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I’m a believer

In our increasingly secular society, many religious people feel their voices are not heard. So here,

After four centuries of breathtaking scientific progress, many wonder why intelligent people would still feel the need to believe in God. Andrew Zak Williams decided to find out. Over the course of several months, he corresponded with dozens of scientists and other public figures, quizzing them on the reasons for their faith. Here is a selection of the responses.

Cherie Blair, barrister
It's been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.

Jeremy Vine, broadcaster
There is a subjective reason and an objective reason. The subjective reason is that I find consolation in my faith. The objective reason is that the story of the gospels has stood the test of time and Christ comes across as a totally captivating figure.

In moments of weariness or cynicism, I tell myself I only believe because my parents did; and the Christian faith poses more questions than it answers.

But I still return to believing, as if that is more natural than not doing so.

Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Oxford
To suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why human beings have the opportunity to mould their character and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ's life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else.
In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.

Peter Hitchens, journalist
I believe in God because I choose to do so. I believe in the Christian faith because I prefer to do so. The existence of God offers an explanation of many of the mysteries of the universe - es­pecially "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and the questions which follow from that. It requires our lives to have a purpose, and our actions to be measurable against a higher standard than their immediate, observable effect. Having chosen belief in a God over unbelief, I find the Christian gospels more per­suasive and the Christian moral system more powerful than any other religious belief.

I was, it is true, brought up as a Christian, but ceased to be one for many years. When I returned to belief I could have chosen any, but did not.

Jonathan Aitken, former politician
I believe in God because I have searched for Him and found Him in the crucible of brokenness. Some years ago I went through an all-too-well-publicised drama of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. In the course of that saga I discovered a loving God who answers prayers, forgives and redeems.

James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool
One word: Jesus. All that you imagine God would be, He is. His life and His love are compelling, His wisdom convincing.

Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
I believe in God because He has both revealed and hidden Himself in so many different ways: in the created world, the Holy Bible, the man Jesus Christ; in the Church and men and women of God through the ages; in human relationships, in culture and beauty, life and death, pain and suffering; in immortal longings, in my faltering prayers and relationship with Him. There is nothing conclusive to force me into believing, but everything sug­gestive, and constantly drawing me on into the love of Christ and to "cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt".

David Alton, Lib Dem peer
The notion that humanity and the cosmos are an accident has always seemed implausible. A world littered with examples of complex genius - from developments in quantum theory to regenerative medicine - points us towards genius more perfect and more unfathomable than ourselves. The powerful combination of faith and reason led me as a child to believe in God.

Unsurprisingly, as I matured into manhood, that belief has not been immune against the usual catalogue of failure, sadness and grief; and belief has certainly not camouflaged the horrors of situations I have seen first hand in places such as Congo and Sudan. Paradoxically, it has been where suffering has been most acute that I have also seen the greatest faith.

By contrast, the more we own or have, the more difficulty we seem to have in seeing and encountering the Divine.

Professor Stephen R L Clark, philosopher
I believe in God because the alternatives are worse. Not believing in God would mean that we have no good reason to think that creatures such as us human beings (accidentally generated in a world without any overall purpose) have any capacity - still less any duty - to discover what the world is like.

Denying that "God exists" while still maintaining a belief in the power of reason is, in my view, ridiculous.My belief is that we need to add both that God is at least possibly incarnate among us, and that the better description of God (with all possible caveats about the difficulty of speaking about the infinite source of all being and value) is as something like a society. In other words, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, and of the trinity, have the philosophical edge. And once those doctrines are included, it is possible to see that other parts of that tradition are important.

Nick Spencer, director of Theos, the public theology think tank
I would say I find Christianity (rather than just belief in God) the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying explanation for being.

Stephen Green, director of the fundamentalist pressure group Christian Voice
I came to faith in God through seeing the ducks on a pond in People's Park, Grimsby. It struck me that they were all doing a similar job, but had different plumage. Why was that? Why did the coot have a white beak and the moorhen a red one? Being a hard-nosed engineer, I needed an explanation that worked and the evolutionary model seemed too far-fetched and needful of too much faith!

I mean, what could possibly be the evolutionary purpose of the bars on the hen mallard's wings, which can only be seen when she flies? Or the tuft on the head of the tufted duck?

So I was drawn logically to see them as designed like that. I suppose I believed in an intelligent designer long before the idea became fashionable. So, that left me as a sort of a deist. But God gradually became more personal to me and I was drawn against all my adolescent atheist beliefs deeper and deeper into faith in Jesus Christ.

Douglas Hedley, reader in metaphysics, Clare College, Cambridge
Do values such as truth, beauty and goodness emerge out of a contingent and meaningless substrate? Or do these values reflect a transcendent domain from which this world has emerged? I incline to the latter, and this is a major reason for my belief in God.

Paul Davies, quantum physicist
I am not comfortable answering the question "Why do you believe in God?" because you haven't defined "God". In any case, as a scientist,
I prefer not to deal in "belief" but rather in the usefulness of concepts. I am sure I don't believe in any sort of god with which most readers of your article would identify.

I do, however, assume (along with all scientists) that there is a rational and intelligible scheme of things that we uncover through scientific investigation. I am uncomfortable even being linked with "a god" because of the vast baggage that this term implies (a being with a mind, able to act on matter within time, making decisions, etc).

Professor Derek Burke, biochemist and former president of Christians in Science
There are several reasons why I believe in God. First of all, as a scientist who has been privileged to live in a time of amazing scientific discoveries (I received my PhD in 1953, the year Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA), I have been overwhelmed by wonder at the order and intricacy of the world around us. It is like peeling skins off an onion: every time you peel off a layer, there is another one underneath, equally marvellously intricate. Surely this could not have arisen by chance? Then my belief is strengthened by reading the New Testament especially, with the accounts of that amazing person, Jesus, His teaching, His compassion, His analysis of the human condition, but above all by His resurrection. Third, I'm deeply impressed by the many Christians whom I have met who have lived often difficult lives with compassion and love. They are an inspiration to me.

Peter J Bussey, particle physicist
God is the ultimate explanation, and this includes the explanation for the existence of physical reality, for laws of nature and everything. Let me at this point deal with a commonly encountered "problem" with the existence of God, one that Richard Dawkins and others have employed.
It goes that if God is the ultimate cause or the ultimate explanation, what then is the cause of God, or the explanation for God? My reply
is that, even in our own world, it is improper to repeat the same investigatory question an indefinite number of times. For example, we ask, "Who designed St Paul's Cathedral?" and receive the reply: "Sir Christopher Wren." But, "No help whatever," objects the sceptic, "because, in that case, who then designed Sir Christopher Wren?" To this, our response will now be that it is an inappropriate question and anyone except a Martian would know that. Different questions will be relevant now.

So, likewise, it is very unlikely that we know the appropriate questions, if any, to ask about God, who is presumably outside time, and is the source of the selfsame rationality that we presume to employ to understand the universe and to frame questions about God.
What should perhaps be underlined is that, in the absence of total proof, belief in God will be to some extent a matter of choice.

Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, bioethicist and Anglican priest
At the age of 18 or 19, a religious way of understanding the world began increasingly to make sense. It did not involve in any way abandoning the scientific way. If you like, it's a larger way of understanding our relationship with the rest of the world, our position in nature and all those standard questions to do with why we are here, if there is life after death, and so on. That was reinforced by good teaching, prayer and regular reading of scripture.

Peter Richmond, theoretical physicist
Today most people reject the supernatural but there can be no doubt that the teachings of Jesus are still relevant. And here I would differentiate these from some of the preaching of authoritarian churches, which has no doubt been the source of much that could be considered to be evil over the years. Even today, we see conflict in places such as Africa or the Middle East - killings made in the name of religion, for example. As Christians, we recognise these for what they are - evil acts perpetrated by the misguided. At a more domestic level, the marginalisation of women in the Church is another example that should be exposed for what it is: sheer prejudice by the present incumbents of the Church hierarchy. But as Christians, we can choose to make our case to change things as we try to follow the social teachings of Jesus. Compared to pagan idols, Jesus offered hope, comfort and inspiration, values that are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.

David Myers, professor of psychology, Hope College, Michigan
[Our] spirituality, rooted in the developing biblical wisdom and in a faith tradition that crosses the centuries, helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

Kenneth Miller, professor of biology, Brown University
I regard scientific rationality as the key to understanding the material basis of our existence as well as our history as a species. That's the reason why I have fought so hard against the "creationists" and those who advocate "intelligent design". They deny science and oppose scientific rationality, and I regard their ideas as a threat to a society such as ours that has been so hospitable to the scientific enterprise.

There are, however, certain questions that science cannot answer - not because we haven't figured them out yet (there are lots of those), but because they are not scientific questions at all. As the Greek philosophers used to ask, what is the good life? What is the nature of good and evil? What is the purpose to existence? My friend Richard Dawkins would ask, in response, why we should think that such questions are even important. But to most of us, I would respond, these are the most important questions of all.

What I can tell you is that the world I see, including the world I know about from science, makes more sense to me in the light of a spiritual understanding of existence and the hypo­thesis of God. Specifically, I see a moral polarity to life, a sense that "good" and "evil" are actual qualities, not social constructions, and that choosing the good life (as the Greeks meant it) is the central question of existence. Given that, the hypothesis of God conforms to what I know about the material world from science and gives that world a depth of meaning that I would find impossible without it.

