The Modern Superpower Summit: A Performance On The High Wire

We have encountered the phrase “historic summit” throughout our lives — and heard it endlessly repeated in recent days with respect to President Trump’s meeting in Singapore with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

“Historic summit” is part of the language we have inherited from the late 20th century. It reflects the changes in technology in the last 100 years, as well as the changes in world politics.

President Theodore Roosevelt became the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize more than a century ago when he orchestrated a peace conference to resolve a war between Russia and Japan in 1905.

But Teddy did not personally attend the conference, held in New Hampshire, thinking it wiser to direct events behind the scenes.

That wasn’t enough for President Woodrow Wilson, who personally took charge at the international peace conference at Versailles following World War I. Wilson spent six months almost continuously at the site in 1919, logging more than 100 meetings with various European heads of state. He made only one trip home during that time, in part because it entailed crossing the Atlantic by sea.

The summit meeting as we know it is a product of modern transportation. President Franklin Roosevelt could fly across the Atlantic to meet the leaders of the other Allied nations during World War II. President Harry Truman could do the same for the Potsdam conference immediately after.

Several years later, Winston Churchill said the time had come to hold such meetings of the principal world leaders again, to preserve the peace in the midst of what had come to be called the Cold War. It was time, he said, for “a parley at the summit.” He may not have been the first to use the metaphor, but the phrase has been in common use ever since.

In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower met three times with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, but primarily within the context of larger meetings. In 1961, Khrushchev would honor the request of Ike’s successor, President John F. Kennedy, for a bilateral meeting in Vienna.

Kennedy wanted the meeting after the Bay of Pigs fiasco (a failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro). But he later admitted privately he was ill-prepared to deal with the cannonball stye of Khrushchev, or the full panoply of issues that divided them.

The Soviet sensed an opening, and within months the Berlin Wall was up and the prospects for peace were down. The following year the two superpowers would come to the brink of a nuclear exchange over Soviet missiles in Cuba, and Kennedy would feel compelled to deepen the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.

A decade later, President Richard Nixon, a fervent and lifelong anti-communist, stunned the world by agreeing to travel to China to meet with Chinese leaders Chou En-lai and Mao Zedong, the godfathers of communism in Asia.

A few months later, Nixon had heads spinning again as he met with the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev to sign the first of several treaties on nuclear weapons and to inaugurate a period of thawing relations between their countries that would be known as détente.

Nixon performed these feats in part to ease the process of withdrawal from Vietnam, in part to distract from economic setbacks at home. Beyond that, he wanted to take advantage of tensions between China and the Soviets to redefine the balance among the world’s superpowers. But the most profound effect of Nixon’s back-to-back summits was to recognize the emergence and potential of China as a future force in the world, development Nixon foresaw from a distance of decades.

That was the framework of the summit between the world’s two superpowers that lasted through the 1970s and 1980s. During that time, Presidents Ford and Carter met with Soviet leaders primarily as part of larger international conferences. Carter also played host to a summit meeting between the leaders of Israel (Menachem Begin) and Egypt (Anwar Sadat) in 1978.

These two longtime antagonists signed what came to be called the Camp David Accords after lengthy negotiations at the presidential retreat outside of Washington. Carter was famously active in bringing that breakthrough to fruition.

Two decades later, President Clinton would preside over a series of follow-up summits, some involving the Palestinian Liberation Organization, in his later years in the White House; but the cast of characters had changed, lines had hardened and Clinton never achieved the overarching Middle East peace deal he sought.

At least as ambitious, in its way, was Ronald Reagan’s series of five summits with Mikhail Gorbachev in the later 1980s. Gorbachev was intent on ending the arms race that had weakened his country over decades, and his special focus was the missile defense system known as SDI (for Strategic Defense Initiative). Reagan had a dream of controlling, reducing and even banning nuclear weapons worldwide. While that idea may not have been realistic, the two leaders did agree to ban intermediate range nukes in 1987.

Since that time, American presidents have met often with their international counterparts, either in bilateral visits or in the context of larger meetings such as the G-8 (now the G-7), the G-20, NATO and the UN. It was after one such event that President George W. Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and claimed to have “looked into his soul.”

More generally, these multi-national gatherings are usually orchestrated to smooth over differences and project agreement.

By reviving the more dramatic mano-a-mano style of the bilateral summit between apparent adversaries, Trump is reaching back for some of the grand gesture and high-stakes drama that came with the Cold War.

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