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The Malta Summit and US-Soviet Relations: Testing the Waters Amidst Stormy Seas

The Malta Summit and US-Soviet Relations: Testing the Waters Amidst Stormy Seas
The Malta Summit and US-Soviet Relations: Testing the Waters Amidst Stormy Seas

CWIHP e-Dossier No. 40


The Malta Summit and US-Soviet Relations: Testing the Waters Amidst Stormy Seas

New Insights from American Archives

Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson[1]


On 2 December 1989, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev gathered off the coast of Malta for their first meeting following Bush’s inauguration the prior January.  Uncertainty was the theme of the day.  Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe were collapsing.[2]  The Berlin Wall had opened barely three weeks earlier on 9 November, and tentative steps toward German reunification had begun on the eve of the Summit with Helmut Kohl’s Ten Point Speech on 28 November.[3]  Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued reducing its military presence in Eastern Europe in accordance with Gorbachev’s 7 December 1988 United Nations (UN) address, and American and Soviet policymakers faced the prospect of contentious arms control talks in this fraught environment.[4]  Bush and Gorbachev clearly had much to discuss.        

Yet even in retrospect, the Malta Summit’s significance is the subject of substantial disagreement among scholars and former policymakers. Some see the Summit as central to the peaceful end of the Cold War and foreshadowing “a new relationship between East and West, a new Europe.”[5]  According to this positive view, the meeting helped establish, in Raymond Garthoff’s words, “genuine mutual respect and confidence” between Bush and Gorbachev that would serve them in good stead.[6]  In contrast, a second view criticizes the Summit either implicitly or explicitly as a “missed opportunity.”[7]  This approach faults the Bush Administration for an overly cautious strategy that failed to respond to Soviet arms control initiatives and avoided “big changes” to United States policy.[8]   Meanwhile, a third view advances a middle position, arguing that the Summit achieved “little of a concrete nature” in itself, but that it had a “catalytic effect” in making the two superpowers “willing collaborators” in managing changes in Europe and abroad after December 1989.[9]

Drawing on the first complete American copy of the Malta Summit transcript available to researchers, I advance a fourth possibility. The American copy of the Summit transcript was long thought classified, with the National Security Archive (NSA) writing in 2009 that, “the U.S. [memorandums of conversation] remain, astonishingly, still classified at the George H.W. Bush Library in Texas.”[10]  However, my own research in the H.W. Bush Library in December 2011 turned up portions of the Summit transcript in the files of Condoleezza Rice and Arnold Kanter that were released for research in March 2008.[11]  Combining these portions yielded a complete copy of the transcript [view in the Digital Archive] that is more comprehensive than the translated Russian document. Comparing the American copy with the English-language version of the Soviet copy provided by the National Security Archive (via the Gorbachev Foundation) offers new insights into the Summit.[12]

Rather than a trust-building exercise, missed opportunity, or galvanizing moment, the Summit allowed American and Soviet leaders to jostle for position and frame future bargaining positions as Bush and Gorbachev looked forward to the hard work of managing U.S.-Soviet relations amid dramatic changes in the distribution of power.[13]  Although other analysts suggest this point, they understate its importance and fail to elaborate on the underlying logic. Furthermore, while this approach is clearly related to the third view articulated above, the characterization of the Summit as part of a bargaining process suggests that something concrete was achieved during the discussions: the emergence of a clearer sense of how the rival Soviet and American positions would interact, most directly, over the possibility of German reunification.[14] As I highlight below, this approach made good strategic sense given events at the time. In contrast to existing accounts that emphasize the particulars of the Bush-Gorbachev relationship during and after the Summit, my argument shifts the locus of analysis from what policymakers felt coming out of the Malta Summit, to what they knew of the other side’s demands and sensitivities toward the substance of the issues at play. Finally, the new transcript clarifies the extent to which the Summit was or was not a missed opportunity by emphasizing the way in which the distribution of power was changing and illuminating the incentives Bush and Gorbachev faced to reach a deal at Malta.

Two words of caution are in order.  First, this is a preliminary analysis.  As such, it does not delve deeply into the period preceding or following the Summit.  The principal goal is to highlight the areas of convergence and divergence between the U.S. and Soviet transcripts from the Malta Summit, now that scholars finally have access to the American version.  All arguments are therefore tentative.  Second, in comparing the U.S. and Soviet copies, I am limited to the translated versions of the Soviet transcript provided by the NSA and CWIHP.  The comparison below may therefore require reevaluation on the basis Russian-language versions of the transcript.

The remainder of this note proceeds in four parts.  First, I offer a general comparison of the substance, tone, and style of the U.S. and Soviet Malta transcripts.  In this analysis, I highlight some of the areas in which the transcripts agree and disagree with one another and how these differences can affect ex post facto interpretations of the Summit.  Second, I propose a tentative explanation for the substance and nature of the Bush-Gorbachev interactions at Malta that is grounded in international relations theory.  This account emphasizes Bush and Gorbachev’s role as statesmen trying to gain the best bargains and deals for their respective states, given the constraints imposed by the distribution of power.  Using this new perspective, I then briefly suggest how reinterpreting the Summit as part of a bargaining process generates fresh insight into American policy towards German reunification, arguably one of the most important geopolitical issues at Cold War’s end.  I conclude by highlighting some areas for future research.

Comparing the American and Soviet Documents

The most striking aspect of the transcripts is the extent to which they are in substantive agreement.  There are differences in tone and content, but more often than not, the transcripts parallel one another in terms of what issues were discussed and who advanced what position.  The question of whether the Soviet Union (USSR) would intervene in response to the collapse of Eastern Europe’s Communist regimes illustrates the point.[15]  Both transcripts record Bush’s efforts to reassure Gorbachev that the U.S. Administration wanted perestroika to succeed and his linkage of this support to Soviet forbearance in Eastern Europe.[16]  Gorbachev countered by pushing the Americans to end Cold War policies designed to isolate and weaken the USSR (or, as he put, following the idea that “the only thing the U.S. needs to do is to keep its baskets ready to gather the fruit”) and to cooperate with the USSR at a time when international politics was “moving from a bipolar to a multipolar world.”[17]  Later, Gorbachev took a different tack and looked to equate U.S. intervention in support of Philippine President Corazon Marcos with potential Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe.  Yet, having apparently suggested the Soviets were still considering an intervention in support of the GDR, he immediately backed away and reaffirmed that “our position is non-interference.”[18]  Meanwhile, in the final session of the Summit, Bush and Gorbachev sparred over the prospect of German reunification.  Even as Bush asserted that the United States “cannot be asked to disapprove of German reunification,” Gorbachev raised the specter of a united Germany in a united Europe that could compete with both the United States and Soviet Union.  Having done so, Gorbachev proposed that if German unification proceeded, it should proceed slowly within the framework of the Helsinki process, and should not develop to the detriment of “the instruments that have maintained the balance” in Europe (i.e., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact).[19]

The copies further confirm the meat of discussions on arms control and debates over the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) negotiations.  Both the American and Soviet transcripts, for instance, show Gorbachev detailing the Soviet position on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) negotiations.  They also have Gorbachev criticizing NATO’s failure to present counteroffers to Soviet proposals, and suggest a sustained American effort to avoid discussing details.  The fervor with which both copies indicate the Soviets pressed the United States for including naval forces in the talks – and American efforts to avoid committing to the matter – is particularly notable.[20]

Still, this is not to say that the transcripts lack any substantive differences.  Discussion of economic cooperation and political convergence between East and West represents a case in point.  The Soviet copy reveals Gorbachev praising the “good prospects for cooperation in the CMEA [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance].” Immediately afterwards, Gorbachev continues pushing for a deeper U.S.-Soviet rapprochement by drawing parallels between American and Soviet domestic political institutions, observing, “our legislators are already cooperating – and not badly – and a ‘people’s democracy’ is developing.”  The American copy, on the other hand, reports Gorbachev simply asserting the need “to let the economic communities [East and West] interact;” missing is the praise for the prospective value of cooperation.  More interestingly, the remarks about legislative cooperation and political similarities are entirely absent.[21] Which copy, if either, represents the actual discussion remains open to debate.

