Churchill would recognize Trump’s summit strategy
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 threeday 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.”
Summits are often carefully choreographed, planned years in advance and filled with “family photos” and other moments designed more for their visual effect than substance.
President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un harks back to an era of high-risk summits where the outcome was not preordained.
For Trump, a one-on-one summit suits his negotiating style: Size up your adversary, establish a rapport and make a deal. It’s an attitude British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would have understood.
‘The Big Three’
High-level meetings of Allied powers in World War II set the stage for summits that would define the world order in the 20th century.
Beginning with the Atlantic Conference in Newfoundland in 1941, 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 the process of administering the postwar peace. The decisions they made — dividing Germany and its capital, 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.
“The instinct of many leaders — of which Trump is an example — is that I can sort anything out if I can get oneon-one with the other guy,” Reynolds said. “They made it to the top of their own domestic politics, they’re ambitious men, and they want to play in the next league up.”
Two other ingredients would combine to make summits the hallmark of 20th-century diplomacy: the availability of air travel, which allowed world leaders to speak face-to-face instead of through ambassadors, and weapons of mass destruction, which gave the talks new importance and urgency.
Cold War, hot summits
Like Churchill, President John F. Kennedy was willing to talk to the Soviets. “It is far better that we meet at the summit than at the brink,” he said. He and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met 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.
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. Those talks led to breakthroughs on nuclear, chemical and conventional weapons.
The success or failure of a summit often doesn’t become clear until days or weeks later. Said Reynolds: “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.”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin meet at the Yalta conference in February 1945.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump after their historic summit on Sentosa island in Singapore.