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[Opinion] When Reagan met Gorbachev — a history lesson for Putin

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At a speech to the American Bar Foundation in 1962, President John Kennedy's secretary of defense Robert McNamara unveiled a term Mutually Assured Destruction to incapacitate the Soviet Union in the event of a nuclear attack.

Using a retaliatory strike, it would destroy one-third of the Soviet population and one-half of its industrial complex rendering the superpower powerless. McNamara noted this approach was "the cornerstone of our strategic policy" and "the very essence of the whole deterrence concept."

However, he later recanted noting, "neither the Soviet Union nor the United States can now attack the other, even by complete surprise, without suffering massive damage in retaliation. "It would be virtually impossible."

Years later Ronald Reagan when touring NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and discussing America's nuclear strategy would ask the most basic of questions — "what is Plan B?" to which he was provided the simplest of answers — "there is none."

The conversation set in motion a personal commitment for president Reagan to avoid at all costs nuclear war by ridding the world of long-range missiles.

Ironically, Reagan who wanted to eliminate a war-to-end-all-wars, had famously called the Soviet Union an evil empire, one that would "be left on the ash heap of history." This hardly struck the tone for amicable discussions around non-proliferation.

As a result, the Reagan Administration was met with a combination of fear, distrust and concern by the Soviets making the notion of a 'tour de table' between the two superpowers a near impossibility.

Reagan had adopted a "trust but verify" attitude concerning the Soviets, but the ice began to thaw with the nomination of a relative outsider from Russia to lead the Soviet Union — Mikhail Gorbachev.

Like Reagan, who he diametrically opposed politically and philosophically, (but claimed to enjoy Reagan's westerns) he saw the need to relieve the world of the nuclear sword of Damocles that swayed above its head.

The two men would go on to meet at three summits famously beginning on the frozen outpost of Reykjavik. And while they did not rid the world of nuclear weapons they set in motion an ongoing commitment of future presidents from Bush to Clinton to Obama, to fulfill their dream.

Sadly, the spectre of nuclear annihilation faded in the minds of the 'Average Joe' citizen over time — as Baby Boomers aged and Generation Z focused on the challenges of a newly connected world.

But thousands of missiles remain locked and loaded, making the term megadeath a viable possibility. Surely no sane leader would ever consider pressing the button, right?

Lessons for Ukraine

Fast forward to the current crisis unfolding in Ukraine. What Putin predicted to be a quick victory, has now dragged on for months, with significant losses on both sides.

Sabre-rattling by leaders in Russia and the West continue and all the sudden the dormant possibility of nuclear war has been awoken from its slumber. So, what to do?

We will leave the military and foreign policy experts to propose how to tamp down emotions and put forth a strategy for ending the crisis.

But, as two people that have studied the Reagan-Gorbachev negotiations, we can offer insights into what drove those discussions.

First, the two viewed the issue through both the rational and emotional lens. They remembered and saw the horrific impact of nuclear fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and from the accident at Chernobyl. The effects were horrific and neither wanted to see them repeated.

Second, rational thinking had to trump ideology and personal aggrandisement. Mutual Assured Destruction was what the term implied — doomsday — and no issues would be resolved by simply annihilating one another.

Third, they showed that even if leaders dislike one another, as they often do, it is important to follow a framework as was done in Reykjavik.

Prep talks at lower levels, presence of informed and professional teams to iron out details and deals when the leaders are exhausted, and sleeping was critical. All the START negotiations gave the world that sort of template for high-stakes negotiations and that is needed now.

Finally, they shared a willingness to engage and despite their opposing and deeply-held beliefs established a trusted relationship. While both strong-willed and opinionated, they agreed to put their differences aside and focus on the people in their respective nations and beyond as all would be impacted by a nuclear war.

Unfortunately, the negotiations were the beginning of the end politically for Gorbachev, eventually stepping down from his post as president as the Soviet Union began its collapse. Reagan would finish out his term under the cloud of the Iran-Contra scandal and eventually be overcome by the ravages of Alzheimer's.

Neither man achieved their goal.

Despite that fact there are lessons that current leaders — particularly Vladimir Putin — could adopt from these two iconic leaders.

As in the end, it all begins with trust and respectful dialogue. Without this all we can do is wait and watch in trepidation holding our breath that before mutually assured destruction ends all this speculation around nuclear war, that the penny drops, or is it the rouble, and that discretion is seen to be the better part of valour.

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