Of perhaps greater historical interest, the famous exchange over whether Gorbachev’s reforms reflected Soviet acceptance of “Western values”—as opposed to less explicit “democratic values”—also varies slightly between the transcripts.[22]  The transcripts indicate that Gorbachev first criticized the Americans for claiming that “the division of Europe should be overcome on the basis of Western values” during the final plenary session on 3 December.[23]  Likewise, the transcripts have Bush trying to clarify the American position and, later, arguing that talk of Western values “does not mean the imposition of our system on Czechoslovakia, the GDR [German Democratic Republic], or Romania.”[24]  However, while the NSA Soviet copy treats the Bush-Gorbachev exchange almost as a philosophical discussion of political values, the American transcript suggests that the exchange concerned strategy and threat perceptions.  The American copy shows Bush drawing an analogy between “Western values” and Gorbachev’s own support for glasnost, and telling Gorbachev “it’s not in hostility that ‘Western values’ is written [. . .] I don’t want to complicate anything.”[25]  These steps seem part of an effort to signal that the phrase “Western values” was mainly a rhetorical device that should not threaten Soviet interests, especially since Soviet reforms and “Western values” overlapped.  Rather than trumpeting the collapse of the Soviet system for political points, the American transcript suggests that Bush was willing to downplay changes in Soviet ideology if doing so would help maintain U.S.-Soviet relations writ large.  This would be in line with much of Bush’s behavior earlier in 1989.[26]

The Soviet copy is less transparent on these points.[27]  For one, the NSA copy omits Bush’s explicit attempt to relate “Western values” to reforms already afoot in the Soviet Union and thereby highlight the benign nature of the phrase.[28]  Second, both copies of the Soviet transcript record Bush telling Gorbachev that “we welcome changes in the Soviet Union [. . .] but by no means set them against Western values.  So I want as best as possible to understand your point of view in order to avoid any misunderstanding.”[29]  Missing are Bush’s efforts to reassure Gorbachev, to avoid political complications, and to signal the United States’ benign intentions.  In their place is a more general desire to simply “understand” the Soviet perspective, accompanied by the almost dogmatic assertion that “Any discussion of Western values [. . .] are [sic] completely natural and do not have destructive intent.”  Although not suggesting American hostility, the Soviet transcript thus downplays what the U.S. copy implies was a real effort to calm Soviet apprehensions.  Indeed, the changed phrasing almost suggests that Soviet note-takers reframed Bush’s comments to mirror Soviet language supporting political pluralism and ideological coexistence that was prevalent throughout the 1988-1989 period. 

An even starker difference between the transcripts concerns the underlying question of why the Soviets were so apprehensive of talk about “Western values.”  In light of Gorbachev’s extended efforts to garner American support for his reform agenda during the relevant session, the Soviet copy implies the apprehension was due in large part to Gorbachev’s frustration over the American reticence to recognize change in the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc.  The American copy, however, hints at an altogether different motivation.  After Gorbachev’s initial criticism of the term “Western values,” Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze weighs in, stating, “Western strength—Western values.  Some are saying it [the changing ideological basis of the Soviet Union] is because of Western strength.” Tantalizingly, there is an ellipsis (“. . .”) precisely where the comment should appear in the Soviet copy, suggesting some kind of editing, selective note taking, or that the Soviet record is incomplete.  Assuming the American copy is accurate, it then appears that Soviet sensitivities may have been as much about not appearing weak and beholden to American pressure at a time when the USSR’s economic and political problems were on the rise.  In other words, the American copy hints at a strategic motivation for Soviet complaints, rather than them being an ideological issue per se.[30]

The discussion of Western values additionally points to the distinct style and tone with which each transcript records the Summit deliberations.  The American copy often appears to be closer to the actual flow of the conversation and its language is generally more colloquial.[31]  Words are occasionally missing as speakers trailed off or the note-taker’s handwriting became unintelligible.  In contrast, the Soviet copy captures the discussion in more formal language and occasionally in greater detail.  At times, it seems as though the note-takers collected participants’ prepared statements and inserted them into the transcript or tried to summarize the details of the discussion after the fact.[32]

Differences in style and tone also affect which of the two leaders appears to have dominated the Summit. Relative to the American copy, the Soviet transcript suggests Gorbachev was more dynamic than Bush.  It seems the Soviet leader took the lead in making proposals to overcome the division of Europe, to eliminate U.S.-Soviet rivalry in South America, and to integrate Communist economies into Western economic institutions.  Bush, on the other hand, appears to simply follow up on Soviet proposals, or advance more limited proposals on items of secondary or tertiary importance to the meeting (e.g., on chemical weapons).  In the process, the Soviet copy has Bush imitating Gorbachev’s own language and phrases. 

In contrast, the American copy lacks the sense that Gorbachev directed the proceedings.  Although Gorbachev appears to have tackled more of the critical issues than Bush—raising the restructuring of the Soviet economy, change in Eastern Europe, German reunification, and so on—his remarks were often directed at criticizing U.S./Western positions or advancing radical solutions.  The American transcript thus suggests that while Gorbachev was dynamic at the Summit, he was also impetuous.  Moreover, in responding to Gorbachev’s proposals, Bush thus appears in the American transcript to have played an equally important role in assuaging Gorbachev’s concerns, rebutting his critiques, and suggesting alternative and less-grandiose solutions—in effect, acting as a conciliator and negotiating partner.[33]  Although it is difficult to determine which version of the Bush-Gorbachev interaction is closer to reality, the differences between the two transcripts on this point are a matter of degree: both copies show Gorbachev pressing Bush to agree or advance deals on a wide range of thorny issues, and both show Bush demurring in one form or another on many of these issues. 

Explaining the Summit: Insights from International Relations Theory

Ultimately, scholars are left with two fundamental questions about the Malta discussions.  First, why did representatives of the USSR and the United States take the positions they did during the meetings?  That is, why was Gorbachev so sensitive to hints of American hostility and so interested in advancing solutions to Soviet-American differences, and why was Bush less enthusiastic about Soviet proposals while interested in assuaging Soviet concerns?  Second, what is the importance of the Summit to the U.S.-Soviet relationship at the end of the Cold War?

The existing accounts of the Summit outlined in the introduction cannot satisfactorily answer these questions.  Treating the Summit as a “trust building” moment might explain the absence of a U.S.-Soviet deal as a result of misunderstanding and personal discord, but cannot readily explain why Bush appears so sensitive to Soviet concerns.  It is also unclear what would have caused such trust to develop given the tense and sometimes conflictual discussions that took place at the Summit.  On the other hand, framing the Summit as a missed opportunity borne of American mistakes is unsatisfactory as it overstates American passivity in the face of Soviet proposals and understates the use of the Summit to frame future U.S.-Soviet demands. Moreover, given the competing U.S. and Soviet agendas evident during the Summit, it is difficult to see how a mutually acceptable deal was possible.  Meanwhile, although Bush and Gorbachev did agree to accelerate arms control talks toward the end of the Summit, the vast majority of the discussion did not dictate or foreshadow concrete next steps in U.S.-Soviet relations.  Nor does it seem that the U.S. and the USSR reached mutually acceptable positions suggesting they became “willing collaborators”—in Prados’s term—due to the Summit.  What, then, are scholars to make of the Summit? 

