1989 Malta Summit: Watching the World Wake Up from History

1989 Malta Summit: Watching the World Wake Up from History

Thirty years ago this month, George Bush met Mikhail Gorbachev off the Mediterranean island nation of Malta for their first face-to-face meeting as leaders of their respective countries. The challenge before them at that time was to begin unwinding the Cold War – a task made more complex by rapidly unfolding events across Central and Eastern Europe as democratic reforms swept through the region. The Malta Summit was the first in a series of historic Bush-Gorbachev meetings and consultations that, in turn, paved the way for a series of historic agreements and treaties concluding with the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union – replaced by a democratic Russia.

This excerpt from A World Transformed focuses on that historic Malta Summit, which took place December 2-3, 1989 in Valetta Harbor – also remembered as the “Seasick Summit” owing to the abysmal weather roiling the seas that week. As always, both President Bush and his national security advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, recounted their own memories of these momentous events in alternating passages.

George Bush

We arrived at Malta at about 10 o’clock in the morning in a light rain, and after a brief meeting with Malta’s Prime Minister Fenech Adami and a visit to the USS Forrestal, we boarded the cruiser USS Belknap – the flag ship of the sixth fleet – in Valletta Harbor. Anchored about a mile away was the Soviet cruiser Slava, while the large Soviet cruise ship Maxim Gorky was berthed at the dock itself, and thus was in the most protected position of the three ships involved in the talks. I was bunked aboard the Belknap, where I took over the comfortable cabin of our host, Admiral Jonathan D. Williams. As we settled on board, I managed to squeeze in some time to fish off the fantail of the ship. I caught nothing, but I did get one nibble.

Gales had been starting up outside, but when I went to bed the first night there was a gentle lull and I could hear the sea lapping at the hull. The weather got worse as the next day and night wore on. The heavy pounding seas disrupted much of the schedule and even forced us to cancel one of the meetings. Gorbachev, who was staying on the Maxim Gorky, did not want to venture out to the Slava, where the first meeting was scheduled. Instead, we went to the Maxim Gorky. Getting into the launch was a challenge, for the swells made footing difficult.

The Maxim Gorky was beautiful, with huge plate glass windows. Recently refurbished, it had been brought in for the purpose of housing the Soviet delegation and staff. Gorbachev met me on a landing at the top of the stairs outside the salon. He had arrived late the night before and looked tired, but he was smiling. He was dressed in a dark blue pinstripe suit, cream white shirt, and red tie. His hair was greater than I remembered from the year before. With him were Shevardnadze, Yakovlev, Bessmertnykh, and Anatoly Cheryayev, as well as a host of advisors – Valentin Falin, former ambassador Dobrynin, Akhromeyev, Viktor Karpov, current Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin, press secretary Gennady Gerasimov, and others. As Gorbachev introduced everyone in his large group, I realized I had met all of the participants before.

Brent Scowcroft

Like the President, I knew every one of them. Even so, the atmosphere, while friendly, was not relaxed. There was a feeling of anticipatory tension in the salon as we greeted one another across a long table. As host on the ship, Gorbachev opened with a formal welcome and invited the President to make the initial presentation. The President was taut as he began to speak, clearly nervous about the import of what was happening. He began to loosen up as he went along.

George Bush

I set out my initiatives and proposed a summit for some time at the end of June. I turned to the obstacles to improving trade. “I want to waive Jackson-Vanik, which prohibits most favored nation (MFN) status,” I said. “Two things have to happen. First you are changing your immigration law and expect it to be completed early next year. Second, our lawn requires a trade agreement before MFN can be granted. Let’s begin trade negotiations immediately. I will push the American side to move. I want it done. If the word is not out to the top people in our administration – and I think it is – I will see to it. I would like to wrap up an agreement by the 1990 summit.” I spelled out some troublesome problems. One was human rights and divided Soviet families, part living in the United States. As I spoke, Jim Baker handed Gorbachev a list of outstanding cases. Gorbachev observed that the US Embassy had not been able to cope with the flood of those who wanted to emigrate. He promised to pursue the matter.

I raised Central America, the most contentious issue between our countries. I explained how the leaders there were pressing me to ask him to get Castro to stop exploring revolution into these democracies. “This is the single most disruptive factor in a relationship that is going in the right direction,” I said. “It is not just the right wing in the United States. Concerns run deeper than that. I know it is sensitive for you, but in the US some ask: how can the Soviets put all this money into Cuba and still want agricultural credits? Nicaragua promised Mr. Shevardnadze not to ship arms. The Sandinistas owe you an explanation.” The solution I added, was honest elections and a transfer of power.

