In the past, sum­mits of­ten re­drew maps, changed world

Talk with Kim throw­back to a more ca­sual time

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Gre­gory Korte

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.

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