Based on this review of the case, I argue that the Malta Summit should best be understood as part of an extended negotiation between the United States and USSR that was complicated by the rapidly changing distribution of power between the two states.  This approach is grounded in realist approaches to international relations.  One of the hallmarks of realist international relations theory is the proposition that states seek security, and will use their power—measured in terms of their diplomatic, military, and economic resources—toward this end.[34]  Power thus helps determine the deals states can obtain with other states in their quest for security, and leaders are forced to pay attention to the relative distribution of power and to shape their foreign policies accordingly.[35]

By this logic, strong states that are expected to get relatively stronger over time (i.e., “rising states”) should want to keep their options open and their hands untied.  Then, as their power grows, they can renegotiate diplomatic and political deals on increasingly favorable terms by demanding more from other states and conceding less themselves.[36]  So long as the states that are losing in this process do not react by launching a preventive war or pursuing a revaunchist agenda, this approach can reasonably be expected to maximize their security or increase their power (as a means to security) relative to others.  In contrast, relatively weakening states (“declining states”) face the opposite incentives.  All things being equal, they would prefer to tie the stronger state’s hands as soon as possible in order to “lock in” a deal before their bargaining power slips further.[37]  Moreover, declining states may need to seek creative diplomatic solutions to pry the stronger or strengthening state out of its aloof position, since it cannot let a rising state sit back and wait for its power to grow. 

Framing the Malta Summit as an issue of rising and declining power dynamics most accurately captures the Bush-Gorbachev relationship.  Gorbachev went to Malta with a weak hand.  Not only was the Soviet alliance system in Eastern Europe under duress, but economic, social, and military problems were mounting in the Soviet Union itself.[38]  In effect, the domestic and international conditions underwriting the Soviet Union’s superpower status were slipping.  Gaining American backing for the USSR’s internal reforms, the changes in Eastern Europe, and Gorbachev’s calls for new European security institutions was the only way the USSR could offset its weakening position.  Without this support, the Americans could simply allow changes to proceed and wait to present the further weakened USSR with a series of demands that the USSR might not be able to resist.  By this logic, the USSR needed to play offense and obtain a deal from the United States in the short-term to avoid having to swallow unpalatable outcomes in the long-run. 

In contrast, the American position was relatively stronger, as the American economy was sound (if in a temporary recession), its alliance network was reasonably robust, and the military was at a high degree of readiness after the Reagan buildup.[39]  Furthermore, its relative advantages might be expected to continue growing, thereby giving the U.S. a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis the USSR in the future.  In this situation, the United States could afford to wait for things to settle down in Europe before seriously negotiating with the Soviets.  So long as the Soviet position did not crumble chaotically or Gorbachev reverse course and pursue a revisionist agenda, the United States had no need to advance or meet Soviet proposals for, e.g., new European security structures, because the status quo was perfectly acceptable.  To put it simply, Bush could play defense and still advance U.S. national interests.  It therefore made sense for the United States to sound out Gorbachev’s position, assuage Soviet concerns, and try to maintain Soviet acceptance of ongoing changes in Europe and abroad, all while keeping American options open for the future.  To put it bluntly, an increasingly powerful United States relative to the USSR faced good reasons to adopt a cautious approach at Malta, since the present was uncertain and it might reap even greater advantages in the future.  Although American caution could not continue indefinitely lest it trigger Soviet antagonism and crisis, American hesitancy had a clear short-term logic.

Emphasizing the role of power dynamics carries three implications for scholars interested in the Malta Summit and the Summit’s role in the final act of the Cold War.  First, this framework showcases Bush and Gorbachev’s roles as statesmen who interpreted the distribution of power, reflected on what this meant for American and Soviet security interests, and used the means at their disposal to pursue the best bargain possible given their constraints.  This is not to deny Bush, Gorbachev, and those around them agency in this process. Indeed, their creativity, skills, prior beliefs, predispositions, and mindsets influenced their abilities to respond to the distribution of power and to pursue their changing objectives within these limits.[40]  In effect, the statesmen at Malta were acting as purposefully as possible within the confines of larger and longer-term processes.  This approach does, however, complicate accounts of the Malta Summit that emphasize the emerging trust between Bush and Gorbachev and their transformation into “willing collaborators.”[41]  Trust and collaboration may indeed have developed at Malta, but these were secondary outcomes.  More important might have been Bush and Gorbachev’s ability to sound one another out, to determine that each recognized the changes afoot in the distribution of power, and to lower the likelihood that international politics would be upset by the disagreements over relative power that have historically roiled relations between rising and declining states.[42]

Second, this approach challenges the view of Malta as a missed opportunity.  Whereas such scholars ask, in effect, “Why didn’t the U.S. offer Gorbachev a deal?” the power dynamics approach poses the question, “Why should the U.S. offer or accept a deal if it expected to get more in the future?”[43]  As noted above, there were good reasons for Bush to wait for the future before making a deal with the USSR—the lack of U.S. enthusiasm for Soviet proposals is both understandable and not surprising in this framework.[44]

Lastly, the power dynamics approach points to the Malta Summit as part of a longer Soviet-American negotiation at the end of the Cold War.  Bush had such an extended timeframe in mind when he announced the Summit, telling reporters that the meeting would serve as a precursor to more extensive Soviet-American discussions later in 1990.[45]  Rather than an isolated event, the Malta Summit should be viewed as part of an effort to grapple with the changes accompanying the retrenchment of Soviet power and the implications of Gorbachev’s reforms for U.S.-Soviet relations writ large.  The Summit’s importance therefore comes from its function as a venue for Bush and Gorbachev to signal what each saw as his country’s core interests, to define demands, and to frame the terms of the ongoing debate.  In other words, this approach highlights the Summit as a foundation for Soviet and American statesmen to prepare for a hard bargaining process that they believed might last for months or years to come. 

Importance of the Summit: The Issue of German Reunification

In turn, treating the Summit as part of a longer term Soviet-American negotiation amid a shifting distribution of power generates new insights into how the Malta Summit affected one of the most contested issues surrounding the end of the Cold War: American policy towards German reunification.  As other scholars note, the reunification of Germany under NATO auspices helped establish the strategic conditions in Europe underlying the United States’ “unipolar era” by legitimizing the United States’ continued military and political presence in post-Cold War Europe while significantly reducing the Soviet Union’s influence beyond its borders.[46]  However, second-generation scholarship on the diplomacy of German reunification suggests that the United States took a less active role in spurring German reunification than prior research supposed.[47]  From this perspective, the United States did little immediately following the 9 November opening of the Berlin Wall to push reunification as a solution to the German problem.  The situation changed immediately after the Summit on 3 December, however, when Bush, during a private dinner with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, endorsed Kohl’s 28 November “Ten Point Plan” for German unity.[48]  As Scowcroft later recalled, the 3 December meeting was the moment at which the United States agreed to “back reunification unequivocally” and marked “the decisive step on German unification.”[49]  Equally important, the shift in U.S. policy flew in the face of Soviet – as well as French and British – sentiments that nothing should upset presence of separate German states in Europe.[50]  Even if the United States was not leading the reunification charge, American influence was decisive in tipping the diplomatic balance towards reunification.  Had the United States not done so, West Germany would have been politically isolated and reunification a much less certain prospect.[51]

The question is why. That is, the Ten Point Plan was announced on 28 November, yet American backing only came on 3 December.  In the intervening period, there were plenty of opportunities to endorse Kohl’s initiative before the 3 December meeting, including several press briefings[52] and a phone call between Bush and Kohl on 29 November.[53]  It would be one thing if the United States delayed endorsement because it did not believe Kohl’s plan to be in the U.S. interest or needed to evaluate the plan’s merits, but available documentary records suggest a quick recognition that the Ten Point Plan was broadly conducive to an established American interest in letting German reunification proceed only if it were attained 1) peacefully, and 2) with a united Germany linked politically and militarily to the United States and integrated into NATO.[54]  The question stands: why did the United States wait those six days?

