Malta Summit

The Malta Summit consisted of a meeting between U.S. President George H. W. Bush and U.S.S.R. leader Mikhail Gorbachev, taking place between December 2-3 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was their second meeting following a meeting that included then President Ronald Reagan, in New York in December 1988. During the summit, Bush and Gorbachev would declare an end to the Cold War, although whether it was truly such is a matter of debate. News reports of the time referred to the Malta Summit as the most important since 1945, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed on a post-war plan for Europe at Yalta.


Summit highlights

Gorbachev and Bush about to share a meal on board the Soviet cruise ship Maxim Gorky, Marsaxlokk Harbour, Malta

Brent Scowcroft and other members of the US administration were initially concerned that the proposed Malta Summit would be "premature," and that it would generate high expectations but result in little more than Soviet grandstanding. However, French President François Mitterrand, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, other European leaders and key members of the US Congress prevailed upon President Bush to meet with Chairman Gorbachev.[1]

No agreements were signed at the Malta Summit. Its main purpose was to provide the two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — with an opportunity to discuss the rapid changes taking place in Europe with the lifting of the Iron Curtain, which had separated the Eastern Bloc from Western Europe for four decades. The summit is viewed by some observers as the official end of the Cold War. At a minimum, it marked the lessening of tensions that were the hallmark of that era, and signaled a major turning point in East-West relations. During the summit, President Bush expressed his support for Gorbachev's perestroika initiative, and other reforms in the Communist bloc.

Speaking at a joint news conference, the Soviet leader announced:

"The world is leaving one epoch and entering another. We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era. The threat of force, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle should all be things of the past."

"I assured the President of the United States that I will never start a hot war against the USA."

In reply, President Bush said:

"We can realise a lasting peace and transform the East-West relationship to one of enduring co-operation. That is the future that Chairman Gorbachev and I began right here in Malta."

Other participants

Also present at the Malta Summit were:

Soviet delegation

U.S. delegation

  • James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State
  • Robert Blackwill, then Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council
  • Jack F. Matlock, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union
  • Condoleezza Rice, then Director for Soviet and East European Affairs at the National Security Council
  • Brent Scowcroft, U.S. National Security Adviser
  • Raymond Seitz, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs
  • John H. Sununu, White House chief of staff
  • Margaret Tutwiler, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Spokeswoman of the Department
  • Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
  • Robert Zoellick, Counselor of the Department of State

Venue: "From Yalta to Malta", and back

The meetings took place on board the Soviet cruise ship SS Maxim Gorkiy, anchored off the coast of Marsaxlokk Harbour in the Mediterranean island of Malta. President Bush attended the summit on board the USS Belknap. Stormy weather and choppy seas resulted in some meetings being cancelled or rescheduled, and gave rise to the moniker the "Seasick Summit" among international media.

The idea of a summit in the open sea is said to have been inspired largely by President Bush's fascination with World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt's habit of meeting foreign leaders on board naval vessels.[2][3] The choice of Malta as a venue was the subject of considerable pre-summit haggling between the two superpowers. According to Dr. Condoleezza Rice:

"... it took a long time to get it arranged, finding a place, a place that would not be ceremonial, a place where you didn't have to do a lot of other bilaterals. And fortunately - or unfortunately - they chose Malta, which turned out to be a really horrible place to be in December. Although the Maltese were wonderful, the weather was really bad."[4]

The choice of venue was also highly symbolic. The Maltese Islands are strategically located at the geographic centre of the Mediterranean Sea, where east meets west and north meets south. Consequently, Malta has a long history of domination by foreign powers. It served as a British naval base during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and suffered massive destruction during World War II. Malta declared its neutrality between the two superpowers in 1980, following the closure of British military bases and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Regional Headquarters (CINCAFMED), previously located on Malta. Neutrality is entrenched in the Constitution of Malta, which provides as follows, at section 1(3):

"Malta is a neutral state actively pursuing peace, security and social progress among all nations by adhering to a policy of non-alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance."

On February 2, 1945, as the War in Europe drew to a close, Malta was the venue for the Malta Conference, an equally significant meeting between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill prior to their Yalta meeting with Joseph Stalin. The Malta Summit of 1989 signalled a reversal of many of the decisions taken at the 1945 Yalta Conference.


  1. ^ "An Interview with Dr. Condoleezza Rice (17/12/97)"
  2. ^ Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War, Little Brown (London) 1993, pp. 128-9 and 160.
  3. ^ James Baker, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992, Putnam (New York) 1995, p.169.
  4. ^ "An Interview with Dr. Condoleezza Rice (17/12/97)"

See also

Further reading

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