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Geneva remembers turning point in Cold War

Warming to each other: Reagan and Gorbachev in Geneva Keystone

Twenty years after Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev broke the ice in Geneva, a Swiss diplomat who organised that historic summit recalls the event.

This content was published on May 30, 2005 - 13:36

To mark the anniversary, Edouard Brunner attended a roundtable discussion, along with former Soviet premier Gorbachev, on Monday.

As secretary of state for foreign affairs in the 1980s, Brunner was asked by the United States to organise the historic summit. It took place from November 19-21, 1985.

At the time relations between the two superpowers were at their worst for many years. In 1983 the late Ronald Reagan gave his famous "evil empire" speech, describing the Soviet Union as "the focus of evil" in the world.

In the same year, the US deployed mid-range missiles in western Europe for the first time. The Soviets responded by walking out of arms control talks in Geneva.

The Geneva Summit was the first time that Reagan and Gorbachev - recently risen to the top of Communist Party - had met, and it marked the beginning of a thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow.

Its purpose was to open the way for negotiations on curbing nuclear proliferation, and by the end of the meeting both sides had agreed to accelerate efforts towards a 50 per cent cut in their nuclear arsenals.

Several of the key players will be present to mark the anniversary, including the former Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnikh, and Reagan’s former national security advisor, Robert McFarlane.

swissinfo: Is it correct to say that the meeting marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War?

Edouard Brunner: Yes, I think you could say that. Both men had convinced themselves that it was useless to go on like this. But on the other hand, they had constituencies at home that were not so easy to handle. Gorbachev had to convince his Politburo that he could do business with Reagan.

[The timing was good because] when Gorbachev came to power there was a ray of hope because for the first time we had a leader in the Soviet Union who was apparently ready to act in a decisive way as far as détente was concerned.

On the other side you had Reagan who was a hawk, but who was intelligent enough to see that he could perhaps put an end to the Cold War. And I think it was Margaret Thatcher who convinced Reagan that he could talk to Gorbachev. That is how it started in June [1985].

swissinfo: You personally met Reagan and Gorbachev. Did they get on as famously as we were led to believe?

E.B.: Our president Kurt Furgler insisted on having a one-on-one with Gorbachev and Reagan for one hour before the talks started. Apparently, at the beginning it was not so warm between them.

The first day, according to Edvard Shevardnadze, whom I met in Georgia, Gorbachev was ready to leave because he didn’t feel at ease with Reagan.

But I think Mrs Gorbachev and Shevardnadze convinced him [to stay]. So the talks went on and in the end they had a good meeting and apparently they liked each other so much that they met some months later in Reykjavik [Iceland].

swissinfo: What role did Switzerland, and you yourself, play in organising that meeting?

E.B.: I was approached by the American negotiator who was in Geneva for disarmament talks with the Soviets, to find out if we were ready to organise a meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. We had to see to the security, to organise every detail – to find accommodation, meeting places, and so on. Let’s say we organised it in a non-political way.

swissinfo: These days Geneva rarely seems to host such high-profile talks. Why?

E.B.: At the time of the Cold War, we were a neutral country in Europe... and we had a role to play among the [conflicting] parties. That was in the tradition of Geneva. But now neutrality is not needed in this context [because we no longer have a bipolar world].

Today there are plenty of other countries which are as neutral as we are between parties. Take the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, take Darfur [Sudan], take Iran. Even when Bush meets Putin, they meet in Slovenia or Slovakia. Switzerland no longer has a monopoly on neutrality.

But Geneva is still often chosen because you have to meet in a place where both sides have embassies or missions and facilities. I think that whenever the situation is ripe for talks one of the options is to come to Geneva. This is a service we can still provide to the international community; not with Switzerland’s active participation but as a host country.

swissinfo: Does Geneva, and Switzerland in general, still have a role to play as a centre for peace making?

E.B.: Yes, Geneva has a role because it has so many international organisations. And very often international conferences are held there because of the facilities provided by the United Nations. But neither Reagan nor Gorbachev wanted to have their meeting under the umbrella of the UN. It was a bilateral thing, and the only intermediary there was Switzerland.

We should be, as we are, active in trying to find solutions. Take the Geneva Accord – it was not an official thing, but we helped some Israelis and some Palestinians write this document and show it to the world in Geneva in December 2003. This is something we can do because we are not biased and we have no axe to grind. Everybody knows that Switzerland does not have national interests to defend. Our aim is only to help others avoid war and to solve problems.

swissinfo-interview: Jonas Hughes

Key facts

Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time at the Geneva summit on November 19, 1985.
The meeting led to a thaw in relations between the US and the Soviet Union.
The Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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