Existing explanations problematically explain the delay.  The traditional account offers that the United States, having been surprised by the scope and preemptory nature of Kohl’s plan, could not endorse the Ten Point Plan until it gauged allied views and earned allied backing during a NATO meeting scheduled for 4-5 December.[55]  This argument is found wanting, however, because Bush’s endorsement came on 3 December – the night before Bush met with allied heads of state and could have rallied their support.[56]  More recently, Sarotte has proposed that what mattered was not alliance politics, but Kohl’s successful appeal to Bush’s “deeply emotional” nature: by presenting reunification as a historical watershed that fulfilled the deeply held desires of the German people, Kohl carried Bush along with his dream of national fulfillment.[57]  Although an intriguing possibility, this view is also unsatisfying.  If Bush was deeply sympathetic to the German dream, then he could have endorsed Kohl’s plan when they first spoke on 29 November, or given it a positive mention during the press interviews before Malta.[58]  Furthermore, it seems out of character for Bush, a famously reticent man, to decide matters of the highest politics – indeed, make decisions on the central issue of Cold War Europe – on emotions and gut instinct.[59]

The power dynamics approach, however, links the tacit bargaining at Malta with the events of 3 December.  In particular, it focuses on one of the areas of agreement between American and Soviet records, namely, the repeated discussions of Germany’s future, and the effects this had on the U.S. assessment of the declining Soviet position.[60]

Bush and Gorbachev jostled over Germany’s future in several meetings from 2-3 December.[61]  Bush and the rest of the American team repeatedly noted that the United States could not be asked to disapprove of German reunification, discussed the difficulties that would result from a crackdown to salvage the GDR’s position, and implicitly linked a crackdown with a cessation of American support for Gorbachev’s domestic and international reforms.[62]  Gorbachev, in response, waxed rhapsodic on the right of states to determine their own futures, emphasized his desire for stability in the region, underscored his desire to reach a Soviet-American rapprochement, and constantly returned to one theme: changes on the ground would be allowed to proceed irrespective of their end state.  In short, the Soviet Union strongly implied that it would not intervene and recognized the prospective costs to its relationship with the United States if it did so.

The importance of these interactions should not be understated.  By probing Soviet intentions, receiving indications that Gorbachev was uninterested in a crackdown, and establishing their own interests in the German question, American policymakers reduced the uncertainty over the range of possible Soviet behaviors. This was no small issue.  Despite mounting recognition that the Soviet position in Eastern Europe was weakening and an opportunity to reunify Germany under NATO auspices in the offing, the weeks between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Malta Summit still saw American movement on the German question stymied by a desire to 1) avoid precipitating a hardline Soviet reaction that would 2) undermine Soviet-American relations writ large, and 3) stop ongoing reforms in Eastern Europe.[63]  Nor was this concern obviated by Soviet passivity immediately after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  Although the absence of a crackdown was a sign that the Soviets might not intervene, they still had the military capability – and the GDR the internal security forces – to do so.[64]  Further, the Soviets sent mixed signals throughout November in their public and private communiqués, at some points hinting that they would accept the changes in the GDR, at other points hinting that a crackdown and efforts to freeze the status quo were still possible.[65]  In sum, the three weeks following the Fall of the Berlin Wall presented American policymakers with a mixed bag, forcing policymakers to recognize the Soviets still had the means – and perhaps interest – to intervene, but also suggesting the Soviet position was in flux and the American ability to press for German reunification could improve if given time.  The ambivalent American response toward the initial announcement of the Ten Point Plan thus made a great deal of sense: until Soviet attitudes and interests could be clarified, backing reunification had the potential to spur the Soviets into stopping changes in Eastern Europe (changes that would otherwise hurt the Soviets and help the Americans).   German reunification under NATO auspices was an important objective to be pursued if possible, but it was not as valuable as stability in U.S.-Soviet relations and allowing for long-term, gradual changes in Eastern Europe that would collectively undermine the Soviet position.

The Soviet-American interactions at Malta take on newfound significance when viewed in this light.  Having now probed Gorbachev’s thinking and received indications that the Soviets were not dogmatically wedded to keeping the GDR in the Soviet orbit, it stands to reason that American worries over a hostile Soviet reaction to movement on the German issue were reduced.[66]  Additionally, by linking American support for Soviet reforms to Soviet quiescence in Eastern Europe and receiving no Soviet pushback, the Bush Administration came away from Malta with increased confidence that they had a tool to use against the Soviets if revisionism were in the offing.[67]  Combined, the Soviet-American interaction suggests Malta marked a key turning point in the German reunification story.  It did so by reducing American concerns over Soviet reactions to a reunification push, underscoring who the winners and losers were going to be from the changes in Eastern Europe, and letting the Soviet Union know the United States might well oppose Soviet interests in, e.g., economic integration between East and West if the Soviets tried to stop political change in Eastern Europe.  Coming on top of the reduction in Soviet forces in Eastern Europe ongoing since 1988 and their apparent reticence to forcibly stop changes in the region up to that point, the Malta Summit acted as a catalyst for change in American policy.[68]  Based on newfound insight into Gorbachev’s position and Soviet interests, Bush could endorse German reunification after the Summit because American concerns over the consequences of doing so were much reduced and confidence in their stronger hand reinforced.  This did not mean unequivocal American backing for Kohl’s plan – the Americans had their own interests to protect during reunification, and the Soviets could always change their minds – but reunification could proceed.[69]  The United States could side with Kohl instead of blocking forward movement, laying the foundation for the diplomatic deals that would quickly lead to German reunification under NATO auspices, with the United States retaining substantial influence over German behavior and Soviet influence eliminated.

In sum, focusing on the changing distribution of power heading into Malta, and the uncertainty this produced in American circles, sheds new light on the German reunification story.  By emphasizing the substance of the Malta discussions, it helps explain the timing and logic of the 3 December shift in U.S. policy towards Germany in a way that existing accounts cannot.  Rather than assessing what Bush and Gorbachev felt coming out of Malta, looking at what policymakers learned about the other side’s interests and intentions connects Malta to the changes afoot at Europe at the time. 

