As news headlines inform readers about the upcoming summit between American President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s not difficult to see parallels in the news coverage of the July summit with the very recent summit between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un last June. Summits are again becoming popular terminology as they once were during the Cold War.
The term ‘summit’ was coined by Winston Churchill in 1950, where he stated that “the idea appeals to me of a supreme effort to bridge the gulf between two worlds, so that each can live their life if not in friendship, at least without the hatreds and maneuvers of the Cold War.” In other words, a summit offers a chance for two leaders, who view each other through an animosity-tinted lens, to meet. With technology such as air travel as weapons of mass destruction, summits became not only easier to coordinate, but also become necessary and urgent.
Despite these lofty goals, the history of summits is somewhat mixed. Some have led to great breakthroughs in diplomacy while others have not prevented the march of war. One of the perhaps most infamous failed summits is the Munich Agreement between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in 1938. Intending to forestall war, Chamberlain gave up parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, for so-called peace. As history shows us, this failed. Another failed summit was the meeting between American President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Rather than the informal meeting to discuss issues equally, Kennedy was berated for many American actions. Further, the calm brought on by this summit lasted less than a year with the outset of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
However, the outlook isn’t as bleak, as these two summits might lead one to believe. American President Richard Nixon met with Mao Zedong, the Communist party chairman of China, in a successful summit in 1972; thereby opening China to the world and ending much animosity between the two countries. American President Ronald Reagan’s summit with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik may have not been successful in setting up new arms control measures, but it did set a precedent for the two countries to agree on new arms agreements two years later.
In the wake of the Cold War, summits became more than simply meetings between American and Soviet leaders. Instead, they rose to be global summits between economic powers. The Group of Seven (previously known as the G-8) began meeting in the 1970s. It laid the tracks for the inaugural meeting of the G-20 in 2008. These meetings are not nearly as adversarial as the previous summits might have seemed – but they are just as important in establishing amicable relations between cooperating countries.
The issue surrounding summits is the difference between rhetoric and reality. In the recent G-7 summit, President Trump spoke highly of the alliance, only to harshly rebuke it in the wake of remarks from Canadian President Justin Trudeau. Another contention is the wait time surrounding the summit’s impact. How does one know if the summit has done any good until many years after? Trump and Kim’s recent summit for example, may have gotten rave reviews in the media for opening the door to North Korea, but as of yet, there are no concrete steps towards denuclearization. Negotiations have gone nowhere – apart from Trump claiming he would pull out all of the American troops from South Korea. Instead, there is only coverage of the two leaders apparently having good rapport. While useful, rapport can only go so far, particularly if the goodwill is one-sided.
From July 11-12, Trump met with NATO for their annual summit in Belgium. As is with most summits, speculation is rampant about Trump’s tweets. This time they focused on increasing European NATO members’ military spending to four percent from the current goal of two percent of their GDPs. Katie Rogers of the New York Times noted the awkward family photo atmosphere that the summit had produced – leading many to consider the continued closeness of NATO allies to one another. With so many members at these summits, one has to ponder their usefulness in achieving goals besides maintaining the connection between member states.
On July 15, Trump will meet with Putin in Helsinki – a meeting that provokes different emotions on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Whether or not the summit is useful will remain up to the two leaders. British Prime Minister Theresa May suggested the summit could lessen tension between Russia and the West. This could be the case. However, given Trump’s recent history with Kim Jong Un, one has to wonder whether or not Trump will be goaded into a meaningless summit yet again. Because while no concrete negotiations have come from the Kim-Trump summit, what has come is the perception of an American President who is willing to risk political backlash at home for potentially nothing. For Putin, however, a summit with Trump is already a win. A summit shows the world that Russia has a status as a great power and that its interests must be taken into account. It allows Putin to claim that Russia is on par with the United States – something that many analysts claim has been an aim of post-Soviet Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
So, let us return to the question at hand - summits – how useful are they? Their track record varies and who comes out on top depends on the situation at hand. They can be helpful for countries like Russia, who may want to use them as political fodder to come out of isolation. They can also fail as they did in the Munich Agreement. With this recent stream of summits, rest assured that they will continue to be relevant in the near future.
