Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto: Remembering a Handshake that Changed History

WEBRemarks by Ambassador Hamamoto at the Gorbachev/Reagan Memorial Handshake

Villa Fleur d’Eau, Versoix
Monday, August 31, 2015

 (As Prepared for Delivery)

Ambassador Fasel, Ambassador Borodavkin,

President Carlo Sommaruga*,

Mister Mayor,

Monsieur Longchamp, Monsieur Ramseyer,

Ladies and gentlemen,

We’re here today to commemorate an historic meeting between the leaders of the United States and Russia – President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev – that took place right here 30 years ago. And we are also here to celebrate the power of diplomacy.

In speaking recently about the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama quoted President Reagan in saying, “Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”

Two years after Reagan and Gorbachev shook hands for the first time on these steps on that cold November morning, they met again, this time at the White House, to sign the first treaty to eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons.

Halfway through his speech, President Reagan turned to his guest and said, “doveryai, no proveryai,” an old Russian maxim (excuse my pronunciation) that roughly translates into “trust, but verify.”

At which point the audience broke out in laughter.

But Mikhail Gorbachev would get the last laugh.

“You repeat that at every meeting,” he told his host, going off-script, and leaving in our memory a scene that would have been unimaginable just a few years before.

In less than two years, the Berlin Wall would fall.

And two years after that, the Cold War was over.

It had all started right here, with a handshake that changed history, proving once more the important role Geneva plays in facilitating international dialogue, and serving as a powerful reminder of what Russia and the United States can accomplish when we work together.

The U.S.-Russian relationship has had ups and downs, but that has never prevented our two countries from making real progress on global issues like Iran’s nuclear program and the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

This year as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded us all that “The challenges of our times transcend borders, and require complex solutions reached through negotiation and compromise.”

Those two men whose handshake we commemorate today knew this better than anyone.

Thirty years ago, two great superpowers were facing each other with nuclear missiles at the ready.

Their challenge was different, but the means to a solution was the same…negotiation and compromise.

Many years from now when we open the time capsule created in 1976 for my country’s tri-centennial, we’ll find a letter from President Reagan.

“Those who read my letter,” he said, “will know whether those missiles were fired or not. Either they will be surrounded by the same beauty we know, or they will wonder sadly what it was like when the world was still beautiful.”

Thanks to leaders who have kept that vision alive all these years, our world remains beautiful — especially as seen from the International Space Station, where U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are currently taking part in a groundbreaking one-year mission.

We must never take this world for granted.

A complicated world, it’s true.

“A world of persistent threats,” President Obama said just a few weeks ago, “in which mass violence and cruelty are all too common.”

But also a world, he said, “in which the rules established out of the horrors of war can help us resolve conflicts peacefully, and prevent the kinds of wars that our forefathers fought.”

We must never take this world for granted.

May there be many more handshakes in the years ahead.

And may we always — Americans, Russians, and people all over the world — continue to make peace through diplomacy our top priority.

Thank you.

* “President Carlo Sommaruga” refers to the Président de la Commission de politique extérieure du Conseil national, Monsieur Carlo Sommaruga.