Conclusion: Areas for Future Research

Regardless of whether one accepts the idea of Malta as the start of a bargaining process amid exceptional circumstances, the new documents available from American archives call for a fresh effort to interrogate the history of the Summit.  At a minimum, scholars need to probe the records further to establish precisely who said what to whom during the meeting.  This effort should involve examining the Soviet document in its original Russian.  In the process, and drawing from additional sources, scholars can carefully reevaluate whether the Summit really represents a “lost opportunity,” a moment of trust between rival leaders, or something else altogether.  Placing the Summit in the broader context of the changes in Europe and elsewhere, and the implications these held for U.S.-Soviet relations, is necessarily part of the effort.  Nearly twenty-five years after Bush and Gorbachev met offshore, scholars finally have the opportunity to bring American archives to bear in exploring the events of 2-3 December 1989.


Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson is completing his doctorate with the MIT Political Science Department and will be joining the faculty of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University in September 2013.  His research examines the evolution of American strategy towards the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. 

This report was supported by a grant from the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs.


[1] The author wishes to thank Laura Deal, Jennifer Dixon, Jeffrey Engel, Jennifer Erickson, Frank Gavin, Gary Goldberg, Brendan Green, Robert Holzweiss, Robert Hutchings, James McAllister, Josh Rovner, Mary Sarotte, Tim McDonnell, and William Wohlforth for their input on prior drafts.  All mistakes are his own.

[2] For background, see Jacques Lévesque, The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Gale Stokes, The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[3] The tension underlying this period is detailed in Mary Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009), pp. 28-76; Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 98-125; Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), pp. 125-152.

[4] The background to and status of Soviet military withdrawals is detailed in National Intelligence Council, “Status of Soviet Unilateral Withdrawals,” NIC M 89-10003, October 1989, and Central Intelligence Agency, “Assessing the Unilateral Reductions Announced Year Ago [sic],” Special Analysis, 21 November 1989, both online at

[5] Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution, 1994), p. 403; Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (Simon and Schuster, 2007), p. 483; James Addison Baker, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989- 1992 (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995), pp. 168-171.

[6] Garthoff, The Great Transition, p. 407; see also George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed, 1st ed. (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 173.  Notably, Bush emphasizes the "Malta's positive effect upon my personal relationship with Gorbachev [. . .] the talks had shown a friendly openness between us and a genuine willingness to listen to each other's proposals."

[7] National Security Archive (NSA), “Bush and Gorbachev at Malta Previously Secret Documents from Soviet and U.S. Files on the 1989 Meeting, 20 Years Later,” December 3, 2009,

[8] NSA, “Bush and Gorbachev at Malta Previously Secret Documents from Soviet and U.S. Files on the 1989 Meeting, 20 Years Later”; Sarotte, 1989, p. 78; Thomas S. Blanton, “US Policy and the Revolutions of 1989,” in Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, 1989, ed. Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas S Blanton, and V. M Zubok (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010), pp. 87-89.

[9] John Prados, How the Cold War Ended: Debating and Doing History, 1st ed., Issues in the History of American Foreign Relations (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011), 19; Don Oberdorfer, The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983-1990 (New York: Poseidon Press, 1991), p. 383; Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, p. 173.  In his joint memoir with Bush, Scowcroft describes Malta as having "worked far better than I had hoped" because it helped "renew the impetus to move ahead on START and CFE and toward an interim agreement on chemical weapons."

[10] NSA, “Bush and Gorbachev at Malta, 3 December 2009,

[11] At the time, Rice and Kanter were members of the National Security Council staff and accompanied H.W. Bush to Malta.  Please note that Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive filed the original Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the documents under FOIA 1999-0273-F.

[12] Portions of the Soviet copy of the Malta Summit transcript were first published by the Cold War International History Project in 2001, with a lengthier (but still incomplete) version released by the National Security Archive in 2009.  Because it is more complete and reflects the official Soviet copy, I rely on the National Security Archive translation for the bulk of this project, but reference the CWIHP version – which reproduces Anatoly Chernyaev’s notes from the Summit – as appropriate.  See Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 12/13 (2001), pp. 229-241,, also available in the Digital Archive,; NSA, “Malta,” op. cit.

[13] Oberdorfer, The Turn, p. 374, and Scowcroft's commentary on the Summit in Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, pp. 160, 173.

[14] For more on the rival American and Soviet positions, see the State Department and CIA memorandums to Bush delivered in the week preceding the Summit; James Baker to H.W. Bush, “Your December Meeting with Gorbachev,” 29 November 1989,, and Central Intelligence Agency, “The German Question and Soviet Policy,”  27 November 1989,

[15] Despite Gorbachev’s tolerance for change to that point, American policymakers remained worried that the Soviets might institute a crackdown or otherwise use force to stop ongoing changes in Europe as Soviet influence continued to unravel.  In his 29 November memo to Bush, Baker flagged this concern, writing, “A key objective at Malta is to gain a clearer fix on Gorbachev’s approach to Eastern Europe [. . .] You will also want to stress our interest in Soviet reform through a peaceful, democratic process and to remind Gorbachev that a violent crackdown (in Eastern Europe as well as the USSR) would inevitably harm our relations;” Baker, “Meeting with Gorbachev,” 3.  See also Robert Hutchings to Brent Scowcroft, “Handling the German Question at Malta and Beyond,” 20 November 1989, p. 2 in GBPL, Condoleezza Rice Files, CF00717, Malta Summit Papers (Preparation) December 1989 [1], and Brent Scowcroft to President Bush, “The Soviets and the German Question,” 29 November 1989, 1-2, in GBPL, Brent Scowcroft Files, Box 91116, German Unification (November 1989) (released to author via Mandatory Review request 2011-0161).  A brief analysis from the period immediately after the Summit (apparently, given the initials at the top of the page, composed by National Intelligence Council Chairman Fritz Ermarth) also flags this uncertainty; see GBPL, Peter Rodman Files, Box 51, Eastern Europe, 1989, “Prospects for Dangerous Instability and Confrontations in East Germany,” 5 December 1989.

[16] Immediately after telling Gorbachev that “there are no serious elements” in the United States that desire perestroika to fail, Bush noted that as the Administration worked to “analyze change in Eastern Europe,” there were “bound to be differences in the analytical community” with regard to the desirability of further Soviet reforms.  Given that Bush recognized Gorbachev’s desire for American  backing of Soviet reforms, and in light of the extensive debates among U.S. policymakers regarding how far the USSR would accept non-Communist governments in Eastern Europe, it seems Bush was signaling that American support would continue only if Soviet policies accorded with U.S. interests and the USSR allowed East European Communism to collapse. For the American record, see George H.W. Bush Library (hereafter GBPL), National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice Files, CF00718, Summit at Malta December 1989: Malta Memcons [1], “First Expanded Bilateral with Chairman Gorbachev of the Soviet Union,” pp. 2-3.  For the Soviet record, see National Security Archive, “Transcript of the Malta Meeting, December 2-3, 1989. Source: Gorbachev Foundation, Fond 1, Opis 1,” p. 2; and CWIHP, “Malta,” p. 230. Note that the NSA Soviet transcript records Bush making an even more direct linkage between Soviet acquiescence to East European reform and U.S. policy: “These shifts in the public mood in the United States are affected by the changes in Eastern Europe, by the whole process of perestroika.” 

[17] Ibid.  See pp. 7-8 of the American copy; NSA, “Malta Meeting, “ pp. 7-9; CWIHP “Malta,” pp. 232-233.  During the Second Restricted Bilateral Session on 3 December (which is omitted from the NSA copy), Bush advanced a similar point regarding independence movements in the Baltics, Central Asia, and Caucasus, warning Gorbachev that the use of force “would create a firestorm.”  See GBPL, National Security Council, Arnold Kanter Files, CF00769, Malta Summit—December 1989, “Second Restricted Bilateral Session with Chairman Gorbachev of Soviet Union [sic],” p. 1.

