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Biden-Putin meeting: A brief history of summitry

Biden-Putin meeting: A brief history of summitry
Then US vice president Joe Biden (left) speaks to then Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, 10 March 2011. (Photo: EPA / Maxim Shipenkov)

The upcoming Joe Biden-Vladimir Putin summit on 16 June in Geneva, Switzerland, gives us an opportunity to look back over the history of summitry, the good, the bad, and the very ugly.

For two weeks in 1520, from 7 June until 24 June, two young royals — King Henry VIII of England and his French counterpart, Francis I, came together for a summit held in the fields outside the town of Calais (then still an English possession). This meeting is now popularly known as the meeting on the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”. English Cardinal Wolsey had been eager to serve as the go-between for the meeting, hoping to build a coalition of Christian nations that could more effectively oppose the rampaging Ottomans.

During that two-week party there were jousting competitions, wrestling matches, musical face-offs, and — inevitably — lots of eating and drinking by the respective parties. 

Although the meeting was an inspiration to artists (a massive, near-contemporary picture created by a team of artists still hangs in Hampton Court Palace), its actual political consequences were minor. Soon enough, England and France were at war once again, with England allied — at least for the time being — with the Habsburg lands against France. The incessant fighting between France and England would continue off and on for three more centuries — right on through to the end of the Napoleonic era. But this summit in 1520 seems to have been the first real summit of sovereign equals, rather than the situation of one subservient ruler arriving to pay homage (or suck up) to a greater power.

Despite the lack of real, measurable outcomes coming from that carnival-summit meeting five centuries ago, it helped set in motion the idea of face-to-face meetings between the leaders of powers who were either poised to engage in hostilities; intent on trying to settle outstanding differences without open warfare; or, occasionally, to divvy up their conquests, following years of fighting against a common enemy.

In more recent summits there have been no wrestling matches, as with Henry VIII and Francis I (although there have been some occasional vigorous scrums between competing security details). (Just in case readers are wondering, Francis I defeated Henry VIII in their actual wrestling match. Psychologist-writer William James, the man who had argued for more international sports competitions in lieu of actual warfare in the early 20th century, in his phrase, “sports is the moral equivalent of war”, might have been pleased by that approach.)

Modern summits almost always have masses of people involved. There are hordes of hangers-on. There are the inevitable banquets. There are more hush-hush side meetings. And there are background briefings by the respective sides’ spin doctors who are eager to put the best possible face on their principal’s performance and the success of the whole adventure. Almost inevitably, too, in attendance, there are hordes of media, technical people and experts, security personnel and “sherpas”. The latter are not the climbers in the Himalayas, but the lower-ranking officials who actually make things happen to lead up to the meetings. 

And, inevitably, too, there are controversies.

Summits that truly made history must include the one which brought World War 1 to a formal end, convening meetings of the heads of government from Britain, France, Italy and the US, along with other lesser military powers. The meetings led to the actual signing of the treaty in the Versailles Palace Hall of Mirrors near Paris.

In that instance, however, the losers were not allowed to participate in the negotiations and were simply given the final document and instructed to sign it. Of course, some of the participants, such as the imperial governments of Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, were not even signatories as their respective empires had disintegrated in the aftermath of the war. The conditions imposed on Germany led participant-observer John Maynard Keynes to predict that the onerous demands on Germany were setting up a rematch by Germany due to the “economic consequences of the peace”.

The Congress of Vienna, 100 years earlier, bringing an end to the Napoleonic dream, had featured the foreign ministers of Britain, Austria and France in central roles, rather than the heads of government, let alone the kings of those various nations. But their effort at peacemaking had largely lasted for a century until the outbreak of World War 1.

And now, coming up very soon, in an exclusive and very well-guarded venue in Switzerland, on 16 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden will meet in Geneva. Around the world, millions, perhaps billions of people will be paying close attention to what happens. Or doesn’t.

In the past, besides the Versailles meeting in 1919, as far as summits featuring US presidents are concerned, particularly noteworthy examples (for good and less welcome outcomes) have certainly included the summits during and immediately after World War 2. Meetings between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the waters off Newfoundland, and at Casablanca, and then in Tehran and Yalta with those two Western leaders together with Joseph Stalin, hammered out the military objectives among the nations, as well as the outlines of the peace that was to follow. 

Then, just following the war’s conclusion in Europe, Churchill and Stalin were joined in Potsdam, Germany, by the recently sworn-in US president, Harry Truman, following the death of his predecessor. The results of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements became fodder for Republican critiques of Roosevelt and Truman’s savvy and negotiating skills, arguing they had heedlessly ceded away the strength of the US’s overwhelming military presence in a prostrate Europe, in exchange for Stalin’s unkept promises of free elections in the liberated territories in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. 

As the website history.com notes, “Stalin broke his promise of free elections in Eastern Europe and installed governments dominated by the Soviet Union. Then American critics charged that Roosevelt, who died two months after the conference, had ‘sold out’ to the Soviets at Yalta.” 

Most historians now agree, however, that the military situation — with millions of Russian soldiers holding ground in Eastern Europe and the eastern third of Germany — made any other outcome unlikely.

Nevertheless, the taint of that criticism was sufficient for Republicans to resurrect and reuse that charge a few years later when the Nationalist Kuomintang government in China was defeated by the Communist Party’s armies; this time with the taunt, “Who lost China?” The resulting poisonous legacy lasted for decades in US politics.

