Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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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