[18] GBPL, National Security Council, Arnold Kanter Files, CF00769, Malta Summit—December 1989, “First Restricted Bilateral Session with Chairman Gorbachev of Soviet Union [sic],” pp. 2-3; NSA, “Malta Meeting,” pp. 16-17.

[19] GBPL, National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice Files, CF00718, Summit at Malta December 1989: Malta Memcons [1], “Second Expanded Bilateral with Chairman Gorbachev of the Soviet Union,” pp. 6-8; NSA, “Malta Summit,” pp. 26-29; CWIHP, “Malta,” pp. 238-239.  Note that there is a discrepancy in the US and Soviet copies during this interaction: the Soviet copies record a conversation between U.S. and Soviet officials regarding chemical weapons in the midst of discussing the future of Europe; the U.S. shows the chemical weapons discussion occurring much earlier in the Summit.  Here, it is plausible that the American copy is the more reliable of the sets: given the sensitivity of the European issue, it seems odd that Bush, Gorbachev and their advisers would interrupt the conversation for a non-sequitor on chemical weapons.   

[20] GBPL,”Second Expanded Bilateral,” p. 4; NSA, “Malta Summit,” p. 25; CWIHP, “Malta,” pp. 236-237 .

[21] GBPL,”Second Expanded Bilateral,” p. 7; NSA, “Malta Summit,” p. 29; CWIHP, “Malta,” p. 239.

[22] See Baker, Politics of Diplomacy, p. 171; Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified, pp. 128-129.

[23] GBPL, “Second Expanded Bilateral,” p. 7; NSA, “Malta Summit,” p. 30; CWIHP, “Malta,” pp. 239-241 .

[24] GBPL, “Second Expanded Bilateral,” p. 9, NSA, “Malta Summit,” p. 32; CWIHP, “Malta,” p. 240.

[25] GBPL, “Second Expanded Bilateral,” p. 8.

[26] For example, Bush’s reticence to “dance on the [Berlin] Wall” for fear of upsetting a delicate situation; see Beschloss and Talbott, Highest Levels, chap. 6. 

[27] Note that some of the differences may be translation errors – for example, Bush’s reference to glasnost is present in the CWIHP copy but not the NSA version – while others appear more substantive.  In what follows, I try to identify the specific areas of agreement and disagreement between the copies.  

[28] NSA, “Malta Summit,” p. 31.  CWIHP has the reference to glasnost; CWIHP, “Malta,” p. 240.

[29] NSA, “Malta Summit,” p. 32; CWIHP, “Malta,” p. 240.  Here, the NSA and CWIHP versions of the Soviet transcript are in agreement.

[30] Thanks go to Gary Goldberg for his assistance in clarifying this omission.  See GBPL, “Second Expanded Bilateral,” p. 10; NSA, “Malta Summit,” p. 33; CWIHP, “Malta,” p. 241

[31] This judgment is not set in stone, as the American copy occasionally lacks a conversational flow.  For instance, in the U.S. copy of the Second Expanded Bilateral Session on 3 December, it seems as though the note-taker largely summarized individual statements.  Although less stilted than the Soviet copy, it lacks the more informal tone of the rest of the American transcript.

[32] This is particularly an issue during the Second Expanded Bilateral Session, when portions of the discussion appear at different places in the U.S. and Soviet copies.

[33] This is a relative assessment between the two documents, not an either/or judgment.  What I am saying is that the American copy on average shows Bush and Gorbachev acting in a particular way, just as the Soviet copy on average suggests something else.

[34] Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 1st ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979).

[35] For an explicit treatment, see James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (Summer 1995); H. E. Goemans, War and Punishment: The Causes of War Termination and the First World War (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000); Dale C. Copeland, The Origins of Major War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

[36] Copeland, The Origins of Major War; Robert Powell, “War as a Commitment Problem,” International Organization 60, no. 01 (2006): pp. 169-203; Jack S. Levy, “Declining Power and the Preventive Motivation for War,” World Politics 40, no. 1 (October 1987): pp. 82-107.

[37] On a state's desire to lock in bargains while its power is still relatively high—and the difficulty of doing so—see G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[38] These changes were widely reported by U.S. intelligence agencies and recognized by policymakers at the time.  See, for instance, the collection of National Intelligence Estimates on the CIA f website and the series of memos written by the NSC staff for Bush that are available in the Scowcroft Collection at the H.W. Bush Library.

[39] Interestingly, in the run-up to Malta, a senior interagency working group was actively looking for way protect U.S. military advantages relative to the Soviet Union at a time when budget pressures were likely to cause military cuts.  The question on the table, as the briefing memo to Brent Scowcroft indicated, was “identifying and assessing various ways to get something [i.e., arms reductions] from the Soviets for the defense budget cuts we probably will be making in any event.”  In essence, the Bush Administration sought to prevent a relative decrease in its military power by having the USSR make voluntary cuts alongside the economically-mandated American reductions.  See Arnold Kanter and Robert Blackwill to Brent Scowcroft, “Possible Initiatives in the Context of Malta,” 24 November 1989, p. 1 in GBPL, Arnold Kanter Files, CF00770, Summit (Malta) – November 1989 [6].

[40] For discussions of these issues and the end of the Cold War, see Thomas Risse, “Ideas, Discourse, Power, and the End of the Cold War: 20 Years On,” International Politics 48, no. 4 (2011): pp. 591-606; Jeff Checkel, “Ideas, Institutions, and the Gorbachev Foreign Policy Revolution,” World Politics 45, no. 2 (January 1993): pp. 271-300.

[41] See notes 5 and 6.

[42] Put differently, given the changes in the international system, the United States and USSR were going to need to collaborate and coordinate with one another implicitly or explicitly, regardless of the Summit.  Such efforts, meanwhile, would not inherently be contingent on trust between the leaders, although undoubtedly they would have been made easier with mutual trust.  On the difficulties of changing power relations for international stability, see Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1988); Dale C. Copeland, The Origins of Major War (Ithaca: Cornell, 2000); James Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (Summer 1995); Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge, 1983).

[43] Baker hinted, albeit indirectly, at the longer-term perspective in his memo to Bush, writing, “Moscow’s assumptions about reform in Eastern Europe [. . .] are increasingly in doubt.  As a result, Gorbachev will be seeking new assurances that we will not exploit developments at the expense of Soviet security.  You can extend general reassurances but be wary of appearing to bless in advance a Soviet crackdown [emphasis added].”  In effect, Baker warned Bush not to tie American hands vis-à-vis the Soviet Union as 1) the situation continued to shift, and 2) agreeing to the Soviet position might prevent changes conducive to American interests, namely, peaceful change in Eastern Europe; Baker, “Meeting with Gorbachev,” p. 4.  An interagency working group tasked by Scowcroft to analyze U.S. policy towards the USSR and German reunification was even blunter.  In its report to Scowcroft, the group argued, “The impetus for change is clearly coming from the bottom-up—from the people of the GDR, in the first instance.  The next phase is likely to see continued ferment in the GDR combined with increased interaction between the GDR and FRG.  There will be a natural temptation on the part of some to preempt or channel these changes by some top-down initiative, most likely by calls in the Four Power realm—for example, a Soviet initiative for a Four Power conference or similar calls by politicians in the FRG, the U.S., or elsewhere to show initiative through such a conference.”  A Four Power approach, however, should be discouraged because “Gorbachev might seize the issue to regain influence over the situation.”  Instead, the U.S. should “stick to the basic principles involved, putting our emphasis on the need for democratization in the GDR and on self determination [sic].  It is not for us to dictate a settlement to the Germans.” Concurrently, “we must be on guard for possible Soviet initiatives, especially of a Four-Power nature [. . .] We should deflect any broad proposals from Gorbachev away from the German people and their exercise of self determination [sic] to a forum which excludes their representatives.”  Simply put, the United States was to play for time, allowing processes in the GDR and FRG to undercut Soviet interests while preventing the Soviet Union from salvaging the situation. See Hutchings, “Handling the German Question,” pp. 7-9, also 3.

