot around topics such as the opening of consulates in Kiev and New York and trade union visits between the two countries, Gorbachev pressed Reagan once more: “Well, Mr President, ‘X-hour’ is approaching. What are you going to do?”

Shultz, who had been frantically working up an anodyne communiqué, now read it out. “That is not acceptable to us,” Gorbachev said. He proposed that they take a break of an hour or two to draw up something better: “After all, we do not want everything to end with a façade.” He reminded the Americans of his bottom line: “It is exceptionally important to reaffirm the ABM Treaty. Then we can substantiate the risk that we are taking in questions of strategic weapons and intermediate-range missiles.”

They broke for lunch at 1.35pm and resumed at 3.25pm, only to stop again an hour later so that the Americans could try to come up with a compromise formulation on Star Wars research and development. But when they reconvened at 5.30pm, Gorbachev remained stuck on one word.
He insisted that all testing had to be confined to “laboratories”.

“I cannot go along with restrictions on the plan as you demand,” Reagan replied.

“Is that your final position? If so, we can end our meeting at this point.”

“Yes, it is.”

Gorbachev took a deep breath: “You must understand me. To us, the laboratory issue is not a matter of stubbornness or hard-headedness. It is not casuistry. It is all too serious. We are agreeing to deep reductions and, ultimately, the destruction of nuclear weapons. And at the same time, the American side is pushing us to agree to give them the right to create space weapons. That is unacceptable to us.”

He tried to play on Reagan’s desire for a place in history – the chance to go down as “a great president”.

Reagan in turn appealed to Gorbachev as a fellow politician. “Let me say frankly that if I give you what you ask, it will definitely hurt me badly at home.” He asked: “Are you really going to turn down a historic opportunity for agreement for the sake of one word in the text?”

Gorbachev was now in full flight: “But it’s not a matter of a word, it’s a matter of principle . . . If I go back to Moscow and say that despite our agreement on the ten-year period, we have given the United States the right to test SDI in space so that the US is ready to deploy it by the end of that period, they will call me a fool and an irresponsible leader.”

Reagan then implored Gorbachev to do this as “a personal favour”, based on the relations they had established at Geneva.

Yet Gorbachev would not budge: “We cannot go along with what you propose. If you will agree to banning tests in space, we will sign the document in two minutes. We cannot go along with something else. We have already agreed to what we could; we are not to blame. Even though our meeting is ending in this way, I have a clear conscience before my people and before you. I have done everything I could.”

“It’s too bad we have to part this way,” Reagan said. “We were so close to an agreement. I think you didn’t want to achieve an agreement anyway. I’m very sorry.”

“I am also very sorry it’s happened this way. I wanted an agreement and did everything I could, if not more.”

“I don’t know when we’ll ever have another chance like this and whether we will meet soon.”

“I don’t, either.”

The two men, angry and exhausted, trudged down the steps of Höfði House, their grim faces captured by the press and the TV cameramen. There was clearly “no deal” – and not even a date for Summit II in America. To the watching world, Reykjavík was a total failure.




But was it? Immediately after the summit, Jack Matlock, one of Reagan’s leading Sovietologists, went over the interpreter’s notes and realised that the extent of agreement on key points was “unprecedented”. Indeed, he said, “Reagan and Gorbachev had solved more problems than any of us had expected of the Reykjavík meeting.”

On the plane back to Moscow, Gorbachev took a similar view of the summit. The ­issue, he said, was never “who won over whom”. Rather, it was to move beyond the post-Geneva “deadlock” and press towards “a major breakthrough”. That hadn’t been achieved, but significant progress had been made. It proved, he said, “quite easy to reach an understanding” on strategic weapons and intermediate-range missiles.

On SDI, he noted, “Perhaps we will need one more try to step over [the boundary] which still divides us.” Far from deeming it a failure, Gorbachev judged the Reykjavík summit to have been “a step in a complicated and difficult dialogue, in a search for solutions”.