I have been in Moscow three times in total, since 2014 and each time, I have had a different experience. Moscow is surprising and unexpected. Sometimes scary, but amusing; interesting and mysterious. The fact that I have traveled to and lived in Russia for a couple of months has often provoked a lot of mixed reactions. Why Russia? Why Moscow? Russia has often a bad reputation abroad, Russians are seen as cold, distant, unfriendly people. And Moscow is not really a typical touristic getaway.
I actually did not go to Moscow for tourism. I first did a 2-week-long cultural exchange with a Muscovite family. Then in 2016 I went back for a couple of days after finishing my Erasmus program in the Caucasus and I have recently spent three months working there.
To be honest, my first impression of Moscow was not really that good. I felt like a tiny human lost in a flow of people I did not understand culturally or linguistically. Fifteen million people live in Moscow. That is more than the entire population of my country! And few of them speak good English of French, which means that it can be quite hard to be understood if you don’t try to speak Russian.
Moscow is such a big city, I felt overwhelmed by the hugeness of everything, from the 10-lane roads to the giant buildings, the monumental Orthodox churches to the numerous statues you find on every corner. Having lived there for three months, I still cannot say that I know Moscow very well. I can find my way in my own neighbourhood, but overall I have probably only been in five percent of the city. However, the more I discovered about it, the more I loved it.
Architecturally speaking, I find Moscow absolutely gorgeous. What I particularly like about the Red Square is that it is not only one cultural landmark in the middle of a random place or the only beautiful thing in the neighbourhood. The entire surrounding is astonishing. You will find the very luxurious commercial galleries on its left, and the historical Kremlin on its right. The National Museum of History is in front of it and the newly-opened Zaryadye Park behind it. The famous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is only a ten-minutes walk away. Everything comprised in the first ring is worth seeing: the Bolshoi Theatre, the Arbat, the Gorky Park, the Lubyanka area, and the numerous pedestrian streets.
The heart of the city also has a vibrant and dynamic vibe. You will find countless restaurants, karaoke-bars, and cafés where people dance until dawn and enjoy life, even when it is -25 degrees outside! Even if real estate prices are unaffordable and probably as high as in London, for example, eating and drinking is still pretty cheap. You can easily have a good meal for less than 10 euros (12 dollars), drink included. Many restaurants often offer lunch deals for 5 or 6 euros.
One more thing you should definitely not miss in Moscow is its incredible subway. First, it’s stunning, and second, it is one of the deepest in the world. You will experience a long ride down to a complex underground network on such deep escalators you’ll think you’re about to fall from them.
Moscow is well-known for the Red Square and the Kremlin, but it also has some hidden gems that I find underrated. So remember to check out the Izmailovo Market, the Kolomenskoye Royal Estate, Tsaritsyno Palace and the Novodevichy Convent.
Moscow is also a capital of culture. Classical operas, ballets and countless museums that feature the finest of classical and contemporary artworks will exceed your expectations. Although Saint-Petersburg is a bigger cultural center and has more to offer culturally; Moscow is more an expression of the Soviet Union’s past.
Regarding the people with whom you will interact, keep in mind that Russians have a different culture, a different past and different habits. They might indeed seem cold, distant or rude, but try to put your cultural standards aside and try to immerse yourself in their world. Of course, you can always meet extremely nice people or jackasses everywhere, but generally speaking, Russians aren’t excessively nice, or “polite”. Overly-apologising is not part of their culture and neither is being ashamed or embarrassed. Don’t get offended too easily if they speak loudly to you or seem annoyed.
Wherever you go, I can only recommend to bear in mind that you are the stranger entering someone else’s world. Be patient and respectful towards any culture different than yours, and if you feel uncomfortable, take it with humour!
To sum up, I know some people who immediately fell in love with Moscow and with the Russian culture, and others who simply hated it. Personally, I needed some time to truly appreciate it. But Moscow was definitely a nice city to live in, to have fun, to learn and to confront yourself with a different world.
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