[44] The talking points prepared for Bush’s meeting with the National Security Council (NSC) reinforce this point.  Regarding change in Eastern Europe, the talking points have Bush telling the NSC, “We will not try to negotiate the future of Europe.  I will explain that we are not trying to take unilateral advantage of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe but that the peoples of the region must be allowed to determine their own political and economic futures.”  Given the changes in Poland, Hungary, and the GDR, calling for self-determination in the region while refusing to negotiate the future of Europe augured the eventual reduction of Soviet influence in the area.  See GBPL, Condoleezza Rice Files, CF00718, Summit at Malta December 1989: Malta Memcons [2], “Points to be Made in the NSC Meeting on your Discussion with Gorbachev,” p. 2.

[45] Maureen Dowd, “Bush Will Meet Gorbachev to Get ‘Better Acquainted’ in Talks at Sea Next Month,” New York Times, 1 November 1989.

[46] An overview and synthesis of the argument can be found Mary Sarotte, “Perpetuating U.S. Preeminence: The 1990 Deals to “Bribe the Soviets Out” and Move NATO In,” International Security 35, no. 1 (Summer 2010): 110-137.

[47] Most notably, see Sarotte, 1989; James Sheehan, “The Transformation of Europe and the End of the Cold War,” in The Fall of the Berlin Wall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), ed. Jeff Engel, pp. 57-59; William Taubman and Svetlana Savranskaya, “If a Wall Fell in Berlin and Moscow Hardly Noticed, Would it Make a Difference?” in Ibid., pp. 87-89; Blanton, “U.S. Policy,” p. 83.  See also Robert Zoellick, “An Architecture for U.S. Strategy after the Cold War” in In Uncertain Times (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), ed. Melvyn Leffler and Jeffrey Legro, p. 28 and William Hitchcok, The Struggle for Europe (New York: Anchor, 2003), pp. 369-371.

[48] Sarotte, 1989, pp. 76-79; Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified, p. 132; Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, “German Unification” in Turning Points in Ending the Cold War (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2008), ed. Kiron Skinner, pp. 234-235; Robert Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997), p. 105.  The Ten Point Plan was the first effort to lay out a concrete approach to German reunification.

[49] Sarotte, 1989, p. 67; University of Virginia, Miller Center, “Interview with Brent Scowcroft,” November 12-13, 1999, p. 82.  Interestingly, the memorandum of conversation does not record a particular moment when Bush gave Kohl the green light on Germany; see GBPL, Memorandum of Conversation, Meeting with Helmut Kohl, 3 December 1989, available online at:

[50] On the French and British position, see Frederic Bozo, Mitterand, the End of the Cold War, and German Unification (New York: Berghahn, 2009), trans. Susan Emanuel, pp. 122-126; Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (New York: Harper-Collins, 1995), pp. 793-795; Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified, p. 116.  During the run-up to Malta, Scowcroft described the Soviet position as “unequivocal – [Gorbachev has] emphasized ‘the political realities of the postwar era, namely the existence of two German states;” Brent Scowcroft to President Bush, “The Soviets and the German Question,” 29 November 1989, GBPL, Brent Scowcroft Files, 91116, German Unification (November 1989), p. 1.  At Malta, Gorbachev remarked, “there are two [German] states, mandated by history.  So let history decide the oucome;” GBPL, “First Restricted Bilateral,” p. 5.  For more on the Soviet position, see Elizabeth Pond, “A Wall Destroyed: The Dynamics of German Unificaton in the GDR,” International Security 15, no. 2 (Autumn 1990): p. 51; Mikhail Gorbachev, “Letter to the President regarding Situation in West and East Germany,” 11 November 1989, GBPL, Arnold Kanter Files, CF00769, Gorbachev – November 1989; James A. Baker, “Memorandum for the President,” November 13, 1989, GBPL, Brent Scowcroft Files, 91116, German Unfication (November 1989); Hutchings, “Handling the German Question,” p. 1.

[51] For more on December 1989 as a decisive moment in the reunification process, see Alexander Moens, “American Diplomacy and German Unification,” Survival 33, no. 6 (November/December 1991): pp. 531-534.

[52] Bush spoke with representatives from the press three times between learning of the Ten Point Plan and his departure for Malta.  This included an exchange with reporters immediately after speaking with Kohl on 29 November, during which Bush phlegmatically summarized his discussion with Kohl by noting “I feel comfortable; I think we're on track;” George Bush, Interview with Members of the White House Press Corps,” November 29, 1989, Public Papers of the President, The American Presidency Project, 

[53]The transcript of the Bush-Kohl conversation on 29 November remains classified; see However, Bush’s talking points for the conversation were relecently declassified and provide insight into U.S. thinking.  As Bob Blackwill – a senior NSC member – noted in the cover memo to the talking points, the notes were intended to be “philosophical in substance” and lack specifics; in retrospect, there is no suggestion that the U.S. endorsed the West German plan.  See Robert Hutchings and Robert Blackwill to Brent Scowcroft, “The Preisdent’s Telephone Call to Chancellor Kohl,” 28 November 1989, and Brent Scowcroft to POTUS, “Telephone Call to Chancellor Kohl,” 28 November 1989, both in GBPL, Philip Zelikow Files, CF01354, November 1989 [German Reunification].

[54] Internal documents developed between 9 and 28 November consistently stressed that the United States desired German reunficiation only if it were attained 1) peacefully, and 2) with a united Germany linked politically and militarily to the United States and integrated into NATO.  Although the pre-emptory nature of the Ten Point Plan initially suggested Kohl’s willingness to go it alone and buck American oversight if German interests dictated, the Bush Administration readily recognized the Ten Point Plan for what it was: an approach to German reunification that promised a peaceful reunification with substantial international (particularly Western) influence over the outcome.  A briefing paper prepared for Bush late on 29 November – after the Bush-Kohl conversation – made the point bluntly, observing that “Kohl’s November 28 message to you, followed by your November 29 telephone conversation, demonstrated just how close your views and his are on the major East-West issues .  His approach toward German reunification [. . .] is more firmly rooted in the Western security system and a strong U.S. tie [than alternatives],” and therefore more conducive to U.S. interests.  As such, “your meeting [with Kohl on 3 December] will be an opportunity to reaffirm your firm support for Kohl, particularly for his strongly Atlanticist approach to the German Question” and “Kohl’s attitude on the German issue [. . .] deserves our backing.”  In short, and despite some discomfort with the way in which the Ten Point Plan was revealed, the United States quickly recognized that Kohl’s plan was conducive to American interests and strikingly close to U.S. preferences.  Note, however, that even the 29 November paper stops short of recommended an out and out endorsement of the Ten Point Plan per se – it is Kohl’s attitude and overall approach that merit support.  On U.S. interests before 28 November, see most directly Hutchings, “Handling the German Question,” p. 2; also consult Malta Summit Briefing Paper, “Eastern Europe,” GBPL, Condoleezza Rice Files, CF00717, Malta Summit Papers (Preparation) December 1989 [2], pp. 2-4; J. Stapleton Roy to Brent Scowcroft, “Briefing Materials for the President’s Visit to NATO Headquarters, Brussels, December 3-4, 1989: Points to Make [likely for meeting with Kohl],” 22 November 1989, GBPL, Heather Wilson Files, CF00274, “2-3 December [1989] Malta Meeting [1],” p. 2.    For the U.S. reaction to the Ten Point Plan, Brent Scowcroft to POTUS, “Scope Paper: Your Bilateral with Chancellor Kohl,” 29 November 1989, GBPL, Brent Scowcroft Files, 91116, “German Unification Chronological Files (November 1989),” pp. 1-2; and Blackwill, “Call to Kohl,” pp. 1, 3.

