In meetings

Meetings get a bad press. They last too long. They achieve too little. But what about that ultimate meeting, the summit? Professor David Reynolds and Dr Kristina Spohr explain why, sometimes, meetings can change the world.

Magazine: CAM 79; Client: University of Cambridge

Skilful summitry

In the spring of 2014, Russia annexed the Crimea – and the German chancellor Angela Merkel took to the air. She jetted some 20,000 kilometres around the globe, visiting nine cities in seven days – from Washington to Moscow, and from Paris to Kiev – holding one meeting after another with key world leaders in the hope of brokering a peace deal. Haunted by the centenary of 1914, Merkel saw summitry as the only way to stop Europe from ‘sleepwalking’ into another great war.

Face to-face encounters at the highest level clearly still matter, even in our age of email and Skype, mobile phones and video-conferencing. The urge to look another leader in the eye, to “get a smell of each other,” as the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt pungently put it in 1970, remains compelling. And skilful summitry is essential when international relations are fractious and fraught – something that will undoubtedly be the case over the next few years, as the ‘Brexit’ negotiations commence.

Why did that handshake have such an electric effect? Partly because of the personal chemistry between the two leaders

The word ‘summit’ was originally coined by Winston Churchill. In 1950, he called for another “parley at the summit” to help defuse the Cold War. But it seems to us that the desire of leaders to meet is almost innate. Having made it to the top of their own political system, they yearn to compete on the world stage. Summit meetings are especially alluring to alpha types who relish new challenges: having tired of the dank foothills of domestic politics, they set their sights on the peaks of global affairs where the air seems clear and heady. The attractions must certainly have seemed seductive for Tony Blair when dealing with George Bush after 9/11: summitry enabled him to bond with the leader of the world’s sole superpower. But, as the Chilcot report revealed, the agreement forged behind the back of his own Parliament and European allies led them both into a disastrously ill-planned intervention in Iraq.

Clearly, parleying at the summit is a high-risk business – with sometimes far-reaching consequences. What makes for success? There are no simple answers. Our research on the last half-century shows that much depends on circumstances, timing and the personalities involved – but that a number of general principles apply.

Symbols can be as significant as treaties

Sometimes success is largely symbolic – bridging the gap between two antagonistic powers and often wholly foreign cultures. A striking example is Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in February 1972, 20 years after the two countries had fought each other in Korea. The briefing book of Nixon’s advance man Henry Kissinger was entitled ‘Polo’ – evoking the Venetian traveller Marco Polo and his legendary voyage of discovery to China in the late 13th century.

Little of substance was achieved when the President finally visited the Forbidden City (formal diplomatic relations did not commence until seven years later) but in fundamental ways contemporary journalists were right to dub this ‘the week that changed the world’. Pictures beamed around the globe of the handshake between Nixon, a famed commie-basher, and Mao Zedong, the supreme ideologue of the Middle Kingdom, signalled the entry of ‘Red China’ into the international community and with it the advent of a new ‘tripolarity’ in the global Cold War.

Here summit diplomacy was not so much a matter of policy or deals; it was a journey of reconnaissance and stood out as a ‘performative act’ in cross-cultural relations. Ideological foes often seem like alien forces but summitry can help in what we call ‘de-othering’ the ‘Other’ and thereby initiating a process of rapprochement. Indeed, Kissinger’s solo diplomatic missions to Beijing in 1971-72 were indispensable in preparing what was a spectacular U-turn for both governments.

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.’

Behind the scenes

Why did that handshake have such an electric effect? Partly because of the personal chemistry between two leaders who were ready to talk with each other and not at each other. But it was also made possible by the quiet work of their advisers behind the scenes. The key figures here were the foreign ministers, Eduard Shevardnadze and George Shultz, who met more than 40 times before and between the summits. They developed their own personal ties and also managed to anchor the intense but sporadic encounters of their volatile bosses within formal bureaucratic processes. This exemplifies a larger point: diplomats and aides, when acting in tandem with political leaders, are the ‘sherpas’ who make possible success at the summit.

The meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev are one example of what we call ‘transformative summitry’. The two leaders grasped a historic opportunity to defuse the Cold War. In 1990 Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, glimpsed a similar ‘moment of decision’ and used summitry to settle the ‘German Question’.

Of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall, together with revolutionary changes across Eastern Europe in 1989, had made the East German state untenable – but German unity might have come slowly or violently or not at all. Summitry enabled the Federal Republic to absorb East Germany peacefully and smoothly through international agreement. At their tête-à-tête in the Caucasus mountains in July 1990 Kohl – operating in a slick ‘good-cop, bad-cop’ double act with his Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher – used cheque-book diplomacy to secure the Red Army’s withdrawal from German territory and agreement on unified Germany remaining in NATO. This was not just a climbdown by Gorbachev, bought by a massive German bribe. It reflected a shared desire to move into the post-Cold War era in a spirit of entente, founded on common ‘democratic’ and ‘universal’ values, as Gorbachev and US President George H.W. Bush put it when they met in Malta in December 1989.

This may all seem a far cry from today’s confrontations of the West with Putin’s Russia. How we got from 1990 to 2016 is too complicated to relate here. We can, however, affirm that while summitry remains as pertinent as ever, there are no pre-packed ‘lessons from the past’. At stake in moments of international crisis is how to strike the right balance between the politics of deterrence and the diplomacy of dialogue – or in other words, making up your mind when to stand firm and when to reach out.

This is a nerve-racking judgement call for leaders, involving calculations about opportunity, timing and the personality of one’s opposite number. Sometimes politicians get it disastrously wrong. Chamberlain going to Munich is the classic example of readiness to talk being seen as appeasement. Blair’s secret deals with Bush in pursuit of regime change in Iraq brought down the house of cards that had passed for stability in the Middle East. In both cases the pursuit of peace ended in war. Yet the creative summitry between Reagan, Gorbachev, Kohl and Bush shows that major transformations of the international order can be managed by consent and cooperation.

Ultimately what is crucial is to create a framework of predictability within which each dares to trust the other. This remains the one key perennial challenge for those statesmen and stateswomen who have the vision, skill and nerve to ‘parley at the summit’.