In 1961, the new US president, John F Kennedy, met Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. Their meeting took place in the midst of some of the toughest years of the Cold War. At that summit, the two leaders sparred over the still-divided city of Berlin (carved into separate zones of occupation between the Western allies and the Soviets), the fighting in the ostensibly neutral nation of Laos in Southeast Asia (as a kind of prelude to US engagement in Vietnam), and, of course, the fortunes of Cuba, just two months after the abortive exiles’ invasion of Cuba — sponsored and equipped by the US — that had been defeated at the Bay of Pigs. 

While many in the US media lauded the president’s standing up to the Russian leader, Kennedy himself later admitted he believed Khrushchev had “beat the hell out of me” during their summit. Kennedy even told The New York Times that the meeting was the “worst thing in my life. He savaged me.”

Khrushchev did not apparently feel quite so victorious, writing in memoirs years later, “I was generally pleased with our meeting in Vienna. Even though we came to no concrete agreement, I could tell that [Kennedy] was interested in finding a peaceful solution to world problems and avoiding conflict with the Soviet Union.”

Still, there is the judgment of many historians that Kennedy’s less than stellar performance may have convinced Khrushchev to see Kennedy as a man who could be bullied, and thus to respond to Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s growing pleas for protection, following the Bay of Pigs, by secretly placing ICBMs and IRBMs in Cuba, aimed at the US, a move that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. 

Two decades later, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had their first meeting (of five during their mutual years in office) on 19-20 November 1985 in Geneva. Gorbachev said he had viewed the meeting “without grand expectations, yet we hoped to lay the foundations for a serious dialogue in the future”. Reagan, in turn, called it a “mission for peace”.

A later meeting in Iceland in 1986 saw Reagan going well off the prepared script that had been laid out by his advisers and the sherpas to propose to his counterpart they should scrap all nuclear missiles entirely — just like that. While that did not occur, the talks did give an impetus to reaching agreement in 1987 for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the two nations.

A decade and a half earlier, as USA Today described the impact of Richard Nixon’s visit to China to meet with Mao Zedong and Chao En-lai on 21-29 February 1972, “The presidential visit was a key overture in U.S.-Chinese relations, which had soured until that point. The trip was the first time that a U.S. president had visited the People’s Republic of China. Nixon’s arrival in Beijing ended more than two decades of non-diplomatic relations between the two countries. Former U.S. diplomat Winston Lord, who attended the meeting between Mao and Nixon, called the visit to Communist China a ‘geopolitical earthquake’ that laid the foundation for China’s emergence as a major world power. It also brought the U.S. and China much closer together, both politically and economically.” At least until recently, anyway.

In terms of successful summits, pride of place probably belongs to the 1978 Camp David meeting between presidents Jimmy Carter and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. That summit resulted in the peace treaty between the two Middle East nations. (A personal note belongs here: While the men were meeting at the presidential retreat in Catoctin, Maryland, the writer’s wife was in New York City, singing in a New York Philharmonic concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Just after they had performed the conductor’s own work Chichester Psalms, and before Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bernstein turned to the audience and announced he had just been handed a note saying that the Camp David summit meeting had been a success, and the house, as they say, “went wild”.)

So what should we expect for this upcoming meeting between the Russian and US leaders? What we should not expect is a meeting where Biden behaves obsequiously towards his counterpart in the way his predecessor did in Helsinki a few years back, practically kissing Putin’s ring and behaving like a cocker spaniel in a desperate search for his master. The New York Times, commenting on the low expectations, noted, “President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have agreed to meet on June 16 in Geneva for a face-to-face encounter that comes at a time of fast-deteriorating relations over Ukraine, cyberattacks and a raft of new nuclear weapons Mr. Putin is deploying. The summit is the first in-person meeting between the two leaders since Mr. Biden became president.

“The one-day meeting is expected to focus on ways to restore predictability and stability to a relationship that carries a risk of nuclear accident, miscalculation and escalation. Geneva was also the site of the 1985 summit between Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, and Ronald Reagan that was focused on the nuclear arms race.

“The meeting comes at the worst point in Russian-American relations since the fall of the Soviet Union about 30 years ago. To say that the two leaders have a tense relationship is an understatement: Mr. Biden called Mr. Putin a ‘killer’ in a television interview in March, leading Mr. Putin to dryly return the accusation and wish the new president ‘good health.’ ”

Those words should set things up nicely for their face-to-face meetings in two weeks’ time.

The Times went on to predict, however, “White House officials say they expect no major breakthroughs. Instead, they argue that Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden must begin to engage on the few issues where there is room for cooperation, like fighting climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said Tuesday that the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had taken a ‘frank’ and ‘respectful’ tone in their recent talks with their Russian counterparts.

“While Mr. Biden has taken a more critical tone toward Russia than did President Donald J. Trump, some analysts say that the Kremlin also sees benefits in being able to negotiate with a more predictable administration in Washington.”

Just by the way, in case readers were wondering, “frank” is a diplomatic way of saying the two sides bared their respective incisors at each other and growled, but nobody threw a water carafe or smacked anybody on the face. US officials appear to be setting the expectations bar as low as they can so that any kind of successful outcome can be hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough, even as the Russians are confidently saying relations aren’t really that bad. In that way, they can, in turn, point to any agreement and say, in effect, “See, we told you; respectful adults can get along, even in the midst of sharp disagreements over things.”

Soon enough, we all will be able to see what the meeting means from the texture of the communique at the end, the respective body language, and the spin doctors’ efforts as they carefully massage the international media to come round to their way of interpreting the outcome. Pay attention closely. DM

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