Whenever the subject of the December 1989 Malta Summit between US President George Bush and Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev is raised, the first thing that is inevitably referred to is the weather.
The image of the two most powerful leaders in the world navigating the stormy Maltese waters to come together during this historical period is often recalled more than the substance of their discussions.
My memory of the day is as a seven-year-old child being bundled up and dragged down to stand by the sea in the blustering wind to stare at two big ships, where nothing much seemed to be happening.
As I wondered what on earth we were doing, my father kept insisting to me: “This is so important. It is so important that these two men are meeting. This is a moment you will always remember.” So, he proceeded to give me what was probably my first lecture in Cold War history and the dynamics of change in international politics.
It was indeed an incredible moment. The world leaders – and those around them – were reminded during these hours that the best laid plans and most orchestrated of summits may be swiftly upturned by environmental conditions.
They were also recognising that the balance of tensions that had been so masterfully contained during the Cold War period would start to unravel due to change being brought about from the ground up.
The summit captured a moment when the leaders acknowledged that their role was not to try and slow the pace or direction of change but to ensure that cooler heads prevailed and that the will of the people was acknowledged.
In the words of Gorbachev during their meetings: “People are having an impact on policy in the US and in the USSR… At the political level we are lagging behind our people who want to become closer.”
As we now pour through transcripts of the discussions that were recorded by American and Soviet aides respectively, what clearly emerges is a conversation between two men who recognised the profound importance of their conversations and of the issues that needed to be addressed.
We see their foresight in the discussions on themes that still dominate the international agenda 32 years later: climate change, trade, arms control. They grappled not only with the changes that were taking place in Europe but all over the world, including in the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.
Throughout, they sought to pursue, in their words, “a dialogue commensurate with the pace of change”. It was a dialogue that would begin to break down notions of East and West and shift towards an appreciation for shared universal values.
During one of the meetings, much of the debate revolves around the labelling of the values underpinning the changes taking place in Europe. Despite discussion over terminology, there emerges a clear consensus over the desire to reach a middle ground, instil confidence and reassurance in one another and the desire to cultivate a new era defined by political openness and what they described as an “organic integration” that would demonstrate an “abandoning of those things that divide us”.
This is what made the choice of Malta as a venue for this meeting so appropriate. Over the years, Malta has consistently offered itself as a safe – and, hopefully, less stormy – harbour to facilitate dialogue.
We see foresight in their discussions on themes that still dominate the international agenda: climate change, trade, arms control- Valentina Cassar
In his opening remark to the recently published foreign policy strategy, Malta’s Foreign Minister, Evarist Bartolo observes that Malta is “surrounded by a sea which may separate but which can also unite”. He does so in the context of the linkages that exist between Mediterranean states but this is a sea that has indeed served the purpose of bridging and uniting continents for centuries.
During his intervention at the UN General Assembly in September 1989, two months before the Malta Summit, then prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami stated: “If the voice of a micro-state such as ours does have any special claim to be heard in the assembly… it is because our mini-stature does tend to make our self-interest more nearly coincide with the global interest.”
He also observed that “the current juncture” required a “new style of international governance” and that the improving atmosphere in international relations would allow “an opportunity to take a broader look and to identify other global dangers, in particular those that threaten the environment and the economic system”.
Cultivating a community of interest and identifying policy areas that serve as a common heritage of mankind has always been at the heart of Malta’s foreign policy and remains so today.
The summit continues to be relevant not only because of the momentous changes taking place around it but due to the spirit in which it was held and the spirit in which it was hosted: developing mutual trust, confidence building, working towards the common good and reassuring one another that neither one wanted to see the other side fail.
This is a spirit that is sorely needed as we once again find ourselves within an international climate that is characterised by change and readjustment in the midst of a global pandemic.
Let us hope that further progress will be made on climate change, arms control, and stable bilateral and multilateral dialogue over the coming 32 years.
Valentina Cassar is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Malta.