In a new book titled “1983: The World at the Brink”, Taylor Downing describes how close we came that year to nuclear war between the US and the then USSR. President Reagan’s Star Wars programme and the shooting down of a South Korean 747 airliner by Soviet fighter jets on 1 September, killing all 269 people on board, ramped up tensions to a scale which seems, in retrospect, to exceed the Cuban crisis a decade earlier. 

The book explains how the threat was averted, in what is described as a “real-life thriller”. However, so far as I can find, there is no mention of the crucial role played by Scotland in easing those tensions. 

On 17 September 1983, a group of senior Soviet military officials, diplomats and academics arrived in Edinburgh for the third round of discussions known as The Edinburgh Conversations, hosted by the University of Edinburgh.  Also taking part on a personal basis were influential military, diplomatic and academic experts from the UK and the USA. The key player was Professor John Erickson, head of the University’s Department of Defence Studies, a world-renowned expert in Soviet military affairs. Sub-titled “Survival in the Nuclear Age”, the first two meetings, alternating between Moscow and Edinburgh, had eased suspicion between participants. 

The University held its largest ever press conference on the Sunday before the Conversations commenced. The media expressed shock that the talks could take place so soon after the attack on the South Korean airliner. But took place they did. The atmosphere was strained at first, but the conversationalists had already begun to build relationships and trust in the two earlier meetings. Social gatherings were arranged which broke the ice and raised the spirits of the group, so much so that, one evening that week in 1983, a Soviet participant sat down at a piano in a small hall and led, in Russian, a rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

It has been said that the Edinburgh Conversations played a significant role in the thawing of the Cold War, and in stimulating meetings between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev to discuss nuclear arms reduction. 

What is the relevance of all this thirty-five years later? Well, arguably, the world faces similar threats to its security and stability, not least in Korea. As tensions mount, nations and politicians tend to take positions and became polarised.  Paradoxically, these are the moments when dialogue is essential. 

This week, one of the key players working to find a peaceful resolution to the dangerous Korean situation will come to Edinburgh. Dr William Ury, of Harvard, and one of the world’s leading negotiation experts, will address a conference of the International Academy of Mediators in the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament on Saturday, 12 May. 

The Edinburgh Conversations showed that a small nation, with no obvious axe to grind, and a reputation for hospitality and fairness, could offer a safe place for important discussions. This is an opportunity to consider whether Scotland could aspire to play a similar role in today’s world. 

Professor John Sturrock QC is a mediator and participated as an observer in some of the Edinburgh Conversations. 


Originally published in The Times on 10 May 2018

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