The Washington Times

REYKJAVIK. – Iceland looks so old, someone once remarked, because it is so new. The 40 minute drive from Keflavik airport into the capital, Reykjavik, juxtaposes to the east an impossibly craggy rolling landscape of near-lunar desolation and to the west, the implacable steely cold of the sea. They combine in a declaration of permanent hostility.

This is an illusion, however. Iceland sits atop – actually, it is the product of – the collision of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Continental forces rend its landscape, fire its volcanoes, spit new islands from the ocean and release the immense geothermal energy that powers and heats the island and bestows upon it some of the world’s most stunningly beautiful natural phenomena.

The rawness is thus newness in geological time. Things that look permanent are anything but. And by the bay in Reykjavik, on a promenade that seems lonely and isolated from the rest of the city though it is no more than a 15 minute walk from the center, stands Hofdi House, a white mansion of modest proportion, said to be haunted, where Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986 for the decisive moment in the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev met as mature leaders at the height of their powers, each presiding over a superpower, one democratic and one communist. They sought a wide-ranging agreement to reduce the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals, and they came tantalizingly close. But there was a final sticking point, the point on which Mr. Gorbachev insisted and over which Mr. Reagan walked out: the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative. Mr. Reagan refused to consign research into a defense against nuclear weapons to the laboratory for 10 years, as Mr. Gorbachev insisted in the likely correct judgment that such circumscribed research would produce nothing.

Mr. Gorbachev did not believe Mr. Reagan’s promise to share the research; did not share the American conviction that the United States would never attack with nuclear weapons; knew well that the Soviet Union could ill-afford to continue its own efforts on strategic defense; and so insisted that SDI must go.

Mr. Reagan was, of course, under immense pressure to give it up. First of all, there were those who regarded a defense against nuclear weapons as inherently destabilizing, a shift from the supposed certainty of deterrence through Mutual Assured Destruction. Second were those who derided “Star Wars” as something that could never work, a delusion that was the product of runaway militarist fantasy. Third were those who saw it precisely as a bargaining chip, to be cheerfully traded for an agreement such as Mr. Gorbachev was offering at Hofdi House.

Mr. Reagan held fast, walking away from what would surely have been hailed as an historic breakthrough in arms control. Although some U.S. allies expressed reluctance about inadequate consultation over the sweeping nuclearization under consideration, and although some of the administration’s critics on the right at home would have opposed the cuts in the U.S. arsenal even if Mr. Gorbachev had agreed to drop his objection to SDI, the combined inertial momentum of the entire postwar history of arms control negotiations pushed in the direction of a Reagan concession to achieve an agreement. Mr. Reagan, a tectonic force in his own right, halted that momentum.

When he closed his briefing book at Hofdi House, stood up, and said to Secretary of State Schultz, “Let’s go, George. We’re leaving,” he closed the door on the bipolar era of superpower rivalry. He asserted instead that the United States could and would act in accordance with the power it possessed without allowing itself to be circumscribed by the Soviet Union out of proportion to real Soviet power. Which is to say, Mr. Reagan understood at the time, as most did not, that the power of the United States was underestimated globally and the power of the Soviet Union overestimated. There might have been a time when a Soviet leader could force a concession on something like SDI, but by 1986, that time was past.

Mr. Reagan didn’t give up what he didn’t have to give up. Fourteen years later, the Soviet Union is no more; its arsenal mainly rusting. In addition, it is perfectly responsible now to contemplate (as George W. Bush has suggested) a substantial unilateral reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And perhaps most remarkably, the inertial momentum of U.S. policy is now characterized by bipartisan support for the deployment of a U.S. missile defense. The United States has achieved its terms from Hofdi House in 1986 – and much more.

When Mr. Reagan came to Reykjavik, the Cold War already seemed ancient and permanent. The Soviet Union and the United States, communism and democracy, seemed set to struggle in perpetuity, against the backdrop of their nuclear arsenal. This was the harrowing stability of a bipolar international order. It took Mr. Reagan at Hofdi House to see how new this landscape was, and how susceptible to change it might be.