The arrival of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on the world stage produced an endless debate in North America and Western Europe. Is Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, for real? Most analysis fell into the classic categories that readily divided liberals and conservatives throughout the Cold War. The EastWest Institute opted for a different approach to the Gorbachev phenomenon. While governments and NGOs the world over sat back and watched events unfold from the sidelines, EWI resolved to engage the new regime directly, and to find out if perestroika was window dressing for public consumption, or represented a fundamental break from traditional Soviet politics.
In October of 1987, EWI challenged the world to answer Gorbachev's new vision for East-West relations. The Institute assembled a strong, bipartisan panel of politicians and Soviet experts, including then New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, Ken Dam, and a prestigious assembly of academics and journalists under Harvard Professor Joseph Nye and Cargill CEO Whitney MacMillan. The result was a brief but powerful publication How Should America Respond to Gorbachev's Challenge? which the Soviet leader cited as a turning point in U.S. public opinion on his government and which impacted the Western foreign policy establishment for years to come. In addition, in the aftermath of the Washington Summit of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, Europeans and Americans came together to recommend new Western policy - figures like Thorvald Stoltenberg, Foreign Minister of Norway; Harry Ott, Foreign Minister of East Germany; and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, accelerated a powerful and productive dialogue.
Sir John Birch of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, remembered this remarkable juncture in the East-West dialogue remarking, "EWI made a contribution to constructive thinking during those early Gorbachev years. There was still a tremendous suspicion of the Russian bear, and the widely held assumption was that perestroika was a ruse and we were all fools for buying into it. The work that went into EWI's Task Force on New Thinking helped clear people's minds and provided them with a forum to look at the situation in a more enlightened way."
In the final commentary the Task Force recommended "seizing the opportunities" fashioned by new Soviet policies and contributing to Gorbachev's sweeping reforms, concluding: "New political thinking in the East requires new policy thinking in the West." The Institute thus unflinchingly paved the way for others to partake in this historic opportunity for East-West rapprochement. Strong criticism turned into a deepening respect.