On his return to Washington, Reagan said the same thing publicly in his address to the American people. Despite some point-scoring about Gorbachev’s intransigence over SDI, the president’s tone was upbeat. He insisted, “We are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons.”

But how to move from words to deeds? Someone had to shift ground. Gorbachev did so first. In late October, he and the Politburo secretly agreed that they would accept SDI tests not just in “laboratories” but anywhere except in space. He needed to make progress towards arms reduction because of the scale of Soviet military spending and the growing national budget crisis.

Reagan’s position also changed. On 3 November, news broke about a secret US government operation to sell arms to Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran and use the proceeds to finance anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua. Within weeks, “Irangate” had sapped the administration and tarnished even the “Teflon president”. Equally damaging, on 4 November the Democrats won the midterm elections: they would now control both houses of Congress. So Reagan had no chance on Capitol Hill of getting the funding he needed to sustain SDI during his remaining two years in the White House. Politically weakened and also fretful about his legacy as a “peace president”, he – no less than Gorbachev – needed to compromise.

Aware of the new political dynamics in Washington, Gorbachev decided to “untie” the disarmament package on which he had been so insistent at Reykjavík. His aide Alexander Yakovlev advised that, although its individual elements still made sense, both as policy and as propaganda, “the ‘package’ in its present form only ties our hands”. Gorbachev had no illusions. Superpower “competition” would continue but he wanted to “remove the confrontation”. He lamented: “As difficult as it is to conduct business with the United States, we are doomed to it. We have no choice.”

So both sides decided to focus on one of the mattes about which they had more or less agreed at Reykjavík: INFs. Despite resistance from the Pentagon and the Soviet military, over the course of 1987 Shultz and Shevardnadze hammered out a worldwide “double-zero” deal to eliminate all Soviet and American INFs in Europe and in Asia. Equally importantly, they established an unprecedented regime of mutual on-site inspections that would give substance to Reagan’s mantra “Trust, but verify”.

Furthermore, they agreed that Gorbachev would travel to Washington in December to sign the INF Treaty. Despite all the media gloom on that bleak evening outside Höfði House, the base camp had prepared the way for Summit II.

During that frenetic weekend in October, Reagan and Gorbachev had not merely thought the unthinkable but dared to speak the unspeakable. Face to face, each had catalysed the anti-nuclear radicalism in the other. This was positive summitry, generating synergy between two leaders.





To move from base camp to summit also required a willingness to compromise. Leaders had to be ready, as Gorbachev put it, to “tango”: looking together for ­outcomes that were mutually beneficial. Creative diplomacy was not – and is not – a “zero-sum” game, in which I win only if you lose. That one-sided approach to summitry is nonetheless tempting to political leaders who are playing to the gallery at home. In Britain, for instance, Tory leaders from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron have obsessed over the perceived need always to come back from Brussels with a deal in which “we” beat “Europe”. Indeed, that was how they and the British media couched the business of negotiation – in a zero-sum conception of summitry, of a kind that Gorbachev deplored.

Theresa May, who operated cannily as a sotto voce Remainer during the referendum campaign, will find it hard to avoid the temptation to play to the gallery now that the spotlight is on her in working out Brexit Britain’s new relationship with the EU. The need to claim victory at every turn is at odds with achieving durable compromises. These depend on creating a co-operative spirit.

Summitry across international divides has little chance of success if it is treated as a series of confrontations in which one side wins and the other loses. As Reagan and Gorbachev showed in their journey from Geneva via Reykjavík to Washington, each summit is ideally part of a process of dialogue. Angela Merkel recently reiterated this point, emphasising the need to keep open lines of communication with Vladimir ­Putin’s Russia at a time of renewed East-West tension. Equally, she has insisted on the need to maintain strong defence.

Merkel is surely right. There is always a delicate balance to be struck between the politics of deterrence and the diplomacy of dialogue – making up your mind when to stand firm and when to reach out. That remains the perennial challenge for those who have the vision, skill and nerve to parley at the summit.

“Transcending the Cold War”, edited by Kristina Spohr and David Reynolds, is published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph