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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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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