[55] Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified, pp. 122-123; Hutchings, American Diplomacy, p. 105.

[56] Moreover, the NATO heads of state meeting was highly contentious, with many allies voicing opposition to German reunification, although the ultimate NATO declaration endorsed the German right to peaceful self-determination and to “reestablish their national unity;” NATO, “Declaration of Brussels on the Future of Europe,” GBPL, Condoleezza Rice Files, CF00717, Malta Summit Papers (Preparation), December 1989 [2].

[57] Sarotte, 1989, p. 79.

[58] Alternatively, Bush could have authorized Secretary of States James Baker to make positive mention of it during Baker’s 29 November press briefing or 3 December 1989 “Face the Nation” interview conducted during the second day of the Summit.  Baker’s prepared remarks for the 3 December interview hint at the ambivalent U.S. attitude to this point, noting at the bottom of the talking points that “we do not endorse his [Kohl’s] whole program as set out in speech [sic];” James A. Baker, “Notes from 12/3/89 interview on “Face the Nation,” Valleta, Malta,” James A. Baker III Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Box 108, Folder 12.

[59] Or, as Scowcroft put it, Bush “was really pretty stable” on the reunification issue; see Miller Center, “Scowcroft,” p. 82.  Moreover, the careful analysis given to the German issue throughout the autumn suggests a more strategic approcah than a mostly emotive response.  On the importance of Germany in the Cold War writ large, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[60] In their extended analysis of German reunification, Zelikow and Rice note in passing that the Bush Administration came away from Malta “having determined that Soviet policy on Germany was still relatively quiescent.”  Nevertheless, they go on to suggest that the United States could not fully back German reunification until Bush “accomplish[ed] the remaining operational objectives of his trip” by rallying allied support.  While sympathetic to the first half of the argument, my analysis emphasizes how the assessment of Soviet quiescence changed coming out of Malta and the centrality of this change for American policy, all while significantly downplaying the importance of Bush’s efforts to rally other American allies; Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified, p. 131.

[61] In particular, see the exchanges during the First Restricted Bilateral and Second Expanded Bilateral sessions.

[62] See note 16.

[63] As a briefing paper on Eastern Europe prepared for the Malta Summit put it, “Moscow has assumed that letting each country do its own thing would not lead to substantial instability, and that cohesion of the Warsaw Pact could be maintained [. . .] these assumptions of gradual and controlled change may be in doubt and the prospects of instability rising not only in the GDR, but in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia as well.”  In this situation, Bush “should stress to Gorbachev that we are not looking for a deal on Europe, but are eager to maintain regular channels of communication;” Malta Summit Briefing Paper, “Eastern Europe,” pp. 1-2.  Hutchings’ memo of 20 November is even blunter, offering that the United States “has an interest to ensure the continued process of reform throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  Destabilizing developments within German could represent a threat to this process.”  Later, the memo goes on to offer, “with respect to the Soviet Union, we need continually to reassure it that we are not seeking to destabilize the situation in the GDR or the Warsaw Pact, that we do not seek unilateral advantage, and that we are behaving with restraint;” Hutchings, “Handling the German Question,” pp. 2, 9. See also Talbott and Beschloss, Highest Levels, pp. 138-139; Baker, Politics of Diplomacy, pp. 161-165.

[64] An NSC paper prepared on the eve of the Summit at Scowcroft’s request warned, “The Soviets can still use force to stop unwelcome events,” although doing so might discredit perestroika.  Moreover, the memo implies that the presence of 390,000 Soviet troops in the GDR offered the USSR a tool with which to guarantee the continued existence of two German states, and use European concerns over a united Germany as a way of garnering support for this outcome.  See Scowcroft, “The Soviets and the German Question,” p. 2.  For more on why policymakers have to discount other states’ past behavior if their capabilities and interests are strong, see Daryl Press, Calculating Credibility (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[65] Thus, Gorbachev’s first message to Bush following the Fall of the Wall warned that a “chaotic situation may emerge with unforeseeable consequences” even as later assessments believed it far more likely the Soviets would seek to maintain influence in the region by playing on European fears of a united Germany; Gorbachev, “Letter to the President,” p. 2; Scowroft, “The Soviets and the German Question.”

[66] In particular, see the discussion during the Second Expanded Bilateral, in the course of which Gorbachev insists that the changes in Eastern Europe must be viewed “philosophically” and emphasized “we should not seek to undermine this process; GBPL, “Second Expanded Bilateral,” esp. pp. 6-10.  See also GBPL, “First Restricted Bilateral, pp. 2-4.  Note that a reduction in uncertainty does not mean uncertainty was eliminated. 

[67] As Bush offered on 2 December, “If we can stick with the notion of peaceful change, better relations will occur between the Soviet Union and the U.S.”  With Gorbachev having expressed his interest in deepening U.S.-Soviet political and economic ties earlier that day, the point could hardly be missed; see GBPL, “First Restricted Bilateral,” p. 3.

[68] There is a good question of whether U.S. policymakers viewed Gorbachev’s statements as credible in and of themselves, or whether Gorbachev’s statements more narrowly reduced American uncertainties on the Soviet position relative to the past and suggested movement on the Soviet bottom line, though without fully eliminating American concerns.  The latter is, in my opinion, closer to the mark.  Perhaps tellingly, Bush remarked at a press conference on 4 December, that he believed that Gorbachev “has very constructively talked about peaceful change.  And I think his hope is that people don’t try to set up some artificial calendar – date – by which that [sic] reunification should happen [. . .] I think he feels that if there were outside forces setting dates on something like that, that would complicate the way in which he is managing the change.”  The positive spin notwithstanding, these statements imply continuing American concerns that Gorbachev could (or be forced to) change his mind and reverse course. In so many words, American policymakers calculated that it was relatively more plausible that Gorbachev was telling the truth than otherwise – not that Gorbachev could invariably be taken at his word.  Still, further research on this critical question is needed.  Thanks go to William Wohlforth for flagging this issue.  For remarks, see Office of the Press Secretary, “News Conference by the President,” GBPL, Arnold Kanter Files, CF00770, Summit (Malta) – November 1989 [5], p. 4; Bush, Meeting with Kohl, p. 4.

[69] A detailed discussion of American interests can be found in Hutchings, “Handling the German Question.”


About the Author

Joshua Shifrinson image

Joshua Shifrinson

Former Fellow;
Assistant Professor of International Relations, Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University
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