June 9, 2004
By Edwin Meese III
Ronald Reagan was a strong believer in
personal diplomacy - the idea of having a face-to-face discussion
with those he was seeking to persuade. That's why, after becoming
president, he often talked privately about the desire to engage the
leader of the Soviet Union in a one-on-one conversation, to
diminish any fear of the United States' intentions and to seek
common ground for reducing tensions and promoting peace.
This was not a new idea for
the president. Years before, when he was governor of California, he
spoke frequently of his desire to host Soviet leaders on a trip
across America, so that he could explain to them the truth about
how workers prospered under a free economy.
He also knew the value of direct and frank discussion and was
confident of his own negotiating ability. As president of the
Screen Actors Guild, he spent countless hours negotiating with the
owners of major motion picture studios, hammering out a contract
that was fair for both parties. I often heard him say with his
typical humor, "After (Warner Bros. Studio head) Jack Warner, the
Russians can't be any tougher."
I saw Reagan's negotiating skill firsthand. In 1971, then-Gov.
Reagan spent a full week in face-to-face negotiations with the
speaker of the California Assembly, the leader of the political
opposition. The sessions went on day after day, sometimes lasting
late into the night. But the result was the most successful state
welfare-reform program in the nation at that time.
So it was understandable that as a newly elected president,
Reagan looked forward to meeting his Soviet counterpart. But that
day was a long time coming. First, the president wanted to
reinvigorate our national defenses, so that he could negotiate with
the Communist Party chief from a position of strength. Then, when
Reagan was ready to meet, several leaders of the Soviet Union died
in succession before a conference could be arranged.
Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the
Communist Party. A younger man than his predecessors, and one who
was more familiar with the West, Gorbachev was the ideal
counterpart for Reagan's first summit meeting. The date was set for
November 1985 in Geneva, Switzerland.
In the days leading up to that momentous occasion, Reagan told
me that he hoped that, in addition to the formal sessions of the
summit, he could have a private meeting with Gorbachev. He wanted
to establish a personal relationship and to break what he viewed as
the "barriers of mistrust that divided our countries."
That opportunity came about on the first afternoon of the
summit. Reagan suggested to Gorbachev that the two of them go for a
walk outside. They strode together to a boathouse near the summit
building. They talked there for nearly two hours, alone except for
their interpreters. The result was the initiation of a rapport
between the two most powerful men on Earth, which developed into a
respect - even friendship.
In this conversation, they also agreed to two more summit
meetings - one in Washington and one in Moscow - a result that none
of the diplomats of either nation would have thought possible. Thus
began a series of meetings that changed the course of history.
From a post-Cold War perspective, the main principles of the
Reagan program today appear self-evident. Given accurate data about
the Communist system, indeed, they are the very essence of common
sense. Viewing the rubble of the Berlin Wall, the upheavals that
have transformed Eastern Europe, and the internal collapse of the
Soviet regime, hardly anyone can doubt that communism was indeed an
"evil empire" and a failed economic system.
Yet at the time Reagan was meeting with Gorbachev, there was
nothing self-evident about it. On the contrary, he was roundly
attacked for both his general analysis of the situation, and for
nearly all the specific steps he took in carrying out his policy,
from the defense buildup to the Strategic Defense Initiative. Even
in the aftermath of the Communist collapse, Reagan's critics were
reluctant to credit the accuracy of his vision or the correctness
of his policy.
Perhaps the most famous example of this tendency was Time
magazine celebrating the virtual end of communism and proclaiming
Mikhail Gorbachev "Man of the Decade." Reagan's role in all of this
was scarcely mentioned. Margaret Thatcher provided a more accurate
view when she famously remarked: "He won the Cold War without
firing a shot."
While Ronald Reagan stood firm in his opposition to Communist
expansion and imperialism, his personal diplomacy and his
relationship with Gorbachev were major factors in shaping the
forces that ultimately led to the end of the Cold War - with
victory for the cause of freedom.
Meese, a former attorney general in the Reagan
administration, is the Ronald Reagan Fellow in Public Policy at The
Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). Before joining the Reagan
administration, Meese was director of the USD Center for Criminal
Justice Policy and Management.
Originally published in San Diego Union Tribune
Ronald Reagan was a strong believer in personal diplomacy – the idea of having a face-to-face discussion with those he was seeking to persuade.
Edwin Meese III
Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus
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