In the past, summits often redrew maps, changed world
Talk with Kim throwback to a more casual time
WASHINGTON – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Kennedy and Khrushchev. Reagan and Gorbachev.
And now: Trump and Kim. During World War II and through the Cold War, the most important global summits were often two- or three-day meetings between superpowers of equal standing, the U.S. president and the Soviet premier, who met to literally draw the map of the world
Tuesday’s summit in Singapore was shorter and more unpredictable, and it brought together the largest economy in the world and one so small and isolated that the International Monetary Fund can’t measure it. But the stakes were potentially just as high as the great summits of the past century.
“That sense of disproportion adds to the sense of oddity about this,” said historian David Reynolds, author of “Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century.” “It’s a big guy and a little guy, and neither of these men are in either way predictable, really.”
Modern summits are often carefully choreographed, planned years in advance and filled with “family photos” and other moments designed more for their visual effect than substantive work.
President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hearkens back to an era of high-risk summits where the outcome was not preordained.
‘The Big Three’
It was the high-level meetings of Allied powers in World War II that set the stage for summits that would define the world order in the 20th century.
Beginning with the Atlantic Conference in Newfoundland in 1941, Winston Churchill — along with the U.S. president and later Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin — plotted strategy against Germany.
The “Big Three” met three times. At the last meeting, in Potsdam, Germany, President Harry Truman and his British and Soviet counterparts began administering the post-war peace. The decisions they made — dividing Germany and its capital of Berlin into four zones of occupation by American, French, British and Soviet troops — would redraw the map of Europe for the rest of the century.
It was when Churchill was out of office in 1950 that he coined the idea of a “summit,” which capitalized on a public fascination with Mount Everest expeditions. Remembering the war conferences, he said a face-to-face meeting with the Soviet leaders could dispel misunderstandings that could lead to nuclear catastrophe.
Cold War, hot summits
Like Churchill, President John F. Kennedy campaigned on a willingness to talk to the Soviets. “It is far better that we meet at the summit than at the brink,” he said. After being elected in 1960, he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev exchanged back-channel messages until they agreed to meet in Vienna for what Kennedy called “an informal exchange of views.”
Informal and heated, as it turned out.
Over two days in June 1961, Khrushchev berated Kennedy over Berlin and other issues, all but threatening nuclear war. The summit was largely viewed as a failure, leading to the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis. The United States learned not to go into a summit without a set agenda.
Richard Nixon resumed semi-regular Soviet summits, becoming the first president to visit Moscow in 1972. Those meetings led to some moderately successful arms control agreements. Nixon also became the first president to visit China.
President Ronald Reagan provided some of the most dramatic summits in the history of the Cold War, meeting with Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev five times in three years.
They largely postured in Geneva in 1985, but in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, they came close to an agreement to ban all nuclear weapons, only to have the talks break down because Reagan would not agree to give up his spacebased defense initiative derided by critics as “Star Wars.”
Those talks led to later breakthroughs on nuclear, chemical and conventional weapons.
‘Rise of the informals’
After the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended — or at least took a respite — the most important global summits were no longer between nuclear powers but economic powers.
That marks a trend that Alan Alexandroff calls “the rise of the informals.”The success or failure of a summit often doesn’t become clear until days or weeks later.
“There’s always the problem of coming down from the summit, because the summit is a heady occasion for these leaders, and then confronting the reality at home,” Reynolds said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump after their historic summit on Sentosa island in Singapore.