Remarks at a White House Briefing on Soviet-United States Relations for the President's Commission on Executive Exchange

October 6, 1986

Well, thank you, and I'm delighted we could meet today. First, this is a chance to say hello to all of you and compliment you on the work that you've been doing on defense- and peace-related issues. And second, knowing of your interest in this matter, I wanted to use this opportunity to offer a perspective -- the American perspective if you will -- on the meetings between Mr. Gorbachev and me later this week in Reykjavik, Iceland.

By the way, since we Americans have developed a reputation for being uncomplicated, straightforward, and not especially long-winded, I want you to know that I'll be trying to practice these national traits -- especially the last one -- in my remarks to you today. I can't resist! I've worn out a story that expressed the -- [laughter] -- that expressed the importance of brevity in a speech. It was told to me by a minister, Bill Alexander -- used to do the invocation for the Republican National Conventions, and he heard me speak once. And after he'd heard me speak, he told me about his first experience as a preacher, and I've always thought there was a connection.

He said that he had worked for weeks on that first sermon. He'd been invited to preach at a little country church out in Oklahoma. And he went there well prepared and stood up in the pulpit for an evening service and looked out at one lone little fellow sitting out there among all the empty pews. So, he went down, and he said, ``My friend, you seem to be the only member of the congregation that showed up, and I'm just a young preacher getting started. What do you think? Should I go through with it?'' And the fellow says, ``Well, I don't know about that sort of thing; I'm a little old cowpoke out here in Oklahoma. But I do know this: If I loaded up a truckload of hay, took it out in the prairie, and only one cow showed up, I'd feed her.'' [Laughter] Well, Bill took that as a cue. [Laughter] And he said an hour and a half later he said amen. And he went down, and he said, ``My friend, you seem to have stuck with me. I'm just a young preacher getting started. What do you think?'' ``Well,'' he says, ``like I told you, I don't know about that sort of thing, but I do know this: If I loaded up a truckload of hay and took it out in the prairie and only one cow showed up, I sure as hell wouldn't give her the whole load.'' [Laughter]

But recently, as you know, there's been some speculation that the United States and the Soviet Union are about to sign important, new arms control agreements. Now, this sort of talk isn't all that unexpected. Whenever leaders of countries are about to meet, there are always those who predict landmark treaties and historical breakthroughs. Yet when I see such speculation, I can't help but think of the first administrative post that I held. And I hope you'll forgive me for reminiscing here, but as a union president, I spent a good deal of time at the bargaining table and learned one valuable lesson: Now that it's the initial phase of the negotiating process -- laying the groundwork, setting the agenda, establishing areas of agreement as well as disagreement -- that pays off in the future. Now, if that's true of labor and management negotiations here, you can imagine how relevant it is to Soviet-American bargaining sessions. After all, we both have a little more separating us than, say, General Motors and UAW. So, groundwork is essential.

And from the beginning, we've tried to make this a hallmark of administration policy. We've tried to take a prudent and a realistic and, above all, deliberate approach toward Soviet-American relations. Instead of rushing unprepared into negotiations with the Soviets, the administration took the time in its earliest days to make clear the essential elements of American foreign policy: our commitment to the twin goals of world peace and world freedom; our willingness to be realistic and candid about the Soviets; to publicly define the crucial, moral distinctions between totalitarianism and democracy; and actively assist those who are struggling for their own self-determination. Yet at the same time, we also made plain another of our essential objectives: our determination to seek ways of working with the Soviets to prevent war and to keep the peace. In pursuing this objective, we adopted a step-by-step approach toward Soviet-American negotiations, gradually expanding and intensifying the areas of both bilateral and multilateral discussion. And as we've seen, eventually summit meetings themselves became a critical part of that effort.

Now, this willingness to make painstaking preparations was what, I believe, made last year's talks in Geneva a success. Each side had a good idea of what to expect; there was an agenda. Mr. Gorbachev and I could be candid with each other. In short, we had something to work with, something to build on. And we must continue in this spirit. And that's why Iceland is not intended to be a signing ceremony or a media event, but a presummit planning session, a chance to make preparations for the serious work Mr. Gorbachev and I will have to do when he visits the United States. Iceland is a base camp before the summit.

And yet, while our emphasis will be on planning and preparation, not treaty papers or publicity, part of the emphasis in Iceland will be on the broad-based agenda that we've agreed to, discussion not only of critical arms reduction proposals but equally important questions such as Soviet human rights violations, military intervention by the Soviets and their proxies in regional conflicts. On this point of the summit agenda let me add another point of background. A few years ago in a speech to the United Nations, I said that I shared the sense of urgency many felt about arms control issues, but I also suggested placing the entire burden of Soviet-American relations on arms control negotiations could be dangerous and counterproductive. I noted that problems in arms negotiations should not be permitted to thwart or imperil the entire Soviet-American relationship and, similarly, that sometimes negotiations in other areas could assist in speeding up the arms control process. In short, doing more about arms control meant talking about more than arms control. So, I proposed in my 1984 U.N. address what I called umbrella talks, negotiations with a broad-based agenda. The summit process has reflected this approach and includes a broad-based agenda. We've stressed, in addition to arms reduction, three other agenda items: respect for human rights, resolving regional conflicts, and improving bilateral contacts between the Soviets and ourselves.

