‘Edinburgh Conversations’ helped warm East-West relations during the Cold War. Who will be today’s peacemakers?


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The escalating situation regarding Ukraine brings a chilling reminder of the days of the Cold War which came to an end at the beginning of the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That Scotland and Edinburgh played a significant role in the reduction of risk at that time is a largely untold story. Throughout the 1980s, the University of Edinburgh played host to a series of private meetings, entitled the Edinburgh Conversations, with the theme of Survival in the Nuclear Age. These involved senior academics, military officials and diplomats from the United States, the Soviet Union and the UK, with no official status.

The Conversations alternated between Edinburgh and Moscow. Scottish hospitality was at the heart of the events and I still recall the privilege of being a fly on the wall in Abden House in Edinburgh as the participants gathered for the start of one of the meetings.

They came about because the professor of defence studies at the university, John Erickson, was a world-renowned expert on Soviet military affairs whose independence and creative genius meant that he was equally respected in the Pentagon and the Kremlin.

Erickson was the inspiring figure to whom others gravitated and he was ably supported by the university’s Principal, Sir John Burnett, who co-chaired the meetings (along with the Russian Gennady Yanaev, who many years later led a coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev) and Michael Westcott, a senior administrator whose indefatigable resilience kept the whole project going in spite of extraordinary political and personal pressures.

On one occasion, the talks were due to commence in Edinburgh just a few days after Soviet jets had shot down a South Korean jumbo jet with 269 passengers on board. Despite Western hostility, the talks proceeded, with everyone recognising the gravity of the situation and the importance of continuing to talk and prevent further escalation. The same approach was taken when the US launched an airstrike on Libya at almost exactly the time that another set of Conversations commenced.

When the talks began, East-West relations were arguably at an all-time low. Diplomacy was at a standstill. By their end, it was thought that the Conversations had contributed significantly to the transition in the Soviet Union.

It was understood than neither side wished nuclear war. A modicum of trust had been built up. Personal relationships were established across ideologies. Frank exchanges took place. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev met in Iceland and the dismantling of some nuclear weapons began.

Could something like this happen again? Whatever occurs in the short term, history suggests that dialogue will be needed at some point in the future. Attempts at mutual understanding, identification of real interests and threats, reduction of risk, better relationships – all are likely to have importance. How realistic would it be to expect that Scotland could ever again be a venue for such conversations?

The key back in the 1980s was the presence of those unsung heroes, people of substance who brought to the Edinburgh Conversations their international reputations, skills and wisdom. Who – and where – are the people of this standing in 2022 and beyond?


John Sturrock, The Scotsman, 23 February 2022



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