294. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Poindexter) to President Reagan1


  • Meeting Gorbachev: Soviet Psychology Regarding Size and Style of Meetings

It is significant that, when Gorbachev proposed the meeting in Iceland or London, he specified that what he had in mind was a one-on-one meeting (or perhaps just with Foreign Ministers), and that it should be “confidential, closed and frank.” It may be useful to speculate on his reasons for doing so, bearing in mind traditional Soviet attitudes toward meeting size and confidentiality.

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Gorbachev’s Probable Motivations

1. Meeting with you one-on-one, or with just foreign ministers present, conveys the image not only of dealing as equals—which is important to him—but also the image of a leader who is as much in charge of his bureaucracy as you are of yours. We know that Gorbachev faces major bureaucratic resistance to many of his policies. Asserting his authority by meeting you alone is a powerful way to signal that he is in charge and will make the final decisions.

2. Meeting totally in private and confidentially normally is a sign of serious intent on the Soviet part. The Soviets know very well that most of their propagandistic proposals are not realistic. When they are really serious about striking a deal, they go private. Privacy is particularly helpful to a Soviet leader who knows he must change some traditional policies, since it makes it possible for him to structure his dealings with his colleagues, and to modify public presentations of policy issues, to make it appear that he is not really backing down. Given deep-seated Russian psychological resistance to being seen compromising on principle and the extreme importance the Soviets attach to “face,” any Soviet leader needs some “running room” to arrange justifications for policy shifts which avoid the impression within the Soviet Union that he has given way under pressure.

3. From the Soviet point of view, small meetings also have the advantage that bureaucratic elements who might oppose compromises can be excluded from direct participation. That way, the General Secretary has under his control what others are told and how it is presented to them. Infighting over “turf” is very intense in the Soviet system, and Soviets are so protocol conscious that it is difficult for them to exclude anyone from a meeting if his American counterpart is present. Shevardnadze is presumably Gorbachev’s man, so Gorbachev doesn’t mind including him. However, he clearly prefers not to open pandora’s box by including others.

4. One possible motivation Gorbachev could have in proposing small private meetings would be to attempt to play you for the sucker by trying to get you to agree to something without the advice of technical specialists. However, I very much doubt that this is indeed his intent. He knows enough from dealing with you in Geneva to realize that you are not the sort of person who would buy a used car sight unseen from a fast-talking salesman without having your mechanic check it out. And he also knows from Geneva that you are not the sort to be persuaded by gimmicks and disinformation. (In any case, if he should try such a tactic, it is easy enough to deal with.)

American Interests: Using Soviet Psychology to Our Advantage

We have no interest in building up Gorbachev’s prestige because he is Gorbachev. We should not fall into the trap of feeling that one [Page 1244] Soviet leader is more favorable to us than another, and therefore that it is in our interest to do him favors. We should not think of Soviet political figures as falling into “good guy/bad guy” categories. They are all “bad guys” so far as U.S. interests are concerned.

However, if we want to maximize any Soviet leader’s ability to modify policies to reach agreement with us, we have an interest in cooperating to create conditions that permit him to manage the bureaucratic and perceptual barriers to change which are inherent in the Soviet system and Russian psychology. In this sense, we too have a stake in small meetings and confidentiality, though not as a personal favor to Gorbachev. (Needless to say, it is even more important to keep real and tangible pressure on him to move in our direction. Such pressure is likely to be most productive when circumstances permit us to do it relatively quietly, so that Gorbachev can cave without making it obvious that he has done so.)

Another aspect of one-on-one meetings, and very small meetings, is the impression it leaves on the Soviet leaders of your own leadership position. Russians respect strength and leadership. The past rulers they glorify are the ones who forced the Russians—kicking, screaming and suffering—into a position of power in the world. Unspeakable cruelties to their own people are almost forgotten: what counts is that they were strong and that they were leaders.

Despite all the propaganda attacks they previously levied against you, one thing is absolutely clear: both Gorbachev and the Soviet people as a whole respect you as a real leader. Your popularity here and your demonstrated political effectiveness are important factors in this judgment, but the way you handled the private meetings with Gorbachev in Geneva is not the least of them. Nothing should be done to leave the impression that your authority might be eroding as your second term progresses. In Soviet eyes, a real leader does not need to be propped up by a lot of “advisers.” They can understand the usefulness in having a few experts around to consult between rounds (the mechanics to check out the used cars being offered), but instinctively feel that having a lot of people, representing various “constituencies,” around the table is a sure sign of weakness and division.

The reason for this Soviet attitude derives from their own practice. When other Soviet officials are present at a meeting (except for members of one’s own immediate office or very close political or personal associates), there is a tendency to make points just for the record, to demonstrate to various interest groups represented (or who will read the record of the meeting) that the Soviet leader was vigorous in defending their interests. They suspect that foreigners have the same tendency, therefore tend to discount much of what is said at large meetings. Real business, in their eyes, is done in private—and kept private until ripe for announcement.

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In sum, we can best take advantage of these various Soviet attitudes by seeing to it that you go to Reykjavik with a small, substantive staff, and conduct the meetings on a very confidential, very small group basis. This is also in keeping with our overall aim to make clear to the public that the meeting in Iceland is not a surrogate Summit.

I believe that you should plan to spend a substantial amount of your time in Reykjavik with Gorbachev one-on-one, just with interpreters. The rest of the time should probably be with George and Shevardnadze, with interpreters and—perhaps—a notetaker on each side, to insure an accurate historical record. If new ideas are introduced, they can be discussed between rounds with a small team which would come along to vet them. In addition, if the first day’s meetings indicate that some real progress is being made, representatives from each side could be delegated to work Saturday evening on the details of possible instructions to delegations, which could be discussed by the two of you at your Sunday morning (final) session and either approved or modified, as you both see fit.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Chronological File, 1980–1986, Matlock Chron October 1986. Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information. Prepared by Matlock. Copies were sent to Bush and Regan. In an October 2 covering memorandum to Poindexter, Matlock wrote: “You asked me to do a paper on the Soviet attitude toward small meetings, and the pros and cons that derive from the Soviet view. Frankly, I can think of very few cons, since the fact is that small confidential meetings are both the most efficient way to get things done with Soviet interlocutors, and also the most effective way to demonstrate the President’s authority. A Memorandum for the President is attached which explains the Soviet view toward these matters and suggests that the President decide on a ‘small group, strictly confidential’ approach.” Matlock recommended that Poindexter sign the memorandum to Reagan.