Now, that first area, human rights, takes on, in view of the recent Daniloff incident, a particular reference -- or relevance, I should say. As you know, after a Soviet spy at the U.N. was arrested, the Soviets retaliated by arresting an American journalist, Nicholas Daniloff, on trumped-up charges. It was an act that held hostage not only an innocent American journalist but the future of Soviet-American relations. The United States took action in response to the Soviet use of the U.N. for intelligence activities by ordering the expulsion of 25 Soviet personnel known to be involved in such activities. That the arrest of a single spy could lead to such risk-taking by the Soviets again underscores the differences between our two systems. It was an extremely grave step, but one that could hardly surprise us. After all, human rights violations in the Soviet bloc remain unceasing, because they're institutionalized and sanctioned by the state ideology.

It's worth noting here that we agreed to exchange the Soviet spy in question for the noted Russian human rights leader Yuriy Orlov and his wife. Mr. Orlov's service to humanity, the record of his sufferings, makes him a hero for our time. Yet it is also worth noting he was persecuted simply because he led an effort to get the Soviet Government to live up to the human rights agreements it signed at Helsinki in 1975. When the Soviet State's ideology makes it a crime to advocate living up to international commitments, the rest of the world has to take notice. And this point, as well as the entire range of Soviet human rights abuses, must be addressed at future summits.

So, too, there is the issue of regional conflicts. It would be simply unthinkable for world leaders to meet in ``splendid isolation'' even as the people of Afghanistan, Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia undergo terrible sufferings as a result of Soviet invasion or military intervention. Again, our proposals for resolving regional conflicts remain a critical agenda item. And on this point, you may have read last week that the Soviet Foreign Minister acknowledged that Afghanistan has to be discussed in Reykjavik. I wish we saw any evidence that the Soviets had made a decision to get out. They need to see that the only solution that can last is one providing self-determination for the Afghan people and a rapid, complete withdrawal of Soviet forces. Short of that, the freedom fighters will struggle on, and let me promise you, they'll have the support they need from people around the world.

And finally, there is the issue of broader contacts between the Soviet and American peoples, especially young people. We all welcome the commitment made last year in Geneva to increase contacts, notably in the cultural exchange area. This was the result of careful presummit planning, and it's our hope that our work in Iceland will speed up implementation of these programs and lay the groundwork for future progress at future summits.

These then are the difficult matters on our summit agenda: arms reduction, human rights, regional conflicts, people-to-people contacts. I think you can understand, then, when Mr. Gorbachev extended his invitation to a presummit discussion, I accepted. With such grave and complex matters, there's no such thing as too much preparation. So, I hope that in explaining all this I've done something to dispel some of the inaccurate speculation and false hopes raised about the Iceland talks. I expect these talks to be useful and successful, but only as preparation for future summit conferences. Our view is that we will proceed as we have from the start: step by step, cautiously, prudently, and realistically. And by the way, I hope this last point about our realism helps to answer some of the domestic criticisms recently of the summit process. Actually, I've got to confess that hearing suggestions that I'm getting soft on communism is for me a new -- and perhaps the word ``titillating'' -- [laughter] -- is proper for that experience.

But seriously, I would ask those of my old supporters who may have voiced doubts to simply consider three facts that I think may make the current summit process very different from that of previous decades. First, the United States has made it plain we enter these negotiations without illusions and that we will continue to be candid about the Soviet Union, the moral implications of its ideology, the grave danger of its geopolitical intentions. Second, part of this candid approach includes restatement of what I said in my 1982 speech at Westminster Palace in Great Britain: that the ultimate goal of American foreign policy is not just the prevention of war, but the extension of freedom -- to see that every nation, every people, every person someday enjoys the blessings of liberty. And finally, I would ask that some note be taken of the historical tides. America is no longer under siege -- far from it. Our economic and military power is resurgent, the Western democracies are revitalized, and all across the world, nations are turning to democratic ideas and the principles of the free market. In all of this, the United States continues to play its historical role and assist those who struggle for world freedom.

And we believe the summit process can be useful in preventing war as we move toward a world of expanding personal freedom and growing respect for human rights. We believe the summit agenda reflects the helpful changes that have occurred in the world. We're discussing not just arms control, for example, but arms reduction, as well as human rights and regional conflicts. Progress toward our twin goals of peace and freedom then will not be easy. As I mentioned in my Saturday radio talk, we seek the support of all Americans. We need your help, and we also need, as I said, some careful preparation. And that's why we agreed to the talks in Iceland and will look forward to meeting Mr. Gorbachev there. And come to think of it, it's also why I have to get back across the street to my homework and my briefing books.

You know, I've taken to collecting stories that I can tell that show the cynicism of some of the people in the totalitarian state for their government. Stories that I can confirm are actually told by those people to each other. So, I'm going to share the last one with you, and then it's back to work. Evening, or darkness, in the Soviet Union. A citizen walking along the street. A soldier yells, ``Halt!'' He starts to run, the soldier shoots him. Another citizen says, ``Why did you do that?'' And the soldier says, ``Curfew.'' ``But,'' he said, ``it isn't curfew time yet.'' He said, ``I know. He's a friend of mine. I know where he lives. He couldn't have made it.'' [Laughter]

You know something? In the summit meetings, I tell some of those stories to the other side. [Laughter] Thank you all very much. God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 2:15 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.