“Arms control,” I continued. “I want to get rid of chemical weapons. I mean it.” I offered a suggestion, with a concession on our part. If the Soviets would agree to a chemical warfare initiative that I had set out in my September UN speech, I was prepared to halt our chemical weapons modernization program as soon as a global ban was in force. I also wanted a CFE treaty signed in 1990 and more steam put behind a START agreement. I spelled out changes we were prepared to make in our bargaining positions to get things moving. I asked him to make public the details of their military budget, Soviet forces in general, and weapons production figures the way the United States does. “As a former CIA man, I hope you got these from the KGB before our meeting.”

“They say you are not publishing everything,” said Gorbachev with a faint smile.

“I hope you can do this as a trust building measure,” I said. I concluded with a list of other areas where we could cooperate, such as environmental issues and science and student exchanges. “This is the end of my non-agenda,” I joked.

Brent Scowcroft

… Whatever Gorbachev had originally in mind for his initial comments remains a mystery, for the President had obviously upset his game plan. He appeared nonplussed after having been buried in the avalanche of US proposals. He recovered fairly quickly and made a creditable presentation, but any fears we had of emerging from this initial exchange on the defensive were laid to rest.

George Bush

Gorbachev paused before answering me. “This has been interesting,” he said slowly. “It shows the Bush administration has already decided what to do.” He read aloud his own notes outlining his view of the world, written in a small orange notebook. “I believe it is important for both of us to evaluate the period of the Cold War. You cannot rewrite history. What happened, happened. That is the privilege of history. But it is our privilege, even duty, to examine what happened … today, all of us feel we are at a historic watershed. We have to address completely new problems, ones we did not anticipate or expect to become so cute. Now the question is whether we should approach these problems as in the past.” He argued that some in the United States believed that the old policies have been right, that all we needed to do was gather the fruit. “But I know you do not agree with this,” he said. “I know you have heard experts give their views, but what you have said today shows President Bush has his own understanding, which is consistent with the challenges of our times.”

He outlined the New World he saw evolving – a multipolar world with an integrated Europe, a strong Japan and China. India too was becoming more dynamic. He could imagine new and enormous issues would come into play, all related to competition over limited resources. “We in the Soviet Union have been thinking about this for some time. The United States and the USSR are doomed to cooperate for a long time, but we have to abandon the images of an enemy.”

Gorbachev said he was not suggesting a US-Soviet condominium, only describing reality. “I do not call into question our allied responsibility or previous patterns of cooperation,” he said. “But there must be patterns of cooperation to take account of new realities.” It was dangerous for either side to ignore or neglect the other’s interests. “The United States has not entirely abandoned old approaches. I cannot say we have entirely abandoned ours. Sometimes we feel the United States wants to teach, to put pressure on others. We are aware of that. I want to hear your response, because this is how we will build bridges across rivers rather than parallel them …”

“I hope you have noticed that as dynamic change has accelerated in recent months,” I replied, “we have not responded with flamboyance or arrogance that would complicate Soviet relations. What I am saying may be self-serving. I have been called cautious or timid. I am cautious, but not timid. But I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.”

“Yes, we have seen that, and appreciate that,” said Gorbachev. “We have some concern on one thing: your actions on the Philippines.” As for Central America, the question of arms shipments was a misunderstanding. “If we promise something to you, we always want to keep our pledges or you will not have trust in our relationship. We want to convince you that we are not engaged in political games. We pledged we would not supply arms to Nicaragua, and we are not …”

“There is political pluralism in Nicaragua,” he continued. “It has nothing to do with Marxism. It is ridiculous to speak of the Sandinistas as Marxists. The roots of the current situation in Nicaragua are economic and historical. I don’t see why Nicaragua is so unacceptable to you. They will have a new government after elections. Let the UN and Latin America monitor the election. Frankly, we are not that much concerned with them. As for Cuba, Castro emerged without any assistance from us … No one can really give orders to Castro, absolutely no one. Castro has his own views of perestroika, saying what he thinks.” Gorbachev laughed. “But we need mutual understanding. We don’t want bridgeheads in Cuba and Central America. We don’t need that. You must be convinced of that.”

I was very pleased with this first session. With the large cast of characters present, it was something quite different from the small agenda-less meetings I had planned. Our presentation had been well thought out, however, particularly by Jim and Brent, and it had been well received. Still, I think Gorbachev was relieved when we spoke in private about noon. At this session, only Brent, our interpreter, and I met with Gorbachev, Chernyayev, and their interpreter.

Gorbachev made a strong pitch for me to talk to Castro. “My talks in Cuba weren’t simple,” he said. “Castro expressed caution about our policy of reforms – I explained our aims we’re good … he asked me, in effect, to help normalize US Dash Cuban relations … I say this for the first time in the most private way,” said Gorbachev.

