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.
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