Now, I certainly do not "know" that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason religious belief is called "faith", and not "certainty". But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science, and even provides a reason why science works and is of such value - because science explores that rationality of existence, a rationality that itself derives from the source of that existence.

In any case, I am happy to confess that I am a believer, and that for me, the Christian faith is the one that resonates. What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone's, can meet a scientific test.

Nick Brewin, molecular biologist
A crucial component of the question depends on the definition of "God". As a scientist, the "God" that I believe in is not the same God(s) that I used to believe in. It is not the same God that my wife believes in; nor is it the same God that my six-year-old granddaughter believes in; nor is it the God that my brain-damaged and physically disabled brother believes in. Each person has their own concept of what gives value and purpose to their life. This concept of "God" is based on a combination of direct and indirect experience.

Humankind has become Godlike, in the sense that it has acquired the power to store and manipulate information. Language, books, computers and DNA genomics provide just a few illustrations of the amazing range of technologies at our fingertips. Was this all merely chance? Or should we try to make sense of the signs and wonders that are embedded in a "revealed religion"?

Perhaps by returning to the "faith" position of children or disabled adults, scientists can extend their own appreciation of the value and purpose of individual human existence. Science and religion are mutually complementary.

Hugh Ross, astrophysicist and astronomer
Astronomy fascinates me. I started serious study of the universe when I was seven. By the age of 16, I could see that Big Bang cosmology offered the best explanation for the history of the universe, and because the Big Bang implies a cosmic beginning, it would require a cosmic beginner. It seemed reasonable that a creator of such awesome capacities would speak clearly and consistently if He spoke at all. So I spent two years perusing the holy books of the world's religions to test for these characteristics. I found only one such book. The Bible stood apart: not only did it provide hundreds of "fact" statements that could be tested for accuracy, it also anticipated - thousands of years in advance - what scientists would later discover, such as the fundamental features of Big Bang cosmology.

My observation that the Bible's multiple creation narratives accurately describe hundreds of details discovered much later, and that it consistently places them in the scientifically correct sequence, convinced me all the more that the Bible must be the supernaturally inspired word of God. Discoveries in astronomy first alerted me to the existence of God, and to this day the Bible's power to anticipate scientific discoveries and predict sociopolitical events ranks as a major reason for my belief in the God of the Bible. Despite my secular upbringing, I cannot ignore the compelling evidence emerging from research into the origin of the universe, the anthropic principle, the origin of life and the origin of humanity. Theaccumulating evidence continues to point compellingly towards the God of the Bible.

Steve Fuller, philosopher/professor of sociology, University of Warwick
I am a product of a Jesuit education (before university), and my formal academic training is in history and philosophy of science, which is the field credited with showing the tight links between science and religion. While I have never been an avid churchgoer, I am strongly moved by the liberatory vision of Jesus promoted by left-wing Christians.

I take seriously the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that we may come to exercise the sorts of powers that are associated with divinity. In this regard, I am sympathetic to the dissenting, anticlerical schools of Christianity - especially Unitarianism, deism and transcendentalism, idealism and humanism. I believe that it is this general position that has informed the progressive scientific spirit.

People such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens like to think of themselves as promoting a progressive view of humanity, but I really do not see how Darwinism allows that at all, given its species-egalitarian view of nature (that is, humans are just one more species - no more privileged than the rest of them). As I see it, the New Atheists live a schizoid existence, where they clearly want to privilege humanity but have no metaphysical basis for doing so.

Michael J Behe, scientific advocate of intelligent design
Two primary reasons: 1) that anything exists; and 2) that we human beings can comprehend and reason. I think both of those point to God.

Denis Alexander, director, Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge
I believe in the existence of a personal God. Viewing the universe as a creation renders it more coherent than viewing its existence as without cause. It is the intelligibility of the world that requires explanation.

Second, I am intellectually persuaded by the historical life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is indeed the
Son of God. Jesus is most readily explicable by understanding Him as the Son of God. Third, having been a Christian for more than five decades, I have experienced God through Christ over this period in worship, answered prayer and through His love. These experiences are more coherent based on the assumption that God does exist.

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia
There are many reasons - lines of evidence, if you will - all of which weave together to point me in a certain direction (much as a scientist or a jury might do before reaching a considered judgement), which we call a belief.

[I believe] because there is non-trivial historical evidence that a person called Jesus of Naza­reth rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, and
it just so happens that He predicted that He would . . . I believe because of the testimony of billions of believers, just a few of whom are known to me and in whom I trust (and hence trust their testimony).

I believe because of my ineradicable sense that certain things I see and hear about in the world warrant the non-arbitrary categories of "good" or "evil". I believe because I have not discovered a better explanation of beauty, truth and love than that they emerge in a world created - willed into being - by a God who personifies beauty, truth and love.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Humanist and Skeptic. His email address is:

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD 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