“Let’s put all our cards on the table about Castro,” I replied. “Our allies can’t see why we care about Central America. It just isn’t a gut issue for them. For the political left in the United States, it isn’t a gut issue. But for the fledgling democracies in Latin America and the US right, it is a gut issue. Castro is like a sea anchor, as you move forward and as the western hemisphere moves toward democracy.”

Gorbachev had said the Sandinistas had nothing to do with Marxism. “I am inclined to agree with you – I didn’t used to think so,” I said. “But I am convinced they are exporting revolution. They are sending weapons. I don’t care what they have told you, they are supporting the FMLN (the leftist insurgent forces in El Salvador). I am now convinced there is a new shipment of helicopters going from the Soviet Union to Nicaragua.” I told him I saw the solution as a verifiable election and for Daniel Ortega not to try to cling to power regardless of the results. As for the US, “if it is a free election, we will abide by the results,” I assured him. The only other issue in Central America was Panama, where Manuel Noriega remained a problem for us. I confided that we were preparing solid indictments against him.

“Let me tell you how your steps are perceived in the Soviet Union,” said Gorbachev briskly. “People ask, is there a no barrier to US action in independent countries? The United States passes judgment and executes that judgment.”

I raised the Philippines, which Gorbachev had referred to in the previous meeting and which I thought was a cut-and-dried example of positive US involvement. “There is a disparate group in the military,” I said. “Democratically elected President Aquino asked for help to prevent the palace from being bombed buy these rebels. It never occurred to me that this would cause problems and the Soviet Union, though I probably would have done it anyway.”

“In the Soviet Union, some are saying the Brezhnev Doctrine is being replaced by the Bush Doctrine,” said Gorbachev forcefully. I reminded him that the Philippines was a democracy asking for help against rebel thugs.

“I agree she is a democrat,” said Gorbachev. “It depends on the context. In Eastern Europe there are governments legitimately elected which are now being replaced. The question is, in the struggles in Eastern Europe, what if someone asks for Soviet troops to intervene? All is now interrelated. Some are now saying we are not performing our duty to our friends. But we have not been asked.”

“In Eastern Europe, change is peaceful and encouraged by you,” I answered. “In the Philippines there is a colonel trying to shoot his way into power.”

Gorbachev nodded. “Peaceful change is the way,” he said. “Our position is non-interference. The process of change can be painful. Colonels can be found everywhere to do these jobs.”

He changed the topic to Eastern Europe and Germany, and said he had three points to make. First, “the direction of change in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is such as to bring us closer – that is important.” Second, he disliked it when some US politicians said the unity of Europe should be on the basis of Western values. “We have been accused of the export of ideology,” he added. “That is what is now being proposed by some – not you.” Finally, “Mr. Kohl (Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor) is in too much of a hurry on the German question. That is not good.”

Gorbachev speculated that Kohl’s recent pronouncements (suggesting closer association between East and West Germany) were motivated by some “pre-election game.” He suggested that we “should let Kohl know that his approach could damage things.” There were also unanswered questions. “For example, would a united Germany be outside alliances or within NATO? An answer is premature and we shouldn’t push it – we should let it run its natural course. You and I are not responsible for the division of Germany. Let history decide what will happen. We need an understanding on this.”

I told Gorbachev I thought Kohl felt an enormous emotional response to what had happened. “There is some politics to his program and some emotional outpouring,” I acknowledged. “I think he knows the problems of his allies – after they support the right of the German people to reunite, they have some private reservations about reunification.”

“Yes, I know,” Gorbachev responded, “and they let me know. Unlike they – and you – I am saying there are two states, mandated by history. So let history decide the outcome. Kohl assured me he will abide by understandings we made in Bonn in May. Now he says he wants

to talk on the phone – and (West German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich) Genscher is coming. I think this is an area for a particular prudence.”

I nodded. “We will do nothing to recklessly try to speed up reunification,” I said. “When you talk to Kohl, I think you will see he agrees … I will be timid – that is how Senator Mitchell described my refusal to jump up and down on the wall. This is no time for grandstanding or steps that look good but could prove reckless.”

“The time we live in is one of great responsibility – great opportunity but great responsibility,” said Gorbachev.

Brent Scowcroft

After about 4 ½ hours on the Maxim Gorky, we headed back to the Belknap. The weather had turned for the worse. The swells, even in the harbor, were enormous and the wind was howling. We had great difficulty getting aboard the ship and made it only because of the great skill of the crew of the Admiral’s barge. The swells would take the barge up or down 15 feet in a second, and transferring to the Belknap landing platform was quite a trick. The barge smashed the starboard platform to pieces, but we finally managed to get off onto the port platform. The crew worried that the barge would wreck that platform as well, and if it had, there would have been no way on or off the ship until the seas calmed down – helicopters were out of the question.

