Keeping open the channels of communications
Once governments are talking, summitry is important to keep open channels of communication, especially in times of tension. The German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was a great practitioner of what he called Dialogpolitik. He argued that a leader must always try to put himself in the other guy’s shoes in order to understand their perspective on the world and to construct compromises that were viable. Schmidt favoured informal summit meetings as a way to exchange views privately and candidly, rather than feeding the insatiable media craving to spill secrets and trumpet achievements. He orchestrated the ‘beach-hut’ summit at Guadeloupe in 1979 with the leaders of America, Britain and France to thrash out fraught issues of NATO’s nuclear strategy. And during the ‘New Cold War’ of the early 1980s when superpower relations were stuck in a deep freeze, he conducted shuttle diplomacy as the self-styled ‘double-interpreter’ between Washington and Moscow.
On other occasions, however, a summit meeting comes as the culmination of a long period of diplomatic negotiations. This was certainly true of Nixon’s trip to Moscow in May 1972. During that week he signed 10 carefully planned agreements, notably on strategic arms limitation but also covering trade, technology and cultural relations, all of which were underpinned by a statement of ‘Basic Principles’ for Soviet-American relations. In this case, symbolism was backed up by substance. When Nixon clinked champagne glasses with Leonid Brezhnev in St Vladimir’s Hall – the first time an American president had penetrated the grim walls of the Kremlin – they were toasting real achievements in anticipation of a new era of détente. Moscow was intended as the beginning of a series of summits, alternating between America and Russia, but in the event the whole process collapsed with Watergate and the demise of Nixon’s presidency in 1974.
It was not until the 1980s that Cold War summitry generated a chain-reaction with truly transformative consequences for Europe and the world. The unlikely partners were Ronald Reagan, who in 1983 had denounced the USSR as an ‘evil empire’, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who had risen through the Soviet system and saw reform as a way to reinvigorate its global competitiveness. Yet each was also a closet radical, convinced that in an ideal world nuclear weapons should be abolished. Circumstances were by now propitious, with the Soviet system stagnating, their military over-extended in Afghanistan, and both sides shocked at coming to the brink of nuclear war over NATO’s ‘Able Archer’ NATO exercise in 1983. So the time was ripe to talk.
The four Reagan-Gorbachev summits in 1985–88 generated a remarkable synergy that allowed the two men to speak the unspeakable and then do the unprecedented, by scrapping a whole category of nuclear weapons in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987. The catalytic moment occurred at the end of the first day of their talks in Geneva in November 1985. After frank but often stormy sessions, that evening they parted company in the car park with a handshake that Gorbachev called ‘a spark of electric mutual trust’. Afterwards Reagan muttered to his chief of staff, ‘you could almost get to like the guy.’