By nightfall, the ship was rolling like mad. The storm prevented any of our people then ashore from getting to the ship, and we ourselves could not leave, even though we were riding at anchor. Gorbachev could not reach the Belknap for dinner that evening, so we ate a marvelous meal meant for him – swordfish, lobster, and so forth. Here were the two superpower leaders only hundreds of yards apart, and they could not dine together. The storm cut us off from the rest of the world, and even though the talks were going reasonably well – when we could meet – we had no idea how they were being received.

George Bush

The storm had eased by the next morning and we were able to resume our schedule. Gorbachev still could not be persuaded to venture out to the Slava, so we went back to the Maxim Gorky. He was very jovial and once again direct – another relaxed meeting. Gorbachev could be tough, but he had a good sense of humor. I felt we were on the same wavelength as we talked.

“I want to say to you and the United States that the Soviet Union will under no circumstances start a war – that is very important,” Gorbachev told me. “The Soviet Union is ready no longer to regard the United States as an adversary and is ready to state that our relationship is cooperative.” It was time to think beyond the arms race. He complained that while the Soviet Union had switched to a defensive military doctrine, the United States and NATO had not yet changed their doctrine. As he finished his remarks, Gorbachev handed me a colorful map depicting US bases and fleets around the world. “I’m not sure if something is obsolete or if there should have been additions,” he joked. “The Sixth Fleet (which included the ships we used for the talks) is moving.”

“Where is the Slava?” I laughed. His map was impressive, but not persuasive. For instance, they had marked the Panama Canal with a blue flag. “What does the Panama Canal have to do with encircling Soviet Union?” I asked.

“Never mind the Panama Canal,” he said, grinning.

“Why don’t we see how accurate this is and we’ll tell you if there are any problems,” I said, handing the map to Brent.

I turned the discussion to Europe. “You were closer to events, but I want to comment,” I said. “We cannot be asked to disapprove of German reunification. I realize that this is a highly sensitive subject and we have tried to conduct ourselves with restraint.” I added that we were well aware of the Helsinki language about borders. “How do you see beyond the status quo?” Gorbachev replied that he believed all of Europe would draw closer together. “Our viewpoint, shared by all Europeans – even in nuances by Kohl – is that we should do everything within the Helsinki context,” he said. We had to improve stability and make sure we did not ruin the instruments that had maintained the balance in Europe. He suggested that in the future the Warsaw Pact and NATO should have more a political than a military nature.

At the following one-on-one, I went straight for the Baltics and asked Gorbachev about the possible use of force. He described the problems he was facing, especially the interlaced nationalities of the Soviet Union. He had been ready to deal with the Baltics through greater autonomy, he said. But if they went for separatism, “that would be dramatic. I must not create a danger to perestroika. The Soviet peoples would not understand. We have lived together for 50 years. We are integrated.” He pointed out that there were millions of Russians living in the Baltics. Half the residents of Estonia were Russian, he said, and over half the population of Latvia. “Our country is that way, and separatism brings out strong feelings in the people.” There had been a “calming down,” said Gorbachev, “but there are still problems. This is a sensitive issue for us. I hope you understand our position. This would bring all sorts of terrible fires. If the United States has no understanding it would spoil relations more than anything else.”

“But if you use force in the Baltics – you don’t want to – that would create a firestorm,” I interjected. I pointed out that the United States would have to respond to any use of force by the Soviets there.

“We want all to get equal treatment,” responded Gorbachev. “If we removed our troops from Nagarno-Karabakh (in Azerbaijan), we would have localized civil war. We are committed to a democratic process and we hope you understand.”

Brent Scowcroft

At this point Raisa Gorbachev enter to greet us and the formal discussion stopped. I came away from this exchange convinced that Gorbachev understood clearly what a neuralgic issue the Baltics work for us and, while his language was a bit elliptical in places, that he would restrict himself to non-coercive measures to deal with them.

George Bush

We had covered a wide array of issues with Gorbachev and, in spite of the differences, I thought we had a lot of common ground. Because we had to cancel one of the meetings, and had spoken so thoroughly on a few issues, we had not gotten to everything on the agenda. Gorbachev proposed, and I agreed, to let Baker and Shevardnadze continue discussions – basically giving them free rein. More important was Malta’s positive effect on my personal relationship with Gorbachev, which I thought was symbolized in our joint press conference – the first-ever in US-Soviet relations. The talks had shown a friendly openness between us and a genuine willingness to listen to each other’s proposals. Perhaps the growing trust helped him accept and promote changes in Eastern Europe, less worried that we would take advantage of the situation. All of this could only help further European security as we tackled new challenges there.